LANZHOU, June 23 (Xinhua) -- Forty-year-old farmer Nian Xiaoyan made her first trip to the cliff-top of the Mogao Grottoes in late May, a UNESCO World Heritage site, not for sightseeing, but to battle desertification by placing straw checkerboards.
"I used to be just a visitor to the millennium-old caves in Dunhuang City, northwest China's Gansu Province, but now I'm so proud of being one of its protectors," said Nian, who lives near the caves.
The Mogao Grottoes is home to a vast collection of Buddhist artwork with more than 2,000 colored sculptures and 45,000 square meters of murals. Located in the Gobi Desert, the caves have long been plagued by wind-blown sand, one of the primary environmental problems facing this world heritage site.
Researchers of the Dunhuang Academy have been exploring methods to tackle desertification since the 1950s. Placing straw checkerboards as sand barriers on the cliff-top of the caves provided a solution.
"Previously, we often hired construction teams to do the job, but this year we are trying to mobilize local farmers for the preservation work. It could help increase their income while raising their awareness of preservation," said Guo Qinglin, deputy director of the Dunhuang Academy.
Living at Sujiabu Village, about 17.5 km away from the grottoes, Nian's family makes a living through planting crops and sheep farming.
As Nian and her husband have to care for sick parents and a school-age child at home, the couple cannot leave their hometown to find better-paid jobs in big cities.
"With a total annual household income of about 60,000 yuan (about 8,900 U.S. dollars), we can barely save any money," Nian said.
In mid-May, Nian learned that the academy was looking for residents to protect the caves, offering insurance and a daily wage of 180 yuan, higher than other jobs nearby. She soon applied for the job and was recruited with 19 others at an average age of over 50. Nian was selected as the leader of the farmer group due to her relatively young age.
At 7:30 a.m. every morning, a shuttle bus would pick them up directly to the cave cliff-top and take them home at dusk.
"I was nervous at first for fear that I might be incapable of the new job, but with the guidance of the technicians, I gradually become more experienced," Nian said.
They transport the straws in bales and place the straw checkerboard barriers. "The previous sand barriers have weathered away, and we have to contain the sand with new straw in compliance with the square grids before," Nian said.
Although Nian is sweating buckets all day, she is satisfied with the new job. "Thanks to the job, I now have insurance, a decent salary, and a two-hour lunch break every day," Nian said with a smile.
Nian also noted that the job gave her a taste of the hardship of researchers protecting the grottoes year after year, and she felt a growing admiration for their perseverance.
The project carried out by Nian's team will create sand barriers covering up to 40,000 square meters.
The sand control system, which consists of high-parallel sand barriers, artificial sand-fixation plants, and straw checkerboard barriers, has reduced the hazards of wind and sand, according to Zhang Guobin, a researcher with the monitoring center of the Dunhuang Grottoes.
Zhang said the annual sand accumulation in front of the Mogao Grottoes has dropped from 3,000 cubic meters in the 1980s to less than 200 cubic meters today.
"We hope to build a more interactive relationship between the UNESCO World Heritage site and the surrounding communities, and we would like to invite more people to join in the protection of the cultural relics," said Guo Qinglin, deputy director of the Dunhuang Academy.