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Dispatch from Makit: Thriving in the desert

Dispatch from Makit: Thriving in the desert

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The view from a wooden town of a jujube plantation at a village in Makit county, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region during a visit by the The view from a wooden town of a jujube plantation at a village in Makit county, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region during a visit by the "A Date with China" international media tour, on May 20, 2021. [Photo/chinadaily.com.cn]

There is a wooden tower, about three stories high, at the entrance of the verdant grove, offering a sweeping view of the flourishing jujube plantation that, bisected by water canals and dotted with walnut trees, reaches as far as the lines of poplars standing sentry on the horizon. The scene, complete with occasional summer breezes and a sparkling blue sky, is bewitchingly evocative of lush river towns, until you step down from the tower and walk onto its powdery ground. Soft like a cushion, it's all sand.

This is actually desert!

Ninety percent of Makit county's land is desert. Located in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, to the east of the famed Kashgar city, the parched county and its 800,000 multiethnic people are besieged by sand, facing encroachment from China's biggest desert, the Taklimakan on its north, south and east. When it gets windy, which is often, sands from the Taklimakan - a desert as big as Poland - turns the sky into a brown broth.

Yet Makit county also has about 37,300 hectares of jujube trees. The scale of its jujube plantation and outputs are unmatched in China. In 2020, it harvested 260,000 tons of jujubes, a record high. The county also produced juicy fruits, like melons, grapes and pomegranates, in abundance.

Makit county's thriving agricultural production is an unlikely success that would be utterly impossible without its arduous anti-desertification efforts. In 2012, the county launched in phrases an ambitious project to plant 66,667 hectares of ecological forests to stall the encroaching desert and fix its shifting sands. To improve the rates of plant survival, dunes were flattened and water pipes with dripping holes were laid out for the seasonal plantations in spring and autumn.

A member of the A member of the "A Date with China" international media tour takes a selfie video at a site of ecological forestation in Makit county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, on May 20, 2021. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

Adding to the special charm of Makit county's ecological forestation are its plant choices - including white poplar, yellow horn, wild olive, sea buckthorn, rose willow, sacsaoul, prune and apple - that take both natural circumstances and economic prospects into account.

In the nine years since the project's launch, 220 million seedlings have been planted, with a survival rate of over 95 percent, covering an area of about 27,300 hectares, or about two-fifths of its original target.

Its ecological effects are palpable. Annual rainfall doubled from 50 millimeters in 2010 to over 100 millimeters in 2018, while days of sandstorms plummeted from over 150 to less than 50 during the same period.

Equally striking are its economic benefits. The project has brought over 270 jobs to the locals, adding over 40,000 yuan to staff annual income. During a recent visit by journalists with the "A Date with China" international media tour, workers were seen sheathing cistanche - a valuable local herb with yellowish flowers and scale-like leaves that grow in the shadows of sacsaouls - with nothing less than silk stockings, to protect them from the winds. The herb, just one of the many cash crops that are promoted in the project, is expected to bring about 20 million yuan ($3.2 million) in annual revenue.

A journalist with the A journalist with the "A Date with China" international media tour conducts an interview at a site of ecological forestation in Makit county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, on May 20, 2021. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

Most importantly, the ecological project makes people's lives in Makit county so much easier.

Back at the jujube grove, local farmer Sulayman Ruzi was using long-handled shears to clip away the less developed branches. He has two hectares of jujube trees, which he manages along with his wife, which brought over 80,000 yuan net income to his family.

A journalist with the A journalist with the "A Date with China" international media tour interviews a jujube farmer at a village in Makit county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, on May 20, 2021. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

A stone's throw away, fellow villager Imin Amat was watering his flower-decorated courtyard. The area is spacious, easily the size of two basketball courts, with vegetable plots, pigeon and chicken coops, an open garage and a three-bedroom house. There are also apple, pear and peach trees. Potted roses line up near the front gate while grape vines climbed up the overhead wooden trellis.

Inside the house was quiet. It was a weekday and both children, a girl who is just 10 and a teenage boy, were away at school, his wife, Patigul Yasin, explained. The house - built nearly a decade ago, in 2012, with a government subsidy of 28,500 yuan - looked neat and clean. A clock on the wall, with a gilded frame and a brocade face, said 10 minutes to two. It was lunch time for the locals. The kitchen was absolutely spotless. Patigul laughed at the compliments while her husband brought out trays of sliced melons, sugared nuts, roasted nangs (local breads), raisins and bananas.

During the conversation it was learned that their son is studying in the coastal city of Qingdao, where everything is provided for free, from room and board to tuition. It's a coveted program and highly competitive. But it's also so far away, don't they miss him? "It's ok. We have WeChat and video talk from time to time," Patigul said. "Besides, everything at the school is so much better than what we have here at home. I've nothing to worry about." Imin nodded emphatically, beaming with pride for his honor-roll son.

The conversation continued fitfully because of language differences. But two things are for certain and need no translation. Their overwhelming hospitality, and their unmistakable joy in life.

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