The 85-year-old who turned desert town green



In 1955, 22-year-old Wang Yanming left his hometown in Hebei province for Karamay, in the Gobi Desert in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, for a job as an oil worker.

In the more than 60 years since, he has witnessed Karamay’s transformation from a desert outpost into a green, modern city.

“There was literally no grass,” said Wang, who has been planting trees in Karamay for the past 33 years since retiring as an oilfield manager.

Karamay in the Uygur language means black oil. It is site of the first large-scale oilfield discovered after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Wang and his contemporaries are both founders and residents of the city. Karamay witnessed their youth and enthusiasm, and carries their expectations for the future.

Surrounded by desert, the city is subject to hot, dry weather, and consequently water shortages and scant vegetation.

“Thousands of workers left every year because they couldn’t handle the tough conditions here. I wanted to do something about that, and I started to plant trees. At first, even the elms barely survived,” Wang, now 85, said.


He then decided to make a change.

Wang retired from the state-owned No.2 Oil Production Factory in 1985, and started to plant trees in the open space around the factory.

Growing trees in the desert is no easy task. Wang had to start by improving the soil and experimenting with various tree species.

After he had planted enough trees at the factory, Wang turned his attention to an abandoned garbage dump.

He led a greening work team made up of the families of oilfield workers that removed trash and planted trees and flowers, finally transforming the dirty, smelly site into a landscape of trees and greenery now known as Yanming Park – the first park named after a real person in Karamay.

But he had severe heart disease and could barely walk a few steps without resting.

“I just told myself to toughen up,” Wang said. “We sacrificed the environment to oil production in the past few decades, and now I’m going to try to make up for the losses.”

After 30 years of hard work, greenery now covers around 8 hectares of what was once wasteland and desert. It includes more than 40,000 poplars, elms and fruit-bearing trees that have formed windbreaks.

Karamay’s total population stands at nearly 400,000.

The city, which sits at the center of the pan-Central Asia oil-gas enrichment zone that includes western China, Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia and Russian Siberia, is now a unique mixture of natural scenery and industrial civilization.

It is a modern city in the Gobi desert where oil exploitation structures stand out amid a vast oilfield, yet also site of the Baiyang River Grand Canyon, Ailik Lake, and the Yardang landforms.

As of 2017, green areas accounted for 43.05 percent of the city’s territory, and the per capita public green area increased to 11.62 square meters from 2 square meters in 1999, according to media report. This has dramatically improved the urban landscape and living environment.

“I’m satisfied that we have reached national standards, but I won’t stop,” Wang said. “I want to seize my twilight years to plant more trees for Karamay. My family, who relentlessly opposed the idea of me planting trees, have joined the cause.”

Wang still takes a daily stroll around the garden now. As his brainchild, it has become a part of his life.

“The park has become a part of my life, and every tree is my child,” he said. “I will not stop planting trees here until the day I pass away.”


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