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.

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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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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