Border pa­trol

A lone herds­man in Xin­jiang keeps an eye on who comes and goes

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By CUI JIA cui­jia@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Ev­ery morn­ing Wei Deyou lets his hun­gry sheep out of their pen on the grass­lands of the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, but the 76-year-old is no or­di­nary herds­man — he has been guard­ing the Chi­nese border for 52 years.

Just eight kilo­me­ters to the west of Wei’s house stands China’s No 173 bound­ary marker with Kaza­khstan.

Ev­ery day he grazes his sheep on the Saer­bu­lake grass­land near the barbed wire that sep­a­rates the two coun­tries. Wei calls it his rou­tine pa­trol.

His house doesn’t have a num­ber, be­cause Wei and his wife are the only peo­ple who still per­ma­nently re­side in the 50-square-km border area.

To keep an eye on any­thing sus­pi­cious, he al­ways car­ries a pair of binoc­u­lars, as well as an old ra­dio for en­ter­tain­ment and a rusty mil­i­tary ket­tle to keep him hy­drated.

The binoc­u­lars are more than 30 years old and were a gift from a sol­dier back in the 1980s. The ra­dio is his 50th, the oth­ers hav­ing bro­ken be­cause of the harsh en­vi­ron­ment.

For out­siders, the grass­land has stun­ning views in the sum­mer. But Wei knows that the warmer tem­per­a­tures bring mos­qui­toes that bite through his clothes, while each win­ter, bliz­zards from Siberia bring me­ter­deep snow, ham­per­ing travel for three months of the year.

Wei was a sol­dier once, and still thinks of him­self as one.

He came to Saer­bu­lake in 1964, when the govern­ment called on re­tired ser­vice­men to join the Xin­jiang Pro­duc­tion and Con­struc­tion Corps and guard the coun­try’s fron­tier while farm­ing and herd­ing.

The vis­i­ble hard­ships ini­tially scared Wei’s wife Liu Jing­hao when she came to join him from Shan­dong prov­ince. She wanted to go home, but touched by Wei’s sin­cer­ity, she even­tu­ally agreed to stay.

“Now we aren’t go­ing any­where. We will spend our whole lives here,” Liu said.

More than five decades af­ter first mov­ing to their sec­tion of the border re­gion, Wei and Liu are the only ones left.

Many have re­peat­edly asked Wei: “How could you per­sist in this no man’s land for so long? Don’t you ever think of leav­ing like oth­ers?”

“I be­lieve it is my re­spon­si­bil­ity to watch the land and I made a prom­ise when I first came here. I am just a stub­born man,” he said.

Each day, Wei walks along the border for more than 10 kilo­me­ters — he reck­ons the dis­tance he has cov­ered over the years would equal cir­cling the earth five times.

Since he first ar­rived, he has dis­suaded more than 1,000 peo­ple from il­le­gally cross­ing the border, and has helped send back many thou­sands of an­i­mals that strayed across.

Wei has long been fa­mil­iar to fron­tier soldiers and po­lice of­fi­cers who ben­e­fit from the in­for­ma­tion he con­stantly pro­vides.

He used to per­son­ally visit them on horse­back to file his re­ports, but a mo­bile phone now saves him such trips.

Although the border de­fense force has in­stalled sur­veil­lance cam­eras in the area, they still value Wei’s in­tel­li­gence be­cause he knows ev­ery inch of grass at his feet and ev­ery hill­top within sight.

There are about 70 herds­men like Wei who vol­un­teer to watch the borders in Saer­bu­lake.

As the big­gest re­gion in China, Xin­jiang con­tains about 25 per­cent of the coun­try’s land borders. Lo­cal herds­men and farm­ers liv­ing near the border have be­come a ma­jor force in pro­tect­ing it.

Ac­cord­ing to Xin­jiang border de­fense force, more than 80 per­cent of ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the border ar­eas are first re­ported by lo­cals, who they nick­name the “ea­gle eyes”.

In July, Wei was watch­ing his sheep graz­ing on a hill when three white vans came dash­ing to­ward the border. He in­stantly called the border con­trol of­fice, which later con­firmed that they were pho­tog­ra­phers chas­ing birds.

“I am just an or­di­nary per­son who didn’t re­ally do any­thing big. Only by do­ing this can I find my heart at ease,” Wei said.

Only by do­ing this can I find my heart at ease.” Wei Deyou, herds­man from Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion

PHO­TOS BY JIANG WENYAO

Wei and his sheep are of­ten only liv­ing souls on the “no-man’s land”.

Wei Deyou talks with fron­tier soldiers near his house, which is 8 kilo­me­ters west of China’s No 173 bound­ary marker with Kaza­khstan in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

Wei and his wife are the only peo­ple who still per­ma­nently re­side in the 50-square-km border area near No 173 bound­ary marker with Kaza­khstan.

Two por­traits of Wei Deyou, one from the 1960s and an­other more re­cent.

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