After a hard morning planting fresh shoots in the dunes on the edge of the Gobi Desert, 78-year-old farmer Wang Tianchang retrieves a three-stringed lute from his shed, sits down beneath the fiery midday sun, and starts to play.
"If you want to fight the desert, there's no need to be afraid," sings Wang, a veteran of China's decades-long state campaign to "open up the wilderness", as he strums the instrument, known as the sanxian.
Left: A tree is lifted with a crane before being placed on a truck at Toudunying state-owned commercial forest estate. Right: A worker lifts a tree from the ground at the Toudunying state-owned commercial forest estate.
Trees have become a major part of the local economy. Hongshui is dominated by a large state-owned commercial forest estate called Toudunying.
"After 1999, when the tree-planting sped up, things got much better," Wang Yinji said, referring to the state-led reforestation initiative. "Our corn grew taller. The sand that used to blow in from the east and northeast was stopped."
Experts say China's reforestation work has become more sophisticated over the years, the government benefiting from decades of experience and able to mobilise thousands of volunteers to plant trees, emulating frontline pioneers like the Wangs.
But the fight is far from over, they add, with climate change set to worsen conditions for farmers living in the arid north.
"They have been living in similar conditions for generations," said Ma Lichao, China country director for the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit organisation promoting sustainable forest management. "But it is very important to say that climate change is something very new."
COMPETING LAND USE
China plans to increase total forest coverage from 23% last year to 24.1% by 2025, but the constant expansion has masked many underlying problems.
"There's been relatively low survival of trees in some regions, and discussions about the depletion of underground water tables," said Hua Fangyuan, a conservation biologist who focuses on forests at China's Peking University.
There are signs that China has learned from past mistakes, when trees were planted - often by scattering seeds from military aircraft - with no consideration for existing ecosystems or weather conditions, meaning many failed to take root.
The government is now more careful in which species it selects to plant, and more inclined to make room for natural forests to expand, rather than create artificial plantations.
The forestry commission also plans to rethink its strategy in northwest China to reflect concerns that new plantations have put water resources under more strain, experts said.
But with local governments under pressure to grow the economy and guarantee food supplies, China's tree-planting may also be reaching a point of diminishing returns.
"It's getting more and more difficult to really increase the forest coverage rate simply because there aren't so many places left for big reforestation projects," said Ma.
Ma said the sandstorms that hit Beijing in March did not mean planting trees had failed, but showed it would no longer be enough to offset the impact of climate change.
Her husband, Li Youfu, 71, said he thought tree-planting had made no difference at all.
"The sand is still moving. This can't be controlled," he said. "When the wind comes, it's usually really strong. No one can stop it."
(Photo editing Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson; video production Thomas Suen, Juris Abramenko, Lucy Ha; additional reporting Florence Lo; text editing Katy Daigle, Ana Nicolaci, Karishma Singh; Layout Julia Dalrymple)