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July 21, 2011

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Guarding the nation

CHINA'S border guards in the Tibet Autonomous Region brave altitude sickness, privation and loneliness on snowy peaks but they say their mission to protect the nation is glorious. Ma Shukun reports.

Twenty-year-old Lu Zhouyang gazes at snowy mountains several kilometers away along China's border, catching his breath after climbing 15 flights of stairs while carrying four hot water flasks.

"The snow-covered mountains are quite beautiful, and I never get tired of them," Lu says with a smile.

He says enjoying the beauty of the snowy mountain has been a happy and relaxing for him during his one-year tour of duty as a border guard at a watch house 4,900 meters above sea level in Takexun in the Tibet Autonomous Region in southwestern China.

Insufficient oxygen at such a high altitude makes climbing stairs exhausting, requiring frequent breaks, even for a young man.

His reverence for the mountains has a deeper meaning, since he sees the mountains as a reflection of Chinese border guards in Tibet - magnificent in stature and unrelenting in protecting the nation.

"We (frontier guards) are like the snowy mountains standing here, so the nation can enjoy peace," he said.

Every day he patrols several kilometers or stands guard at a sentry post.

Harsh conditions

He says pride and honor help him endure Tibet's harsh environment.

Tibet's average elevation is 4,500 meters, making it "the roof of the world."

For most people, the low oxygen level at high altitude is the biggest challenge since it can cause altitude sickness, including acute headaches, faster breathing and insomnia. Severe cases involve life-threatening buildup of fluid in the lungs and brain. Many areas are utterly inhospitable to humans.

At the Takexun watch house in southern Tibet, the air's oxygen content is only 40 percent of that in other inland provinces. The average annual temperature is around 4 degree Celsius, and temperatures plunge as low as minus 40. Strong winds are prevalent and the sunlight and UV radiation are intense.

"I had headaches and insomnia during my first two weeks," Lu says. He had worked hard to prepare himself mentally for the difficult adjustment. He signed up for military service in 2010 after quitting college. He had been a sophomore studying preschool education in Henan Province in central China.

"Now I am acclimated but strenuous exercise is not recommended and it is easy to get worn out," he says.

Every young man from lower elevations at first experiences adverse physical reactions to the high altitude, according to military officer Zheng Guangbin. He says low temperatures can also cause chilblains in the ears and hands as well as rheumatism.

Transporting daily necessities is difficult. Zhanniangshe watch house, for example, stands at over 4,600 meters on a peak, with slopes of up to 70 degrees on all sides.

All roads to the post are sealed from October to June because of snow, forcing soldiers to start carrying fresh vegetables for storage starting in August. They hike around 30 kilometers per trip. In the other months, troops regularly deliver vegetables by road.

For the seven soldiers at the watch house, lack of water is a bigger problem than lack of oxygen. They must use snow and rain for drinking, cooking and washing all year. Showers are luxuries, says Ma Guanjing, a 23-year-old guard from Henan.

"What I want most is take a nice, hot, hour-long bath," Ma says.

But physical challenges pale in comparison with loneliness and boredom. Sometimes soldiers regret their choice of assignment, but no one has backed out.


Like Lu, hundreds of young people who were born in the late 1980s or in the early 1990s chose to guard the border in Tibet rather than continue their education and work in cities. They represent more than half the total of border soldiers in Tibet.

They have no Internet access or mobile phones and, of course, no bars, cinemas and shopping malls. They rely on each other for company, stare at mountains and clouds, read outdated newspapers and magazines and watch DVDs.

At Zhanniangshe, the soldiers planted shrubs and flowers in warmer weather, but all died. A pet cat froze to death. Birds and insects are rare. They say guards have only each other to look at during the day and only the stars at night.

Each watch house has a landline, but soldiers can only call home once a week. Calls are limited to five minutes, so that no work-related phone calls are blocked.

"Sometimes life is really boring and I feel isolated from the outside world because I don't know what's happening," Ma says, adding that it's hard to make conversation with old friends when he's home on vacation.

"My friends and classmates talk about their families and kids, but I can't be part of their conversations," says Hui Yong, head of a watch house at Nhatu La. "When the parties are over, I'm always the only one left alone," he says with tears in his eyes.

Border soldiers also have trouble maintaining stable, long-term relationships due to years of separation. Those who do start families can only see their wives and children for two months a year.

"Despite the hardships, any disquiet is temporary," Lu says. "When I see that no soldiers have backed out, I know my regrets are wrong."

All the soldiers interviewed say life at the watch houses is a worthwhile experience and see the job of border guards as glorious.

"I can achieve self-actualization here, and it's a stage for me to play my role," Ma says. "I'm here to protect the nation and the people. I feel valued and irreplaceable."

Surviving and thriving in this environment will make future challenges and obstacles less daunting, the soldiers say.

"This life allows me to grow and gives me the courage and the ability to face life's difficulties," says 27-year-old Hui. "I think when I retire from the army and start my career, I will have nothing to fear."

Hui is still single but he is confident that his time as a border guard will make him a more responsible and better individual, a better husband and father.

The young generation are sincere, honest and determined, says officer Zheng Guangbin.

"I'm confident they can shoulder the responsibility of protecting the nation," Zheng says.


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