PhD puts soldier in vanguard at outpost
Updated: 2012-10-07 23:34
By Qin Zhongwei in Changbai, Jilin (China Daily)
Editor’s note: From Sept 11 to Sept 20, four China Daily reporters went to the Sino-Russian border and Sino-DPRK border in three provinces in Northeast China. They traveled more than 4,300 kilometers along the border area to cover the life and work of soldiers stationed there. This is part of a series of reports from the front line.
For the young soldiers stationed on top of Changbai Mountain in Jilin province, Zou Aimin is a comrade who stands shoulder to shoulder with them.
Zou Aimin (right), a 30-year-old who holds a PhD and is a commanding offi cer of an outpost on the Changbai Mountain in Jilin province, leads other soldiers in a patrol near Tianchi Lake in September. [Yan Jianghua/ For China Daily]
The 30-year-old graduated with a PhD from Jilin University in 2011 with a major in telecommunications. He applied to come to the outpost last year and is one of the few border defense soldiers in the province who has achieved such a high level of education.
"The toughest environment provides the best opportunity to mature," he said.
The Changbai Mountain outpost is the highest in Jilin and stands at 2,622 meters above sea level.
Heavenly Lake, known as Tianchi Lake in Chinese, is at the top of the mountain, and its breath-taking scenery attracts many tourists. The lake lies in the crater of a volcanic cone on the summit of the main peak of the mountain, and it presents a unique photo opportunity to tourists, especially in the summer.
But the border defense soldiers have a different view: the picturesque lake separates China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and it must be guarded throughout the year. Heavy snows in winter can stand as deep as 2 meters and the weather can be freezing — the coldest recorded temperature in recent years was -47 C. There are around 260 days a year when the wind speed is above 11.7 meters per second. The wind is so strong which even blew away the outpost’s steel roof.
"It was very difficult to fall asleep at the beginning when the wind outside cries like a wolf," Zou said, the memories of those early days on the mountain still vivid. "It was extremely cold the first time I used the snow water to brush my teeth."
Aside from overcoming the daily challenges of living in such tough conditions, Zou and his fellow soldiers also spend time training themselves to take on a variety of tasks — they need to be chefs as well as hair dressers to help look after each other when they are off duty.
Zou, who is now the commanding officer of this small outpost, said leading the soldiers is as much a learning experience as pursuing a degree. The outpost is where he can gain real management experience.
Zheng Yuewen, a new soldier, said Zou is always the last to go to bed in order to check everything is fine and everyone else is sleeping well.
And while the soldiers have high praise for Zou, he is equally impressed by them. While most of the soldiers were born between 1990 and 1999, Zou said they are not as "spoiled" as stereotypes suggest. He said they like to treat the challenges as valuable experiences and as stories that they will "show off" about to their peers.
When the path leading to the "outpost in the clouds" is cut off in winter due to heavy snow, and the supply of drinking water cannot be guaranteed, the fellow soldiers have to melt snow for water to drink, cook with and wash with. They can only take a bath once a month due to water shortages.
"When we are patrolling on duty or going out to collect the snow when there are no tourists, all we can see is pure white," Zou said.
"Sometimes I take the lead and we shout and sing songs at the top of our lungs. That is the moment we can feel what ‘defending our border’ means and the passion of it."
That is also the moment that bonds the soldiers together.
Although the means of dealing with the isolation and boredom have improved — computers and sports facilities have been provided — new soldiers will need some time to adapt to the difficult conditions when the tourist season is over.
Zou has introduced a culture of learning and study at the remote outpost, encouraging his comrades to put their time to good use. As a book lover who reads extensively, Zou’s good habit became "contagious".
The small library of the outpost began to be popular again. Its nearly 1,000 books began to circulate among the young soldiers. From history and culture, to IT and life experiences — all have become hot topics for the soldiers to discuss with Zou.
For the 21-year-old soldier Qu Leiyu, Zou has been an inspiration.
"I had never talked with a PhD graduate before, and he is more knowledgeable than the teachers who have taught me," Qu said.
Zou now tutors Qu in his spare time and Qu told him he plans to apply for the military academy in the future.
"I want to be someone like him someday," Qu said.