The northern tier of China is one of the important cradles of Chinese culture. It is a vast land with an ancient history that was at its height when the Silk Road flourished and the Great Wall built. For thousands of years our ancestors thrived and created a glorious history and brilliant culture on this land.
However, before 1970s, all what you could see were enormous deserts stretching across the whole of China’s northern tier, full of ravines and crumbling buildings caused by raging windstorms and water erosion that spread desertification at the rate of 156,000 hectares per year.
In November 1978, almost the same time when the country's reform and opening up began, the State Council made a historic decision to build a massive shelterbelt to improve the ecology of the deserts and the loess plateau.
Reform and opening up changed China’s history and the fate of hundreds of millions of Chinese living across the northern tier.
The curtain was thus raised for a stirring and majestic ecological epic poem.
With bronzed faces making them look like clay sculptures, seven people held coarse china bowls filled to the brim with liquor in their rough hands.
Yellow sand pelted their faces and blocked out the sun.
"If we die, we'll die in a sand pit," a brawny man cries out with his head wrapped in a white towel. "I'll get this job done with my life."
They clinked their bowls together, drank off, and then threw them on the ground, which broke into pieces--a ritual to show their determination.
This is how the seven warriors went off to the Mu Us Desert 30 years ago and accomplished their great deeds.
A reborn tree, an ancient tree, a solitary tree. Our story begins with these three trees.A reborn tree…. Bai Chunlan: An old elm
There is a sandpit next to a salt pond in Ningxia where an ancient tree grows. When Bai Chunlan moved her family here 33 years ago, this ancient tree, whose trunk was so large four people couldn't circle it holding hands, had already been cut down. Sandstorms occurred often as they had for millennia. When they moved here, Bai Chunlan and her husband planted their first tree, a short but sturdy elm tree.
Before they could cultivate a crop, they had to tame the sands. They dug a pit in the sand to serve as a playpen for their daughter and went off to plant trees in the dunes and paid no attention when their daughter got blisters on her buttocks from the hot sand. Finally in the fourth year, the tree seedlings turned to trees and they were able to harvest four bags of wheat from their modest piece of land.
This was the kind of wheat that could be milled into white flour. With smiling faces they took their harvest back home on a donkey cart.
Every time they passed a bush alongside the road, they shouted, "We got a harvest." And when they passed a large rock, they also shouted, and all along the way the donkey brayed.
Two crazy people and an old donkey. Their ruckus broke the stillness of the night.
Since 1980, Bai Chunlan has planted trees except for one year.
That year when the snow on the land began to thaw, a series of rainstorms lasting weeks drenched the normally arid northwest, making tree planting impossible. Bai Chunlan locked herself in her room and cried from dawn to dusk.
Ten years ago her husband died, depriving her of a solid support. Recently her son, who had planted trees with her, suddenly died. With that blow, she completely fell apart.
"Mom, I’m going to town." When she heard him saying goodbye, Bai Chunlan was busy in another room and didn't pay much attention. She remembers that was a morning when there was frost on the ground.
A few hours later her son was gone. She desperately shook him, but he never woke up again.
"I didn't see a trace of him. It would be nice if I did." To this day Bai Chunlan is unable to unburden herself of her regrets.
She can't help wondering if she hadn't thrown herself into planting trees, maybe her husband and son wouldn't have died so young.
On moonlit nights and on moonless nights she sits alone on the steps of her home quietly looking at the black forest in the distance and the fireflies that flit among the trees, asking herself this unanswerable question over and over again.
When a hero is alive he's the stuff of legend, but when he's gone he's the stuff of lament.An ancient cedar
In the summer of 2003, an afforestation crew discovered an ancient cedar tree while they were dredging sand in Shenmu, Shaanxi. Its bark was already rotten, and its limbs were shriveled. It was more than 20 meters tall and was still perfectly straight.
No one could guess how old it was, but they could imagine all the hardships it had survived. Sandstorms often topple trees in forests, but this tree still stood. Even though it was half dead, it preserved the memory of a time before the desert encroached.
But now, a wasteland has appeared along the Ningxia-Inner Mongolia border. Qiu Jiancheng, a retired worker, had planted 110,000 trees that were five to six meters tall, but they are dying out.
Qiu Jiancheng had been planting trees for more than 20 years during which time he broke a finger in an accident ten shoulder poles got worn out from carrying 50 to 60 water buckets of water each.
His trees started dying in 2007. At first groundwater was plentiful and he didn't have to dig very deep to reach it. But then he often had to dig six to seven meters deep without hitting water. He says it’s because a nearby industrial park drained the aquifer.
A tearful Qiu Jiancheng often turns to the heavens and screams in frustration.
"Who can save my trees? Who can save my trees?"
His deformed hands tremble as he places them on the withered tree trunks and caresses them.
Time and again as we traverse the northern tier, this hero's lament pierces into the depths of our hearts.
Gu Yunxiang, another farmer in Lingwu, Ningxia, has lost count of the heartbreaks she has suffered.
She constantly diverted her family's resources to tame the desert until they were all gone. Her herd of more than 100 sheep, the family's only source of income, suddenly all died one night from poisoning. The alpha male of the herd staved off death long enough to go to his mistress’s side where he laid down and closed his eyes.
When a debt collector came, she hid in the woods, lying in a gully where she couldn't be seen, surrounded by the trees that had made her penniless, asking herself over and over, "Why should I ever plant trees?"
"Why should I ever plant trees?" How many people across the vast northern tier asked themselves this question?
It's as if god in the heavens is determined to bring total devastation to these deserts and wastelands till it is utterly barren. However, there are people who aren't willing to accept this outcome, and they won’t pick up and leave. They’re determined to change their fate and the deserts' fate.
Gu Yunxiang suffered a crushing defeat, but today when we ask her if she has any regrets, she shakes her head and says, "I'll never give up. I have no other choice."
The corners of her lips turn slightly downward, she looks off in the distance, and in her gaze you can see inexpressible grief and perseverance. A single tear trickles down her weathered cheek.
That’s the kind of woman she is. She spent the best years of her life in the desert, and all she has to show for it is a gastric hemorrhage for which she has no money to pay the doctor’s bills.Rahman Amut: A solitary tree
The fate of the solitary tree is linked with that of its guardian.
In hyper-arid Kuqa, Xinjiang, thousand-year-old stone statues stand expressionless watching the boundless changes taking place around them and watching the several hundred trees that Rahman Amut, the guardian of the grotto, had planted over the course of 20 years gradually die.
A few months ago, one of the last two remaining trees was dug up because of a construction project.
Standing before the excavator that was digging it up, Rahman thought to block from its task.
He knew he couldn't stop it. When the steel shovel struck the ground, he closed his eyes but heard the sound of splintering wood. He was overcome with pain and dizziness and felt like his blood stopped flowing in his veins.
Rahman Amut could only save the one last remaining tree. Its branches were already turning yellow. He didn’t know if it could survive the winter.Continued: Heroes: the costs