Sands of time shift­ing for desert

With just 1,347 res­i­dents, Daliyabuyi is the small­est town­ship in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, and un­til re­cently it was also the most re­mote. Now times are chang­ing, thanks to the in­tro­duc­tion of satel­lite TV and cell­phones, re­port andMaoWei­hua

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

Memet Tur­son’s face split into a huge grin as he stood in front of the house he built next to the sand dunes of theTak­li­makan Desert. As a res­i­dent of Daliyabuyi, hid­den deep in the world’s sec­ond-largest desert in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, the sight of an out­sider is “a lux­ury”, ac­cord­ing to the 60-year-old herder.

When visi­tors see the lo­cal houses built from the­woodof the desert po­plar, the first ques­tion they ask is why the lo­cals don’t move out of the desert and en­joy a mod­ern lifestyle.

“What we don’t un­der­stand is why peo­ple mea­sure ev­ery­thing by ma­te­rial worth nowa­days. Why can’t they see that we are happy in our own less-dis­turbed world?” Memet asked. “Agood life is not about money, but about if one re­ally en­joys it. Daliyabuyi is our heaven.”

About 400 years ago, 20 Uygur fam­i­lies who were threat­ened by war left their land in what is now Yu­tian county in the south­ern pre­fec­ture of Hotan. They fol­lowed the Keriya River, which is fed by melt­wa­ter from the snow-cov­ered Kun­lun Moun­tains and grad­u­ally evap­o­rates in the Tak­li­makan, a vast, ex­panse the lo­cals call the “ocean of death”.

Fif­teen fam­i­lies set­tled on the river’s west bank, while the oth­ers stayed on the east. To­gether, the fam­i­lies named their new home Daliyabuyi, which means “live along the river” in the Uygur lan­guage. They started from scratch, find­ing it dif­fi­cult to ad­just to desert life and ex­change farm­ing for herd­ing sheep among the reed bushes.

They called them­selves the Keriya peo­ple, and they lived a self-suf­fi­cient life in the Tak­li­makan, us­ing the wood of the desert po­plar trees that grow along the river­bank to build houses. They burned rose wil­lows for fuel and heat­ing, and learned to use the hot sands to cook their food.

Even­tu­ally, they be­came cut off fromthe out­side worl­dand­be­came a foot­note in history un­til 1986, when a team ex­plor­ing for oil re­ported see­ing a “wild­man” in the desert and sub­mit­ted a re­port to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Bei­jing.

“They said they had seen saw a man cov­ered in fur and with a tail. It turned out to be a mem­ber of the Keriya peo­ple wear­ing his fur coat in­side out and car­ry­ing an ax on his belt with the han­dle stick­ing out at the rear,” said AzezMusar, com­mis­sioner of Hotan pre­fec­ture, who last year vis­ited Daliyabuyi for the first time.

Hav­ing been alerted to the pres­ence of the Keriya peo­ple, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials trav­eled to Daliyabuyi to as­sess their needs. The res­i­dents said they wanted the sta­tus of the vil­lage to­beraised, and in 1989, Daliyabuyi of­fi­cially be­came the least-pop­u­lated town­ship in­Xin­jiang, Azez said.

The small, lost tribe has grown to 347 house­holds and 1,347 res­i­dents. The peo­ple, scat­tered along the river, still use the old sur­vival skills, es­pe­cially for house con­struc­tion and cook­ing, but the old ways are chang­ing sig­nif­i­cantly even in the re­motest parts ofXin­jiang.

Through the gaps in the tree branches that serve as walls, al­most ev­ery­thing is on dis­play in­Memet’s tra­di­tional house: the sheep­skin on the floor that al­lows the fam­ily to wipe sand off the soles of their feet, a shiny fridge and photos of tra­di­tion­alEnglish­gar­den­sthathangon the walls as dec­o­ra­tions.

The houses may look shabby, but theyprovide­per­fect ven­ti­la­tio­nand are­cool in­sid­eeven­when­thedesert ab­sorbs the fierce sum­mer heat.

“Life in the desert is not as harsh as peo­ple think. It can be mod­ern too,” Memet said, gen­tly pat­ting the fridge he bought in June af­ter the town­ship gov­ern­ment in­stalled new bat­ter­ies to store the ex­cess elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by so­lar pan­els and pro­vide con­stant elec­tric­ity. When he bought the fridge, Memet aban­doned his old “veg­etable cel­lar”— a deep hole he dug in the backyard — and it’s now com­pletely filled with wind­blown desert sand.

Daliyabuyi is 267 km north of Yu­tian, the county seat, but there are no roads in the desert. Apart from the lo­cals, only skill­ful driv­ers, such as Re­jef, can take visi­tors to the town­ship. Re­jef’s cus­tomers in­clude Azez, other town­ship of­fi­cials and peo­ple who are cu­ri­ous about this “Shangri-La of the Tak­li­makan”.

Get­ting to and from Daliyabuyi re­mains a chal­lenge, though. The jour­ney takes 10 hours in Re­jef’s SUV— the fastest means of trans­porta­tion — but the same trek takes a whole day by mo­tor­bike or a week by camel.

The 48-year-old Yu­tian na­tive know­sthe desert likethe­backof his hand and the SUV easily scales the six moun­tain­ous sand duneson­the way to the town­ship. The dunes are forc­ing the river to change its course, and the shift­ing sands have al­ready raised a sec­tion of riverbed above the wa­ter level.

“In 1986, it took me 15 days to get to Daliyabuyi in a truck, and I clearly re­mem­ber that there were only two big sand dunes on the way. The area where peo­ple can herd an­i­mals has be­come smaller over the years, but the pop­u­la­tion has grown,” Re­jef said, shift­ing gears as the SUV climbed a dune. “It’s more like sail­ing in the desert than driv­ing.”

The Keriya peo­ple al­ways stand out­side their houses when they hear the sounds of ve­hi­cles ap­proach­ing. They al­ways check to see if the trav­el­ers need help and of­fer them cups of herbal tea.

The part of the Tak­li­makan nour­ished by the Keriya River is full of life, in­clud­ing China’s big­gest for­est of wild desert poplars, whose leaves turn golden in au­tumn. The lo­cal gov­ern­ment has an­nounced that it will build a 90-km-long road to the for­est to at­tract tourists, but Re­jef was unim­pressed. “It will quickly be eaten up by the desert,” he said.

To­hutroz Memet­min has been head of Daliyabuyi for three years, but the 40-year-old Yu­tian na­tive still can’t get used to the rough and some­times dan­ger­ous jour­ney from the county seat. “Dur­ing the flood sea­son around July and Au­gust, no ve­hi­cles can get in, so the town­ship is com­pletely sealed off. Also, sand­storms dur­ing the jour­neys can be life-threat­en­ing be­cause there is no mo­bile re­cep­tion along the way.”

Although there is no cov­er­age in the desert, so­lar-pow­ered mo­bile-sig­nal tow­ers have been built in the com­pound of the town­ship gov­ern­ment to con­nect Daliyabuyi with the out­side world. The of­fices are ac­tu­ally mo­bile homes, which are cheaper than build­ings and easy to move. “No one can af­ford brick houses here be­cause the cost of trans­port­ing bricks is too high, and who knows how many bricks will ac­tu­ally sur­vive the jour­ney. Our of­fices are unique among gov­ern­ment build­ings in China,” he said.

“The peo­ple here are very hon­est and al­ways look out for each other. There is no vi­o­lence or ter­ror­ist crime here,” To­hutroz said. Ac­tu­ally, there was no recorded crime in Daliyabuyi un­til last year, when21 lo­cals were ar­rested for steal­ing cul­tural relics from an an­cient city buried by the desert and selling them il­le­gally. “They wanted to get rich and move out of the desert,” he said.

Oneof the big­gest chal­lenges fac­ing To­hutroz is ar­rang­ing for res­i­dents to at­tend town­ship meet­ings be­cause the far­thest house from gov­ern­ment of­fices is 130 km down­river. Be­fore satel­lite phones were in­stalled in ev­ery house in 2010, it took at least 10 days to in­form the lo­cals, but now it takes just two.

“Peo­ple used to live even far­ther down­stream, but there is no wa­ter there any­more so they aban­doned their houses. They know how im­por­tant and frag­ile the en­vi­ron­ment is in the Tak­li­makan,” he said.

No mat­ter how far they live from the cen­ter of the town­ship, the res­i­dents al­ways try to at­tend the small­mosque­n­ear the gov­ern­ment of­fices for Jumah, the most im­por­tant prayers of the week, held ev­ery Fri­day. As a re­sult, To­hutroz ar­ranges for town­ship meet­ings to be held be­fore or af­ter prayers, and photos of ter­ror­ist sus­pects are put on the wall out­side the mosque. There is no place too re­mote when it comes to ap­pre­hend­ing sus­pects in Xin­jiang, To­hutroz said.

The start of the hol­i­days saw the quiet town­ship burst into life as the chil­dren and young peo­ple re­turned from board­ing schools and col­leges in Yu­tian andHotan.

The smaller chil­dren love to play soc­cer on the sand dunes, while the adults, such as 18-yearold AlimMe­hi­lik, pre­fer to spend their evenings play­ing pool with friends at the “Red Man­sion”, a small club that opened in June.

The club is ac­tu­ally a mo­bile home that’s been painted red, be­cause the color stands out in the desert so no one can miss the place. It boasts three pool ta­bles and, un­usu­ally for aMus­lim com­mu­nity, a bar. “See, Daliyabuyi is a big city now,” joked Alim, who stud­ies ve­hi­cle main­te­nance in Hotan.

“Life in the cityandin Daliyabuyi are com­pletely dif­fer­ent— not bet­ter, not worse, just dif­fer­ent” he said, adding that he plans to find a job as a me­chanic in Yu­tian.

Memet has been to the county seat many times, but he prefers life in Daliyabuyi. “We build our houses from desert poplars, drink wa­ter from the well and use so­lar pan­els to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity, and it doesn’t cost us a thing. Ev­ery­thing costs money out­side the desert,” he said.

Memet said the Keriya peo­ple know how to live in har­mony with na­ture and that’s why they have sur­vivedinthedesert for­morethan 400 years. “We never cut down trees ifwe­don’t need to, or herd too many sheep. Our houses are al­ways quite far from each other to en­sure that the sheep don’t eat all the reed bushes in one area.”

In ad­di­tion to herd­ing sheep, Memet’s son Abudul­re­hit Memet, runs a gro­cery store on the town­ship’s 500-me­ter com­mer­cial street, where chilled drinks are the big­gest sellers on hot­sum­mer­days. The 37-year-old’s two sons are both study­ing at the pri­mary school in Yu­tian. “I want to make more money so my sons can go to univer­sity and my fa­ther can make the pil­grim­age toMecca,” he said.

The grad­ual dry­ing-up of the river and the ag­gres­sive in­va­sion of theTak­li­makan have re­sulted in 50 fam­i­lies mov­ing away for good and be­gin­ning new lives in gov­ern­ment-built re­set­tle­ment houses on the out­skirts of Thirty more fam­i­lies have up to re­lo­cate this year.

“They will have to learn farm again, which will not The young peo­ple pre­fer

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