THE KUBUQI DESERT (Inner Mongolia)/SHIQIAO VILLAGE (Hunan province) - In autumn, the stalks of the sand willow turn a deep red, and in the days before the shrub sheds its golden leaves, the Kubuqi desert looks like it is on fire.
This striking sight is becoming more common in the Kubuqi desert these days, as efforts to combat desertification take root.
Once an 18,600 sq km expanse of yellow sand dunes, stripped of vegetation by decades of overgrazing, over a third of the Kubuqi desert now blooms green.
In the past 30 years, a combined effort by the local government, Chinese eco-firm Elion Resources Group and local herdsmen has pushed back the desert and stymied the shifting sands.
The Kubuqi is China's seventh largest desert and one of the closest to its capital Beijing, stretching southward from the Yellow River in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
Called the Kubuqi Ecological Restoration Project, the scheme has seen flora and fauna return to the desert and improved living conditions for native herdsmen. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates the project will create a green economy in the desert worth US$1.8 billion (S$2.46 billion) over 50 years.
The project is part of what has often been called China's "Great Green Wall", a national-level programme stretching across 13 provinces that aims to stop China's northern deserts from enroaching southwards.
It is also an example of how China is beginning to reverse the damage wreaked on its environment during the decades of unchecked economic growth since 1978 when the then impoverished nation embarked on reforms to modernise the country and better the lives of its people.
Ethnic Mongolian herdsman Baoyingdalai, who goes by one name, remembers that when he was a boy, he and his family had to drive their flock of sheep across great distances in the desert to look for grass.
"In the past, it was a sea of yellow sand, now in the summer it's all green," said the 43-year-old.
Overgrazing was one of the key reasons conditions deteriorated, said Mr Chang Zhaohui, vice-manager of the Elion's Kubuqi Eco-business office.
"Before we started to fight desertification, there was very little vegetation, the climate was dry... the ecology and environment were fragile," he said, adding that conditions were made worse because there was no infrastructure like roads and electricity.
To reclaim the desert, officials first planted quick growing trees like poplars and willows. But when these withered after a few years because of the dry conditions, drought- and cold-resistant shrubs like the sand willow were planted instead, said Mr Gao Yongjie, deputy director of the forestry bureau of Hanggin Banner, a region in Inner Mongolia where the Kubuqi is located.
Subsidies are also given to herdsmen if they plant trees or shrubs on their land, and grazing is prohibited from March to July each year so vegetation has a chance to recover.
As the grass returns, herdsmen like Mr Baoyingdalai have seen their flocks swell. His family now has almost 500 sheep, from about 80 before.
Gone also are the days of trudging through the sands on foot. Pointing to his family's two motorcycles, Mr Baoyingdalai laughs and says: "Now we ride motorcycles."
But Kubuqi's recovery has taken years, and only picked up steam after the turn of the century, as the environment became a bigger government priority.
Mr Gao told The Straits Times when China first began its economic reforms, the government did not have resources to deal with the environment, or regulate how and where herdsmen could graze their flocks.
"It became a worsening cycle, but now slowly, managing the ecology is becoming a priority," said Mr Gao.
Lucid waters and lush mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver, so goes Chinese President Xi Jinping's pithy refrain on the environment, which he first came up with in 2005 when he was party chief of Zhejiang province.
Now the slogan is slung across highways throughout the country, including the Kubuqi desert, and is a visible reminder of how the environment has become a priority.
Fighting pollution is one of Mr Xi's administration's "three critical battles", along with combating poverty and financial risks.
He has pledged to build a "beautiful China" by 2050 and this year, the term "ecological civilisation" was enshrined in the state Constitution.
The government has backed up that pledge with stricter environmental laws - including amending the environmental protection law in 2015 to give it more teeth and passing a new soil pollution law this year. It has also set stricter pollution targets.
It is a sea change from the early days of economic reforms when prevailing dogma classified development as the only "hard truth".
Dr Jackson Ewing, senior advisor for sustainability with the United States-based Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), pointed out that during the 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party last year, Mr Xi had mentioned the environment more than the economy during his marathon three-plus-hour speech, a clear sign of the emphasis on the environment.
The economic reforms that began in 1978 led to years of breakneck development and lifted millions out of poverty, but also caused China to become a byword for pollution.
The recent policy changes were propelled in part by public angst that has built up over the years over the country's environmental ills. The list runs long - polluted water bodies like the Huai River and Lake Tai, so-called cancer villages, and vast areas where children have fallen ill because their homes have been contaminated by chemicals from factories.
"China's central leadership sees environmental challenges as strategic threats to the health and progress of the country and ruling party," said Dr Ewing, adding that environmental stresses exact significant costs on the gross domestic product - through costly environmental clean-ups and health care costs of workers - and threaten to undermine future development.
Mr Ma Jun, director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-profit environment research organisation, and one of China's leading environmental voices, said one of the turning points towards greater transparency and accountability came in late 2011.
Beijing was then facing one of the worse periods of air pollution - serious enough for planes to be grounded and roads closed.
But government statistics on air quality painted a rosy picture of the situation and excluded data on PM2.5 particulates - pollutants small enough to enter the bloodstream.
It led to a public outcry for greater transparency, said Mr Ma. About year later, the government made public statistics on PM2.5 pollutants in 74 cities, many of which were "heavily polluted".
The information allowed the Chinese to take steps to safeguard their health, knowing when they should keep their children indoors for instance, said Mr Ma.
"But they weren't satisfied just knowing this, they started to push the government to come up with action plans to solve the problem," he added.
In the following years, air quality improved tremendously as companies that refused to change their polluting ways were forcibly shut. The central government also put pressure on local officials.
Where GDP growth used to be the major factor in party cadres' annual job reviews, increasingly these cadres were being judged on whether they managed to lower PM2.5 levels, said Mr Ma.
But progress is still uneven, said environmental law expert Wang Canfa from the China University of Political Science and Law.
"In less developed areas, the local government might be reluctant to close down polluting factories," said Prof Wang, adding that these businesses might make up a big slice of the GDP in these areas.
Greenpeace East Asia programme manager Ada Kong also pointed out that while big strides have been made in improving air quality, in other aspects of the environment, including soil pollution, groundwater and biodiversity, there is still a ways to go.
"All these happen mainly in the rural parts of China, so there is less public attention," she said.
One such place is the village of Shiqiao in southern Hunan province. The village of about 500 people is known for producing cadmium-tainted rice. In 2013, Greenpeace had traced samples of cadmium-tainted rice sold in neighbouring Guangdong province back to the village's fields.
Farmer Zhao Guoping, 52, who lives in Shiqiao, and other villagers say a nearby chemical-industry park which was built in 2003 is to blame, dumping wastewater into a reservoir the villagers use for irrigation.
The water, with an oily slick on its surface, flows into their farmlands.
"Our vegetables don't grow well and our animals are also sick. These streams used to be full of fish and shrimp, but now everything is dead," said Mr Zhao, the exasperation rising in his voice.
Increasingly, such angst is making its way into the public sphere where it is influencing government policy, said experts.
In 2015, one of Mr Zhao's fellow villagers sued the factory closest to the village for the pollution. He lost, but the case made headlines and raised awareness about the extent of the problem.
This year, the local government started treating some of the fields in the village.
The Ministry of Ecology and Environment said in an emailed response that over the years, measures to prevent pollution and protect the ecology have been strengthened, listing improvements in PM2.5 readings, water quality and increasing forest cover.
"The people's satisfaction with the environment is continuously increasing," said the ministry, but was silent on soil quality indicators, a pressing concern in areas like Shiqiao.
Its spokesman Liu Youbin said at a press briefing on Nov 30 that while there has been historic achievements in environmental protection, environmental problems were still the "weak point" in China's goal to build a "moderately prosperous society".
"Our environmental conditions have improved, but the results of this improvement are fragile... and the environment's situation continues to be grim," he said.
Would Mr Xi succeed in building a "Beautiful China"? Experts are cautiously optimistic but say there needs to be greater transparency with environmental data, to force polluting firms to clean up their act.
More importantly, the country would be able to change the minds of people like Mr Li Congfu, another villager from Shiqiao, who said: "When I think in my heart why the environment is like that now, I feel it's because leaders are not thinking about the lives of the common people."