Covering 18,600 square kilometers in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the Kubuqi Desert was home to terrible sandstorms and extreme poverty. The cold and dry environment, along with the lack of infrastructure meant that the people of Kubuqi made a living through the herding of cattle. Centuries of grazing had stripped the land of all vegetation, and the region’s 740,000 people were stuck in isolated poverty, with no to little chance of change.
It was one such family that Tserenbaabuu or Babu for short, was born into. Growing up in a small house made of mud and straw bricks with his parents and 2 older siblings, the family slept altogether on a brick bed and burnt animal waste to keep warm in the frigid weather. Babu ’s clothes were all hand-me-downs from his older sister – frequently altered and routinely patched up by their mother that they resembled more of pieces of quilt than clothes by the time they got to him.
Yet, that was all they could afford as the family depended on the raising of life stock and picking of wild liquorice to earn some money in the market every week. Located 30 miles away, the journey to the nearest Duguitala town market took Babu and his family 3 full days by camel. There, Babu ’s father would peddle the wool from his life stock, as well as the liquorice in exchange for money which would then be used to purchase the family’s necessities for the coming week. Life was tough in the desert, with each new day bringing more worries of the future.
Babu ’s childhood highlights was the annual Spring Festival celebration when rare luxuries of fruit and candy were available for the children, along with liquor for his dad. The kitchen table would also be laden with what seemed to be a mountain of lamb dumplings that were quickly devoured by the family. Life in the desert was routine, simple and the family’s fortunes continued unchanged across the years, making it hard for the family to enjoy these treats beyond the Spring Festival.
Unbeknown to them, the lives of all in the Kubuqi region were soon to take a turn for the better. Wang Wenbiao, who grew up in the Kubuqi desert had just left behind a promising political career and was making his way back to his homeland to take charge of the now defunct Yanhaizi Salt Factory. There, he would grow the company to become Elion Resource Group, challenge conventions, change beliefs and bring a tremendous change to the lives of a million people.
In 2006, Babu and the village in Kubuqi received an investment of 20 million yuan (3 million USD)
from Elion Resource Group who launched a construction project in order to change the nondescript village into a flourishing town. As part of the construction, special plants were grown to grip the shifting sands and, prevent encroachment of farms and villages by sand dunes and storms.This was the continuation of the greening process started by Elion Resource Group back in 1988, bringing vegetation, and long with it life back to the desert.
The construction of the new town came with instantaneous benefits to the people of Kubuqi –new houses and increase in the annual salary of the region that grew from a few hundred yuan to 30,000 yuan per person. The town now also has stable and ready access to water and electricity which improved sanitary and living conditions of the new town. Cars - previously an unaffordable luxury, are now present in almost every household, along with televisions and access to the internet.
Babu now lives in one of the 36 new houses that were built in the new town with his wife whom he met while working in the nearby village of Bayannur. He is also a father to two lovely daughters, one of them named Yun Mengsha (a name that has the character for ‘grass’) as a sign of gratitude to the greening that has been done to the Kubuqi desert and the new beginnings it represents. Babu and his family have benefited from the change in the village’s fortunes. Together they run a restaurant serving Mongolian cuisine in the new town. Where they live, Mongolian restaurants are popular for the authentic dining experience they offer along, complete with the lamb, yoghurt sweets, milk, and alcohol. During busy days, Babu and his wife make about 3 - 4 thousand yuan a day ($450 - $600 USD), more money than they could ever imagine growing up.
As the town continues to develop and with Elion Resource Group expanding their desert greening, tourist numbers have increased day by day to experience desert life amidst the convenience of modern infrastructure. Babu and Liyuan grabbed the opportunity it presented and started a new business! Pooling available resources together with two other neighbours, they purchased a fleet of off-road vehicles, offering adventure drives to tourists to the desert and lake sides.
Staring his days off at 6 am in the morning to check and refuel his vehicles before adventure tours for tourist groups start 2 hours later at 8 am. His off-road tours take him out the whole day, back home only in the evening where he has to help with the restaurant on busy days. With tourist numbers surging rapidly, Babu and his team have recovered their initial investment in two years, now owning 16 off-road vehicles as well as a team of 10 professional drivers in the business.
Babu’s dream for the future is to be able to give his family a better life, earn enough to give his two daughters a good education and that someday they will be able to leave the desert and find their own place in the city.
This story and many others like it would not have been possible without the investment and support of the Elion Resource Group which made life in a hot and sweltering desert flourish green with life and renewed opportunities.