HOW A DESERT BRANCHED OUT TO BE­COME BEI­JING’S GUARDIAN

Thou­sands of trees form a nat­u­ral bar­rier be­tween the cap­i­tal and sand­storms that blow in from the north

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHAO XU and LEI LEI in Sai­hanba, He­bei

The dis­tance be­tween Chengde, He­bei prov­ince, and Sai­hanba Na­tional For­est Park, China’s largest man-made wood­land, is just 150 kilo­me­ters, but in Septem­ber 1962, it took 18-year-old Yin Guizhi two days in an open truck to com­plete a jour­ney marked by non­stop jolt­ing and end­less vis­tas of yel­low soil dot­ted with thick­ets of trees.

“Hav­ing just grad­u­ated from a vo­ca­tional school in Chengde, I asked to come here, to­gether with two of my class­mates. We were told the coun­try was go­ing to cul­ti­vate a for­est, lush and beau­ti­ful. Just the thought of it was enough to get me on­board,” said Yin, now 73.

She and her col­leagues were warmly wel­comed and treated to what the lo­cals called black flour buns. Im­pressed more by the hos­pi­tal­ity than the food, Yin had no idea what was to come a month later, when win­ter be­gan.

“We lived in im­pro­vised shel­ters propped up on tree trunks and cov­ered with twigs and straw. The glass- less win­dows were cov­ered with pa­per, and in place of doors we used large planks of wood that left big gaps on both sides,” Yin said. “That was where we en­tered and ex­ited our shel­ters, and where the win­ter winds came howl­ing in.”

Oc­ca­sion­ally at night, a sleep­less Yin caught glimpses of the glint­ing green eyes of wolves, which prowled around the shel­ters but didn’t try to en­ter.

Of­ten on win­ter morn­ings, she woke to dis­cover her felt blan­ket had frozen solid to the wooden bed and she had to use a shovel to scrape it off.

Lit­tle by lit­tle, a straw mat one of Yin’s col­leagues used to sleep on the earthen floor be­came in­creas­ingly damp, in­di­cat­ing that the frozen ground was thaw­ing and melt­wa­ter was seep­ing through.

“I felt that the de­bil­i­tat­ing cold was not only bit­ing my toes, on which I ap­plied sooth­ing mashed potato, but also gnaw­ing at any warmth I man­aged to re­tain in my heart,” Yin said. “Again and again, I looked back to that vi­va­cious young woman who just a few months be­fore had be­lieved she was here to stay. I tried des­per­ately not to let re­al­ity snuff out that pre­cious flame of hope.”

For those who were at Sai­hanba, which means “beau­ti­ful high­land”, in 1962 and ’63, the first two years of its ex­is­tence, cling­ing to hope meant not only fac­ing up to the harsher side of na­ture, but also to re­peated fail­ures.

More than 90 per­cent of the seedlings planted in those first two years died.

Sai­hanba, which cov­ers 92,000 hectares and bor­ders the south­ern edge of the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion, was so volatile and un­tam­able that peo­ple had for­got­ten that it was once re­garded as one of the most beau­ti­ful places on Earth.

Hunt­ing ground

In the 10th cen­tury, the area be­came a hunt­ing ground for the rulers of Liao, an em­pire founded by no­madic peo­ple in North China.

Em­pires rose and fell, but Sai­hanba con­tin­ued to charm. The land, com­posed mainly of bound­less forests and grass­land dot­ted with crys­tal-clear plateau lakes, re­mained pop­u­lar with China’s rulers, es­pe­cially dur­ing the 17 th cen­tury. Em­peror Kangxi (1654-1722), the long­est-reign­ing ruler of the Qing (1644-1911), China’s last dy­nasty, was so smit­ten by the area’s beauty that he hunted there. His­tor­i­cal records sug­gest that he set a per­sonal record of 318 rab­bits in a sin­gle day’s hunt­ing.

The dy­nasty started to wane in the early 19th cen­tury. In about 1860, the reign­ing em­peror, with nei­ther the funds nor the tem­per­a­ment to main­tain ex­trav­a­gant hunt­ing tours, opened the land to the public.

Farm­ers and herders moved in, and in the decades that fol­lowed trees were felled, the forests and grass­land dis­ap­peared and the beauty of Sai­hanba van­ished. It was the be­gin­ning of na­ture’s re­venge.

By the 1950s, Sai­hanba had long ceased to be a beau­ti­ful high­land area 280 kilo­me­ters north of Bei­jing. In­stead, it was a pas­sage­way through which the wind blew the sand of the deserts of In­ner Mon­go­lia all the way to the cap­i­tal. Ac­cord­ing to the bleak­est pre­dic­tions, Bei­jing would be buried un­der sand within decades.

Yin’s job was to halt the process. She was not alone: 127 grad­u­ates — mostly forestry ma­jors — ar­rived from two tech­ni­cal schools and a col­lege to join the 242 peo­ple who were al­ready there.

By 1962, the sur­round­ing area was des­ig­nated a na­tional for­est.

Then, the av­er­age age of the area’s 369 in­hab­i­tants was 24. To­day, more than half of them have died, partly as a re­sult of the harsh nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and partly be­cause of the hard la­bor re­quired to grow the for­est. Their av­er­age life span was 55 years.

Break­through

In the early 1960s, the low sur­vival rate of tree seedlings threat­ened the ex­is­tence of the for­est, but things be­gan to im­prove in the spring of 1964.

“We wanted to make one last at­tempt,” said Zhang Xing, 81, who has spent al­most his en­tire life at Sai­hanba, as he stood on the fringes of a hoof-shaped patch of land in the northwest of the for­est look­ing at the conifers that are now about 20 me­ters high. The trees, cov­er­ing an area of 34 hectares, were all planted dur­ing that break­through spring.

“Two hun­dred peo­ple were in the moun­tains for 40 days con­tin­u­ously, pre­par­ing the earth for the plant­ing of the seedlings, which took just two days,” he re­called. “The trees were planted by spe­cially adapted ma­chines im­ported from what was then the Soviet Union. The roar of the ma­chines mixed with the noise of the wind, and the dry earth, ploughed open by the ma­chines, was swept up by the wind. The whole area was a bat­tle­ground.”

No bat­tle­ground is with­out ca­su­al­ties.

“It was mid-April, but deep in the moun­tains win­ter was still bat­tling for its last strong­hold. We put on ev­ery­thing avail­able, from cot­ton­padded over­coats to felt leg wraps. Ice formed on our clothes. It made a clunk­ing sound with ev­ery move we made, turn­ing our clothes into ar­mor un­der which we sweated,” he said. “Many of us, me in­cluded, de­vel­oped se­vere rheuma­tism as a re­sult.”

When July ar­rived, the work­ers were over­joyed to dis­cover a soft car­pet of green shoots. That year, the sur­vival rate topped 90 per­cent.

Chen Zhiqing, 45, who ar­rived in Sai­hanba in 1994, is the deputy di­rec­tor of the for­est’s man­age­ment team. “The rea­son they failed in 1962 and ’63 is be­cause the tree seedlings they used were im­ported from other parts of China, es­pe­cially the cold north­east. Sai­hanba’s cli­mate is so ex­treme that al­most no ‘out­sider’ could pos­si­bly sur­vive. More­over, long-dis­tance trans­porta­tion also re­sulted in the seedlings be­ing dam­aged due to ei­ther se­vere loss of wa­ter or heat trapped in­side the boxes,” he said. “The seedlings planted in 1964 were all grown lo­cally and had sturdy stems and ro­bust roots.

“The cul­ti­va­tion method was changed, too: Be­fore, mind­ful of the strong winds and scorch­ing sum­mer sun, the seedlings were put un­der shade. But no pro­tected plant species could be ex­pected to take root in Sai­hanba,” he added. “So they even­tu­ally came up with what we now call all-light seedling cul­ti­va­tion, whereby the young plants, although still grown with lots of at­ten­tion, were ex­posed to the el­e­ments.”

Dev­as­ta­tion

De­spite the ini­tial break­through, progress was halted sev­eral times in later years.

The work­ers were dev­as­tated when glazed frost hit in Oc­to­ber 1977, de­stroy­ing 38,000 hectares of for­est in a sin­gle night. Yin re­mem­bers the scene vividly. “The mo­ment the freez­ing rain fell onto the tree branches, it formed a trans­par­ent coat­ing of ice. The tallest trees must have sus­tained weights of up to 250 kilo­grams. The long night was in­ter­rupted by the sound of crack­ing, as branches broke off and fell to the ground,” she said.

That dis­as­ter was fol­lowed by a long drought in the 1980s and a num­ber of plagues of in­sects in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. There was also a se­ri­ous rat in­fes­ta­tion in the spring of 2013.

Through­out the set­backs, the team con­tin­ued to plant trees. By the end of 1982, the area un­der cul­ti­va­tion was es­ti­mated at 63,000 hectares. To­day, the fig­ure has risen to 68,000 hectares.

“With al­most no flat land left, over the past five years, we’ve been try­ing to plant trees on rocky moun­tain slopes, where the top­soil is less than 15 cen­time­ters thick,” said Fan Dong­dong, 33, who ar­rived in Sai­hanba in 2007, im­me­di­ately af­ter grad­u­at­ing from He­bei Agri­cul­tural Uni­ver­sity, 500 km away.

“We chose Scots pine, a species ac­cus­tomed to cold, arid cli­mates. Once es­tab­lished, its ever-ex­tend­ing roots reach deep be­tween the rocks,” he said. “But be­fore that, we have to give the saplings a home by dig­ging a hole about 40 cm in depth and 70 cm by 70 cm in cross sec­tion.”

The process is harder than it sounds: The rocks are so large that earth­movers are used to move them. When the ma­chines hit the rocks, the sparks and plumes of white smoke can be seen from the foot of the moun­tain.

“The space left is filled with black soil we take from an­other part of the for­est. The soil is so pre­cious — in many other parts of Sai­hanba, you get white sand un­der a thin layer of soil — that we put it in our cupped hands and pour it care­fully into the hole, not want­ing to waste even a pinch,” Fan said. “The moun­tain

slope is too steep for the kind of tree-plant­ing ma­chines used in 1964. Ev­ery­thing must be done by hand.”

Ac­cord­ing to Fan, hand-planted trees ac­count for 90 per­cent of the for­est’s to­tal.

“When I first ar­rived, no one se­ri­ously thought I would stay, but I proved them wrong. The con­di­tions here are a hun­dred times bet­ter than they were half a cen­tury ago, but it can still be test­ing. The win­ter is still for­bid­ding, as is the lone­li­ness,” he said.

Fan lives with his young wife in the for­est. They mar­ried last year and she is now seven months preg­nant.

A fam­ily af­fair

Their story is fa­mil­iar to Yin be­cause she and her hus­band, Yang Maolin, met in Sai­hanba and mar­ried 42 years ago. They have two daugh­ters and a son, who all work in the for­est. One of their grand­sons joined in 2012 af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the same vo­ca­tional school as his grand­mother.

“Both of us came in 1962,” Yin said, look­ing at her 75-year-old hus­band sit­ting be­side her.

“Back then, we planted 2,000 conifer trees on ev­ery half-hectare, and in the years that fol­lowed we thinned out those that were not very healthy or had not grown straight. Now, we have 450 trees on each hectare — that pro­vides enough room for ev­ery tree that has bat­tled the hos­til­ity of Sai­hanba to be­come a mon­u­ment of its own,” she said.

At one end of the conifer for­est stands a white bust, with a name and dates in­scribed on the pedestal: “Wang Shang­hai, 1921.4 — 1989.12.”

“In 1964, he was our cap­tain, the big un­cle who never com­plained and who made us be­lieve that this was go­ing to work. He died of a cere­bral hem­or­rhage in 1989, and was buried here,” Yin said.

“Many old com­rades have now gone, in­clud­ing some my own age. Deep in my heart, I mourn them al­most ev­ery sin­gle day. But luck­ily, my hus­band is still here, and he has a prom­ise to keep,” she said.

“When we got mar­ried in 1965, he promised that one day he would take me for a walk in the for­est. He still hasn’t.”

PHO­TOS BY ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY

Tourists visit Liang­bing­tai, a fa­mous peak in Sai­hanba Na­tional For­est Park in He­bei prov­ince.

Tourists ride horses with lo­cal guides on a trail in Sai­hanba Na­tional For­est Park, which is known for its eco-tourism.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Team mem­bers ride across the for­est on a tour of in­spec­tion dur­ing the 1960s.

ZOU HONG CHINA DAILY

Fire­fight­ers take a break dur­ing a train­ing ex­er­cise in Sai­hanba.

ZOU HONG CHINA DAILY Y

The view across the park at sun­rise.

ZOU HONG CHINA DAILY

Yin Guizhi (far right) with her daugh­ter and hus­band, who once worked at Sai­hanba.

ZOU HONG CHINA DAILY

A woman takes a selfie at Liang­bing­tai, a fa­mous peak at Sai­hanba For­est Park in He­bei prov­ince.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Work­ers dig holes for saplings dur­ing the 1990s.

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