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Farmers "pan gold" from desert and Yellow River

(Xinhua)    16:40, August 17, 2020

After making sure that the tourists are sitting securely on his sheepskin raft, Tong Jinding leans forward to push it off the shore with an oar. To the splash of the water, he chants a local folk song about the Yellow River, China's second-longest river.

"The tourists take photos and videos of the scenery as we drift on the water," he said. "They are happy, and so am I."

Tong Jinding, 37, lives in Shapotou Village and works at the Shapotou scenic spot in the Zhongwei City in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, through which 397 km of the Yellow River flows.

As the COVID-19 epidemic wanes in China, Shapotou scenic spot began to once again embrace tourists, and so did Tong Jinding.

Tong Jinding's home village is less than 1 km away from the scenic spot, and it is also where the Yellow River and China's fourth-largest desert Tengger Desert meet.

It is believed that it was in this place that the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei poetized the magnificent scenery on a piece of poetry that "in the boundless desert lonely smoke rises straight, over the endless river the sun sinks round."

"When I was a child, I always wondered why the poem was so beautiful but life here was so hard," he recalled.

Before the 1980s, villagers had been farming for generations, but the barren land often failed to produce enough wheat and corn for them to earn a living, and they had no opportunities to go out and run their businesses.

To support their families, Tong Jinding's father and some villagers used to transport goods and ferry passengers with traditional sheepskin rafts.

When winter came, frozen pears, dates and coal from upstream became popular among villagers.

Carrying wooden oars and uninflated sheepskins, his father always led a team and wheeled bicycles upstream more than 30 km away. Once they purchased their goods, they assembled sheepskin rafts to drift downstream.

"It took one day for my father to tramp over hills and get there, and another day to drift back home," recalled Tong Jinding.

However, there were some submerged rocks and whirlpools on the way back home, posing a challenge for raft operators navigating through unfavorable conditions.

Tong Facai, a fellow villager of Tong Jinding, still remembered that they had to pass through a three-meter-wide waterway amid two whirlpools with their two-meter-wide raft.

"It was challenging. I have been rowing rafts for 30 years, however, I still have a lingering fear every time I zip through the waterway," 55-year-old Tong Facai said.

Over the past years, infrastructure like transportation has improved a lot in Zhongwei. Known as a magical place surrounded by desert and water, the city has been attracting an increasing number of tourists from home and abroad, with more than 6 million trips made last year, and its comprehensive tourism revenue totaling over 5.3 billion yuan (about 763 million U.S. dollars).

Benefiting from the booming tourism, Tong Jinding and Tong Facai's village has also become a popular rural tourist destination that integrates recreation and accommodation. Male villagers seek jobs in Shapotou scenic spot, while females run agritainment businesses at home.

According to He Tianbao, former Party chief of the village, there are currently 51 households running agritainment businesses in the village, and the annual per capita disposable income of villagers reached 24,000 yuan in 2019.

About 40 villagers including Tong Jinding and Tong Facai continued working as raftsmen in the scenic spot, which accounts for almost half of the raftsmen in the area.

Apart from his full-time job as a raftsman, Tong Jinding also runs his agritainment business with his wife. In recent years, the 70 some rooms are usually fully booked, especially during the summer holidays, with an annual income reached of nearly 300,000 yuan.

"Thanks to the Yellow River and the desert, we now live on tourism. It's busy in the peak tourist season, and then we can enjoy our lives for the rest of the year," said Tong Jinding.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Wen Ying, Liang Jun)

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