Sandstorms, Yellow Air in Xinjiang

Sandstorms, Yellow Air in Xinjiang   —by Jinny Batterson

When the weather finally began to warm during the year when my husband and I taught English at a small desert reclamation college by the desert in far northwestern China (2006-2007), at first we rejoiced. The days grew longer. Siberian iris began poking up along the edges of campus walkways. After months of bundling up in layers of heavy clothing whenever we ventured outside, we could finally wander our campus with only a light jacket. Spring was just around the corner, and not a moment too soon. Earlier in the year, some of our best students as well as some of the veteran teachers had warned us about spring’s 6-8 week period of “yellow air” in our oasis town in western Xinjiang. We still were not prepared for dust storm season.

March winds in Xinjiang pick up dust from the Taklimakan desert and blow it around, occasionally in strong storms. The year we were there, we heard about a severe dust and wind storm that had derailed 11 train cars negotiating a mountain pass. Over thirty people were hospitalized. There were several fatalities. Dust storms stir up a ubiquitous haze that can last for weeks, until an infrequent rain comes through to settle the dust.

By Beijing time, the sun in late winter and early spring rose about 9 a.m.  It was typically 11 or even noon before sunlight pierced the haze enough to form shadows.  The red disk then shone weakly for a few hours before disappearing into the westward haze bank about 4. We only experienced two dust storms directly, both of them mild—the first came up suddenly in early afternoon while we were in our apartment preparing for afternoon classes.  The school’s alarm system sounded, followed by an announcement that our Foreign Affairs Officer and minder soon translated into English for us via phone:

“Afternoon classes are canceled today. Please stay indoors.”

At the height of the storm, our efforts to take pictures out our apartment windows were fruitless. The camera’s flash went off, but all that showed in the resulting photograph was a foot or so of murky brown air. We couldn’t even see the willow trees in the quadrangle between our building and the apartment blocks maybe a hundred yards across the way.  The storm abated nearly as quickly as it had come up. By sunset, the air, though still somewhat murky, had returned to stillness.

Before the year we spent in Xinjiang, we’d only seen a sandstorm from a distance. On an earlier trip to parts of northern and central China in 2002, we’d just boarded an airline flight heading south out of Beijing when one of that season’s storms rolled in from the northwest. We could see an orange-brown haze spreading toward the capital, but were well aloft and further south before it began to affect the city. On the following evening’s television news, we saw that the storm had briefly cut visibility to a few yards, had left a heavy coating of grit on cars, buildings, and roads, and had caused respiratory problems.

Sandstorms have long been a feature of springtime in northern China. According to some sources, they have gotten worse in recent years, despite large-scale efforts to plant shelter belts of trees and grasses to stabilize the soil and sands of the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts, whose surfaces are stirred up by spring winds.  Another multi-decade effort has been to transfer massive amounts of water from China’s southern provinces toward the more arid north. One phase of this effort, bringing water to Beijing, went online during the winter of 2014-2015. In our small town of Ala’er, Xinjiang, responses to the storms seemed to be a combination of resignation, irrigation, grass and tree planting, and staying indoors.

On an afternoon in early May, the skies darkened once more, but this time they brought thunder and rain. I was amazed at the number of umbrellas that suddenly sprouted in this place of rare downpours.  After a couple of hours, first of drenching showers, then of gentler drizzle, the skies cleared.  That evening, the sunset featured streaks of rainbow colors against a crystal blue background. The season of yellow air was finally over.

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