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Tarim Desert Highway
Tarim Desert Highway

Last year, the above photograph of the Tarim Desert Highway in western China was used to decorate a post in our now retired Prunings series. We've always thought that it should have its own separate post, so here it is.

As described by Wikipedia, the highway “crosses the Taklamakan desert from north to south. The highway links the cities of Luntai and Minfeng on the northern and southern edges of the Tarim basin. The total length of the highway is 552km; approximately 446km of the highway cross uninhabited areas covered by shifting sand dunes, making it the longest such highway in the world.”

Tarim Desert Highway

“In 1994,” says People's Daily Online, “the Tarim desert highway was expanded to the central area of the Tarim Basin, and the completion of the central Tarim oil-gas field, the largest of its kind in China, will make Xinjiang become a strategic substitute area for China's oil and gas resources. Following this, the highway continued to expand in the desert and has turned into a macro-artery for bringing along the economic development in southern Xinjiang.”

In other words, it plays a key role in the country's energy security. And if we may be allowed to indulge ourselves for a moment and parse that last sentence, the highway is also an important tactical infrastructure of pacification through which state control, in the guise of “economic development,” can easier be meted throughout the mainly Muslim and violence-prone region.

Tarim Desert Highway

To protect this supposedly strategic highway from getting buried by the encroaching sand dunes, rows of vegetation were planted on both sides of the road. An extensive irrigation network was laid down to sustain this artificial ecosystem, pumping water from underground reservoirs and then distributing it throughout. Although the water has a high saline content, this greenbelt has successfully taken root. The desert blooms.

Tarim Desert Highway

While we cringe at reading that this greenbelt has somehow “improved” the ecology of the desert, it would be worthwhile to track down some of the research that were conducted in preparation for the project. We might, for instance, find out some new techniques that would help plants survive extended periods of drought. We're also interested in their plant list. Perhaps they have discovered that some species, previously not known for their hardiness, actually have a high tolerance for sandy soil and salty water, and then later, have genetically modified them to improve their survival rates. And who knows, maybe their experiments are paving the way for food crops, not just ornamental ones, to be cultivated in deserts and watered with sea water.

Considering that climate change will turn many places into deserts, these Tarim xeriscapers could offer us some helpful advice in adapting to our arid future.

Tarim Desert Highway

And what's happening in the photo above? At first glance, we thought that they had covered the desert with hardscaping material, but on closer inspection, those are just rows of plants.

Still, we're hoping that someone will come along and leave a comment saying that for large sections of the highway where the vegetation cannot take root, the Chinese government had hired someone to pave over the dunes, a sculptor wanting to stop the migrating dunes dead on their tracks as a kind of long-form performance art. And then, due to several bouts of heatstroke and because that abrasive sand keeps getting into his crotch all the time, he just went out of control.

He's now concretizing the whole desert!

Tarim Desert Highway

Meanwhile, notice the red-roofed blue buildings. According to National Geographic, they “appear every few miles [and] house workers who maintain the greenbelt.” The workers sign up for stints that may last up to two years. They may be with their spouses or get paired up with someone else, but essentially, they live solitary lives, an eccentric group of monastic botanists in a mystical struggle to arrest this ephemeral landscape in time and space.
  • Anonymous
  • January 22, 2009 at 3:13:00 PM CST
  • what an interesting article! thanks for this post.

    i'd like to see a documentary on those solitary workers who maintain the vegetation. you could probably build an interesting story around their interersting situations.

    how neat would it be if the plantings took hold and grew wild in the desert- like a quick adaptation of an invasive spcies, and the desert was re-greened. i love it. excellent post. this is why i love pruned.

  • Anonymous
  • January 22, 2009 at 6:11:00 PM CST
  • The "monsatic botanists" remind me of lighthouse keepers. (See

  • Anonymous
  • January 22, 2009 at 6:13:00 PM CST
  • I meant to type "... monastic ..."

  • Alexander Trevi
  • January 22, 2009 at 6:22:00 PM CST
  • Love the mistype though. Sounds close enough to Monsanto, the agro biotech company and largest producer of genetically engineered seeds.

    "...monsa(n)tic botanists" greening the desert with Frankenstein plants, cut off from civilization, like Doctor Moreau in his island.

  • Anonymous
  • January 25, 2009 at 8:00:00 PM CST
  • The plant list is probably a state secret and one would be unlikely to get the information, especially if they hybridized new varieties in order to hold the sand, using salt water.

    A fascinating beautification project born of a practical need.

  • Unknown
  • January 26, 2009 at 2:32:00 AM CST
  • A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct... "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain".

    C'mon, guys, ¿don't you half expect a huge sandworm rising from those dunes? ¡Hail the Muad'Dib!

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