Published: 14:59, June 19, 2024
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Railway oasis in nature
By Liu Kun in Wuhan and Li Xinran

A dedicated team of young railway station staff in Shennongjia Forestry District overcame extreme weather and isolation to establish a crucial railway link.

Zhang Yawen stands on the platform, waiting for a train to arrive. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Shennongjia Forestry District, where Emperor Yandi, a legendary ancestor of the Chinese people, is believed to have once resided, was historically a remote and secluded area. This changed with the establishment of a railway station, thanks to a group of dedicated youth.

In January 2022, staff from across the country arrived in Shennongjia Forestry District, located in Central China's Hubei province.

At that time, the station was still under construction. With the dormitory and cafeteria unfinished, they had to live in temporary housing for the first few months.

"It took me over six hours on the bus to get here, but we were all determined to get the station up and running soon because we knew it was the dream of generations of local people to have a railway station," said Zhang Yawen, a 27-year-old station staff member.

Despite their determination and passion, the team initially underestimated the challenges ahead.

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Shennongjia, with an average altitude of 1,700 meters, is known as the "Roof of Central China". Winters are long and bitterly cold, with temperatures dropping as low as -20 C. "There is no heating here, so it feels even colder than my hometown of Mudanjiang city in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province," said He Ruihan, 27.

Zhang further explained that due to the extreme cold, the water supply pipeline would sometimes freeze and crack. During the Spring Festival of 2023, the station experienced blizzards and freezing rain, and all staff members had to give up their holidays to clear snow and ice from the railroads to ensure smooth transit for passengers.

Zhang Shan (left) and Zhang Yawen enjoy nature during their leisure time. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The station staff also encountered unexpected "passengers". According to He, they have come across protected animals such as the tawny owl and complex-toothed flying squirrel. However, they've also had some unwelcome guests: mosquitoes and various other insects.

"I've never seen mosquitoes like the ones they have here; they are so big and come in swarms. One bite and it swells up for a long time," said Zhang. "Insects would crawl on our laundry that was left out to dry. I once had an allergic reaction because of that."

In addition to the challenges posed by nature, 24-year-old Xie Yuxin pointed out the lack of recreational facilities, as the nearest supermarket was 8 kilometers away. Although the scenery in the area is indeed beautiful, it is the sole amenity; life with little entertainment can feel a bit lonely.

Over the past two years, some staff members have come and gone, while most have remained in their posts. Zhang was one of those who stayed, although she did have moments of doubt. However, one encounter dispelled her hesitation and strengthened her resolve.

During her rounds, Zhang met an elderly gentleman staring at the train schedule display screen in the waiting room. She asked him if he needed any assistance, and he told her that he had been a forest ranger for decades in the region. In the past, it had been difficult to leave town due to limited transportation and treacherous roads. Now, thanks to the train station and staff stationed there, locals can travel to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai within just a few hours.

"When he thanked me with tears in his eyes, I thought, 'What reasons do I have not to stay?'" said Zhang.

She pointed out that since the establishment of the Shennongjia station, an increasing amount of local produce such as citrus, cured meat, and shiitake mushrooms has been shipped out, bringing in profits for local farmers.

Zhang Shan (left) offers assistance to a passenger with a child in the waiting room. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

More business opportunities have also arisen for locals. Wei Yabo, 48, head of the station, shared the story of Ms Mei, a local woman who used to work in distant cities due to limited local business opportunities.

"With more tourists visiting now, Mei has transformed her house into a homestay. Her business thrives in both winter and summer, so she no longer has to work far from home," said Wei.

Wei highlighted that Shennongjia offers different attractions throughout the year: "In spring, visitors can enjoy the blossoms; in summer, they can escape the heat; in fall, there's the allure of autumn leaves; and in winter, they can experience the thrill of winter sports."

Life has also improved for the staff members. The station has built a sun-room for drying clothes, acquired various fitness equipment, and set up a reading room. Younger staff members have even taken over a small plot of land to grow vegetables such as tomatoes and green peppers.

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"I had never farmed before joining the station. Now, I'm enjoying organic vegetables that I've grown myself," said Zhang Shan, 26, a staff member. "I can draft railway schematics, sell tickets on the computer, and work in the fields with my own hands. I think that's pretty cool."

According to Zhang Yawen, eight out of the 26 staff members were born in the 1990s and 2000s. "Most of us used to work at regular-speed stations. We came here because we believe there are more challenges and opportunities for personal growth at a new high-speed railway station," she said. "We have learned a lot, including emergency procedures for extreme weather."

Wei believes that Shennongjia Forestry District and the younger staff members share a common trait: both are full of potential.

"Shennongjia is still a mysterious place with vast unexplored and undeveloped land. Traveling through the district by train, seeing the primitive forests alongside modern cities, feels like a journey through time. It's definitely a place worth visiting at least once in a lifetime," he said.

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