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Eternal vigil at the nation's 'eastern gate'

(China Daily)    13:30, August 21, 2019

A member of the PLA Navy on guard at the radar garrison on Dongfushan Island in the East China Sea, one of China's most easterly points. WANG ZHUANGFEI/CHINA DAILY

Sailors stationed at a remote radar post spend their lives watching for ship movements on the ocean. Li Hongyang reports from Zhoushan, Zhejiang.

For more than six decades, members of the People's Liberation Army Navy stationed at a radar garrison in the East China Sea have guarded the nation's territorial waters while battling inclement weather and isolation.

However, despite being members of the Navy, they don't sail on the ocean. Their job is to watch for danger on the sea from their base at the top of Dongfushan Island, one of China's most easterly outcrops.

The island, administered by Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, covers less than 3 square kilometers and has a civilian population of only about 100. An air of neglect hangs over the place.

For almost six months of every year, the garrison buildings-on the highest point of the rocky island, about 300 meters above sea level-are shrouded in thick fog.

Even in July, when the sun is bright and the air is dry at the foot of the mountain, visibility is less than 10 meters at the top, despite strong winds. Clothes are sticky all the time, and centipedes cover the ground at night, ready to bite unwary walkers.

Sailors practice their professional skills. WANG ZHUANGFEI/CHINA DAILY

Fan Zhengjun, who has been stationed at the garrison for 22 years, is well accustomed to the stifling, humid weather.

He noted that the sea fog usually lingers on the peak for about five months every year, which affects the sailors both mentally and physically.

He recalled that 20 years ago, the unpredictable weather meant few ships docked, so the sailors rarely had vegetables to eat. Instead, they existed on stir-fried rice in soy sauce.

While their choice of food has improved, the misty weather remains a problem.

"We have to be careful when walking, because there is always moisture on the ground thanks to the mist. Even in summer, we need to use electric blankets and fans simultaneously at night to sleep. I have had rheumatism in my knees for many years," the 48-year-old said.

Every day, the sailors undertake physical exercises on the parade ground, despite the thick blanket of fog.

"I don't know whether it is harmful to our health, but I feel a little uncomfortable when breathing in the air. Sometimes when the foggy weather lasts, we feel upset or even lose our tempers due to an extended lack of sunlight," Fan said.

A karaoke competition is held after training. WANG ZHUANGFEI/CHINA DAILY

In addition to the weather, the repetitive nature of life and isolation make living on the island tough.

At all times of the day, the sailors monitor radar screens to watch for dangers on the sea and provide the teams in the hilltop base with information. Each sailor takes alternating six-hour stints at a screen during their 24-hour shift.

It takes about six hours to sail from Dongfushan to Zhoushan, the nearest city, but between June and November, when typhoons make landfall on the island about five or eight times, no vessel will approach the rocky outcrop.

There is a saying among the veteran sailors that after a prolonged stay even pigs stare blankly the whole day and dogs try to escape by jumping into the sea.

Chen Zonglei, a 24-year-old in charge of the camp's armory, said he will never forget when he was a new recruit and had no annual leave. Some friends planned to visit him, but a typhoon prevented them.

"At the time, I had not visited my hometown for a while. I really hoped they would come so I could show them around the island. I felt it was a real pity they couldn't make it," he said.

Zhu Xinxin, a member of the garrison, smiles as he is visited by his wife last month. WANG ZHUANGFEI/CHINA DAILY

"The regular training sessions and not being able to leave the camp can make life a little boring. We need to improve our mood on our own and avoid becoming emotional. Usually, we play basketball, snooker, phone games or just chat and joke with each other," he added.

In addition to those activities, Chen said the sailors have a special place to lift their spirits when they feel down.

"About 20 minutes' walk from the camp, there is a large stone facing the sea that few tourists visit. When we have time, we like to go there alone, to stare at the sea or even shout at it.

"Usually, we shout: 'XXXX, I miss you!' or 'Yes, you can do it!' and 'Don't be afraid!' Sometimes if someone happens to be passing and hears our words, they shout back 'Forget about her' or 'You mustn't miss her'," Chen said.

The stone also offers a useful retreat when squad leaders need to help members of their team deal with loneliness or depression. They often take unhappy team members to the stone and chat with them privately.

Members of the cookhouse team prepare dinner for their comrades last month. WANG ZHUANGFEI/CHINA DAILY

Shared secrets

Fan, who is a squad leader, said it has long been a tradition for sailors on the island to share secrets.

In 1997, none of the garrison members could afford a cellphone and there wasn't a signal on the island anyway, so they communicated with their families by writing letters that took about two months to arrive. They also pledged their love via letters.

"If one of us wrote a love letter, he would let us all read it and give suggestions about what to write. Although it was kind of private, we always liked to share secrets with one another," Fan said.

"When someone returns from annual leave, they bring lots of their hometown food to the camp. There's no need to hand it over to the other sailors because they will all rush into his room and help themselves. It is one of our happiest times, when everyone sits together to eat food made by someone's wife or mom and discuss news and anecdotes from back home."

Mao Yinliang, who has been stationed on Dongfushan for 12 years, said he doesn't find it difficult to live in the harsh environment, but it can be hard to endure doing the same things-monitoring the screens and sending out information-every day.

"When I signed up for the navy, I imagined I would sail on the sea in a large ship. But now, after being on this island for so many years, I have gradually changed my opinion. My work here is so important. We are the eyes of the sailors at the frontline," he said.

"I feel pride and honor in being a sailor, because I feel we are different from other people in some respects. To take a simple example, when you are on the street, you can easily tell if someone is in the military because they stand up straight when walking. They have good posture."

On Dongfushan, where the environment and work are trying, it is easy to form a brotherhood.

In the words of a song written by a former member of the garrison in 1963, "This is the sailors' second hometown."

Sailors undertake physical training at the radar facility as thick fog shrouds Dongfushan last month. WANG ZHUANGFEI/CHINA DAILY

Values

Liu Yu, a young recruit, has found friends whose values and spirit he can emulate.

"Before coming here, I didn't have any idea about the future or a strong faith in life. However, I have met many friends from across China on the island. Through living with and talking to them, I have gained insights into how to live a meaningful life," the 19-year-old said.

"Unlike my friends in high school, most of my comrades, even those from wealthy families, know they should be independent from their parents and make a life on their own."

Fan said the island is now his second home.

"When I am here, I miss my family, but when I am at home, I miss my comrades. My family understands and supports my work," he said.

"We can't relax mentally even for a second because we are located in the East China Sea. Our country's eastern gate needs to be guarded by someone-we are that 'someone' and we are not afraid of any hardships."

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Liang Jun, Bianji)

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