Twenty years have passed since Gong Zhengxiu first came to work as a ranger at Laofengkou, a notorious mountain pass in Tacheng, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. He still has a fresh memory of what he saw.
"When I first came here, there was nothing except a vast expanse of Gobi desert," Gong said, while standing near a windbreak forest, with lush green leaves behind him. "Nothing grew on the soil two decades ago, but now things have changed."
Laofengkou, one of nine windy passways in Xinjiang, sits on the border between China and Kazakhstan. It used to be known as "the deadly pass" for its extreme windy weather conditions. For centuries, strong winds blew all year around through the 20-kilometer mountain pass.
The harsh weather caused damage and suffering to the locals. Records show that 26 people got lost and were later frozen to death in a heavy storm in the winter of 1966. Thousands of livestock were blown away beyond the border in the winter of 1977, and many rescuers got frostbite.
Residents in Tacheng have tried various methods to retrieve the land from the strong winds. They set up enclosures, built mud fences and dug out snow-storage caves to hold back the strong winds, but to no avail.
TAMING THE STORMS
With a determination to lessen the damage, local authorities in Xinjiang in 1993 launched an ecological project to harness the harsh environment in Laofengkou. Gong Zhengxiu was then sent to work on the project in Tacheng from his hometown on the Yangtze River, China's longest. He has witnessed many changes ever since.
Local people were enthusiastic about foresting the border town area. For middle-aged people in Tacheng, memories of their school lives are mostly about planting trees. Thanks to their contribution, the previously deadly pass of Laofengkou has turned into an oasis.
LAND OF HOPE AND PROSPERITY
The green revolution has turned Laofengkou into an oasis covering an area of 8,400 hectares. Man-made windbreak forests totaling 28 square kilometers have been planted in the area, offering protection for arable land and pastures.
As time passed, the barren mountain pass became greener and attracted many wild animals, such as rabbits, foxes and wild boars. The local authorities have come up with many ideas to make good use of the wind for power generation and invested in the building of a wind farm in Laofengkou, helping ease power shortages in the area and boosting the local economy.
Laofengkou has started a new page in its history, with tall, green trees and a stunning skyline. For Gong Zhengxiu and other residents living in the area, the windy pass has evolved into a land of hope and prosperity.