Xie Yanhua, a rural woman who has spent most of her life in the countryside of Yucheng, Henan Province, cried out. "Are they taking me to the ends of the earth?"
Three days on the No 1045 train seemed like eternity. She covered 3,280 kilometres on her trip from Shangqiu in Henan to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Xie was not the only one getting on the train without knowing where she was bound.
Every year, thousands of farming women like Xie from inland provinces, including Central China's Henan, East China's Anhui, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces, travel to Xinjiang for the cotton harvest season when a large number of temporary cotton pickers are needed.
According to Chen Baichao, a member of staff at the Shangqiu Railway Station, every year during early September, 150,000 rural workers gather at the station that links major lines that run from east to west as well as from south to north.
Eighty per cent of the temporary cotton pickers are middle-aged women, trusted for their patience and excellent picking skills, Chen said.
To the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps whose cotton production accounts for 70 per cent of annual income, harvesting in the vast fields during this season is extremely important.
Since the 1980s, with the increasing growth of cotton planting, the corps hires 160,000 regular hands to deal with cotton planting, scattered into 12 large groups that take charge of more than 2,000 smaller divisions. Even so, more workers are needed.
If the corps cannot pick all the cotton before the early frost destroys the plants, it will lose a lot of money. Therefore, some divisions have to hire a large number of temporary workers from inland.
Despite the regular flow of thousands of cotton pickers every day, by the middle of September, statistics show the corps was still in need of more than 80,000 pickers. That is the reason Xie made the interminable journey.
When the train reached Urumqi, workers were quickly led away by their employers and sent to different places in Xinjiang by train or bus. Xie went to Aksu, the place where first-rate cotton grows.
The No 1 group of the corps has settled down in Aksu and made breakthroughs in production, bringing it to as high as 245.56 kilograms per mu (3,681 kilograms per hectare) while the international average level is only 108.99 kilograms.
Despite geographical advantages, painstaking farm work is needed to ensure the high quality of the cotton and impressive production capacity.
Qiu Xianfen, 34, covered herself from head to toe in the fields to pick the cotton. Covering up not only prevents sunburn and insect bites, but also means human hair does not mix with the cotton, which would mean it would not meet the required quality standard.
"I nearly fainted because of long-time work," Qiu recalled of her first picking session last year.
She started work at 7 am and continued until 8 pm, with only 10 minutes break at noon to have a quick lunch.
However, after extensive training, she can pick 70-80 kilograms of cotton every day, a pretty high rate compared to her co-workers.
"I can make six jiao (7.5 US cents) by picking a kilogram," Qiu said, adding that she might earn 45 yuan (US$6) a day.
"It's much more than what I earned at home by working on the fields," she said.
According to Du Xingwu, an official of the No 1 group, some groups have incentive policies, which state those workers that can pick more than 6,000 kilograms of cotton during the season get a free airplane ticket home.
"Every year, dozens of workers get the tickets. But that is pretty difficult," said Du.
Born in the rural area of Zaoyang, central China's Hubei Province, Du came to Xinjiang in 1991 and was quickly promoted to be an official due to his effective management.
He took charge of 48.5 mu (3.3 hectares) of cotton this year, which could bring in 30,000 to 40,000 yuan (US$3,800-5,000) net income.
When asked whether he missed his hometown, Du said he used to visit in 2002, but found he no longer belongs there.
"I didn't get used to the lifestyle there, which is quite impoverished and backward. I am accustomed to my present life," said Du.
In the past 20 years, like Du, more and more inland Chinese, most of whom are Han people, have begun to arrive in Xinjiang, finding new possibilities and eventually settling down there.
Qiu Xianfen is one of those immigrants who wanted to settle down with the corps as Du has. She has recently signed an agreement with the No 1 group.
According to the agreement, Qiu and her husband both become contract-bound workers. If they stay for five years, fulfilling their duties respectively as a cotton picker and a hydropower station worker, they will get permanent residence with the corps. Qiu and her husband are working hard to achieve the goal.
To attract more inland farm hands, the corps has adopted preferential policies for long-term or temporary cotton-pickers.
Relevant departments at different levels of the corps have signed agreements on labour export with their counterparts in other provinces and autonomous regions to ensure the orderly flow of labour, and standardization of the labour market.
Big farms usually arrange transportation for temporary workers, and some bear the cost. They also provide cotton pickers with free housing, water and power supplies and even childcare.
Although they earn more than they do at home often 2,500 yuan (US$320) for the whole harvest season, which covers a period of two or three months the workload is backbreaking.
"Once they can make money in their hometown, they will definitely not come here. Here is so far from inland," said Wei Xueqiang, an official of the corps.
Modern technology will eventually replace manual labour.
In the No 3 division of No 1 group, 10 sets of US made CASE-2555 automatic cotton-picking machines are ready to do their duty, cutting labour time. According to the division, each cost 1.7 million yuan (US$209,000).
Additionally, the general planning of the corps designated clearly that by 2010, 80 per cent of the cotton will be picked automatically.
"It is the irreversible trend for mechanization," said an official of the corps surnamed Wang.
On the other hand, as the central government is adjusting its agricultural policies and ensuring more profit for inland farmers, more and more peasants may prefer not to come all the way to Xinjiang to make ends meet.
(China Daily October 11, 2005)