Three deserts dot the Alxa League, a prefecture-level administration in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
The moving sand dunes had almost joined the three deserts, until the local government began to fight desertification by curbing overgrazing and planting vegetation.
On a typical afternoon, Shi Shengcai rides a motorcycle to count his sheep grazing on the vast grassland. The scorching sun beats down on the slowly encroaching dunes.
"I've been living here for more than 40 years. When I was young, the sand dunes were 1,000 meters away from my home, but now they are 500 meters closer," Shi said.
Shi works 1,443 hectares of grassland, where he raises more than 300 head of sheep and seven donkeys. In a move to protect the environment, the local government capped the number of sheep Shi can raise at 350, and began incentivizing herders to shift to planting trees.
Shi and his family set aside 133 hectares of land to plant saxaul trees, a shrub-like tree that does well in arid climates, after learning of the success of their neighbor, Pan Jinze.
Pan's land is only half that of the Shi family, however, he has been planting trees for years. Pan first stopped herding to plant trees as early as 2001, but a rare flood wiped out his saplings and left him with nothing.
In 2010 Pan restarted planting saxaul trees with the help of government subsidies. Now he grows 200 hectares of saxaul trees, which also makes it possible to grow other plants with medicinal value. With the added profits, plus a 1,600 yuan (8) per hectare government subsidy, Pan earns more than he did from herding.
To cover the vast areas, Pan must hire others to tend the plants. Nian Xiuhua and her sister Nian Xiufang from Gansu Province have been watering Pan's plants since March. The saxaul trees need to be watered three times a year. Water is fetched from a small spring, the only one in more than 700 hectares of land.
The sisters each make 150 yuan a day from watering or 200 yuan a day from planting trees. They start before dawn and finish late, and take a long lunch break to avoid working in the hottest time of the day.
Nian Xiuhua's salary goes to her daughter, who is attending college in Lanzhou.