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Xinjiang's battle against the desert
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - When the city of Korla rose from the Taklamakan Desert
in mid-1950s, it was admired as a triumph of human willpower
over adverse nature. Thousands of soldiers put the place on the
map in China's far west Xinjiang region by digging 600 kilometers
of channels to coax underground water to large collective farms.

Half a century later, Korla has to defend every bit of its existence in
the desert by erecting sentries of trees against the encroaching
sands. It has to fight for every drop of water by using sophisticated
water-conservation technology imported from Israel.

While the gleaming modern center of today's Korla is a far cry from
the cluster of shacks the place was in the 1950s, the enormous
efforts to build and maintain it have exhausted local ecology to a
degree that makes people question the wisdom of creating it in the
first place.

"If it wasn't for the oil in the desert, this place wouldn't have
survived," says Tian Yugang who works on the forestation of the

Like many other settlers in Korla, Tian comes from inland China.
His parents - members of communist China's paramilitary corps, or
Bing Tuan, were sent to isolated Xinjiang by Mao Zedong in the
1950s to open up new land and build new cities.

It was the Bing Tuan that subjugated the Muslim-populated
territory for the rule of distant communist rulers in Beijing. It was
the Bing Tuan too that set into motion the backbreaking work of
introducing farming in the arid land.

The economic magnet of the rugged place, though, is the
abundance of oil extracted in the Taklamakan Desert, which has
kept the Han Chinese coming to Korla since the discoveries in the
late 1950s.

Korla now hosts the headquarters of Tarim Oilfield Co, a unit of the
state oil giant PetroChina, and receives throngs of visitors from
foreign firms interested in the oil and gas reserves in China's
western deserts.

With its karaoke bars, oversized department stores and a neon-lit
promenade along the man-made Peacock River, the city strives to
be a mini-replica of booming metropolises of the east coast such
as Shanghai.

Yet there is one flaw that has escaped local officials' drive for
perfection. Being only 70km from the desert, the city is plagued by
fierce desert storms that ravage the fragile vegetation and blanket
the skies for days in spring.

It rains so little that the locals remember every day of the year
when it happened. The drought sucks all the moisture from the
soil, making it easy prey for the storms. Encircled by dry mountains
from all sides, Korla gets whipped by sand that is picked up by the
wind and deposited on every visible surface. It happens on some
40 days every year.

So desperate were local officials to tame the storms that in the
mid-1990s they embarked on a scheme to level off some of the
surrounding hills by blowing them up.

"We thought this would decrease the sand carried by the wind and
would help us irrigate the land better," recalled Zhang Yizhi, vice
director of Korla's Afforestation Bureau.

Source: Asia Times (Nov 10, 2006): http://www.atimes.com/

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