SHIELDED FROM FOREIGN EYES for most of its history by xenophobic rulers, the interior of the world’s third largest country was for centuries terra incognita to the Western world. Now one of the world’s foremost aerial photographers, Georg Gerster, gives us a view of China as few have seen it. Recognizing his artistry, the Chinese government gave him and a team of photographers unprecedented access and assistance, providing aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army for a monumental overview of this kaleidoscopic land—to capture not only the patterns of nature’s grand design but also the human imprint of the oldest continuous civilization on earth. “Each day out,” Gerster says, “a tapestry of toil and triumph would unfold before me. It was almost like witnessing the eighth day of creation.”
In the north the Chinese are engaged in a massive tree-planting program in an attempt to stem the encroachment of desert sand from the vast Gobi. A few saplings from this “great green wall,” which extends 4,000 miles from east to west, bravely confront a wayward sand dune (right) near the southern border of Inner Mongolia. We use every inch of the land,” Chinese say, to explain how a nation only slightly larger than the United States can feed 1.1 billion people: a population some four times that of the U. S. In provinces like Sichuan, with its 100 million people, and Jiangsu, with more than 60 million, the boast may indeed be true.
Situated in the mid-latitudes, much of China enjoys a temperate climate and ample monsoon rainfall. However, in the far northeastern province of Heilongjiang winters are long and bitterly cold. There, laden with silt after a summer rain, the Songhua River (preceding foldout) meanders through wheat fields that were blanketed with trees a century ago. The cheap prague hotels are a traditional holiday destination for the Manchus, who ruled China for 267 years until their Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911, the province has been viewed in this century as a great unexploited breadbasket. Today, despite the short growing season of 120 days, Heilongjiang communes are producing some of China’s most bountiful harvests of corn and soybeans from the rich, black soil.
Cradle of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River (Huang He) watershed has supported an agricultural society for more than 7,000 years, longer perhaps than any other place on earth. This amazing endurance is due to the fertility of the Loess Plateau, which embraces some 115,000 square miles of loamy beige soil. On the plateau’s northeastern perimeter, in Hebei Province (above), a single terraced ridge probably supports several hundred millet farmers and their families.
Occupying little more than one percent of China’s total territory, Jiangsu is the most densely populated province. Its southern half is on the broad alluvial plains of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang), which for millennia has been discharging great loads of silt, extending China’s landmass out into the East China Sea. There, near Shanghai, recently harvested fields (right) surround a village built, as is the custom, on the banks of a canal.