More than 100,000 farmers from southwest China's Chongqing Municipality have left their hometowns to pick cotton in Xinjiang 3,300 kilometers away after the worst drought in 50 years destroyed their crops.
The municipal government has earmarked 25 million yuan (3.1 million U.S. dollars) to sponsor their round trips between Chongqing and Xinjiang's regional capital Urumqi, said Wang Yue, head of the local agricultural department.
"Xinjiang reports a bumper harvest this year and will need 467,000 migrant workers to help local farmers pick cotton," Wang told Xinhua.
The "cotton exodus" started on Aug. 19 and will last until Sept. 5. Twenty-six trains will leave from Chongqing and another eight will carry 10,000 farmers from Chengdu, capital of the neighboring Sichuan Province, Wang said.
Each farmer is expected to make at least 2,000 yuan (250 U.S. dollars) for two months work in the cotton fields. "This is roughly the same amount they would have made from crops on their 0.6 hectare plot of land or raising 10 pigs," said Wang.
He estimated the 100,000 farmers from Chongqing will bring home about 200 million yuan (25 million U.S. dollars), representing an average per capita income rise of 10 yuan (1.25 U.S. dollars) among all the local farmers.
For the majority of the farmers, many of whom have never left their homes before, a 68-hour train ride to remote Xinjiang is exciting and the prospect of a decent income alluring.
"I've never been to Xinjiang and I have no idea how much I can make there," said 42-year-old Xie Dingbi before she boarded the northwest-bound train Monday afternoon. "It's worthwhile even if I just take it as a sightseeing tour because the train fares are paid by the government and all our expenses in Xinjiang are covered by cotton growers there."
Xie's family of four made 3,000 yuan (375 U.S. dollars) a year from their land but heat and drought over the last two months have destroyed 95 percent of their grain crop.
The first train from Chongqing is due to arrive in Urumqi Tuesday afternoon.
By Sunday, 7.84 million people were dealing with a shortage of drinking water in 37 districts and counties in Chongqing. The drought there had caused 3.75 billion yuan (470 million U.S. dollars) in losses, said a press release by the municipal flood control and drought relief headquarters.
In neighboring Sichuan Province, 112 of 181 counties and districts in the province were suffering from the drought. It has affected 2 million hectares of farmland and left 4.86 million people without adequate drinking water and so far has caused losses of 8.87 billion yuan (1.1 billion U.S. dollars).