As the walkthrough fountain pushes a jet of water more than five stories into the air, townsfolk gather at its edge and children scuttle through the spray.
This could be a scene from any town in China, but this fountain is special because it's in Dongxiang, high on the Yellow-Earth Plateau, in Northwest China's Gansu Province.
Dongxiang has an annual rainfall of 350 millimetres, but four times that much water evaporates in the same amount of time, shaping the topography to resemble the wrinkled face of an old man.
The county is one of the poorest in China, and the main culprit is unrelenting drought.
Scientists say it was different 2.6 million years ago.
As fossils of tigers in the museum across the street from the fountain indicate, this land used to be verdant and fertile. Then, some kind of apocalypse wiped out most of the species and transformed the landscape into giant pancakes of arid soil. The few patches of farmland left on the hillside are totally vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature.
Ironically, the county is bordered by several rivers, including one of China's greatest the Yellow River. Villagers had to haul buckets of water on donkeys and shoulder poles and trek dozens of kilometres uphill to bring it home.
"Villagers would use the water to first wash vegetables and rice, and then wait until the sediment is deposited, boil the cleaner part for drinking and use the rest for laundry," said Ma Weigang, county magistrate. "What it left was then poured on whatever is grown in the land.
"The old saying 'each plot of land feeds its residents' is invalid in our county," Ma added.
The residents on this barren and dusty terrain are mostly of one ethnicity Dongxiang, or Sarta, as they call themselves. Their ancestors were women and craftsmen captured by Genghis Khan (1162-1227) on his conquest in Central Asia. They speak a language that has no written form.
In 1992, then-Vice-Premier Tian Jiyun visited the county and approved a project that would make the water surrounding the county available to those living in its 1,750 ridges and 3,083 valleys.
On a separate inspection, Premier Wen Jiabao said that it would be worthwhile to invest hundreds of millions to solve the water shortage for a whole race.
In 1995, the Nanyang Irrigation Pipeline Project took off. Nine years later, the main artery and some secondary routes were completed, pumping water to the parched land.
The 560-million-yuan (US$70 million) project consists of 56.7 kilometres of main artery. This branches into four secondary conduits totalling 40 kilometres, then bifurcating into 14 pipelines totalling 159 kilometres. Along the routes are 24 aqueducts that irrigate around 8,000 hectares.
Half of that area lies in Dongxiang County.
When the project is fully completed by mid-2007, about 120 villages and 150,000 residents will benefit.
"As of now, about 80 per cent of our people no longer suffer from an acute shortage of water," Ma said. "This figure will be raised to 90 per cent next year."
Ray of hope
Poverty and a lack of education go hand in hand.
According to the 2000 census, the average Dongxiang person only had one year of education. Their 57 per cent illiteracy rate was the highest of all ethnicities in China.
That's where China Daily and its readers and sponsors have made a difference.
Starting from 1999, China Daily has funneled a total of 3.5 million yuan (US$438,000) into the county, building or rebuilding six primary schools and one middle school.
The China Daily Reader First Hope School, one of the seven schools, was built in Pingzhuang Village, where there was no school before 2003. Children had to walk 3 to 10 kilometres to reach the nearest school.
Now the new 12-classroom school serves 137 students, 46 of whom are girls, coming from several nearby villages. And these villages have an annual per-capita income of only 651 yuan (US$80) and an average grain possession of 243 kilograms.
Another new school, the China Daily Hope School, opened in 1999.
On a recent Sunday, students assembled to greet a visiting delegation led by Editor-in-Chief Zhu Ling.
Browsing the computer room where three students shared one computer, Zhu pledged to fund a 380-square-metre addition to the existing building.
To bring children into school is the first step, and equally important is to help them learn.
Of the 25 towns and town-level villages, 21 are inhabited exclusively by ethnic Dongxiang people, who usually don't know much Chinese. In the 7-14 age group, fewer than 10 per cent understand Chinese, according to a Yunnan University survey.
This presents a unique problem.
If children are taught in Chinese, as they are now, many students are unable to absorb much of their lessons. Feeling hopeless, many drop out.
If taught in their own language, students will not be linguistically prepared to seek employment outside the county. The export of labour is a major source of revenue.
In 2002, pilot bilingual education programmes were launched at the Nalesi Elementary School. Within three years, bilingual instruction raised the passing rate from a range of 7 to 20 per cent to a whopping 60 per cent, said Chen Yuanlong.
Chen is a scholar and education official who compiled the first Dongxiang dictionary and experimented with new texts spelt out in standard Chinese, pinyin and Romanized Dongxiang language.
This programme was made possible by a grant from the US-based Ford Foundation.
By 2003, the countywide illiteracy rate had dropped to 40 per cent.
"Every year, we have a dozen charity organizations coming to help us," Ma said with a tinge of gratitude.
Zhu Yinghuang, China Daily editor-in-chief emeritus, said: "When I first came here in 1999, it was so poor that some families dug out holes for their children to sleep in."
"Dongxiang is ridding itself of the shackles of poverty. The progress it has made in the last few years is astounding," he said as he handed out "red envelopes" of donations to the poorest families on a recent visit.
Helping from afar
Helping Dongxiang break loose of these shackles, are also people and organizations from both inside and outside China.
Seven years ago, Betty Lin was working for Este Lauder, a cosmetics firm that caters to the cosmopolitan crowd.
In the past seven years, the Singaporean has been living in Dongxiang, working for a UK-based charitable company called "I Care." First, Lin and "I Care" helped locals breed and raise sheep, the main source of meat. Later, Lin worked to grow better grade potatoes.
Potatoes provide one of the main sources of revenue for Dongxiang people, accounting for 63 per cent of the farmland and 27.2 per cent of rural revenue. (Other income comes from raising sheep, 31.1 per cent, and labour export, 24.8 per cent.)
"When I first came, people were eating bad potatoes that were diseased and degenerate. They could not use them as seeds any more," Lin said. "We wanted to ensure they had something to fill up their stomachs and also something with economic value so that they could sell it."
What Lin does daily is a tedious process of planting, cultivating and multiplying higher-quality potato seeds. She gives them to nearby farmers at cost.
She and her workers plant seeds imported from Scotland, first in greenhouses, where they grow tissue culture of their own. With the good seeds, she hopes farmers can eventually sell their potatoes to international buyers such as McDonald's.
The ongoing project will bring farmers an additional 7 yuan (88 US cents) per hectare, she calculated. With the diseased potatoes, one hectare could yield only about 14 kilograms, and now the same plot can have 10 times that output.
"The prefecture has asked us to help seven counties other than Dongxiang," said Lin, who witnessed during her stay a huge improvement in infrastructure spurred by government investment.
"We couldn't imagine so many could have access to water, road and electricity in such a short period of time," she said.
Lin and her team chose April to plant the seeds.
"We'll plant for farmers before we do our own. They often fear they would miss the best season," she said. "After planting, we can only pray for rain. If there's a drought, we'd have to water them from the pipeline, but the piped water is not available to every farmer right now."
When asked what drove her to leave an urban and modern life for endless days in dusty, landlocked Dongxiang, the vivacious 40-something replied: "I'm a Christian. I've been blessed in my life, and I want to help those who are less fortunate than I am."
Ma Fucai is the native son with a big heart.
In 1984, Ma left Dongxiang for Lanzhou, selling groceries at a farmers' market, trading sheepskins and doing other jobs. Later, he got into the mining business.
"I've made some money. I was also victimized a lot by swindlers because I didn't have much education," he explained with a heavy accent, walking with a clumsy, hobbling gait that betrays his leg deformity.
Ma, an ethnic Dongxiang, cannot forget the children who still live in his impoverished home county. He wants them to succeed more easily than he did.
So Ma donated 220,000 yuan (US$27,500) to Dongxiang schools. (He has also donated another 140,000 yuan (US$17,500) to water projects and road construction.)
Just before June 1, International Children's Day, he bought 50,000 yuan's (US$6,250) worth of supplies and gave them, together with 20,000 yuan (US$2,500) in cash, to the China Daily Hope School, which serves two neighbouring villages.
To help keep children from quitting school, he brought 350 sacks of flour. Each "poor" child received one, and the "extremely poor" received two sacks. He also paid for everyone's school bag, uniform and stationery.
Each girl got an additional 50 yuan (US$6.25) in cash.
"Girls are extremely vulnerable to poverty," he said.
"Whatever I've made, I cannot take it with me when I die, can I? What really matters is how much I can change the lives of my people back home."
Source: China Daily