Sean Ross had been born in a missionary family that had fled China during the communist revolution when he was only six years old. Since then, though decades of life in the United Kingdom and the United States, through the rejection of his parents’ faith and his embrace of Marxism, China had exercised a strong and romantic hold on Sean’s mind.

When the mainland opened up to foreigners during the Deng Xiaoping era, it was natural that he’d seek to travel there. As a geologist, albeit one who had formulated some radical notions, the Chinese made eager use of his talents both in the field and training students. He spent part of nearly every year there, despite a disillusionment evident in his writings as China liberalized economically.

As Sean’s specialization was endorheic basins and desert topography, he often did work in and around the Lop Nur salt pans in Xinjiang–a marsh in the final stages of drying into a desert and fed by a dying river. The topography, alternately wet and dry with vast and mutable sand formations, fascinated him, and the distance from Shanghai and Beijing seemed to appeal to his Maoist sensibilities.

All in all, he was an undeniable asset to the Chinese, and a powerful advocate for them abroad. This made his sudden and inexplicable disappearance from a survey team campsite all the more troubling. It was something of a mark of respect, albeit one tinged with a propagandistic need to save face, that led to an entire battalion of troops and an air wing being lent to the search.

The Chinese even arranged, at great expense, to bring in Sean’s ex-wife and a group of former students to consult with the search parties.