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Hunting "green treasure" in China's largest desert

Xinhua
21 Sep 2023, 02:05 GMT+10

© Provided by Xinhua

URUMQI, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- Nestled deep in the heart of the Taklimakan Desert, often referred to as the "place you can enter but can't exit" in Uygur language, lies an extraordinary botanical garden.

The Tazhong botanical garden, sprawling across more than 300 mu (20 hectares), is home to over 230 plant species. The Taklimakan Desert, China's largest desert, is also known as the "Sea of Death" and has remained an inhospitable land for a long time.

The architects of this botanical marvel are a group of dedicated researchers. Thanks to their unwavering efforts, the ecological environment of the desert has undergone fundamental transformations.

In 1991, the researchers established a botanical testing base on the fringe of the desert to conduct pioneering experiments on cultivating plants through saline-alkali water irrigation, according to Chang Qing, the senior engineer at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography under the Chinese Academy of Sciences who has designed the Tazhong botanical garden.

Three years later, as the desert road extended into the heart of the Taklimakan Desert in Tazhong Township, researchers from the institute relocated their research base to this remote location.

Decades have passed, and what was once barren land has transformed into lush forests. The plants cultivated here have not only contributed to ecological protection efforts across Xinjiang but have also ventured beyond borders, supporting desertification control projects in Africa, Central Asia and other countries.

On the northern edge of the Taklimakan Desert lies the Aiximan Lake area, located in Awat County, Aksu Prefecture. Previously plagued by desertification, soil erosion and wetland degradation, this lake area in the western part of the Aksu River basin was once a major source of windblown sand in the basin's oasis. Today, it is a lush landscape, with expansive forests standing tall and lucid rivers meandering along the forest's perimeter.

This transformation began in 2021 with Aksu's ecological restoration and desertification control project. Harnessing recycled water resources from Aksu and Wensu County, the project utilized artificial irrigation as its central strategy to establish an ecological protection forest. This was complemented by the cultivation of economic and timber forests.

© Provided by Xinhua

The region regenerates approximately 50 million cubic meters of water annually, supporting the irrigation needs of around 500,000 mu of ecological restoration forests.

"Sandstorms no longer plague Aksu like before. The frequency of dusty days has diminished in several of our towns, leading to a reduction in the area affected by sand and dust," said Jiang Lili, deputy director of Awat County forestry and grassland bureau. "Most importantly, we no longer experience sandstorms."

Moving farther south to the edge of the Taklimakan Desert in Lop County, situated in Hotan Prefecture, one can witness the production of green energy. The Lop photovoltaic power station, with a total capacity of 200 megawatts, was put into operation in February this year.

Operated by State Power Investment Corporation Ltd., the power station is estimated to produce an average output of 360 million kilowatt-hours annually, equivalent to saving 110,000 tonnes of standard coal and reducing carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions by 330,000 tonnes and 1,300 tonnes, respectively.

"Located at a relatively low latitude, this area enjoys long hours of sunshine, with hardly any rainfall throughout the year. Therefore, under normal operating conditions, the photovoltaic power station here can achieve up to 1,600 hours of electricity generation annually," said Tian Juxiong, the station manager.

The vast expanse of golden sands in the Taklimakan Desert is slowly evolving into a powerful catalyst for sustainable development in Xinjiang.

Desert tourism has become another testament to the shifting mindset of people in southern Xinjiang.

Makit County in Kashgar Prefecture serves as the "gateway" to and from the Taklimakan Desert, boasting one of the most abundant desert tourism resources in China. Thousands of adventure enthusiasts flock here from May to the end of October each year.

According to data from the regional culture and tourism department, during this year's May Day holiday, Xinjiang received a total of 8.05 million tourists, a 140.81 percent increase compared to the previous year, and achieved tourism revenue of 6.03 billion yuan (about 840.62 million U.S. dollars), up 192.18 percent year on year.

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