On a cold, dark evening recently, inspector Li Tao, 47, made his rounds of the Kelameili gas field in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. It was a frigid -20 C and his breath froze instantly.
But more curious was Li's furry companion－an unusual animal with yellow hair. It was no dog but a corsac fox.
"I remember the first time I saw a fox－around 2015, on another cold winter night," Li said. "It was making a weird sound, and I didn't know what it was. When I turned on the flashlight, it ran off quickly. I could sense its fear."
Located in the center of the Gurbantunggut Desert, the gas field, which is affiliated with China National Petroleum Corp, is about 230 kilometers from downtown Karamay. It mainly produces natural gas, liquefied gas and ethane, according to Xie Hu, its general manager.
In 2017, it produced 1.5 billion cubic meters of gas, helping to ensure the supply for northern Xinjiang.
Li, who was on patrol that cold night, was born in Sichuan province. He has been living and working in Xinjiang since the 1980s and started working in the Kelameili field the year it started production.
"Life in the desert is simple and sometimes boring," he said. "We are glad to have foxes come to visit us. They are like old friends."
Li is one of 130 workers in the gas field. Their facilities include a dormitory, a gym and a canteen. They work 12-hour shifts, either night or day, during the week, and then take a week off to rest. There is little leisure time.
Li's wife and children live in downtown Karamay. After working all week, he takes a shuttle bus home to be with them.
In the lonely gas field, however, the foxes are family. He feels close to them after years of contact. He can feel the connection.
"They kept their distance from me years ago, but now when I'm working the night shift outside, a fox follows me so closely that I'm afraid of stepping on it," Li said.
"Sometimes when we are in the room, a fox will knock on the door and look through the window. If we open the door, it will come in and stay for hours, jumping up and down on the desk and playing around. They seem unwilling to leave."
Hunger is likely the main reason they seek out humans, Li said."The temperature can fall to -40 C here in winter, and it's difficult for them to find food." That also explains why foxes are seen more frequently in winter than in summer, he added.
"I will give them meat and eggs, avoiding bones so they don't choke," he said.
Sometimes, the animals store extra food in the snow for their next meal.
Li is cautious about feeding his furry friends too much. "They are wild animals," he said. "I'm afraid easy access to food will weaken their instincts and their ability to survive."
In recent years, the number of foxes appearing at the gas field has been stable, around three to five annually.
In January, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the National Forestry and Grassland Administration released an amended list of protected wild animals. Corsac foxes are listed as a Level 2 protected animal.
According to staff from the region's forestry and grassland administration, the number of wild animals in the region is increasing due to improved ecological conditions. In places like deserts, the number might be less than in forests and grasslands.
After many years of interaction, Li has learned to identify the age of each animal. "You can tell by the color of their claws－the darker the older," he said.
Somehow, the long night shifts seem shorter with foxes around, he said.
"It is difficult to make a living in the desert for both humans and animals," he said."Our workplace is their home, and we get along with each other quite well."
Randy Wright contributed to this story.