They say that the deserts are expanding, encroaching, driving a dustbowl ahead of them. But it’s hard to believe when you’re in Yulin*. Here, it seems, the opposite is happening – the desert is disappearing.
My feelings about it are as mixed as my friend’s, J. Unlike me, J’s lived in Yulin most of her life. When I first arrived, I kept an eye out for the rolling dunes I had expected to find at the edge of the Gobi; only to find surprisingly verdant cherry blossoms and evergreens seemingly oblivious to the sandy ground. I was also slow to realise that the hill I often climbed was actually a dune camouflaged by apartment blocks and glass-fronted buildings. So I asked J, one hot summer’s afternoon, how far it was to the desert – the real desert.
She had sighed a little, then said, “It is far now. You have to take the bus a long time. And now the desert is not clean.” Her expression had become wistful. “When I was young, my mum and dad and I used to go out in the evening. Just outside our home, just over the hill, was the desert. It was clean then.” She had laughed, remembering, “We used to play in the sand and with the…beetles?”
I nodded, an image of a life no longer possible enthralling me.
“You can’t play in the sand now,” J added sadly.
No, you can’t. Those once pristine sands would be scattered with modern thrash, and built over by industries, housing, shopping malls and well-laid parks.
We love the parks, mind you. But we both love the sandy desert too; a strange realisation for me who had been to the Kalahari and the Namib and found only discomfort there. It’s even worse for J; this pulling between these two environments.
Yulin has been fairly successful in stabilising the dunes with flora, and developing them for modern life. Just how much was illustrated for me by an article in a local magazine. A haunting image of a group of locals walking across high sandy dunes had drawn my attention. I asked J to translate a little of the article.
“This was Yulin 50 years ago,” she told me, then explained that dust-storms in the area have been reduced significantly, a boon to the cities further east which get swamped seasonally by the great Gobi storms.
Maybe it’s selfish of me to want the desert to stay unchanged. After all, have not people’s health and lives generally improved? But I fear that all this engineered change may alter the nature of this friendly desert. Supportive of cities for over 1500 years, could all the changes we’re forcing on it turn it against us in the end? Could all its streams and rivers get clogged with vegetation, or start leaching poisons now that the sands can’t freely purify them. Will the sands find other ways to move, with increased tremor activities or subsidence, perhaps?
*Yulin, Shaanxi Province, China. Then shows present day Erdos desert for illustrative purposes.
You can read more about Yulin in my novel Situation No Win.