|Liu Xuecan, 44, is a driver for the Fukang National Field Scientific Observation and Research Station.|
It is not just the elements that scientists have to guard against when conducting research in the desert.
The unrelenting sun and sand-blown days and nights can make any desert work an uncomfortable experience. On top of this, predators sometimes prowl.
But knowing your location and not becoming disoriented by the harsh terrain is also a priority. Which is why drivers are more than just transport operators.
"That is why they need me," said Liu Xuecan, 44, a driver for the Fukang National Field Scientific Observation and Research Station in north-central Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Liu is involved in almost every aspect of scientific research carried out in the desert even though he never went to college.
Liu's expertise is almost legendary.
On one recent excursion, he had to drive for days, without a roadmap, to find an area where plants were shorter than in other areas.
After a few days navigating the sands, Liu found a zone where the sacsaoul, or Haloxylon ammodendron, a desert shrub, grows much shorter than in other places. Now an experiment site has been set up around the zone to test the sand and water there.
"When you drive in the Gobi you have to have a sense of direction and always keep in mind how much is left in your gas tank," Liu said.
As for the desert near Fukang, Liu knows every inch of it.
"Each year, I drive 60,000 or 70,000 kilometers," he said.
Each morning, Liu drives students from the station to their experiment sites and picks them up in the evening.
"Hey, Li Shoujuan, take your bag. It's time for supper," Liu shouted as he stopped at a small sand hill. After a while, a thin girl emerged from underground where she was conducting experiments.
Sometimes, Liu is intricately involved in research.
For one experiment, Liu designed mobile sheds to gauge how plants react to specific amounts or rain or sun.
He took matters into his own hands when he asked a factory to assemble them.
"They wanted 160,000 yuan ($26,144), way too expensive, so I decided to do it myself."
The two sheds cover an area of 400 square meters and cost 40,000 yuan.
"One doctoral student has finished the experiment for his project thesis with my sheds," Liu said.
Despite Liu's important role in the research station, he can only be hired as a "temporary worker" because he does not have a degree.
"Liu and other drivers are truly important to the station, but we cannot hire them as regular employees. This is stipulated by the scientific management system in China," said Zhou Hongfei, deputy director of the research station.
"The personnel system on scientific research institutes is too inflexible," Zhou said.
"This is like a restaurant owner stipulating how much money should be spent on buying soy sauce and how much on vinegar.
"What if I don't need so much soy sauce but I do need more vinegar when I am cooking?"