Diving for blue gold: lake of heaven, fishermen in desert

By Kou Jie (People's Daily Online) 15:30, July 09, 2021

Due to excessive irrigation, the lower reaches of the Tarim River, China’s longest inland river, ran dry in the early 1970s and pushed surrounding trees to the verge of disappearance. After years of restoration efforts, the river has now regained its former glory. (People’s Daily Online/Zhang Ruohan)

From lush forests to endless desert, from barren sand hills to lucid lakes, 103-year-old Mammut has seen it all. Behind his humble residence, the desert extends its reach to an influx of tourists, whose shadows move towards a sapphire lake and golden dunes. As the patriarch of six households of Lop Nur people, it fills Mammut with pleasure to showcase his refurbished home to visitors from around the globe. However, it is also his painful duty to explain how Lop Nur, once China’s second largest salt lake and the home of his people for millennia, disappeared in the space of just a few decades.

Mammut’s village is in Yuli County, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where China’s longest inland river, the Tarim, and China’s largest desert, the Taklamakan, meet. His kin are called the Lop Nur people, as it is their tradition to migrate with water, rowing populus canoes and fishing for a living in Lop Nur.

Due to desertification and excessive irrigation, Lop Nur gradually shrank from a vast lake to a salt-encrusted barren land. Mammut’s ancestors were forced to relocate several times in an unceasing bid to find sanctuary in the desert. Not unnaturally for a village besieged by deserts, sandstorms used to engulf Mammut’s home. Clearing a path through dust used to be the first thing locals had to do in the morning, while sand dunes were ubiquitous in the dust-laden village, providing local kids their only form of entertainment – sand slides.

Decades later, Mammut’s village, which used to be constantly devoured by moving dunes, is now an oasis in the desert. Surrounded by shrubs and forests, the small pond Mammut and his family once lived next to has transformed into “the lake of goddess” and has become a tourist site that brings them a healthy income.

When he was a kid, Mammut’s grandparents told him stories of the endless forests, the gurgling streams and the magnificent lakes that covered Lop Nur. Though Lop Nur has vanished forever, several new oases have risen from the dust, bringing greenery and childhood memories back to Mammut.

Lost hometown, paradise found 

From lush forests to endless desert, from barren sand hills to lucid lakes, 103-year-old Mammut has seen it all. ( People’s Daily Online/Zhang Ruohan)

While fishing, 40-year-old Qasim Amudun sings a traditional folk song passed down from generation to generation: “Tarim River is where I come from, it is home where happy fish swim around.”

Like Mammut, Amudun has lived in the small village his whole life. He fishes the same way his ancestors did. Every morning, he rows his populus canoe in the lake of Goddess, catching fish with a trident. It is essential for Lop Nur men to master these techniques, as only a skilled fisherman can win a girl’s heart.

As happy as Amudun’s life appears to be, it is hard for people to imagine that his fishing skills faced extinction just a few decades ago, when the lake of goddess gradually dried up and became a small feculent pond.

“I remember there were four years when the lake became so shallow that we could not even row a canoe in it. The water had gone, and so had the fish. Water is the spirit of my people. Without the lake, we didn’t even know who we were,” said Amudun.

Miles away from Amudun’s village, due to excessive irrigation and desertification, the lower reaches of the Tarim River ran dry in the early 1970s, pushing surrounding trees to the verge of disappearance. In 1972, after flowing for millennia, Lop Nur finally dried up, leaving the 10,000-square-kilometer area a vast salt-encrusted desert, while the “green corridor” along the lower Tarim River Valley, where populus forests and tamarix shrubs used to grow in abundance, disappeared as if they had never existed. 

Every morning, Amudun rows his populus canoe in the lake of goddess, catching fish with a trident. ( People’s Daily Online/Kou Jie)

“That was a really tough time. My people were forced to forsake our traditions, and turn to other means of making a living. We have been relocating in the desert constantly. Where can we go when our last lake dries up? I was so upset then,” said Amudun.

Amudun was not the only one troubled by the deteriorating environment. 648 kilometers north of Amudun’s village, Ani Bayathan, a 38-year-old Kazakh living in Tianchi area, an alpine lake where her people had been living for generations, was shocked to see that their “heavenly lake” had been gradually eaten away by debris flow and sand dunes.

Ani Bayathan is a 38-year-old Kazakh living in Tianchi area in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Today, she works as a tour guide. (Kou Jie/ People’s Daily Online)

 “In the 1980s, due to overgrazing, the forests around Tianchi started to perish quickly. Sand and debris flow filled up a large part of the lake. Experts told us that within decades, the lake would become the second Lop Nur, and vanish forever,” said Bayathan.

Pleas from Amudun and Bayathan, as well as the tragedies of Lop Nur and Tianchi, finally made locals and authorities aware of the potential environmental calamity. Since 2016, 5.1 billion cubic meters of fresh water have been diverted into Amudun’s hometown, while in 2018, a restoration project covering 115 square kilometers of desert was initiated to plant trees such as poplars and willows.

In Bayathan’s hometown, a large-scale ecological migration program was launched in 1995 in an effort to relocate the local Kazakh herdsmen, and their barren pastures were transformed into forests. In 2016, the local government applied for a national environmental protection project fund of more than 80 million yuan (about 11.4 million U.S. dollars) for ecological restoration.

More efforts have been made to improve the environment in Xinjiang. In 2020 alone, over 2 million hectares of land was afforested, while over 3 million hectares of decertified land was treated in Xinjiang.

Today, the lake of goddess has returned to its former glory, while Amudun and his family have returned to their old trade, fishing happily on their beloved waters. Tianchi has escaped the fate of becoming the second Lop Nur, and its lucid waters have become a calling card for Bayathan’s hometown, attracting visitors from around the world.

“Many people told me that restoring the lake was asking for the moon, but I knew the only way to survive was to bring the blue color back to our lives. Without the lake, we would become soulless and lose our cultural identity. Tianchi is a gift from nature and will be preserved for generations to come,” said Bayathan.

Diving for blue gold 

In 2000, a cultural park themed on Lop Nur people’s tradition and art was established in Amudun’s village. ( People’s Daily Online/Zhang Ruohan)

With the lake of goddess and Tianchi restored to their former glory, the lucid water has helped Amudun and Bayathan preserve a large part of their traditional lifestyle, and has also given them opportunities to embrace a brand-new life.

In 2000, a cultural park themed on Lop Nur people’s tradition and art was established in Amudun’s village, turning the once desolate place into a renowned tourist site. Crowds of tourists come to see how Amudun rows his populus canoe, and to taste a traditional dish of the Lop Nur people that he cooks by threading the whole fish onto a skewer made of a salt cedar branch and grilling it on the fire.

At the age of 103, Mammut has become a local celebrity. Wearing his family heirlooms, a Lop Nur-style long linen robe and a boat-shaped woollen hat, he is known by tourists as the “centenarian Lop Nur wise man”. Everyday, he carves small canoe souvenirs out of populus wood, and shares stories of the Lop Nur people with the visitors. 

In Bayathan’s hometown, a natural resort and a Kazakh cultural theme park have been established near beautiful Tianchi. (People’s Daily Online/ Kou Jie)

From 2016 to 2020, Amudun and Mammut’s village attracted 7.62 million tourists from around the world, while the Lop Nur cultural park drew a total income of 1.2 billion yuan.

“Lop Nur people have no writing system, so our tradition and culture have been passed on by sharing. I’m so glad that our culture can now be known by the outside world, and I am so happy to see that our sacred lake has brought us not only our tradition, but also a lucrative income,” said Mammut.

In Bayathan’s hometown, a natural resort and a Kazakh cultural theme park have been established near beautiful Tianchi. Visitors can enjoy the stunning view of the lake, snow mountain and forests, while enjoying the culture and art of the local Kazakh people. Bayathan is now a tour guide, while in 2019 alone, Tianchi scenic area attracted over 3 million tourists, garnering an income of 4 billion yuan.

“We’ve shown the world that our sacred lake not only teems and reverberates with blue charms, but can also bring us wealth and happiness. Tianchi has provided a blue template for natural revival, bringing the idea of sustainable development to Xinjiang,” said Wangqi, director of the Tianchi Management Council. 

(Web editor: Kou Jie, Hongyu)


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