How a Farmer in China Spent $1 Billion to Raise Fish and Turn a Desert into an Oasis

In the barren Ktag Desert in western China, an old farmer named Hien Jong risked everything on an ambitious goal – to raise fish where no one thought fish could live. After over a decade of setbacks that pushed him to the brink of financial ruin, Hien’s crazy dream paid off in a big way. Not only did he successfully build a thriving fish farm in the desert, but his creative solution to the desert’s challenges transformed 32,000 square kilometers of arid sand into a lush oasis.

The Ktag: China’s Driest Desert

The Ktag Desert stretches across the northwest border of China where Gansu Province meets Xinjiang. With its endless expanses of golden sand dunes and not a drop of rain all year, explorers have dubbed it “a forbidden area of life.” Temperatures can swing from sweltering hot during the day to freezing cold at night. The brutal climate and shifting sands make agriculture and development virtually impossible.

Yet one man saw potential – the potential to make the desert bloom through aquaculture.

One Farmer’s Audacious Vision

Hien Jong grew up in a small, impoverished village in Gansu Province. But after reading how North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had successfully raised rainbow trout in China’s Heilongjiang Province, an idea was planted. If fish could thrive in the far north, could they also take root in the deserts of the northwest?

After research, Hien identified the Yawang Spring near his hometown as an ideal water source to support a fish farm. Its exceptionally clean, pure water seemed perfect for raising golden carp. Hien excitedly shared his idea with the villagers, hoping they would join him in this venture. However they quickly poured cold water on his plans:

  • They were too poor to invest in the infrastructure needed to dig ponds and divert the spring water.
  • They didn’t think the spring could support raising fish when agriculture was already so difficult in the arid climate.

But Hien would not be deterred. He promised to personally finance the upfront costs of ponds, pipes, and fish fry if the villagers would provide the labor. Though anxious about this unproven idea, the desperate villagers agreed.

Against All Odds: The First Fish Harvest

While Hien felt uncertain about whether fish could actually thrive in such harsh surroundings, the villagers cared for the fragile fish fry in the newly dug ponds. Despite the challenges, that first batch survived and grew.

A year later when the fish were fully grown, the fortunes of Hien and the villagers were transformed. That inaugural harvest generated 100 times more income than any previous farming efforts. By the time he was 30 years old, Hien had used fish farming to build assets worth hundreds of millions of yuan, making him an envy of all who knew his rags to riches tale.

Doubling Down: From Farm to Desert Aquaculture

But Hien wasn’t done dreaming. Having found success raising fish in his rural home region, he set his sights on an even more daring goal – large-scale fish farming in the neighboring Ktag Desert.

His friends and family balked, confused why he’d abandon his profitable fish farm at Yawang Spring. Why struggle to pipe water into a desert when he already had all he needed? They called his idea pure fantasy – the desert was already desperately short of water. It would be impossible to maintain the flows needed to sustain thousands of fish.

Hien’s idea wasn’t just a whim. He knew the desert bordered glaciers high in the Tian Shan Mountains. As snow and ice melted in summer, torrents of water cascaded down into the desert…water that could be captured.

The challenge was storing the seasonal floodwaters so fish could be raised year-round. Hien decided to take a chance and invest everything into building aquaculture infrastucture in the Ktag expanse.

Overcoming Impossible Obstacles

Turning his dream into reality would not be easy. Simply digging canals and ponds by hand quickly proved impossible in the trackless desert. When heavy excavators sank into the dunes’ flowing sands, it became clear that roads would first need to be built to allow vehicle access.

It took two years just to enable construction crews and supplies to reach the planned fish farm sites. But with the roads and canals finally finished, disaster struck. Glacial floodwaters overran the desert, wiping out over 600,000 fish overnight and destroying ponds, pipes and roads.

Having lost a small fortune, Hien faced his first crisis. Many urged him to abandon his dream as impossible. A few floods they could withstand back home near Yawang Spring, but how could anyone control flooding in a desert?

Learning from mistakes, Hien resolved to try again. As he rebuilt, he focused first on flood control systems to protect the farm from the mountains’ seasonal deluges. Several dams and diversion structures succeeded in harnessing the raging waters.

With the fish farm operational again, it was now battered by the desert’s fierce, unrelenting sandstorms. After the installations were damaged beyond repair, Hien faced his second tremendous setback.

The Desert Oasis Emerges

At this point, virtually everyone pleaded for Hien to stop wasting money on the desert fantasy…everyone but Hien himself. He knew that without solving the fundamental problems of flooding and sandstorms, the desert could not support permanent agriculture.

So in 2006, Hien began construction on one of China’s largest “desert oasis” projects encompassing over 32,000 square kilometers. It took 13 grueling years to execute Hien’s vision:

  • Massive 60 kilometer dams near the Tian Shan Mountains were erected to control flooding
  • Sand barriers and forests were planted to block wind and sand erosion
  • Canals and aqueducts were dug to channel floodwaters into reservoirs
  • Vast fields of native plants and clay stabilized drifting dunes

With Hien’s uncompromising leadership, the forbidding Ktag desert was transformed into a livable, arable landscape. The hardened sand now offered a protective cocoon insulating the desert aquaculture farm from external threats.

No longer battered by sandstorms nor inundated with floods, Hien’s fish ponds could finally yield their bounty as intended. After investing nearly $1 billion of his own wealth into infrastructure projects, Hien succeeded in proving that even the most hostile landscape could support productive agriculture.

Beyond Fish: Wine and Tourism in the Desert Oasis

With the ecological threats neutralized, the desert farm and Hien’s investments were secured. What had started narrowly as an exercise in raising fish had grown into an oasis spurring regional commerce.

Capitalizing on the now-hospitable climate, Hien expanded by building:

  • A vineyard harvesting water-efficient grapes and making wine
  • Tourism facilities like hotels and restaurants catering to visitors

Together with the fish farm, these assets were unified as one multi-functional ecological park driving economic growth. The man who people said was crazy to invest anything in desert agriculture was now running a profitable enterprise attracting tourists year-round.

Transformation from Town to Oasis

Beyond saving Hien’s assets, the sweeping desert control project had profound impacts on the region. The small rural town of Yong Guan located by the fish farm saw its fortunes rise as well.

Previously battered by wind, sand, and floods, Yong Guan had seemed destined to blow away in the desert winds. But now protected behind Hien’s massive sand barriers and drainage systems, it found new life. Homes and orchards could be built without fear of storm damage. The town flourished into an agricultural hub feeding off the literal oasis Hien had engineered in such an unlikely location.

As word spread of Hien’s success, his model was replicated across northern China’s arid regions. Many rural communities mired in poverty looked to imitate Hien’s feat as a pathway out of hardship.

Hien’s methods were not without environmental controversy however. In countries like the United States, similar desert aquaculture projects had raised concerns about draining precious groundwater reserves. But Hien pointed out his approach relied solely on capturing seasonal floodwaters already flowing through the desert, and so had less impact.

Ultimately through vision and refusing to surrender to obstacles, Hien achieved both massive personal success and regional transformation. His legacy lives on through the vibrant green oasis now inhabiting the place once known only as the Ktag wasteland. The “crazy” farmer who dreamed of raising fish in the desert proved crazy like a fox!