The Man on Tower 47

No. 36

Greetings from Chinarrative!

We close the year with a moving profile of one of the loneliest jobs in all of China—tower watchman at a sprawling forest in a remote corner of northeastern Heilongjiang Province. Liu Liangsong has spent a quarter of a century here, surrounded by 70,000 hectares of trees, which is the equivalent of around 100,000 soccer fields.

The piece first appeared in popular nonfiction platform Renwu.

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The Man on Tower 47

Courtesy Renwu.

By Ma Lala

The Utmost Periphery of Human Society

The sun sits above a distant mountaintop and the air is chilly. When a gentle breeze attacks you can feel it on your fingertips before the rustle of the parched grass. Heading north for about 800 kilometers from the northeastern city of Harbin takes you to the fringes of the Daxing’anling Prefecture. In its heartland lies the small city of Songling, which isn’t far from the border. Even the tangerines on display at local fruit vendors are wrinkled from their long commute. Two lone, symmetrical apartment blocks flank the town’s only main road. You can walk for five minutes without encountering a single soul.

If you keep going you hit huge forests that you can see from outer space. In their midst, the sky drips down in between branches. The only sound you can hear is that of the soles of your shoes rubbing against the dirt at a steady tempo. It’s very noisy. Any other sounds are out of place. Even the faint whimper of a breaking branch could signal a deadly beast. This is the utmost periphery of human society. Here people are no longer clumped together in tall buildings but scattered sporadically over the yellow plains of late fall as they share a seemingly never-ending vastness.

Liu Liangsong has spent half his life here. At 17 he became the eyes for Tower 47 of Daxing’anling’s Xintian Forest Farm. He has lived here alone with 70,000 hectares—the size of 100,000 soccer fields—for the past 25 years. Every year when the last of the snow melts, he’ll drive 40 kilometers from Songling to the edge of Xintian Forest Farm, a military-issue backpack about half his height in tow. There he switches to motorbike for the climb up 1,000-meter Mount Anita. On the top of the mountain rests a 20-odd meter tall metal tower. The next watchtower is more than 20 kilometers by foot. That’s also the distance between him and the next human being in the vicinity.

Courtesy Renwu.

Liu Liangsong’s job is to constantly survey the forest, so that he can identify every single breaking fire. He is able to spot the closest watchtower on the adjacent mountaintop by naked eye despite the two structures being separated by a vast plain. A qualified spotter must be able to detect the faintest trace of smoke across a huge forest.

Every morning at 6 he wakes up in a small white cabin by the watchtower with discolored walls and climbs the tower with a bottle of water and lunch, which comprises a steamed Chinese bun and leaves of raw Chinese cabbage. During the day he circles the balcony surrounding the tower repeatedly. Temperatures are extreme up in the watchtower. It could be windless at ground level while Level 2 gusts strike above. During winters he typically dons two thick coats but he still feels as if the chill penetrates his bones.

Cell tower coverage is spotty. The only reliable form of communication is a walkie-talkie, which Liu uses to report fires to the forest farm’s control room. If it’s all clear, there’s typically no need for further communication after the morning report. The only noise Liu hears the rest of the day could be a trapped butterfly banging against a window as it flutters its wings. Liu usually captures and releases the small creatures.

He spoke to Renwu in October in his Songling apartment. The free time is a newfound luxury. Two new spotters were hired for Tower 47 in recent years, which freed Liu from being stuck on the tower most of the year. He now has 10 more days of leave per month than he used to. Yet the extra time off has posed a new dilemma.

His apartment is located in the outskirts of Songling, near the forest. He bought the two-room, one-living room flat so his elderly father could enjoy indoor heating. His mother passed away in 2002 and it’s been five months since his father’s death. When no one is speaking, all you can hear is the sound of the fridge, which contains a bag of peaches Liu bought before his last shift on the watchtower. The peaches are so juicy they burst at the slightest pinch.

“I don’t like coming back. What’s the point of coming back? I’m still all alone. I’d rather hang out on the mountaintop,” Liu muttered with his head bowed. A minute of silence followed. A bottle of paper-folded stars of various colors sat on a storage cabinet. That was the only sign of a female presence in the room. Nearly 50, Liu is still a bachelor.

Life for him is like a piece of white cloth you repeatedly iron. The smallest crease is a novelty. After meeting up with friends on Oct. 7, Liu didn’t feel like going home and went for a stroll. He ran into a group of junior high students causing quite the commotion. They were in the middle of completing an assignment that involved building a small structure. Liu ended up joining them and spending the whole afternoon teaching them how to lay brick.

Fire

Liu feels indispensable on his mountaintop.

Daxing’anling is the firewood depository of China’s northeast. Come fall, the bark of its silver birch trees turn fluffy. All you have to do is peel and light up. Once a fire starts, winds can extend its reach to more than 20 kilometers in a mere 15 minutes. Songling and its neighboring villages were built strategically to prevent fires. Deep into the forest the roads are lined with middle-aged men in military-issue coats at an interval of several hundred meters. They are forest farm rangers, responsible for putting out every single fire source and cigarette butt from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Liu Liangsong’s job is a bit more complicated. He is the eyes of the forest farm. “You have to distinguish between clouds and smoke. Clouds typically move and glide horizontally. Smoke charges upward. When pine trees catch fire, they produce white smoke. When it’s a meadow, it’s yellow. When it’s a mixed forest or a valley, the smoke is usually black.”

The biggest source of fires is summer lightning. The watchtower is made of steel, so Liu has to scramble back to his cabin before he hears the thunder, then scramble back after it ends. “The type of thunderbolts that come with lightning and meander like a snake cause fires 80 percent of the time.” They are the source of five or six major fires a year.

Precision is paramount. A discrepancy of one degree on his compass reading could result in a 2-kilometer detour for the ground troops. A team of some 100 firefighters rely on him for navigation. The instant Liu detects a spark, he has to come up with a route instantly. He has a complete mental map of the forest, carved in his brain at age 17 when he charted the entire forest, mountain by mountain, by pen.

On a fair day, Liu Liangsong descends the watchtower at dusk, but sometimes he has to spend the night. A few years ago the forest farm near Nanci River was hit by a massive fire that lasted about a dozen days. The fire raged as close as several dozen kilometers away from the region that Liu is in charge of monitoring. “The whole sky was blazing red the entire night.” That was his most terrifying experience to date. He didn’t dare nap or leave the watchtower. The only sustenance he brought in the morning was a bowl of instant noodles he filled with cold water. He didn’t eat until noon, when the noodles finally turned soft.

Some of his friends also used to work in the fire prevention apparatus. Old Zhu was a firefighter. He was routinely dropped deep into the forest by SUV and engulfed in flames the moment he disembarked. Firefighting in the winter was especially brutal. The weather was freezing—yet the fire was scorching. All he could do is suck it up and charge forward. Only when the job was done did he realize you’re thirsty. At that point he and his teammates had to settle for water puddles created by animal footprints. “You know how we have to spend the night in the forest—just in case the fires rekindle. When we woke up the next morning, we would notice small worms wiggling in the water bottles we filled the night before. It was mosquito larvae.” When Old Zhu relayed this story, the audience was blown away, including Liu Liangsong, but he didn’t say anything.

By contrast a spotter gig is a relative walk in the park. But Liu Liangsong’s biggest enemy is loneliness. “I’m stuck on the mountain all year. I get so bored I can play with an ant for half an hour. The ants of Daxing’anling are black and have huge heads. Some grow wings.” On a slow day, he’ll leave the watchtower, strip and spend 15 minutes combing his clothes for ticks that are smaller than the nails on his pinky fingers, over and over again.

Very few people serve as spotters their entire lives. Either they can’t cope with the loneliness and switch careers altogether, or they try to transfer to an office job at the forest farm. Liu’s friend Hong Ling worked as a spotter for several months. He now runs a restaurant in Songling best known for the two chandeliers hanging over its doorway. “If I absolutely ran out of things to do, I would count the number of windowpanes that are part of the watchtower,” he said.

“I’ve done that already. There are 36 panes in our watchtower. They make a loud, shuddering noise when they’re caught in a strong gust. I tap along, one window at a time,” Liu Liangsong said. He’s racked his brain thinking of ways to kill time. He’s taken his walkie-talkie apart, bellowed at the forest and gone for walks. (The walks aren’t a viable option because of the steep uphill climb back.) The cell coverage is so spotty he stopped using WeChat on his mobile phone. Last year he passed a hardware store and noticed the owner watching a TV attached to a 12-volt battery. He kept on peppering the owner with questions until he was fed up. That’s how he figured out to watch television on a battery-powered TV set via satellite signal.

Courtesy Renwu.

In a previous era, Liu Liangsong sourced his water from a small river near the watchtower. He ran into three black bears once. “I stared at them and they stared at me. They didn’t make any sudden moves, alternately crawling on all fours and walking on their two hind legs. It was an adult bear leading two cubs. The adult must have been 2-meters tall and weighed 300 or 400 pounds. I was so scared my hair was practically standing. If the bears approached, I would have had to bolt, but running would have been pointless because a man can’t outrun a bear. Luckily they left after a few hours.” That was Liu’s closest brush with lethal danger.

Four Siberian Red Pines

“Twenty years have gone by in the blink of an eye.” That’s what Liu Liangsong said when he recalled the first time he ascended his watchtower at age 17. State-run China Central Television aired a documentary about him in 2016. His facial features look about the same these days. He still has the same round face and dark skin, except his hair has started graying. “My knees felt weak the other day when I was climbing up the watchtower. Many folks in our line of work suffer from rheumatism. What’s that people say? When you age, you start aging in the bones first.” He has already survived some six or seven commanders. The watchtower has gone from a coat of white paint to yellow, then from yellow to red anti-rust paint, which has also faded.

He’s contemplated leaving his job many times in the past 20-odd years. The closest call was the time a former classmate offered him work in Beijing. The classmate sourced timber for a government unit and could make Liu a supplier. All he had to do was put together a logging crew. He would have easily earned 100,000 yuan ($14,000) a year. And this was back in the day before the government started issuing logging bans and launching conservation efforts like Operation Tianbao. Xintian Forest Farm was still bustling. Families would share their best dishes with their neighbors. Logging teams were shipping out trees with trunks as thick as the size of a giant water basin by the truckload. But no one wanted to replace Liu at the time. No one could stand the boredom. A spotter earned about 300 or 400 yuan a month, whereas a logger could pull in 100 yuan in a day.

But Liu has never considered becoming a logger himself. He thinks it’s downright dangerous pitting a 1-plus meter frame against a tree so tall he has to crane his neck to observe.

After graduating from vocational school, he spent a few months working as an assistant to one of the forest farm’s senior officials. “How could I possibly manage a gig like that? I’m not built to be a gopher who fetches tea or keeps tracks of the car keys. I enjoy my freedom. So I became a spotter and stuck with it until now.”

When Liu Liangsong was in his 20s, when karaoke bars still didn’t give him a headache, he contemplated quitting for the first time after the utter quiet got to him. His mother preached the importance of persistence and not quitting halfway. “My mom was super loving. I used to give her call whenever I got to the foot of the mountain after finishing a shift and she’d be waiting by the door by the time I returned. She’d be worried if I were hungry or not and if I had enough layers on. Whenever I came home she’d ask me what I felt like and prepare the dish immediately.” Liu had the habit of seeking out his mother first whenever he got home, but that came to an end in 2002. That year the doctor pulled him aside to reveal a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer when his mother was hospitalized in Harbin.

Even now he’ll donate whenever he comes across a charity drive for severe illnesses—not much, perhaps 10 or 20 yuan. “I take after my mother. When I was kid she would make tops and pants on her sewing machine for children in the neighborhood who were poorly dressed.” Liu doesn’t bother to vet these fundraising efforts. He just wants to stay true to his mother’s generosity.

Likewise, when it comes to bushfire prevention, he’s dictated by his mother’s conscience. On May 6, 1987, an unextinguished cigarette butt started a fire near Daxing’anling’s then Mohe County that eventually enveloped 17,000 square meters of forest. The massive fire took 60,000 firefighters working around the clock for 28 straight days to control. The final death toll was 211 people, with another 266 injured. Liu Liangsong wasn’t a spotter then, but he still vividly remembers the train carriages full of evacuees. They had lost everything to the fire. Their only possession was the tents they were issued.

Xintian Forest Farm is home to folks Liu has known since he was a kid. Although few households remain, whenever he shows his face in the forest, he’ll get called over for a quick chat. Even when he’s several kilometers deep into the forest, he’ll get phone calls from folks who say they spotted him. There is much that he treasures here.

Liu Liangsong grew up on the margins of the forest. “We were required to chop firewood first before being excused to play. A group of kids would start with one family, then move onto another. When there was no more wood to chop, then we would go up the mountain.” Before his father passed away in May, Liu kept a spare key to his apartment under his doormat. With his father’s health so fragile and him being constantly on duty, Liu would often call on his friends to help out. Regardless of the time of day, as long as he reached a friend, they would get his father admitted to the hospital. If his father’s condition was serious and required attention at a hospital in a bigger city, his friends would even make hotel reservations for him.

Him and his five or six closest friends are all strangers to the metropolis. One of them spent a year in Beijing when the shipping business was booming. He made a ton but the workload was non-stop. Another went into fashion wholesale in Beijing’s Dahongmen district. Securing a final batch of inventory meant a major profit, but the rise of online shopping portal Taobao upended the industry. Yet another was treated to a meal at the upscale China World Summit Wing hotel during a business trip to Beijing, with dishes each costing several hundred yuan. “It was so expensive the person treating us got a bit budget-conscious. He told our boss to treat us to an after-meal snack.”

Courtesy Renwu.

Liu Liangsong ran into some trouble recently. His driver’s license was suspended in June. He had just finished a shift when his friends invited him to dinner. He parked his car near an outdoor barbecue stall. The owner was the son of a local family he was close to. “He asked me to park elsewhere, but I jokingly insisted on parking in my original spot. I felt he was someone I could trust, plus he could keep an eye on my car for me. In the end, he reported my parking violation even though I only stayed long enough to down two bottles of beer and smoke a cigarette in my car.” He feels he needs to adopt a new MO now.

Songling has been shrinking. Now a spotter position is considered a good job. Many young men and women have left to seek work elsewhere. Xintian Forest Farm’s local primary school has shut down. A small residential complex remains, but few of its units are occupied. Even folks who have stayed constantly wonder if they should relocate to Harbin and buy property there. Liu has also visited classmates who are trying to make a living there. He took a picture outside St. Sophia Cathedral as a friend suggested, but he didn’t bother going in.

The boredom he feels in the city is different from the kind he experiences in the forest. There’s a small boat moored by Qingxi Lake, which Liu frequents. He’s not sure who the owner is, but he likes powering the boat with two batteries he borrows from a random barn and driving it around the lake. Proximity to the forest brings out a childlike curiosity and boldness in him. “The water in Harbin’s Songhua River is disgusting. It’s filled with garbage and all this other stuff. Look at how clear our lakes are and how pristine white our clouds are,” Liu muttered to himself as he stood on the bank of an upper section of Duobukuer River. This section is quite narrow and the water is so clear the fish are completely visible. A reporter and Liu were the only people in sight. The only audible sound was the streaming of water.

The clouds in the distance have been encrusted with golden edges by the sun. The thinner ones are fully illuminated. They all hover without aim or purpose. Liu Liangsong has rediscovered his love for life on the mountain of late. He’s realized that only in the forest can you hear the whisper of every individual breeze caressing the leaves of a tree.

When he first started working as a spotter at age 17, Liu planted four Siberian red pines by the watchtower. The bark of one of the pines is showing cracks, so he’s had to repeatedly remind his colleagues not to dump detergent-filled wastewater in the soil near the trees. The person who gave him the saplings 25 years ago told him the red pines typically grow to twice the size of larches and will eventually overshadow the watchtower. Liu Liangsong plans on keeping vigil by the four trees until that day arrives.

Translator: Min Lee