Over the past 30 years, a quiet war against nature had been waged in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China's far west – to turn swaths of desert into an oasis of forest.
Leading this ecological campaign is the city of Aksu, located on the edge of China's largest desert, the Taklamakan, whose name translates to "the place of no return." As one of the biggest shifting sand dunes in the world, its size is slightly smaller than that of Germany.
Aksu used to be buried in thick sand for the better part of the year. Persistent drought hindered economic growth and defeated several attempts to extract groundwater.
"You couldn't open your eyes when the dark wind sweeps across the land," said 48-year-old Gan Yongjun. The "dark wind" can be seen gathering from several kilometers away, the darkness blocking everything in view when it comes and you need to find a place to hide, he explained.
For the past 30 years, Gan has been engaged in the Kekeya green project – one of the campaigns launched by local governments in 1986 to alleviate the plight caused by unrelenting dust storms.
Engineers, geographers and other specialists were summoned to survey the land and figure out sources of water. The team was also tasked with seeking ways to turn sand into soil fertile enough for plants to take roots.
"After water is poured, it would stay on the surface for eight to 10 days without penetrating the soil," Gan recalled. The high alkaline content in the soil far exceeded levels survivable for most plants, slowly corroding and eating away their roots.
To solve this problem, irrigation ditches filled with water were dug in the field in hopes that it would slowly seep through the soil and eventually dissolve the alkaline. Donkeys were the primary vehicle for transporting water.
"The trees we planted in the beginning died in large numbers," he explained. Yet, dissolution efforts carried on for four more years before plants were finally able to grow on the barren land.
People from almost every corner of the society – street vendors, firefighters, local officials – all participated in the ambitious and unprecedented greening project twice a year, mostly during spring and winter.
To date, over 13 million trees have been planted in Aksu, according to statistics from the local forestry bureau. Agriculture has become a pillar of the local economy.
Now, people throughout China associate Aksu with its sweet and crunchy apples while other produce such as walnuts, dates and raisins have also become popular in the grocery aisles.