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Planting Hope in Heart of Desert
This is a story about the remarkable courage and persistence of an ordinary Chinese woman living in the heart of the Mu Us Sandy Land desert in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, who not only changed her life and the people around her, but is reviving this dry land, one of the most desertified areas in China. China Daily staff reporter TANG MIN reports.

Sitting in a cosy Beijing hotel room, 36-year-old Yin Yuzhen, the founder of a 3,668.5-hectare "Green Kingdom" in the dry and scorching Mu Us Sandy Land desert in Inner Mongolia, was a bit tired.

But it's no wonder. For the past 18 years Yin, along with her husband Bai Wanxiang and others, has planted trees over 3,000-odd hectares of desert.

The trees have helped reduce the occurrence of sand storms.

Yin has won the respect from many and was named one of the top 10 outstanding Chinese women of the year earlier this month, by the All-China Women's Federation.

Her life has changed as well, as Yin's family earned over 100,000 yuan (US$12,077) last year from husbandry and tree planting.

Today Yin has a bigger dream - to open a scenic park attracting tourists interested in a special oasis. She also wants to set up a profitable agricultural producing base providing high-quality environmentally-safe animal products, in addition to grains, fruits and vegetables.

How It All Begins

The story of these environmental crusaders all began in January 1985, when Yin left her hometown in Jingbian County in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province on a mule after her wedding headed for the Mu Us Sandy Land where her husband lived.

Her marriage was arranged and she never even met her husband before they married. While she had heard that Mu Us Sandy Land was a poverty-stricken place, she couldn't stop from bursting to tears at the first sight of her new home.

The house was a cellar without windows. An adult could not stand up fully inside. Worse still, there was no food at all.

"Looking around at the silent and seemingly boundless desert around us, I could not stop my tears. I never knew that I could cry so many tears," Yin recalled.

"I had never expected that my father would do this to me, giving me such a tough life."

For seven days and nights, Yin went hungry and cried.

She thought of divorce, but her father would never live with it. She also thought of running away, but that could mean grave humiliation to her family. She even tried to end her life, but there was not a single tree on the desert from which she could hang herself.

Resolved to change her situation, she considered her options.

There was no land to cultivate, and the only available drinkable water was accumulated in underground pits.

Time passed quickly while Yin weighed one idea after another. When the time came for her to see her parents for the first time after her marriage, she traveled 10-kilometres through a hot scorching desert.

When she fell once during the trip, her feet full of blisters, she found herself staring at the desert and realized that her tears were gone. She suddenly became determined for a new life.

"I said to myself, I shall not only survive but live well, if the desert doesn't devour me," Yin said.

Lifesaving Trees

The trip home proved fruitful - she brought two trees from her parents' back to the desert and the trees gave her an idea.

"I brought them back because trees are an indispensable component of 'home' in my hometown and the two sturdy trees just symbolized the prosperous life of the new couple," explained Yin. "Luckily it actually worked."

Yin planted the two trees by her cellar.

She watched as the leaves became green and grew denser and it dawned on her that they were the key to her future. Because trees fix the sand beneath them, the land could be transformed from barren sands to fertile soil to plant and raise stock, she thought.

With her mind set, Yin devoted all her energy and enthusiasm to the construction of her new home.

After building an adobe house with windows, she brought another 100 saplings from her parents' home.

But this time they were not so lucky - only about 10 survived.

She and her husband ended up getting jobs doing all kinds of odd work such as cleaning manure pits and sowing seeds. Instead of money, they asked for saplings.

After 10 days of hard work, they had 2,000 saplings.

Since they could not afford hiring carts, they carried the trees home on their backs one batch after another.

The long-distance trudge and the follow-up planting led to the miscarriage of their unborn child.

"At the time (of the miscarriage), I was planting trees by myself about 5 kilometers away from our home. I bled so much that I lost consciousness from time to time. But as soon as I came to, I would crawl to plant one more tree until I lost consciousness again. I guess I was crazy, but planting trees to transform the desert was my only hope of survival," recalled Yin, who could no longer hold back her tears.

Besides working for saplings, they also trudged miles to pick up saplings deserted in governmental and private desert treatment zones. Almost all the money they sold from their stock was used to buy saplings.

One day, Bai, who was working at a village bordering the Mu Us Sandy Land, was told that 50,000 saplings allocated to the village by the government were drying to death. No villager was interested in planting them.

Realizing the opportunity, Bai asked the village head whether they could take the saplings. After receiving approval, the couple began to carry the samplings home.

For over 20 days, they made several trips each day between their home and the village 8 kilometers away to transport the samplings. They would start at 4 am and transport the trees all the way without eating.

"We ate one meal three days during that time and we eventually made it. Now we eat three meals a day, so I do not see any reason why I should not do better in the future," said Yin.

Amid all their hard work, Yin was able to deliver another child prematurely and now the boy is 16 years old.

Persistent Struggle

Unfortunately, many of the 50,000 saplings did not survive the harsh weather of the desert, especially the sand storms, which buried many completely.

Although Yin and her husband tried to retrieve every sapling from the sands, they consistently found themselves in a futile task.

But Yin never gave up. She tried her best to get more saplings and insisted on planting more and more. Luckily, with increased experience, she eventually managed a satisfactory survival rate of her saplings.

In the eyes of her husband, Bai, she could be "as stubborn as a devil." She would carry on her set-path without one moment's hesitation, no matter what difficulties struck, he said.

But it was Yin's persistence that led the Mu Us Sandy Land to produce delicious watermelon last year for the first time, according to many local elderly residents.

Yin is now waiting confidently for her first batch of apples, plums and apricots that are expected from her "Green Kingdom."

Unexpected Honor

Yin's afforestation efforts were recognized by local forestry authorities in 1999 and she has become quite famous across China.

She has won several other honors, such as an award for being "desertification-fighting heroine" by the All-China Women's Federation, and her "Green Kingdom" has become a sacred place for people keen on environmental protection. Many of them have either donated money or have volunteered their time.

"No one having witnessed the labor of Yin would not be impressed. She has done what can only be done by the government in many people's imagination," said Chen Shuqin, a retired space technology researcher, who has gone to work with Yin five times.

But to Yin herself, the honors are still unexpected. "I have only done what I could to survive, but the country and the people have given me so much support. My only way to repay them is to plant more trees, to give free technical support to those willing to fight the desert, and to develop my future enterprise and hire more people," she said.

(China Daily December 18, 2002)

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