Gobbled up by Gobi

After ten years in Beijing, I thought I knew about sandstorms. Every spring the dust blows off the Mongolian steppe and veils the Chinese capital in a murky shroud. But nothing could prepare me for a raging Gobi Desert sandstorm.

I had flown into Jiayuguan, a dusty outpost on the edge of the desert, and the frontline of China's battle with the Gobi. Each year the desert grows by an area the size of Kent. The problem began centuries ago with destructive farming practices. "Too many people, very bad land," as my driver, Mr Yang, put it. But now scientists believe climate change is making things worse. Precipitation patterns are altering, which kills off vegetation and allows the sand to move in.

We'd been driving for an hour or so across the gebitan - the Chinese name for the desert's barren surface - when it abruptly sprang to life. The sand whipped itself up into chaotic ribbons, waves of which soon buried sections of the road. Within minutes, visibility had dropped to about 20 metres.

We jumped out of the car to capture the moment, but every time the cameraman I was with looked into his viewfinder, his eyes filled with grit. Each blast of sand felt like millions of tiny needles. And as the dust worked its way into the camera's lens, it soon began to seize up.

We took shelter nearby in Niutou, one of 4,000 villages that the Chinese government says the Gobi threatens to destroy. To protect them, the authorities have planted a "Green Wall of China" - rows of poplars on the desert's edge - to try to hold back the sand.

In Niutou, they bent like contortionists in the wind. Li Shengxin, a young farmer in a baseball cap, was ploughing his fields through the storm. He told me that they now come so frequently - sometimes once a week - that locals can't afford to stop work. "Will the village still be here in five years?" I asked. "Difficult to say," he replied phlegmatically. As the Gobi marches forward, he won't be China's first environmental refugee, or its last.

Holly Williams is a correspondent for Sky News. Her report from the Gobi Desert airs on 11 December

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus