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Across China: A captain's life on Mekong River

KUNMING, March 24 (Xinhua) -- At Guanlei Port, a crane was unloading timber off a ship, and bags of fertilizer were stacked-up, waiting to be loaded. Cpt. Ran Mujiang decided to take a break.

The timber originated from a port in Thailand, while the organic fertilizer, manufactured in China, is bound for the downstream countries of the Lancang River, which is called the Mekong once it flows out of China.

On Wednesday, the first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders' Meeting, under the theme "Shared River, Shared Future", began in Sanya, Hainan Province.

As China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam boost trade exchanges, the 4,800-km-long waterway linking the six countries is important for people like Ran, 45, who has spent more than 300 days a year on the river for the past 20 years.

"The river is my second hometown," he said.

Despite hailing from a village in the mountains of Chongqing Municipality, he always dreamed of becoming a sailor. In 1996, he landed a job as a sailor with a monthly salary of 800 yuan (123 U. S. dollars), based out of Guanlei, the last port in southwest China's Yunnan Province before the Lancang River flows out of the country.

"I loved that job. I made much more money than running errands back home," he recalled. In 2005, he gained his captain's license. This opened up more opportunities.

Compared with other waterways, the Mekong is primitive, and its watercourses narrow and twisted, posing challenges for boats.

"Some shoals, which lack navigation marks, are very difficult to pass as hidden reefs are a danger," he said, adding that on one particularly twisted section of the watercourse he witnessed a vessel hit a hidden rock while trying to avoid another ship.

Security is another issue for Ran as pirates are not unknown. However, after cross-country joint patrols were launched in October 2011, just days after a two cargo ships and 13 Chinese sailors were killed on board in waters belonging to Thailand, incidents are rare.

"Thanks to the protection of the patrol teams, we felt much safer," he said.

Ran has witnessed the Mekong River develop into an important water passage for cargo.

According to Yunnan Provincial Bureau of Navigation Management, 4 million tonnes of transported cargo have travelled along the river since international shipping services began in 2001, with trade value up to 30 billion yuan.

Ran's income has also surged to a wage of 4,000 yuan plus a bonus depending on the cargo volume delivered.

In 2005, Ran's wife joined him onboard as a chef. The couple also own an apartment in Chongqing.

Ran said he enjoyed being a sailor, but felt sorry for his son as he and his wife were hardly ever at home.

"We were only at home for a couple of days over Spring Festival," he said.

Ran's son, who quit senior high school, does not want to follow in his father's footsteps as he believed the work to be "boring." Ran is upbeat that his son will find something that he loves. "I hope he can learn a skill, like cooking, to support himself in the future," said Ran.

Attendees of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders' Meeting agreed to cooperate on the priority fields of connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, agriculture and poverty reduction.

Ran was cheered by the meeting, as it may help business.

"I expect more cargo to keep us busy and the people along the river will definitely live a better life," he said.

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