From beautiful prairies to endless desert, from barren sandhills to lush grassland, 82-year-old Otgongerel has seen it all. To restore her hometown to its former glory, she spent her whole life planting trees, creating an oasis out of the desert.
Located in the heart of Maowusu, one of China's four vast sandy areas, Otgongerel's hometown, Wushenzhao, was a rich grassland many centuries ago. When she was a child, her grandparents told her stories of the endless grasslands, the gurgling streams and the magnificent herds covering emerald hills.
"Though the grassland's former glory was no more when I was little, my hometown was still surrounded by small pastures and fertile lands. But the environment started to deteriorate in the 1950s due to overgrazing. Ever since then, our nightmare began," said Otgongerel.
Otgongerel's story has inspired many, especially women. [Photo by Tanja Herko]
Sandstorm destroyed the last greenery in Wushinju. The once beautiful grassland was devoured by moving dunes, which accounted for 54 percent of Wushiniu's territory. A local ballad depicted the despair of Otgongerel and her people: "sandstorm turns the world into pitch black in daytime, dust and sadness eternally shroud our eyesight."
"As a mother, I don't want my children to suffer such despair. Along with people in our town, I started to plant trees in the desert," said Otgongerel.
Making an oasis in the desert was no mean feat. Without machinery and modern transportation at that time, Otgongerel and her friends had to carry saplings into the deserts by hand. Even essential equipment was hard to acquire, as each household only had one spade.
"Many people believed that planting trees in the desert was asking for the moon, but I knew the only way to survive was to bring greenery back to our home," said Otgongerel.
Decades of hard work finally paid off. The once sandstorm-stricken area is now covered by 38,600 hectares of forest. The local vegetation coverage has risen from 28 percent in the 1970s to 80 percent in 2019.
Deserts used to be the biggest nightmare of Otgonhuar. [Photo by Tanja Herko]
Otgongerel's story has inspired many, especially women. 43-year-old Otgonhuar is one of them. Following Otgongerel's path, she has become the only female leader of 288 local sand control teams, and has afforested over 2,000 hectares of the desert in a decade.
"In light of what Otgongerel started, even the striking changes made by our generation take on more of an evolutionary than a revolutionary character," said Otgonhuar.
Living in Duguitala, a small village nestled in the Kubuqi Desert, China's seventh-largest desert, Otgonhuar used to hate her hometown and the deserts surrounding it.
"When I was a kid, moving dunes would block our doorway overnight, and we had to fight our way out from the windows. Our houses were constantly buried under sand, so we had to move quite often," said Otgonhuar.
Unable to bear the thought that their beloved daughter may be stuck in the desert forever, Otgonhuar's parents saved money and sent her to a school outside of the desert, hoping she could escape the fate that had been torturing her family for generations.
"The children at my school didn't want to play with me, all calling me dirty chick from the desert. They teased me, saying that people living in the desert never wash their necks, and for this, I had a nasty fight with a boy," said Otgonhuar.
Throughout her childhood, Otgonhuar had only one purpose; to stay as far away from the desert and her hometown as possible. Her dream became a reality when she found a job as an accountant in a nearby city, but her heart was never at peace.
Society finally accepted Otgonhuar's success. [Photo by Tanja Herko]
"When I thought about my family and other households still living in the desert, I felt pain. No one deserved such a horrible life, and I hoped I could do something to change the situation so that our kids would not be called dirty desert people anymore," said Otgonhuar.
While working in the city, Otgonhuar learned the story of Otgongerel. She decided to follow the path and bring greenery and wealth to her hometown, too. In 1997, when she heard the news that local authorities had decided to build a 115-kilometer road connecting the desert to the outside world, as well as plant trees to tackle desertification, she immediately quit her job and joined the cause.
"My family was appalled by the decision. My siblings called me dumb, my mother cried and lashed me with her shoes. But my mind was settled. Running away from my hometown was never the answer; I needed to change it for the better," said Otgonhuar.