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
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.