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The Heartbreaking Toil Of The Yellow River's Grim Reaper

A farmer from northwest China makes a living scouring the Yellow River to recover dead bodies, most of whom were poor migrants, often women and children. A modern Chinese tragedy.

An unidentified man on the banks of the Yellow River
An unidentified man on the banks of the Yellow River
Jordan Pouille

LANZHOU — We've spent more than half an hour trekking in the sandy mountains of northwest China, whose summits have been curved by erosion. "Don't stop, we're almost there!" Every time we slow down just a bit, this man with a sunburned face tells us to keep going.

Wei Peng is 55 years old, with dirty hair and bushy eyebrows, and he's jumping from one rock to another without showing the slightest sign of breathlessness, despite smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. He only stops to wait for us. His jacket is threadbare, his pants stained, but his pride is intact.

"I work in the mountains, but I have the good manners of the farmers who live down below, by the river," he says. Still, once we reach a steep slope, the farmer's "good manners" suddenly disappear. "Careful where you step, dammit! I buried two kids under there."

We're at the end of the path, in Wei Peng's cemetery. In this area of the mountain, terraced with a pickaxe, rest some of the bodies he has pulled out of the Yellow River, or Huang He. Wei recovers dead bodies for a living. It's his job, his life. He recovers the bodies of missing workers in these swift waters, most of them from 20 kilometers upriver, in Lanzhou, the large industrial capital of the Gansu province.

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Lanzhou — Photo: lonnie

His mountain cemetery faces east. "This way, the dead can receive the first sunlight," he says. Wei has made a living out of this morbid fishing: Once the bodies are identified, he sells them to the families for high prices. Those who can't afford the repatriation of the deceased often accept a burial in this lunar scenery for a lower price. "If children remain orphans, if nobody comes to get them despite my efforts, I bury them anyhow," he says. "The others, the old ones, I don't care. I leave them to rot on the riverbed."

Reverence for children

Wei cares deeply about these dead children to whom he always allocates a prominent place. Like these two young girls, whose graves we inadvertently walked over. "I buried them together," he says. "They were the same age. They didn't know each other, but they were both workers. They both lived a dog's life, with no joy. There, underground, they're friends — they can chat peacefully."

Wei isn't joking. Lighting a cigarette, he contemplates his cemetery without a word. He's been doing this work for years.

The majority of the bodies he recovers are of young migrant workers, often women in their twenties, rarely older, according to the ID papers he finds in their pockets. These rootless people from the Chinese countryside landed in Lanzhou searching for a first job: waitress, cashier, housemaid, caretaker, builder or construction painter. Faceless people in a charmless town, lost in the middle of a desert traveled by the black Audis of government officials driving past the bicycles of the workers. A town of 3.2 million inhabitants, where the dust of construction sites mix with the fumes of petrochemical factories.

They chimneys of the thermal power stations were built among the housing projects. Lanzhou is a place "where no one has ever seen blue sky," as the taxi drivers say. According to the World Health Organization, the population here breathes the most polluted air in China.

They arrived here, those young people who fell into the Yellow River and never resurfaced. It doesn't require much: a tumble, a broken heart, an accidental drowning, sometimes a heinous crime. A week later, carried by the waters, they end up washed near Wei Peng's. The farmer recovers about 12 bodies a month, lying virtually on his doorstep. "After my home, it's the dam and the turbine blades," he says.

Where recovery is hell

Wei doesn't like it when the dam opens its floodgates. "The current increases, and the bodies arrive here in three days, whereas at least one good week is necessary for a body to rise to the surface," he says. Standing in his boat that looks like it's from another age, the man has to work blindly, plunging a three-pronged spear and moving it about at the bottom of the river. If it catches on a mass, heavy and limp, it means there's something. "You never know what it might be. It's often a goat carcass, but sometimes it's a human body."

The farmer knows hidden places, stony nooks where bodies are likely to wash up. "The worst is when they arrive in the middle of the trash that piles up against the large inflatable barges placed just before the dam," he says. This is the last shield before the turbines form a gigantic 80-meter long floating garbage dump. It's ideal for retrieving household waste easily — but it's a living hell to recover dead bodies. "It's so dense that you'd almost need a Russian icebreaker to make your way through," he says.

He got the idea for this curious job with the construction of new hydroelectric dams on the Yellow River. The dam in Lanzhou, designed to supply the city's large factories, was built in 2005. At that time, Wei traded plastic bottles floating on the river for 3 yuan ($0.49) a kilo. The exchange rate of dead bodies fluctuates according to the client. "I charge 2,000 yuan ($325) to migrant families, 3,000 ($487) to families from Lanzhou and 5,000 ($812) when it's a manager," he says.

Sometimes, for shady reasons, employers want to recover a dead worker even before the family is informed of the death. With clients in such a hurry, Wei doesn't hesitate to raise his rates. "But when it's a local farmer or someone from up the mountain, I only charge 500 yuan $80," Wei says.

Tragedy comes knocking

When searching for a missing person, relatives often come by to leave a photograph and a telephone number. "Look, there are even missing person appeals taped to the rock just outside my cabin," he says. While reading the poster, he sighs and lights another cigarette. "These parents don't dare to come and see me, or phone me. They think I'll bring them bad luck, or they refuse to admit their child is dead."

Wei says he's Buddhist and offers families funeral ceremonies for their loved ones. The ritual is simple: a few incense sticks placed along the riverbank, a candle, a teapot filled with warm water as an offering. For those who don't take the body, he offers a simple grave, made of a few round stones. He says that neither the police nor the local government interfere with his business. They are probably relieved they don't have to handle the bodies.

Between two catches, Wei sleeps soundly in his small cabin on the riverbank. It's just a clutter of worm-eaten boards, beneath a weeping willow and a few "wind horses," those small Tibetan multicolored flags that carry prayers up to the sky. The interior is clean and neatly lit. Several light bulbs, a blinking garland and red cloth make two pretty statuettes of gods twinkle. There is a porcelain bust of Mao, a golden alarm clock and a pair of silver Baoding balls.

Crouching on his mattress, an umpteenth cigarette between his lips, Wei looks at his Tibetan Buddhist altar with pride. He made it with care to pray when his son died. He had just turned nine in 1998 when he drowned in the river. "He wanted to get his ball back, and I couldn't swim," Wei says with difficulty. But the boy's body was never found.

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