Bor­der sol­diers re­veal their higher call­ing

Life is tough for the men who guard China’s moun­tain­ous bor­der with In­dia, high on the hin­ter­land of Ti­bet. De­spite the con­stant dan­gers posed by the harsh high-al­ti­tude con­di­tions, the sol­diers’ strong sense of ca­ma­raderie and the friend­ship of the lo­cal

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Their lives are even harder than the yaks’,” said Chokyi, dur­ing her weekly visit to a bor­der post half­way up a moun­tain 2 kilo­me­ters from her home in Tran­glung, Gamba county.

A bor­der de­fense com­pany of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army has been sta­tioned at the post in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion — about 20 kilo­me­ters from China’s bor­der with In­dia— since 1961.

Chokyi, who like many peo­ple from the Ti­betan eth­nic group has only one name, of­ten brings the sol­diers home­made Ti­betan but­ter tea and high­land bar­ley flour. “It feels as though I’m call­ing on my own sons,” she said.

The 60-some­thing herdswoman has known al­most ev­ery soldier in the com­pany since the first day the “young men” came to the bar­ren moun­tain — Tran­glung means “windy place” in Ti­betan — where wild winds bat­ter the hill­sides more than 200 days a year, car­ry­ing sand and small stones that sting the eyes.

Chokyi’s life was saved by a med­i­cal of­fi­cer in 1961. Af­ter that her mother, Lhakyi, vis­ited the guard post to de­liver gifts of home­made foodand­drinks. When­she­wasasked why she vis­ited the troops regularly for53years, righ­tupun­til the lastday ofher­life, Lhakyi, whodied in2013 at age83, al­ways said: “It­wasChair­man Maowho­sent the young­manto save my daugh­ter. These young men are far from their moth­ers and they pro­tect our lives with their own.”

Chokyi said that when she dies, her daugh­ter will con­tinue the tra­di­tion and de­liver gifts to the sol­diers.

Some of the vil­lage chil­dren treated by the com­pany’s med­i­cal of­fi­cers share the same name — Sangye Tser­ing, mean­ing “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary longevity” — in ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the army’s help.

Apart from pro­vid­ing reg­u­lar phys­i­cal check­ups and med­i­cal ser­vices, the army helps the vil­lagers to harvest bar­ley in au­tumn, search for lost yaks in the win­ter snow and rainand­pro­vides as­sis­tance dur­ing earth tremors and heavy snow­falls.

The troops teach the chil­dren to read, write and do ba­sic arith­metic, and also they demon­strate how to plant veg­eta­bles that were un­known to the semi-no­madic herders be­fore 2007, when a soldier first suc­ceeded in grow­ing pep­pers and egg­plants.

The first veg­eta­bles were grown in a flow­er­pot, but later the troops con­structed half-sub­merged green­houses near their bar­racks where they cul­ti­vate more than 20 types of veg­eta­bles, as well as straw­ber­ries, cherry toma­toes, water­mel­ons and hon­ey­dewmel­ons.

“Veg­eta­bles and fruits greatly di­ver­sify the sources of nutri­tion for the Ti­betan peo­ple, who only ate yak meat and bar­ley be­fore,” saidChimed, an of­fi­cial at the county gov­ern­ment.

Kon­chok Lhawang, a Ti­betan soldier in his early 20s who has signe­don­for five years, said:“Chokyi and Lhakyi’s vis­its re­ally re­lieved our home­sick­ness. The vil­lagers’ hos­pi­tal­i­ty­makes us feel as thoughTran­glung is our sec­ond home.”

The strong bond of brother­hood among the young men — most of whom are only chil­dren, born in the 1980s and 90s, and from out­side Ti­bet— isatype­of­mag­ic­that­makes the guard post more like home.

How­ever, were it not for Tran­glung’s harsh cli­mate and poor stan­dard of liv­ing, it’s un­likely that these young men would have forged such strong bonds of mu­tual trust and in­ter­de­pen­dence.

The sol­diers of­ten de­scribe the weather as “vil­lain­ous”. Snow­storms block the dirt road for about eight months of the year, mak­ing reg­u­lar pa­trols ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. Although strong, the winds pose no real threat to fully equipped, well-trained sol­diers.

The big­gest chal­lenge comes from the lack of oxy­gen. The guard post sits about 4,500 me­ters above sea level and the amount of oxy­gen in the air is less than half that found in the plains, so un­nec­es­sary stren­u­ous ac­tiv­ity is strictly pro­hib­ited. Med­i­cal ex­perts have deemed the re­gion “un­in­hab­it­able” for hu­mans.

De­spite that, the sol­diers have to con­duct reg­u­lar phys­i­cal ex­er­cise and mil­i­tary ma­neu­vers. Ac­cord­ing to the Gamba Bat­tal­ion Com­man­der, Hu Guangjun, who com­mands four com­pa­nies along the 140-km­long bor­der, 85 per­cent of his troops have vary­ing de­grees of al­ti­tude sick­ness. Other prob­lems in­clude heart dis­ease, high blood pres­sure, gout and in­juries re­sult­ing from the in­tense win­ter cold.

About 60 per­cent of the sol­diers have dan­ger­ously high lev­els of blood vis­cos­ity (thick­ness), and 30 per­cent have other prob­lems, in­clud­ing am­ne­sia, de­gen­er­a­tion of the cra­nial nerves and weak­ened im­mune sys­tems.

In the 54 years since the bor­der guard was es­tab­lished, 31 sol­diers have died at the moun­tain sta­tions. In 1997, Liu Yan, a 21-year-old woman from Sichuan province who had trav­eled to Gamba to marry her soldier fiance, died of pul­monary edema in the bar­racks two days be­fore the wed­ding.

In spite of this, none of the bat­tal­ion’s sol­diers have quit their posts as a re­sult of phys­i­cal prob­lems. In­stead, many vol­un­teer to re­main in the high­lands af­ter serv­ing two years, one term of duty in Gamba, in­clud­ing some gifted grad­u­ates from China’s top mil­i­tary academies.

Ev­ery one of the sol­diers has a story to tellabouthowthe vet­er­an­shave taken care of them and how they adapted to the change in lifestyle when they ar­rived at the bar­racks.

“When I was too ex­hausted to carry a ri­fle on my first pa­trol be­cause of anoxia (lack of oxy­gen), the squad leader car­ried it for me. One time I for­got to bring sun gog­gles when pa­trolling in the snow and rain, so an old soldier gave his glasses to me. He ended up se­ri­ously snow-blind as a re­sult, but he didn’t seem to mind,” Liu Haiyang, a 19-year-old from Baod­ing, He­bei province, said.

Liu said “lit­tle fa­vors” such as these hap­pen al­most ev­ery day as the new sol­diers learn to adapt to the new en­vi­ron­ment. “That’s how I built my trust with these older broth­ers,” he said.

Peng Shaowei, a 26-year-old “seven-year” soldier from Meis­han, Sichuan province, said: “The brother­hood is pure here. When you get used to it, you know you can al­ways rely on the group. Af­ter that, you want to stay, and feel un­easy af­ter leav­ing the group, even if you stay down on the plains where it’s far more com­fort­able dur­ing leave.”

Peng has de­cided to stay at Tran­glung for a fur­ther nine years, when he will re­tire “hon­or­ably” as a chief sergeant at least, and may even be pro­moted to a higher rank.

The Tran­glung com­pany is more for­tu­nate than its coun­ter­parts in Tax­son and Tragola, who pa­trol a vast moun­tain­ous area on the north­ern slopes of the Hi­malaya range. The Tax­son guard post sits at about 4,900 me­ters above sea level, while the Tragola post is more than 5,300 me­ters.

“I was a naughty boy and dropped out of mid­dle school two years ago. NowI am­much­more­dis­ci­plined and have a stronger sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. I will con­tinue my ed­u­ca­tion when I go back home. I want to go to col­lege,” said Liao Ming­song, an 18-year-old soldier at the Tax­son post, who will fin­ish his two-year term of ser­vice at the end of the month.

Liao said he had learned a lot from the other sol­diers. “At first, I didn’t un­der­stand­whythey were so at­tached to this bar­ren land, which brings us end­less ill­ness, pain and home­sick­ness. Now I feel a strong re­luc­tance to leave,” he said. “Pro­tect­ing the mother­land gives me a strong sense of honor and duty. This is the priv­i­lege of be­ing a soldier, com­pared with my peers at home who kill their time play­ing video games in In­ter­net bars.”

The 12 sol­diers at the Tragola guard post— the high­est point and the harsh­est place in the bat­tal­ion’s sphere of ac­tion — come from across China. Their av­er­age age is 24, and they av­er­age five years of ser­vice in the re­gion.

None of them has un­der­gone the an­nual phys­i­cal checkup be­cause they “al­ready know the re­sults” and none of them has told their fam­i­lies ex­actly where they are serv­ing be­cause that knowl­edge would cause “ex­tra con­cerns”. None of them ad­mit­ted to en­joy­ing home leave, be­cause “it’s costly in time and money, and en­tails ‘makeup’ (some sol­diers ap­ply light cos­met­ics to im­prove their weather-beaten ap­pear­ances)”, as one put it.

Wang Xin, a 20-year-old soldier from Heze, Shan­dong province, who works in the cook­house, said: “Two years ago, when I cooked for the first time at Tragola, I ru­ined the meal be­cause I didn’t know how to use a pres­sure cooker (an es­sen­tial tool at high al­ti­tude, where food takes a long time to cook). The old sol­diers ate up the half-cooked rice with­out com­plaint and then com­forted me again and again. From that mo­ment, I re­garded them asmy broth­ers.”

Wang Wei, a 25-year-old guard from Dezhou, Shan­dong province, who is in his sev­enth year at the Tragola post, made light of the in­ci­dent. “Half-cooked rice is much bet­ter than the snowwe­some­times have to eatonour­pa­trols, andthe­con­di­tions to­day are­much­bet­ter than those our pre­de­ces­sors faced in the 1960s. Guard­ing the Tragola post is an honor for the sol­diers in our bat­tal­ion— it proves our re­solve, power and love for the mother­land,” he said.

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