Sitting Atop the World, Sketching the Faces of the Dead
This story is part of a weekend column featuring translations from respected Chinese media outlets, as selected and edited by Sixth Tone. All are reproduced with the outlets’ permission. A version of this article was first published in podcast form by StoryFM. Another story from the Karakoram Highway construction team can be found here.
Editor’s note: Deep in the remote and unforgiving landscape of Central Asia lies one of the most remarkable roads in the world. The Karakoram Highway slices through the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Himalaya mountain rages to connect China and Pakistan. Reaching heights of roughly 4,730 meters, it crosses some of the most complex and harsh terrain in the world, prone at any moment to avalanches, landslides, rockfalls, cave-ins, and earthquakes.
The road has its origins in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A year after the second Indo-Pakistani War in 1965, Pakistan and its Chinese ally signed an agreement to build an overland link between the two countries, though it would take another 13 years of work before the highway would finally open to traffic. During that time, China dispatched some 20,000 laborers to take part in construction. Working in secret, they would eventually be responsible for completing 1,070 of the road’s 1,200 kilometers. Locals saw only people clad in blue uniforms and tightly sealed trucks. None of them knew where they had come from or where they were headed.
Today, all that feels like ancient history: The road is now best known as a tourist destination, a place where hip travelers go when they want to experience what it’s like to leap over the rooftop of the world. But for the roughly 20,000 People’s Liberation Army soldiers and other workers who spent their youths working on the secret Project 1601, as the road was then known, it casts a long shadow — a unique, towering achievement, but also a graveyard for dozens of their comrades and friends.
Tian Niansheng was one of the survivors. He joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1978, just after his 20th birthday. Assigned to a highway-construction team in Pakistan, he spent the next year in that country working as a stone-layer and then a projectionist, responsible for screening films to keep up workers’ morale. During that time — the final, desperate sprint before construction would finish in 1979 — many of Tian’s comrades died as a consequence of accidents or disease. A talented artist, he was assigned to draw their funeral portraits. Even today, he can still recall their faces.
This is his story.
Right after Lunar New Year, in February 1978, I left my place of enlistment in the central Hunan province, where I’d been living since being sent down from the city during the Cultural Revolution, and boarded a boxcar to the Northwest. It was a long and barren journey. After two weeks, I reached my regimental headquarters, deep in the Gobi Desert in Hejing County, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
None of us knew what we were supposed to be doing there. For two weeks, we trained and marched, when suddenly new orders came down: We were to undergo a foreign aid training course. We had no idea what to make of that. Did they expect us to go abroad?
It was only afterward that some of the veterans told us in private that we were being sent to Pakistan to build a road.
Thanks to my relatively high educational qualifications, I was actually assigned to stay in China at first, working as an administrator. It was a safe job, but I was set on joining the foreign aid team. So I intentionally started getting sloppy on the job; I even sat in the shade while I directed training once. Pretty soon, the platoon leader and commander decided I was too “arrogant” and needed a lesson.
Just like that, I found myself on my way to Pakistan.
The Tiger’s Mouth
My team underwent two months of training before we shipped out. Then, on May 15, 1978, we packed up all our military gear into boxes and set them aside to await our return. We then changed into civilian clothes — either gray or blue. We were being sent as laborers, not soldiers.
After crossing into Pakistan, we followed the steep sloping border until we reached the junction of two mountains, a site called Tiger’s Mouth. We set up camp at a riverbank about 40 meters away. The mountaintops were bare, home only to ancient, weathered boulders. These looked as though they’d gone untouched in hundreds, if not thousands of years. But the slightest movement — a fox picking its way through the terrain — might bring them crashing down.
That lesson was driven home our first night after leaving China. One of my comrades had just fallen asleep when we heard a whistling sound outside, followed by the thunderous cacophony of falling rocks. He had barely rolled out of bed when a 20-kilogram boulder hurtled through the tent and smashed right into his just-vacated bunk.
The land around us was utterly barren. Our troop’s 20-plus green tents offered the only splash of color. We slept 10 to a row. The weather was so cold that we kept our coal stoves running year-round, even during the summer. Sometimes our fingers would freeze to the wire we used to dry our clothes, and the combination of high elevation and low air pressure made boiling our food a chore. Steamed buns tasted like lumps of rubber. Just one bite would make you want to throw up.
Our work went in cycles. We were mostly responsible for building the walls on both sides of the highway, which we did by stacking stones on top of each other. We had to pry the stones, crush them, and move them. Every morning, we would climb onto the bus and head to the construction site, holding a steamed bun in one hand and a bowl of congee in the other. We ate lunch there and only returned late at night.
The thin air made moving even just a 5- or 10-kilogram boulder exhausting. When I went to work back home, I could haul a 90-kilogram load for 5 kilometers and still feel like I was flying. Here, though, a 10-kilogram stone wore me out.
After a month of this, everyone had worn holes in their clothes. When our buttons rubbed off, we used thin wires to hold our clothes in place and sewed the buttons back in that way. Still, no one was willing to let their exhaustion show. One time, after moving rocks for four hours, I was just too drained to go on. I snuck away behind the rocks and rested for half an hour. I didn’t have the strength to continue, but I couldn’t bring myself to rest at the construction site in front of everyone.
Sounds of Home
I worked like this for about two months before I was reassigned to be a projectionist. In that role I screened films to different companies every day. I probably went back and forth on that road more than anyone else. We didn’t have much in the way of entertainment at the time, so these film projections — mostly old Chinese films — were an important link to home.
The most unforgettable film I screened was a recording of “Hua Wei Mei,” a Chinese opera. It was so popular, after we showed it at the battalion headquarters, they pressured us into staying overnight so they could watch it again.
“This is an opera from our hometown; we haven’t heard that accent in so many years,” they pleaded. “We just want to watch it again!” It was a small request, but it reflected how homesick they were. Wherever we went, soldiers would pull out their notebooks and jot down the lyrics. Some even used their precious foreign currency to buy a recorder and record the songs.
Swept up by the films, the soldiers sometimes sang along, drowning out the film itself. Our company was largely stationed in the river valley, surrounded by cliffs on both sides. Their voices would ricochet off the valley and get caught in the wind, creating a melody both bitter and sweet.
Editor’s Note: 1978 and 1979 saw the final, decisive stage of construction on the Karakoram Highway. In their relentless, rushed push to the finish line, companies declared repeated “Hundred Days’ War” campaigns, exhorting workers to work harder and faster. On New Year’s Day, the 2nd Company vowed to complete an entire roadbed by Lunar New Year, despite physical labor shortages caused by the holiday and troop rotations. Workers insisted on seeing the job through the end, even after falling ill.
Too many construction workers lost their lives. We didn’t have any photos that could serve as a portrait of the deceased, so because I was skilled at drawing, I was sent to draw those who had died.
Qian Liangying, a soldier in the 2nd Company from the eastern province of Anhui, lost his life on Jan. 9, 1979, at the age of 20. I remember his face with absolute clarity: angular with slightly protruding teeth and narrow eyes.
Qian was responsible for overseeing safety procedures in his company. One morning, after their team had been cutting into a mountain for a week, they set their explosives and ignited them.
It was a success, and it meant they were right on schedule.
Everyone had lunch before returning to the construction site. The regulations stipulated that the safety personnel had to approach the demolition point first and conduct a safety assessment. So they, and Qian with them, entered the site ahead of everyone else.
Suddenly, without warning, a boulder slipped loose and the mountain came cascading down. In the ensuing chaos, the safety crew came running back — all except for Qian.
The landslide continued for another three minutes before it stopped. Only then did the team hear a faint cry for help from underneath the roughly 200 tons of rocks that had tumbled down.
Qian was still alive. The soldiers rushed over and, through a gap in the rubble, they saw him extending one hand for help. He was using his other hand to try to push his intestines back into his body. He was bathed in blood.
It was a dire situation. A crane quickly arrived at the scene, and they were finally able to shift the rocks. Two soldiers clambered through the cracks, hauled Qian out, and immediately rushed him to the hospital.
It was too late. He had lost too much blood.
To this day, my Anhui comrades and I still talk about him. It’s been 40 years, yet his memory still brings them to tears. Such things are not lightly forgotten.
Another soldier, Zhu Fa’an, died shortly after Lunar New Year in 1979. A day or two after the holiday, a comrade anxiously told me that his fellow villager had fallen sick but refused medical care. He declared that some slight discomfort could never keep him from his job. Then he came down with a pulmonary edema and grew gravely ill.
“I visited him and brought half a kilo of White Rabbit milk candy,” my friend told me. “We sat by his bedside while he ate almost all of it. He had a photo of his fiancée by his pillow, but I don’t think he has much longer to live.”
Two days later, the head of communications came to me with a photo in his hand. He said that a soldier in the 3rd Company had died from a pulmonary edema. I knew instantly who he meant.
We had left China together in 1978, but Zhu would never make it back. I looked at him with a heavy heart, at a loss for words. I wanted to draw but couldn’t grip my pencil. I kept having to start over, over, and over again. That’s why I’ll never forget his face.
Many years after returning to China, I tracked down Zhu’s fiancée, a woman by the name of Xiao Jiyu.
By that point she was 55 years old. She met me dressed in an old military uniform. She spoke emotionally and began to cry as she shared some of their story with me. She and Zhu came from the same village and had been classmates since elementary school. After graduating high school, they both returned to work for their production team, the basic work unit within the commune system, and they grew closer during that time.
She supported him when he said he wanted to join the army. “Go, and I’ll take care of your parents,” she remembered telling him. “It doesn’t matter whether or not you distinguish yourself or rise through the ranks. When you come back to visit your family, we’ll get married.”
Her face glowed as she reminisced on those happier times, but once she finished, she began weeping again.
Five young men from their village had left at the same time, sworn brothers. Only four returned. Zhu’s body remained behind in Pakistan. “Only sad news came,” Xiao said. “My Zhu Fa’an, you’ll never return again.”
Zhu’s parents died not long after, one after the other. Before their deaths, they both pulled Xiao to them and said, “You have to find a way to visit Pakistan.”
To help fulfill their wish, I took her there myself in 2011.
We stopped the car at the original site of our headquarters, where Zhu spent his last days alive.
The place was overrun with weeds. Xiao slowly walked over to the site and pulled up an armful of them, clutching them as if they were the last traces of the man she had lost.
Zhu was laid to rest at the Gilgit Chinese Memorial Cemetery, in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. He lies in the second grave to the left in the last row.
When we reached his final lying place, Xiao knelt in front of his grave. She kowtowed three times, but without crying. She had no tears left by that point. After swallowing all her longing and grief for four decades, she couldn’t put into words everything she wanted to say.
When we were getting ready to leave, she kept touching her head to the gravestone, almost like she was trying to wake her erstwhile lover from his sleep. All of a sudden, her emotions came spilling out in a heart-rending wail. The nearby graveyard attendants and villagers looked on her in silence, tears streaming down their faces.
She had brought a small cloth bag with her from her home, filled with dirt taken from the graves of Zhu’s parents. She scattered the dirt around his grave.
They were together again at last, 3,700 kilometers from home.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Wang Zhenhao for Sixth Tone)