COU­PLES BAT­TLE DESERT SAND TO HELP HIGH­WAY

One man says liv­ing in the wilder­ness, with no one else around, has brought him and his wife closer to­gether

China Daily (USA) - - XINJIANG - ByXINHUA in Urumqi

The desert is still quiet at 8 am, but Xiao Hong and his wife, Huang Zhong­tao, have al­ready started the wa­ter pump to ir­ri­gate this dry stretch of earth. Deep in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­tonomous re­gion, the Tak­la­makan Desert is known in China as the “Sea of Death”. In the Uygur lan­guage, its name means “go in and you won’t come out”.

Xiao and Huang, main­te­nance work­ers at Well House No 1, are among nearly 100 cou­ples who tend to plants year-round along the Tak­la­makan Desert High­way to pre­vent the shift­ing sand from bury­ing the key cross-desert artery.

Sand and sur­vival

When con­struc­tion on the high­way was com­pleted in 1995, reed grids and fences were in­stalled along un­in­hab­ited stretches of the high­way to hold the sand in place. How­ever, as the years passed, most of the grids and fences started to fail, ex­pos­ing the high­way to danger­ous shift­ing dunes.

Start­ing in 2003, 109 wells were dug along the high­way ev­ery 4 km to pump wa­ter for bushes and other veg­e­ta­tion to block the wind and keep the sand in place.

The well houses be­came the key to sur­vival for the 3,000-hectare “green cor­ri­dor”.

By the time Huang and Xiao fin­ished in­spect­ing the pipes and plants, it was al­ready past 10 am. Xiao wrote down notes about ir­ri­ga­tion and wa­ter vol­ume in a log­book, while Huang pre­pared break­fast.

The cou­ple live in a 10-square-me­ter bun­ga­low ad­ja­cent to the noisy gen­er­a­tor and pump room.

Ac­cord­ing to Xiao’s log­book, sand­storms and rain have been more fre­quent this year than be­fore. That means more mosquitoes.

“Desert mosquitoes are much fiercer”, said Huang, point­ing at the empty cans of in­sec­ti­cide that fill the win­dowsill. “Even house flies here can bite the skin un­til it bleeds.”

Tough jour­neys

Mosquitoes have never been a pri­mary con­cern for Zheng Xinxue and Li Juy­ing at Well House No 30. Their thoughts are with their grand­chil­dren in the cen­tral prov­ince of He­nan, about 3,000 km away.

Zheng and Li, both in their 60s, glance at a cell­phone dis­play­ing the smil­ing faces of their grand­son and grand­daugh­ter when­ever they miss the chil­dren.

Li said they will ask for leave next month, when ir­ri­ga­tion stops due to the cold. Their trip home will take sev­eral days. Li re­called a pre­vi­ous trip, when her feet were swollen af­ter sit­ting on a train for days.

“I def­i­nitely she said.

Zeng Dezhang and Wang Huirong at Well House No 8 are ex­perts in tough jour­neys. The cou­ple from the south­west­ern prov­ince of Sichuan have been sta­tioned here since 2006. Their son last came to visit four years ago.

Last year, be­fore Spring Fes­ti­val, they hitch­hiked to the near­est town, sev­eral hun­dred km away, be­fore they could catch a bus to a train sta­tion in the south­ern Xin­jiang city of Korla. From there, they took a train to the north­west prov­ince of Shaanxi and trans­ferred to still want to go back,” an­other train headed south to Chengdu, cap­i­tal of Sichuan.

But it was not over. They still had to take a bus to their home­town in Weiyuan county. Four days of their pre­cious hol­i­day had been spent on the road, and an­other four days would be needed for the re­turn trip.

“We miss home, but the trip has scared us off al­most ev­ery year,” said Li, 52, as a dog fol­lowed her like a shadow.

Of all the cou­ples, Huang Xiaob­ing and Zhou Sixiu at Well House No 35 have en­dured the desert’s sand­storms and iso­la­tion the long­est. The two have hardly bick­ered since they ar­rived more than a decade ago. Huang, the hus­band, has worked dili­gently, while Zhou has run the home with love and pa­tience.

“Our feel­ings to­ward each other deepen with no one else around,” Huang said. “Grow­ing old with each other is the most ro­man­tic thing I can think of.”

Aside from a sup­ply truck that comes to their doorstep ev­ery 10 days, the well houses are like soli­tary plan­ets, most with only two in­hab­i­tants.

In Well House No 35-1, Bai Qianli is all alone.

She fol­lowed her hus­band to the desert in 2011, but he left to work else­where. She has stayed for an­other three years since then.

“Some­times I can­not find any­one to talk to for al­most a week, so I run deep into the desert and scream,” Bai said. “This job cul­ti­vates one’s mind and spirit, and my tem­per­a­ment has got­ten bet­ter.”

She said this year’s sac­saoul, a bush that an­chors the sand with its roots, has thrived. “Look at this one. It has grown at least 30 cm since spring. It’s now taller than I am.”

As the sun dropped be­hind the hori­zon, she shut off the gen­er­a­tor and the pump. The place sud­denly fell dark.

Night crept over the desert. Bai said she is not afraid, be­cause she knows the sac­saoul has been cared for and will con­tinue to grow as she sleeps.

JIANG WENYAO / XIN­HUA

The cou­ple Cao Zhiyuan (right) and Nie Qun­lin from Sichuan prov­ince are liv­ing at Well House No 6 along the Tak­la­makan Desert High­way in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­tonomous re­gion.

HAN CHUANHAO / XIN­HUA

The cou­ple Huang Ziyou (left) and Zhou Huifeng, both from Sichuan prov­ince in 2009, at their Well House No 10.

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