Transforming the Land

Our thanks to Timberland‘s marketing manager for Singapore, Cheryl Kow, for detailing her tree-planting experience in the Horqin Desert for us.  Here is the final installment in Cheryl’s Horqin Chronicles:

We move out early again for a full day of tree planting, which I’m really looking forward to. Our destination: Gabo Desert, just half an hour from the hotel.

Horqin dunes in the early stages of greening

The bus stops at the beginning of a dirt trail and we clamber 3 apiece into small Jeeps which will take us to the main tree planting areas. The back of the Jeeps are too small to sit, so we stand in a row holding the helm. The wind works up the cold in our faces and we watch the barren landscape give way to expansive fields of green grass and gold sunflowers and a sinuous sky of blue ice, against a faraway backdrop of layers and layers of swelling hills that seem to continue forever. We pass maize fields, rice fields. We see sheep, cows and tractors. It’s the pastoral life at its flourishing best and it’s stunning.

In about 10 minutes, we’re back in the desert. We disembark and Mr. Kitaura rounds us up to explain what we’re here to do: build a grid of squares using hay, called Si Fang Ge (literal translation: 4 sided box); the grids help to block the wind and hold the sand in place. Poplars are then planted within each square and the grids ensure protection against the elements and an increased chance of survival.

He speaks briefly of the severity of desertification.  The past saw the threat of invasion of proud warriors on armored horseback. While this may no longer pose a threat in modern times, the mainland and Japan are now seeing a second invasion, this time in the form of sand. The desert is dramatically expanding at 10,000 square km per year and affecting the quality of life of the two said countries, evidenced by the apocalyptic sandstorms from the north that assault both Japan and China, especially during the summer months.

He demonstrates making the grid:  First shake off the excess flyaway strands of hay, then lay the hay in a straight horizontal line, grab your spade, aim at the epicentre of the line and push it through. Ta-da! The hay springs up like freshly grown grass! Timberlanders get down to work and in an hour, a 10m by 14m grid materializes.

Volunteers build a grid of hay to protect plants against the desert wind

It rains a little as we move to plant trees. It’s back-breaking work and Mr Otaki and I chat a little during a break. He sighs and tells me it’s a sheer waste that this beautiful piece of land has become so desolate. “Feel this,” he says as he digs a couple of centimeters into the sand and puts a clump of sand in my hands. It’s wet. The soil is actually superbly fertile and suitable for crop growing. “My greatest wish is to transform this land back to its full potential, to the mysterious grasslands of our forefathers.”

He speaks of the merits of large scale reforestation and the importance of having both governmental and grassroots support, which will enable the movement to be better recognized by locals and from which economies of scales can be reaped in terms of reduced supply and labor costs.  This also helps to create infrastructure and development of community, involving and educating a ‘village’ unit.

 We get back to work planting. Three hours and 200 trees later we form human chains, bringing the source of life from the hose to the fresh plants. It’s like a game, and the team shouts exuberantly with each passing, in the spirit of camaraderie.

The “human chain” waters freshly-planted trees

A feast awaits us when we emerge from our rooms, freshly showered and re-energized. A film strip plays on the projector, flashing pictures of the last 3 days. A disembodied voice sings in mandarin as the reel plays and I feel nostalgic already. We exchange and relive the stories and foibles, bubbling over hilarity as we strike silly poses for the camera. Too quickly, and like all good things, the trip comes to an end. It was highly educative and inspiring, and I hope to be back next year.

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