Dong Lei, and as cred­ited

China Scenic - - Feature - By Zhang Jing Pho­to­graphs by

The Gobi Desert, a des­o­late ex­panse of jagged rock and golden sand cov­ers the north­west of China’s Gansu Prov­ince. A land of ex­tremes — daily tem­per­a­tures fluc­tu­ate some thirty de­grees Cel­sius. It is a harsh and seem­ingly bar­ren place, a parched and dusty land void of life. To botanists, how­ever, it is a land of plenty: among its sandy dunes and flat rocky plains live pre­cious and rare drought-tol­er­ant plants that have evolved to en­dure the ob­scene con­di­tions the Gobi throws at them. These botan­i­cal spe­cial­ists, such as the Mon­gol cot­ton­spire and songar­ian sun­rose, along with a num­ber of other relict species now con­fined to this sandy land, have found a home and a place to thrive in this land of ex­tremes. The Gobi Desert is harsh, de­mand­ing, and tem­per­a­men­tal; but it is alive, and these ground-hug­ging plants are ex­cep­tion­ally im­por­tant not only to the desert ecosys­tem, but also to the study of en­vi­ron­men­tal change and the evo­lu­tion of plants. They are also in dan­ger of los­ing their homes.

To the Chi­nese, Cynomo­rium is more than just a plant — it is a highly sought af­ter herb that is thought to be an aphro­disiac at its most in­ter­est­ing, and a nour­ish­ing herb at the very least. It is quite un­com­mon to find such a plant on one’s desk. One rarely needs an aphro­disiac at work.

One day in 2014, I set out from the cap­i­tal of Gansu Prov­ince, Lanzhou, and headed to­wards the small and sandy city of Dun­huang, the home of wild cynomo­rium. I was headed into this desert with my friend Mr. Feng, a busi­ness man­ager with a PHD de­gree in ge­og­ra­phy from Lanzhou Univer­sity. Driv­ing along the fa­mous Hexi Cor­ri­dor, a key link along the silk road that served as a con­nec­tion to traders and ex­plor­ers between Lanzhou and Dun­huang, we made it a mere few dozen kilo­me­ters from our des­ti­na­tion when we both heard the un­mis­tak­able sound of trou­ble — a bro­ken ex­haust pipe. Mr. Feng, be­ing fa­mil­iar with the area, said we had to turn to the near­est Guazhou County with a re­pair shop. Leav­ing the car in the hands of a trusted me­chanic, we wan­dered

around and ended up at the door of a small, yet vi­brant, restau­rant.

As we pushed through the doors, a lady stand­ing be­hind the counter was al­ready smil­ing and asked im­me­di­ately what we wanted to or­der. Lack­ing the ob­vi­ous ben­e­fit of a menu, we handed over the de­ci­sion to her, and she sug­gested that we should try their cynomo­rium scones. We or­dered two.

We took a seat in the cor­ner of the small, empty restau­rant and waited pa­tiently in si­lence. My mind re­laxed, and I glanced over to the counter and no­ticed the owner rub­bing a del­i­cate dust­ing of cynomo­rium on to the top of both our scones. Putting the scones in the oven, she turned and leaned on the counter and told us that in the past the golden Gobi sand was punc­tu­ated with wild cynomo­rium, but in re­cent years they were nearly gone. In an at­tempt to pro­tect them, gov­ern­ment of Guazhou County no longer al­lowed the pub­lic to har­vest them. Known lo­cally as “desert gin­seng”, the plant is quite dis­sim­i­lar in taste and ap­pear­ance, but quite sim­i­lar in terms of its mar­ket value. This is a code for “it’s in­cred­i­bly lu­cra­tive”; re­cently prices have soared, and as a re­sult the wild plants — re­moved for free and sold for a mas­sive profit — have van­ished. The dried cynomo­rium makes their way to mar­ket in a dec­o­ra­tive box, just like the one I re­cently found on my desk, and the desert ecosys­tem is left with­out.

They are not all gone, how­ever. Some tall flow­er­ing in­di­vid­u­als still re­main. The oven dinged, and soon the scones, topped with cynomo­rium, were on our ta­ble. I looked at my scone, then to the desert around us. I won­dered if any­one pur­chas­ing cynomo­rium knew of the plight of this “desert gin­seng”. I won­dered, too, if they knew that it was sprin­kled freely on the tops of scones, ev­ery day for ev­ery want­ing cus­tomer, in a small vil­lage amidst the sand and dunes of the Gobi Desert.

Af­ter a long wait, and a de­li­cious cynomo­rium-topped scone, we fi­nally retrieved our car and

for the wind and sun to build.

We re­turned to our car, briefly check­ing the makeshift re­pairs to the muf­fler along the way, and pointed to­wards Dun­huang.

That was my first en­counter with the drought-tol­er­ant plants. But now, how should I deal with the cynomo­rium I re­ceived?

I give it, along with its or­nate box, to Dr. Yang Yong, a botanist with the In­sti­tute of Botany, Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences, as a plant spec­i­men. Plac­ing the box down and leav­ing it open, he en­ters into a weav­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal tale of desert botany. He skips any mention of cynomo­rium or cis­tanche, the com­par­a­tively com­mon plants here, and delves into a list of species I had never heard of be­fore: Mon­gol cot­ton­spire ( Potanini­a­mon­golica ), songar­ian sun­rose ( Helianthe­mum­songar­icum ), naked­fruit ( Gym­no­car­posprze­wal­skii ), leath­ery bract daisy ( Tu­gari­novi­a­mon­golica)… His knowl­edge of the desert plants is en­cy­clo­pe­dic, and he con­tin­ues to list names as he wan­ders around the vir­tual desert etched in his mind. He then moves to spe­cific re­gions of the Gobi — Or­dos and Alashan of the In­ner Mon­go­lia Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion, Dun­huang of north­west­ern Gansu, and the Hami re­gion of Xin­jiang — each with their own spe­cific en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, and each with their own se­lec­tion of unique drought tol­er­ant in­hab­i­tants.

His mon­tage of desert places and species names abruptly stops. A large smile breaches his face and he in­forms me that he is plan­ning a sur­vey ex­pe­di­tion to the Ma­zong Moun­tains of north­ern Gansu. “You should come!” We both know this is a rare op­por­tu­nity. Not only are all the desert species there, but Ma­zong is a place well off the beaten track. With­out the logistical help of a re­search ex­pe­di­tion, the Ma­zong Moun­tains are out of reach.

Mr. Feng and I go in search of two trucks able to make the off- road jour­ney, and within hours are packed and ready to go. Along the way we pass groves of Chi­nese tamarisk ( Ta­mar­ixchi­nen­sis ), among other arid re­gion spe­cial­ists. The tamarisk is no­table for its flow­ers, their beau­ti­ful red blossoms like fire­works ex­plod­ing against the oth­er­wise drab desert back­ground. These are not on Dr. Yang’s list of species to sur­vey, and we pass them by, their fire­work-like flow­ers drift­ing off into the dis­tance as we bounce and swerve deeper into the desert.

“Look” Dr. Yang Yong shouts, rais­ing his voice above the back­ground noise of diesel trucks bat­tling

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