QINGHAI, Northwest China — As local tour guide Zhang Qingzhe led a fleet of cars carrying members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) down Highway 315, a vast expanse of red earth loomed before them. This is Hongya, or Red Cliff: an area in the Gobi Desert rarely traversed by humans, Zhang told the scientists, who had come looking for a place to build China’s groundbreaking Mars exploration base.
Situated more than 3,000 meters above sea level in the Qaidam Basin area of western Qinghai province, Hongya closely resembles the red planet’s geography. Here, shifts in tectonic plates have caused mountains to rise and water to recede in what once was a desert oasis. Millions of years of wind erosion have chiseled out pillars of sand, known as yardang — a Uyghur word meaning “steep-walled hillock.”
Zhang first heard about the basin of red earth, shaped like an ear, in 2008 from a traveler he rescued who was attempting to cross Da Qaidam, a county in the northern part of the basin. After several unsuccessful searches, Zhang finally found the Mars-like landscape two years later when he followed a dried-up riverbank deep into an immense red valley. Mysterious rock formations, the likes of which he had never seen, rose up out of the earth throughout the basin, creating a breathtaking landscape.
Since then, the 45-year-old has returned once or twice every year to map out the area, characterized by yardang and Danxia landforms — basins of red sandstone surrounded by steep cliffs that can only be found in China.
Last year, the Chinese government announced plans to launch an unmanned Mars mission in 2020, and the CAS started looking for a place to build a research base for the expedition. On a cold January day, Zhang introduced Hongya to Liu Xiaoqun, director of the Moon and Space Exploration Department at CAS, and his team, who noted it as a potential site for the base.
Though local officials felt it was a long shot, the county pushed heavily for the academy to choose it as the site of the Mars exploration base. After the team from the CAS left, Zhang took care to note the similarities and differences between photos of the Qaidam Basin and Mars; he sent his observations to the scientists via messaging app WeChat.
Over the summer, the county’s dreams were realized when the CAS officially chose Hongya to host the base. The academy hopes the project will combine tourism and scientific exploration, said Liu: The local tourism industry has already come up with a blueprint for the area, including an information center where visitors will board shuttles to the base itself. There, tourists will be able to experience what life would be like on Mars, such as living in space station cabins and traversing the red landscape. In the meantime, researchers at the base will carry out studies, simulations, and experiments in preparation for future expeditions to the planet.
Construction of the Mars exploration base will begin next April, and the facility is set to be completed by October 2018, according to a spokesperson for the Municipal Land and Resources Bureau. Funding for the base is likely to exceed the initial target of 400 million yuan ($60 million), and the development companies involved have already reached a preliminary agreement.
An aerial view of Hongya in the Qaidam Basin area, Qinghai province, 2017. Courtesy of Zhang Qingzhe
Once the capital of a prefecture in Qinghai, the city of Da Qaidam was renowned for its mineral resources and industry. Zhang’s father’s generation moved to Da Qaidam around 1957, acting as the region’s frontiersmen and transforming the area into a “sleepless city of 100,000 people.” According to local archives, a team of researchers even visited Hongya in 1954 to look for oil.
Starting in the mid- to late 1960s, following a shift in local development policies, Da Qaidam’s development ground to a halt. It was bumped from its rank as a city to that of a county-level administrative region. In 1966, the capital of the prefecture was moved to nearby Delingha, and government-owned companies and public institutions soon followed.
By the time Zhang was old enough to work, nearly all the local businesses had been shut down, and most of the people who came to the area in the 1950s had moved back to their hometowns. After spending a few months in Beijing, Zhang returned to Da Qaidam. “It’s hard to make a living out there,” he said.
Since the 1990s, Zhang has tried his hand at running various businesses, including clothing stores, internet cafés, and advertising companies. In 2005, he bought a secondhand Jeep Cherokee and embarked upon a career in tourism. “I don’t want to move again,” he said. “If this line of work doesn’t pan out, what will I do at my age? Work as a doorman?”
Oil drilling equipment in Da Qaidam, Qinghai province, Sept. 23, 2017. Jiang Chenyue for Sixth Tone
Yet following the development of the “great loop,” a stretch of road linking Qinghai and Gansu provinces, Da Qaidam has witnessed a tourism boom. The number of visitors to the region more than doubled within the last two years, from 250,000 in 2015 to 625,000 in 2017 — due in part to the county’s location on the main highway into the Tibet Autonomous Region, another major tourist destination. Local stores, taxis, and hotels have become dependent on the growing popularity of nearby tourist attractions.
Zhang believes that the burgeoning service industry will provide many opportunities for employment. People from other towns will move their homes and businesses to Da Qaidam, he hopes, boosting the population.
However, further development and conservation in the area may still require significant government funding. Zhang recalls that he once gave a tour of the area to the CEO of a real estate company who wanted to launch development projects in China’s “Great Northwest.” While the businessman was attracted to the local scenery, the lack of financial support from the government soon sent him packing.
The CAS plans could represent another turning point for the region: “A huge project like the Mars exploration base would be of great benefit to the people of Da Qaidam,” Zhang said.
Earlier this year, the candidates for the base were narrowed down to four sites in Qinghai province. Transportation and proximity to tourist attractions were both taken into consideration, as well as the availability of local investors, since the academy wants to outsource the commercial aspects of the base to local businesses and governments.
While the other cities had potential funding from development companies and tourism bureaus, the experts insisted on choosing a place where the earth is red. With its vast expanse of red soil, sparse vegetation, and array of Danxia and yardang formations, Hongya was the only spot that fit the bill. “A chief expert at the academy said that Hongya was extremely similar to Mars,” said Fan Shengzhi, the head of the social development department of Da Qaidam’s administrative committee.
An array of ‘yardang’ formations in the Qaidam Basin area, Qinghai province, Aug. 22, 2017. Jiang Chenyue for Sixth Tone
Since the local government signed an agreement with the CAS on July 25, establishing Hongya as the site of the Mars exploration base, no fewer than 10 tour groups have asked Zhang to take them to the area that will host the base. Some have even made the trip without a tour guide.
Although the influx of tourists boosts economic development, it also puts the area’s unique landscape — the main reason it was chosen to host the base in the first place — at risk. Danxia landforms are extremely fragile, and a single footprint in the soil could take years to disappear.
The academy has already requested that the local government forbid tourists from entering the base until construction is complete, but the facility’s sheer size and its complicated network of surrounding roads would make such a ban difficult to enforce.
With the base’s development underway, Zhang feels that Da Qaidam is returning to the bustling hub it was over half a century ago. This time, it is also gaining international attention. In November, Zhang guided a Spanish traveler on a 10-kilometer walk across nearby glaciers. “I feel that the dream of my father’s generation is coming true,” Zhang said.
A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Doris Wang and Wang Yiwei.
(Header image: A vehicle travels through Hongya in the Qaidam Basin area, Qinghai province, 2017. Courtesy of Zhang Qingzhe)