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In desert wasteland, an online store raises herders' hopes, incomes

2021-11-01 10:41:25   Source:China Daily   Author:YUAN HUI, CHEN MEILING


Police officers in Suanjingzi in the Alshaa League of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region show Khaschuluu (middle) how to run an online store at the station. CHINA DAILY


Of all the things you might expect to find in the Gobi Desert, perhaps last on your list would be an online store operated by a local police station.

But in Suanjingzi, a border area of Ejine Banner in the Alshaa League of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, that's exactly what you will find.

Known as one of the most inhospitable places in the world, according to Sergelen, the 37-year-old head of Suanjingzi's police station, there is little greenery and few traces of human life in the desert region.

Sergelen and his colleagues cover a beat of 9,400 square kilometers, but the vast area is home to only 113 inhabitants-23 local families, most of them herders, and some 60 workers at two iron mines. A 24-hour supply of electricity has only been available since 2016, but 4G coverage was extended to the area in 2019.

Average annual incomes run to about 30,000 yuan ($3,100) per person. This comes mainly from government subsidies and animal husbandry, but when they take their animals out grazing, herders also look for colorful stones to supplement their incomes. They mostly find agates, a semiprecious crystalline mineral that forms inside volcanic rocks.

While on patrol, Sergelen and his colleagues were often asked by the herders to help them sell their stones, which is how the idea of the online store was born.

"We now have express deliveries and faster networks, why shouldn't we help them sell their products?" he said.

One of the herders, a man called Khaschuluu was willing, as the saying goes in Chinese, to be "the first to eat crabs". The station helped him sign up for online classes about e-commerce and in March, he set up his online store. It received its first order from Hunan province the very same day.

"We were excited," Sergelen said. "The store is a spring of hope in desert."

The station worked with the local postal service so that postal workers visit the station once a week to receive or send packages. Police also take stones to the post office in the main town, which is about 300 kilometers away, when they visit for work or holidays. Khaschuluu's store has made about 30,000 yuan to date, and has clients from all across the country, although deliveries take between seven to 10 days.

"Though it's barren and deserted here, we wanted to do something meaningful to help the herdsmen have better lives," Sergelen added.

Until recently, the 50-year-old Khaschuluu and his family of three relied on selling camels and camel hair to earn a living, and the family income was about 20,000 yuan a year.

He said the police have helped a lot, as he would never have been able to open an online store on his own. Of course, there are still challenges.

"Good stones are difficult to find and the number is decreasing, and sometimes we cannot send the products on time," he said. Currently, the store makes about 1,000 yuan a month but Khaschuluu wants to sell other products in the future.

Fan Jianwei, deputy Party secretary of Kharburgediin-Uul town, which administers Suanjingzi, said that transportation and the lack of knowledge about e-commerce are the biggest challenges facing the store's development. To help, the local government invited e-commerce experts to give courses, and a new highway linking Suanjingzi to the outside is part of the region's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), which will greatly change circumstances, he said.

"Opening online stores can help broaden the horizons of herders so they do not have to rely on subsidies. It increases incomes, and allows the stones to become more widely known," Fan said, adding that the local government will help with the development of e-commerce to promote rural vitalization.

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