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Mission to teach kids on high

THE spaceship program engineer Ren Huaiping was stunned by the abject poverty of residents on his first visit to the remote village of Taerqing at the foot of the religiously sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet Autonomous Region.

They lacked everything in this Himalayan village 4,700 meters above sea level, from clean water to vegetables, clothes and medicine, not to mention books and writing paper for school. The villagers were scraping for a living from the desolate, rugged land and never thought of educating their children whose days were spent herding goats or yaks.

That initial visit was in 2005 and things have changed in the Ngari Prefecture village since Ren returned a year later, having quit his Beijing job.

Ren settled in the village with the aim of establishing a care program for orphans whose parents have died in the harsh natural elements in an inhospitable region.

"I could hear an inner voice telling me to stay and help," said Ren as he recalled how he made up his mind to live in the isolated highland village. Mount Kailash, whose Tibetan name means "precious jewel of snows," is believed to be the most significant peak in the world without known climbing attempts. It therefore doesn't have the commercial infrastructure such as other areas that supports climbing expeditions.

In the past three years, Ren has established a volunteer center that attracts a dozen young people each year to work and teach in the poverty-stricken area and provides more than 30 volunteer teachers to schools in the prefecture.

Ren has adopted eight Tibetan orphans, effectively establishing the highest orphanage in the world, and supports another 43 children to go to school. He rented a bungalow for 1,000 yuan (US$680) per month as the volunteer center and sought help from local schools and authorities to build a database of children in the area.

Apart from learning to cope with the high altitude thin air, Ren also had to contend with the shortage of fresh vegetables and living without a bathroom, electricity and tap water. Fetching water from a melting glacier has become a daily toil for the 55-year-old which he does in a trek that takes 90 minutes without a vehicle.

Ren's first contribution to the village was two public toilets as he considered them a good start to introduce civilization and hygiene to the locals. The normally simple construction, however, took almost two years to complete and cost Ren about 100,000 yuan.

"Physical labor is very arduous with tenuous air at this high level and water is so scarce that even carrying a bottle of water induces gasps for breath," Ren explained. "Every brick had to be transported from elsewhere" and was an additional burden after fetching water over a long distance.

He added that it takes weeks for a caravan to bring in much needed necessities.

"Building an orphanage will cost more money and time," said Ren. "I'm still far away from the budget needed for the project."

Today, eight orphans are living in the volunteer center, which Ren said is "by no means an orphanage" because it also serves as an inn to cover the children's expenses. He has spent all his savings on the venture and is compelled by economics to couple his community work with running the inn business. "The inn could bring us approximately 15,000 yuan a year and would improve the life of these kids," he said.

Ren wants the children to live in a better home with at least books and a playground. He recently found four more orphans in Yanhu, another village in the prefecture, which he aims to bring in.

Unexpectedly, the inn gradually became a communication platform as international travelers carried Ren's story back home. Some even set up blogs and Websites for the volunteer center and regularly update information about Ren's undertakings.

These Websites attract not only public attention but also volunteers and donations. "My family also learned about my work via those Websites," said Ren.

Asked what his family thought about him, Ren said, "they thought I was crazy but they now begin to understand me after reading those stories online."

"Even though my wife can not join me in this desolate environment, she gave me a lot of support." Ren's wife, a university researcher, now lives in Germany. She often phones him and sends money and materials.

Before leaving for Tibet, Ren was the general manager and chief engineer of two Beijing companies with a yearly income of 400,000 yuan. Having worked in the countryside as a young laborer during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Ren was accustomed to living in hardy conditions but going to college changed his life.

After graduating from a polytechnic university in 1980, he joined the People's Liberation Army and was assigned to work in an aeronautic and space institute where he met his wife. He later took part in the Shenzhou spaceship program where he was responsible for ground surface experiments.

In 1997, he left the institute to work as general manager and chief engineer for an international company. But after his first trip to Taerqing, Ren soon made up his mind to spend the rest of his life helping Tibetan children. "I won't leave here as long as my health permits," he said.

Although his family now understands and supports him, he still has regrets, highlighted when he returned home for the first time in three years last October. "I saw my 80-year-old father with tears in his eyes, having no idea whether he would live to see me the next time," Ren recalled.

Today, everything in the volunteer center goes smoothly. One of Ren's regular jobs is to go deep into the pastures to hand out cash to poor herdsmen's families who are supposed to use the 100 yuan monthly stipend on their children's nutrition and education. Transport remains the biggest problem for Ren though the local police have offered him transport to visit remote rural families.

The sum he spends on travel equals the amount of money he has raised for the children. "But you have almost no choice because this remote place has no bank," Ren said. "Few cars go between Taerqing and Ngari (seat of the Ngari Prefecture). The driver rules the road and can ask any fee he wishes." After a lot of bargaining and with fuel included, the fee is usually about 3,000 yuan for a single trip to the yurts (wood lattice-framed dwellings) scattered far out on the pastures.

Ren and his team once rented a car but it broke down and they had to pay more to have it fixed. He once walked for more than 13 hours to get home during a severe snowstorm during which the temperature dropped to minus 30 degrees Celsius.

The snow was knee-high and the conditions life-threatening but his strong will got him safely through to Taerqing, although his clothes were frozen stiff. "Though I was extremely tired, I knew I could not stop because, if I did, I feared dying," he said.

Despite the great risks of traveling on the rugged highland terrain, he insists on making the routine visits to the herdsmen's families because he believes face-to-face communication is very important.

"The nomadic Tibetans have a totally different mentality," he explained. "Education never comes to the mind of a herdsman. They regard it as useless, a waste of time and money. They feel destined for life on the grassland."

As a result, Ren often spends hours to persuade them to let their children go to school. "Otherwise the kids would be illiterate and forever live at the mercy of the elements," he said.

Even with his support, some children are reluctant to go to school and sneak out of the classroom, usually with approval from their parents.

This year, the only school, named Ping Guo, persuaded to stay two pupils who tried to run away.

Last year, three escaped. "To talk to the locals about the importance of education is one of my main tasks here," Ren said.


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