When Ulji sold his beloved jeep that was used in herding and spent the money on saplings and herb seeds, his father flew into a rage and shouted at him; "We are herdsmen, herding is what we do."
But Ulji never regretted his actions. In 2001, he put all he had on planting cistanche, a kind of herb that has a symbiotic relationship with the desert plant, saxaul. Most people in his township,Tengeli'elisi on the verge of Tenger Desert in Inner Mongolia, have never heard of cistanche.
Cistanche is a herb used in Chinese medicine. Saxaul is effectve against impeding erosion, but without its symbiant Cistanche, there is no monetary gain in growing it.
Ulji began to grow cistanche in saxaul in 2003 and harvested the first cistanche in 2006. He couldn't wait to show it to his parents, who still had no idea how much money the humble potato-like plant would provide for the family.
In May of 2006, Ulji sold half a packet of cistanche for 3,000 yuan (US$440), equal to the average annual income per capita in the town. And in the spring of 2008, the family earned more than 10,000 yuan just from cistanche.
So far, Ulji has planted saxaul on 24 hectares of desert and fruit trees on 21 other hectares, making an small oasis in the fourth-largest desert in China.
By planting saxaul and cistanche, the environment in parts of Inner Mongolia has greatly improved.
Zhang Jianjun, a 33-year-old vendor in a small town called Bayangaole near the Ulan Buh desert, still remembers how his family had to move five times because of desert expansion a decade ago.
"The days when we can't walk with eyes open has become old memories. Every time we moved before, the sand buried our house," Zhang said.
The family has not moved since 1999 after the Dengkou County that administers Bayangaole invested heavily in growing saxaul. Now the county has planted 20,000 hectares of saxaul and inoculated cistanches on 2,000 hectares.
To combat desertification, Saxaul-cistanche shrubs are spread on the vast deserts of west China.
Saxaul-cistanche shrubs also serve as wind barriers on the singular road that runs through Tarim desert in northwest China's Xinjiang. The cistanche-rich barriers generate 9 million yuan revenue a year, enough to cover the road's maintenance.
Saxaul, a small, bushy tree of 1 to 4 meters high, has an 80 percent chance of surviving the drought barren deserts. The plant has a strong root that can reach deeper than 10 meters down into the ground and hold the sands firmly. And its lush needle-point leaves slow down the wind.
It once faced extinctions as herdsman would overharvest the plant, digging it up by the roots.
But the situation began to change as Chinese began to artificially cultivate cistanche.
On the slender tendrils of saxaul's root lives cistanche, often called the ginseng of the desert.
As a treasured traditional Chinese herb, it has been used to treat senile dementia, constipation, E.D. and infertility. It is also believed to boost immunity, improve memory and delay aging.
Every hecatre of saxaul grown with cistanche can yield 150,000 yuan worth of cistanche products, in addition to the desertification control benefits, said Tu Pengfei, a scholar from Peking University's Modern Research Center for Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The cistanche and saxaul combination is an ideal way to combat desertification compared with growing grass and trees, said TU.
Grass patches have to be replaced from time-to-time and only have effects in the short-term, and tree-planting projects usually end when funds run out.
The locals take more personal initiatives in planting profitable herbs like cistanche to prevent desertification, said Xia Ri, president of Inner Mongolia Sand and Herbs Industry Association.
"And it helps ecology, economy and social wellbeing." Xia added.
Jia Zhibang, Chief of China Forestry Administration said 18.11 percent of China, or 174 million hectares, is desert. China suffers an annual direct economic loss of 54 billion yuan from desertification that affects the life of nearly 400 million people.
China's desert area has been shrinking at the rate of 128,300 hectares a year, a U-turn from the annual expansion of 343,600 hectares before the end of the 20th century.
(China Daily July 27, 2009)