The transformation of the desert has drawn tourists and established it as a hub for sustainable development.

The Taklimakan Desert, formerly referred to as the “sea of death,” is now the second-largest shifting sand desert in the world and the largest desert in China. It serves as a catalyst for green development in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of northwest China.

On the outskirts of this vast desert, which is the size of Malaysia, photovoltaic (PV) stations have been built recently, and huge plantations of vegetation like roses and cistanche have also appeared.

The transformation of the desert has drawn tourists and established it as a hub for sustainable development. Electricity is produced by rows of PV panels, which resemble a glistening ocean. Tian Juxiong, the manager of a power plant in Lop County, Hotan Prefecture, keeps an eye on these systems on a screen in the control centre.

“Low precipitation and abundant sunshine in the southern Taklimakan Desert contribute to up to 1,600 hours of electricity generation annually,” Tian said.

This station, run by the State Power Investment Corporation, has a 200 megawatt installed capacity overall and generates 360 million kWh of electricity yearly.

For roughly 10 days, the station can supply all of Xinjiang’s 25.9 million residents’ residential electricity needs. Each year, it saves about 110,000 tonnes of standard coal, lowers carbon dioxide emissions by 330,000 tonnes, and reduces nitrogen dioxide emissions by 1,300 tonnes.

The project has an 80,000 kWh energy storage system, providing energy for approximately two hours in rainy conditions. This storage facility is common in solar and wind power stations in southern Xinjiang, ensuring a stable supply of renewable energy.

A green hydrogen project is about to start up in Kuqa City, which is situated on the northern edge of the Taklimakan, and when it is finished, it is anticipated to have a production capacity of 20,000 tonnes.

Hydrogen is produced using solar energy instead of fossil fuels, according to Cao Jie, vice manager of Sinopec Tahe Refining and Chemical Company.

In the 14th Five-Year Plan period, China plans to explore and use biomass, geothermal, and ocean energy in addition to accelerating the construction of large-scale wind and solar power bases in desert areas, developing hydropower infrastructure, and all of the aforementioned energy sources (2021-2025).

In southern Xinjiang, renewable energy capacity reached 8,400 megawatts by May, with 8,259 megawatts under construction. Ding Biwei, responsible for grid connection at State Grid’s Xinjiang branch, explains that new energy sources inject green vitality and contribute to carbon peak and carbon neutrality.

On the 667-hectare base of Yutian Guimi Bio-technology Co., Ltd, Zorigul Yakhup and other farmers in Oytograk Township, Yutian County, Hotan, toil assiduously each day picking different varieties of roses. In May, they are able to harvest 40–50 kg of roses.

Third-year employee Zorigul Yakhup gathers colourful blossoms in Yutian, which is found on the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert. During the three-month picking period, she makes about 12,000 yuan (or $1,684). On her farmland, she also plants Damask roses that are sold to manufacturing companies for 20 yuan per kg.

Chinese company Guimi has made windbreaks and rose planting investments totaling almost 100 million yuan since 2012. The poplar, red willow, and saxaul trees serve as windbreaks to shield the flowers from sandstorms.

Guimi has also installed more than 2,000 km of drip irrigation belts to care for its plants. Despite being in a desert, Yutian’s underground water resources are efficiently used, and the plantation base produced more than 300 tonnes of roses last year.

Guimi’s roses are processed into sauces, hydrolates, and other products in an industrial park about 20 km from the base.

According to Liu, Guimi has created an industrial chain that encompasses large-scale planting, production, manufacturing, and sales, which aids in the yearly income growth of over 10,000 local farmers.

According to the prefecture’s agriculture and rural affairs bureau, Yutian is home to roughly 93% of the 3,453 hectares of rose plantations in Hotan, and the county’s annual rose revenue is 90,000 yuan per hectare.

The windbreaking saxaul tree serves both ecological and economic needs in addition to the lucrative rose farming. As part of a project to prevent and control desertification, the plant has been grown extensively since 1998 in the desert county of Qiemo, Bayingolin Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture.

The county received the introduction of cistanche, a plant dubbed the “ginseng of the desert,” which parasitizes the roots of the saxaul tree. Growing numbers of businesses began to invest in this plant to make traditional Chinese herbal medicine.

A crucial resource for agriculture, industry, and environmental preservation is the Taklimakan Desert. During the 13th Five-Year Plan, 1.89 million hectares of Xinjiang’s desertified land were restored, significantly slowing the rate of land desertification.

In addition to offering money, roses have also made lives more sweet. In Dawakun, Kashgar Prefecture, Alim Imin, a proficient desert motorbike rider, provides tourists with an adrenaline-pumping experience while earning over 4,000 yuan per month during peak season.

Dawakun, which is known for having a lake buried in the sand and is located on the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert, is well known for its distinctive landscape. Ye Ming, the manager of Dawakun, claims that the scenic area recently welcomed more than 5,000 visitors per day on weekends.

Xinjiang has a wealth of resources for outdoor travel, according to Jiang Wanwen, vice secretary general of the China Adventure Association, who claimed that over 400 million people in China participate in outdoor sports.

In Xinjiang, an express rail loop line around the Taklimakan Desert was inaugurated this year. With 18 trips anticipated this year, tourists in Xinjiang spend the day at picturesque locations and the night on trains.

Travelers can also go on road trips because the Taklimakan Desert has more than 1,200 km of highways. 8.05 million tourists, or 140.8 percent more than the previous year, visited Xinjiang over the May Day holiday. In comparison to the prior year, tourism revenue increased by 192.2 percent to 6.03 billion yuan.

In addition to outdoor activities, the desert’s cultural and historical significance is being uncovered.

The Yotkan cultural scenic spot has been established in Hotan County close to a remnant. It features vintage architecture and provides a range of activities, including performances, culinary experiences, and displays of intangible cultural heritage.

Actors in costumed ancient businessmen sing and dance throughout Yotkan, enticing passing tourists. Mu Zhenjie opened a costume rental store at Yotkan, offering traditional Hanfu garments and makeup services for tourists to experience a sense of time travel. He aims to provide tourists with a unique and enjoyable experience.