Like father, like son-rescuing snowbound passengers in Xinjiang

During his childhood, Li Changqing often complained about his father's absence.

His road rescuer father was stationed in Maytas, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, and seldom returned home over the winter, even during the Spring Festival-the most important time for family reunions in China.

It was not until Li, now 29, joined the rescue team at Maytas in 2011 that he began to understand his old man.

Maytas, located in Xinjiang's Emin county, is known for its harsh weather. For some 180 days of the year, strong winds howl incessantly. The narrow roads in the area are the main gateways connecting locals with the outside world. When windblown snow hits the valley, visibility drops to a few meters.

For decades, rescuers like Li and his father have been on duty around the clock patrolling roads, grappling with gales and snow, and rescuing snowbound vehicles and passengers. A total of 18 rescuers, including Li, are currently stationed at the Maytas rescue base.

When his father Li Jiancheng worked in the Maytas road maintenance division in the 1990s, his team only had a row of brick houses, a dusty coal furnace and an old-fashioned bulldozer.

"Stranded passengers did not have cellphones and had to rely on passersby to send us a message to rescue them," recalled the senior Li, 56, who retired in 2016.

Locating the snow-trapped people was no easy task as vehicles back then were not equipped with GPS.

"Sitting in the front passenger seat, I would have to poke my head out of the window from time to time to help keep the vehicle on the road and to find the snowbound travelers, as the windscreen iced over at minus 20 to minus 30 C," he said, adding that he would have to shift places with his colleague before his hands froze on the steering wheel.

In one case, he picked up more than 40 people rescued from dozens of cars stranded in the snow.

"They could have frozen to death if I had left any of them on road," he said, adding that he had to drive the overloaded minivan very slowly to avoid slipping off the road.

"It is our duty to save snowbound passengers as quickly as possible. It is arduous, but worth the effort," said the elder Li. He was transferred from the Maytas maintenance division to the Maytas rescue base in 2002 and then dedicated most of his time to wind and snow prevention work and rescue operations.

The junior Li had his first rendezvous with Maytas on New Year's Day in 2008, when the county highway administration bureau, under "ideal" weather conditions, dispatched a shuttle bus to transport the base workers' family members so they could spend the holiday together.

"I thought I was traversing curtains of mist and clouds when I sat in the bus," he recalled.

After graduating from a technical school in 2010, the young man successfully applied for a position under the highway administration bureau of Emin and later became a patroller and rescuer at the Maytas rescue base.

That was when he realized the rescue work was not as simple as "pulling out a car", as his father had used to tell him and his mother.

"Once, my colleague and I were pushed to the ground by a gale as we tried to get out of the vehicle. We were unable to move," he recalled.

When the weather is bad, emergency calls keep coming. Sometimes, he has to work day and night to rush to people's rescue.

Once, when he returned to base at 4 a.m. after a 24-hour rescue operation, he found that his father had stayed awake all night to wait for him.

"Seeing my arrival, he prepared me a box of instant noodles with two sausages, without uttering a word," Li Changqing recalled.

Compared to his father's work, his is much easier with the help of high-tech tools. The rescuers now have a driver assistance system installed in their emergency vehicles, featuring magnetic sensors and a GPS receiver, and they have walkie-talkies in case of mobile signal failure. Snow barriers, snow fences, wind deflectors and signage have also been installed along the roads.

"A snow remover usually takes the lead on the road, followed by a pickup van, which is convenient for transporting stranded travelers," he said.

Like his father, the younger Li has little time to be with his family. He is busy with road maintenance in the summer, and in the winter he has to be ready to undertake a rescue at any time.

"My wife complains occasionally, as I've spent little time with my 3-year-old daughter," he said. "I feel sorry for them."

"I worry about him every time he leaves home for work, but I have to support him," said his wife Yang Haixia, who visited the base with their daughter for his birthday on Jan 21 so that their child could see her father's workplace.

Yang's concern is not groundless. One of the rescuers froze to death in 1979 as he lost his way in a blizzard after abandoning his vehicle that slipped off the roadbed.

Thanks to concerted efforts, those working at the base rescued more than 5,300 travelers and recovered more than 1,363 stranded cars from 2016 to 2020.

"I will continue to guard Maytas to create a safer passage for drivers, passengers and locals," said Li Changqing.