Iso­lated for months at a time in an ocean of green­ery

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By ZHAO XU and LEI LEI

Liu Jun’s most-treasured pos­ses­sion is a pair of binoc­u­lars. For the past 12 years, he has car­ried them with him al­most wher­ever he goes. Dur­ing spring and au­tumn, the fire­prone sea­sons, he picks them up once ev­ery 15 min­utes dur­ing day­light and once an hour at night.

Through the binoc­u­lars’ lenses, the color green fills Liu’s eyes. Scan­ning the ex­pan­sive wood­land, he keeps a watch for the slight­est hint of smoke that could wreak havoc.

Liu is a fire watcher. His job is to keep an eye out to en­sure that any smoke that comes into his field of vi­sion does not be­come a for­est fire.

His work­place, a 16-me­ter-high tower atop the high­est peak in Sai­hanba Na­tional For­est Park, He­bei prov­ince, stands at an al­ti­tude of 1,940 me­ters above sea level. The non­stop howl­ing wind pro­vides a con­trast to the for­est, which re­sem­bles a gi­gan­tic clump of emer­ald.

The wind is more bear­able than the cold, though. Through­out the year, the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture is about -1.3 C, but in the depths of win­ter it can drop as low as -44 C.

Though the cli­mate is a prob­lem to­day, it was even worse be­fore the early 2000s be­cause there was no elec­tric­ity sup­ply.

“Ev­ery Oc­to­ber, be­fore win­ter came, the peo­ple who manned the watch­tower would store plenty of fire­wood, which they found on the moun­tain, and re­lied on it for the next six months,” said Liu, 46, whose sun­tanned face and un­kempt hair make him ap­pear older than his years.

“De­spite the fire­wood, the place was still as cold as a huge ice­box. The fire watch­ers had to scrape at the frost-cov­ered win­dows to peer out­side.”

The sto­ries of his pre­de­ces­sors still haunt him. When the watch­tower was built in 1962, it wasn’t re­ally a tower, but a hum­ble shed propped up on tree trunks and cov­ered with straw.

To­day, the only re­minder is a black-and-white photo hang­ing on the wall along the stairs in the new watch­tower. The im­age sits along­side color pho­tos of the se­cond- and third-gen­er­a­tion tow­ers — both brick con­struc­tions re­sem­bling build­ing blocks.

Liu is the fourth-gen­er­a­tion of fire watch­ers, and his L-shaped, five-story build­ing with a climbable roof fi­nally mer­its the des­ig­na­tion “tower”. The for­est has nine, in­clud­ing Liu’s.

“Here, not a sin­gle win­ter passes with­out heavy snow­fall, so heavy that all the roads down the moun­tain are blocked,” he said.

In the old days, es­pe­cially dur­ing the 1960s and ’70s, the snow forced the tower’s oc­cu­pants to stay there for the en­tire win­ter.

“Through­out that time, they had noth­ing to drink but snow wa­ter and noth­ing to eat but dried pick­les and frozen steamed flour buns as hard as stone. The wa­ter smelled strongly of tree sap,” he said.

“Some tried rais­ing an­i­mals to pro­vide them­selves with some des­per­ately needed com­pany,” Liu said. “But it was hard. Although there were cases where geese had weath­ered through the win­ter be­fore giv­ing birth to goslings in spring, in other cases, rab­bits lost their long ears to the bit­ing cold.”

When wild an­i­mals, such as boars and skunks came “knock­ing on the door” at night, they were sim­ply driven away and rarely harmed. “Their vis­its, although a lit­tle scary, were ap­pre­ci­ated dur­ing the long win­ter nights filled with the howls of snow­storms,” Liu said. Tragedies oc­curred, too. A hus­band-and­wife team, Chen Rui­jun and Chu Jing­mei, were also fire­watch­ers. One Spring Fes­ti­val — which usu­ally falls in Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary — they de­cided that one of them would go home to see their daugh­ter, while the other would stay at their watch­tower.

Chen, the hus­band, stayed. But a few days af­ter Chu left, he caught a bad cold. He lay down, and was un­able to lift him­self up when the ill­ness took hold. He felt nailed to his bed, with no en­ergy left. Grad­u­ally he lost con­scious­ness.

When he even­tu­ally opened his eyes, Chen saw a stout man look­ing at him in­tently, his broad hands hold­ing his own. The man was a lo­cal farmer who had lost his horse, and his search had taken him to Chen’s watch­tower. His un­ex­pected ar­rival helped save Chen’s life.

That was in the mid-1980s. Chen died in 2011, at age 54. The watch­tower he once oc­cu­pied was de­mol­ished in the 1990s to make way for the con­struc­tion of a new one, which in turn was re­placed in 2014 by the one Liu and his wife now oc­cupy.

Elec­tric­ity be­came avail­able in the early 2000s, but there was no hot wa­ter un­til three years ago.

“Be­fore, I had to go for weeks or months with­out tak­ing a shower,” said Liu, who used to travel long dis­tances to fetch wa­ter from rivers, and climb the moun­tain slope with pack­ages weigh­ing 100 kg on his back con­tain­ing sev­eral months’ food.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the past 55 years is some­thing Liu has in com­mon with ev­ery fire­watcher who has worked at Sai­hanba: lone­li­ness. “The feel­ing of iso­la­tion is enough to break a man who thinks noth­ing of the cold and hard­ship for which the area is renowned,” he said.

“Af­ter be­ing locked in the tower for two months, I thought I was go­ing mad,” he said. “I wanted to be out there dig­ging holes and plant­ing trees. It was tough work, but at least you got to see peo­ple.”

He found a so­lu­tion to lone­li­ness through his wife, Qi Shuyan.

Qi al­ways refers to Liu as her big brother. “Love is bet­ter pre­served here,” she said, her gig­gles draw­ing a broad smile from her tac­i­turn spouse.

“It can be ex­tremely bor­ing, but bore­dom shared by two is bore­dom halved,” she said. How­ever, bore­dom halved is still bore­dom. That’s why she has de­voted her­self to em­broi­dery over the past few years, while Liu paints.

“I started paint­ing in 2009, four years af­ter I came here. All my ear­li­est works were painted on the pa­per we used to cover the slim open­ings be­tween win­dow panes in win­ter,” he said. “I never ex­pected them to last.”

Some of his paint­ings adorn the in­te­rior walls of the cou­ple’s watch­tower, in­clud­ing the ground-floor bed­room. One par­tic­u­larly eye­catch­ing work de­picts a cou­ple of cats snug­gling up to each other, both look­ing into the dis­tance.

If iso­la­tion has be­come bear­able for cou­ples — of the nine watch­tow­ers, eight are oc­cu­pied by hus­ban­dand-wife teams — it also proved dam­ag­ing for their chil­dren, who of­ten felt de­serted with­out their par­ents.

“Dur­ing the fire-prone sea­sons of spring and au­tumn, my wife and I stay at the tower for three con­sec­u­tive months with­out see­ing our son,” he said.

The boy was brought up by his grandparents, but when he was 12, he tried to kill him­self by drink­ing an anal­gesic po­tion in­tended for ex­te­rior use.

“I heard the news and headed home, which at the time was two hours’ drive away. Mid-jour­ney, I was told that my son was safe and his con­di­tion wasn’t se­ri­ous, so I headed back,” Liu said, be­fore plung­ing into a long si­lence.

His son, now 24 and healthy, joins the for­est’s fire­fight­ing team twice a year, dur­ing spring and au­tumn.

His par­ents are as busy as ever: Dur­ing the fire-prone sea­sons, they are re­quired to re­port to the for­est’s fire-con­trol cen­ter reg­u­larly, es­pe­cially at night.

“My wife and I have an ar­range­ment: I sleep for the first half of the night, while she does the se­cond half,” said Liu, who has re­ported sev­eral small fires, in­clud­ing one in the neigh­bor­ing In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

“There has not been a ma­jor fire in the past 55 years, which is a mir­a­cle for a for­est lo­cated in a dry, cold place. From where I stand, I can rec­og­nize ev­ery sin­gle creek and crevice on the moun­tains, and of course ev­ery plume of smoke that is nei­ther mist nor a dust storm,” he added. “Th­ese days, we have all types of ad­vanced fire-de­tec­tion equip­ment, in­clud­ing an in­frared radar sys­tem and a light­ning warn­ing sys­tem, but noth­ing can re­place me and my binoc­u­lars.

“Back in 1962, my par­ents were the very first two fire watch­ers. They worked here un­til the mid-1980s. They must have seen what I’m see­ing to­day. We share a lot more than I had thought.” Liu’s father died in 1994 at age 52. Some­times, Liu and his son sit to­gether in front of his watch­tower in si­lence, fac­ing the green­ery. Liu se­nior prefers to let the rustling trees do his talk­ing for him.

Be­hind them, hang­ing ver­ti­cally on the build­ing are three red Chi­nese char­ac­ters, the play­ful name Liu has given his beloved tower, stand­ing high above the “ocean” of green trees: Wang­hailou, or “Sea Watch­ing Tower”.

My par­ents were the very first two fire watch­ers. ... They must have seen what I’m see­ing to­day. We share a lot more than I had thought.” Liu Jun, fire watcher


Liu Jun and his wife, Qi Shuyan, on the roof of their watch­tower in Sai­hanba.

Liu Jun dis­plays some of his paint­ings at his watch­tower.

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