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Sands of time shifting for desert community

By Cui Jia and Mao Weihua (China Daily)

Updated: 2015-09-11 07:39:47

 Sands of time shifting for desert community

A man walks through a shallow river to welcome visitors after hearing the sound of an SUV engine.


In the 'Red Mansion'

One of the biggest challenges facing Tohutroz is arranging for residents to attend township meetings because the farthest house from government offices is 130 km downriver. Before satellite phones were installed in every house in 2010, it took at least 10 days to inform the locals, but now it takes just two.

"People used to live even farther downstream, but there is no water there anymore so they abandoned their houses. They know how important and fragile the environment is in the Taklimakan," he said.

No matter how far they live from the center of the township, the residents always try to attend the small mosque near the government offices for Jumah, the most important prayers of the week, held every Friday. As a result, Tohutroz arranges for township meetings to be held before or after prayers, and photos of terrorist suspects are put on the wall outside the mosque. There is no place too remote when it comes to apprehending suspects in Xinjiang, Tohutroz said.

The start of the holidays saw the quiet township burst into life as the children and young people returned from boarding schools and colleges in Yutian and Hotan.

The smaller children love to play soccer on the sand dunes, while the adults, such as 18-year-old Alim Mehilik, prefer to spend their evenings playing pool with friends at the "Red Mansion", a small club that opened in June.

The club is actually a mobile home that's been painted red, because the color stands out in the desert so no one can miss the place. It boasts three pool tables and, unusually for a Muslim community, a bar. "See, Daliyabuyi is a big city now," joked Alim, who studies vehicle maintenance in Hotan.

"Life in the city and in Daliyabuyi are completely different - not better, not worse, just different" he said, adding that he plans to find a job as a mechanic in Yutian.

Memet has been to the county seat many times, but he prefers life in Daliyabuyi. "We build our houses from desert poplars, drink water from the well and use solar panels to generate electricity, and it doesn't cost us a thing. Everything costs money outside the desert," he said.

Memet said the Keriya people know how to live in harmony with nature and that's why they have survived in the desert for more than 400 years. "We never cut down trees if we don't need to, or herd too many sheep. Our houses are always quite far from each other to ensure that the sheep don't eat all the reed bushes in one area."

High hopes

In addition to herding sheep, Memet's son Abudulrehit Memet, runs a grocery store on the township's 500-meter commercial street, where chilled drinks are the biggest sellers on hot summer days. The 37-year-old's two sons are both studying at the primary school in Yutian. "I want to make more money so my sons can go to university and my father can make the pilgrimage to Mecca," he said.

The gradual drying-up of the river and the aggressive invasion of the Taklimakan have resulted in 50 families moving away for good and beginning new lives in government-built resettlement houses on the outskirts of Yutian. Thirty more families have signed up to relocate this year.

"They will have to learn how to farm again, which will not be easy. The young people prefer to move out of the Taklimakan, while the elderly insist on staying. Either way, we respect and support their choices," Tohutroz said.

Despite living so far from the modern world, Memet's greatest joy is to watch the national and international news on his satellite TV. "We now live the simple life we desire, but are more connected to the outside world than ever before. Life is good in Daliyabuyi," he said, flipping channels with the remote control.

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 Sands of time shifting for desert community

Residents wait to collect wheat flour distributed by the local government.

 Sands of time shifting for desert community

A women checks photos on a digital camera.

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