The reporters' van heads for the Mu Us Desert.
Outside, the color of the terrain is changing from green to yellow. All we can see are the vague outlines of sand dunes stretching out as far as the eye can see. Men and women of the northwest, wearing scarves of all colors, are bent over working on the grass grid.
This vista looks just like it did decades ago. It makes me feel we have gone back in time to the 1970s when the Three-North Shelterbelt project had just been launched.
Sights from the past flit past before my mind’s eye.
"Bottom up!" Shi Guangyin and his comrades make a toast and swear to tame the desert together. "Let's go!" Wang Youde leads a troop of tree planters shouldering shovels into the desert to dig the first holes to plant trees.
The bells around Niu Yuqin’s waist can be heard as she and Zhang Jiawang climb a sand dune carrying tree saplings.
Bai Chunlan and her husband plant the first tree in the yard in front of their house and turn smiling toward each other.
Thirty years on, the vigorous young people who started out are getting old and their hair is turning white, and some of them have already passed away.
Great changes have occurred over these more than 30 years. The poverty and hopelessness that were so pervasive then have disappeared, and the graves of those who died are now covered in lush vegetation.
The vast northern tier of China has miraculously been transformed from dusty yellow to resplendent green.
The people of the deserts across the northern tier of China are like tall, straight trees that weave this endless stretch of greenery.
The trees that these people from across the northern tier associate with their lives are all different, yet they are all green, sturdy and pliant. They all reach ever upward and together they make an oasis of the soul.
The Three-North Shelterbelt project has been going on for 35 years, during which the ecosystem has been restored and protected.
Our thoughts turn to Qiu Jiancheng standing mournfully in a thicket of dead trees.
He went everywhere trying to get an explanation, and always was answered by the same question challenging his motives, "Why would you want to shut down an industrial park to save a bunch of trees?"
Qiu Jiancheng found this response more incomprehensible the longer he pondered it. Why should it be impossible for trees and factories to coexist?
On the one hand ecological projects are difficult to carry out, and on the other hand industrialization is progressing at lightning speed. People today rejoice over the miracles industrialization brings, but at the same time, they sometimes sigh with regret at the ecological degradation it brings.
When economic development clashes with the preservation of the ecological environment, what should our priorities be? How should we balance the two?
Where the Taizhongyin Railway runs into Hetao, it makes an arc around the salt lake there. The railway authorities spend nearly 100 million yuan to extend the line an extra ten kilometers to circle and protect the forest Zhang Shengying and his crew planted.
On this beautiful curved stretch of the rail line, we can see harmony between civilization and progress and between man and nature, and
that gives us hope for the future.
The 35 years that the Three-North Shelterbelt project has been carried out have been a period in which people had a new understanding of the nature.
Zhang Yinglong, a resident of Shenmu, Shaanxi, and a member of the new generation of tree planters, has been planting trees for ten years during which time he planted 20,000 hectares. Now he has a new worry.
In the past, several hundred wild ducks flew into the lakes in the forest every spring. When a nursery was built nearby, it started using large quantities of herbicide, and the ducks have since disappeared.
"When you stand on the banks of a lake, all you can hear is silence. We finally have forest, but the birds left us. How can we bring our actions more in harmony with nature?" he constantly ponders this question.
As a result he tries to preserve the natural environment in his projects combining 90% greening with 10% preservation of the original state.
In the Kubuqi desert, the Inner Mongolia Yili Group Corp follows the scientific practice of planting trees or grasslands where appropriate and irrigating sectors or leaving them wasteland depending on what's most suitable to the conditions, and it does its best to make the forest it plants self-sustaining ecological systems. In addition, it develops sand-based industry through corporate-farmer cooperation. This not only achieves the sustainable development of tree-planting, but also turns the desert into a "pocketbook" for local farmers and herdsmen.
This approach has transformed deforestation to create farmland into taming the desert and planting trees, transformed fear of desert encroachment into accommodation with the desert, and turned conquering nature into understanding nature. During the past several decades, the world view of the people of the northern tier has undergone great changes, evolving from single-minded struggle with nature to harmony and dialogue with nature.
After our van went down a long slope, the land was flat and wide.
We traveled through dense shade created by the trees lining along the road. We were filled with emotion. Who planted this lush forest where there was once just wasteland? Who brought a smile to the faces of the people of the northern tier who once suffered from its environmental degradation?
For the last 35 years, the people of the northern tier have wrought a miracle through their hard work and intelligence under the firm leadership of the Communist Party and the Chinese government. The Three-North Shelterbelt has been called the largest ecological project in the world; it covers the widest area, costs the longest time, was the most difficult to carry out and has obtained the most outstanding results, and this has won it the admiration of the world.
This is the Chinese path—the government leads and the masses participate; in this way people all across the northern tier threw themselves into ecological improvement.
This is the Chinese spirit—tenaciously surviving and following one’s dreams, in this way people all across the northern tier proved themselves equal to the demands of their times.
This is the strength of China—united in spirit and striving together; in this way people all across the northern tier coalesced into an indomitable force.
The Three-North Shelterbelt project began in 1978 and is projected to run to 2050, exactly at the same pace with the reform and opening up, and it should be finished at the same time as the strategic goals for the third stage of modernization are completed.
The course of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will not be smooth, and the Three-North Shelterbelt project is now entering a difficult stage. In building a beautiful China and improving the ecological environment, the greatest difficulties lie in the northern tier, and it also holds our greatest hopes.
The dream of greening the northern tier progresses in step with the Chinese dream.
As our van rolls across the plain, we look far off into the distance. We see hills that have turned green interspersed with others that are still brownish yellow as if they are looking at each other.
We can't help but thinking, when no one is around do the hills talk to each other? If so they might have this conversation.
Green hill: In the last few decades, people have changed the way I was for centuries.
Yellow hill: I am what you were for millennia. You are what I will be in the near future.
Green hill: The human race has finally found the golden key to open the treasure chest of nature—equilibrium and harmony.
Yellow hill: Maybe. If so they are just finding it now.
Our van is traveling fast and soon we can no longer hear their voices. The strains of that endless conversation die out unheard in the forest.
The sun is setting, and the ruins of the Great Wall and the lush greenery of the newly grown forest perfectly complement each other in the fading light.
Suddenly, a flock of demoiselle cranes appears amidst the clouds overhead and circles around a towering lookout tower. The lead crane honks and the flock flies off in the burning sunset toward the birthplace of new life, just like an ancient fable is passed on from generation to generation.