Feature: In China's Xinjiang, rescuers steer "Noah's Ark" of snowbound travelers to safety

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by Xinhua writers Lu Yifan, Zhang Xiaolong and Hu Huhu

URUMQI, Feb. 2 (Xinhua) -- Alimujan Dawut let out a sigh of relief when he parked his rescue truck in front of the garage of a rescue base at 6 p.m. on Jan. 23 after battling through one-meter-high snowdrifts.

He then immediately walked to his dormitory, sat on his bed still wearing his snow-soaked reflective orange suit and called his mother to let her know everything was ok.

A road patroller and rescuer at the Maytas rescue base, the 48-year-old man had been wide awake for 24 hours, grappling with gusts and snow that pounded Maytas to rescue snowbound travelers.

Maytas, located in Emin County in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, 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 gateway connecting locals with the outside world. When blizzards hit the valley, they slash visibility to a few meters.

The previous night, a gale hit Maytas and blocked roads with snowdrifts, hampering traffic and trapping 117 passengers and dozens of vehicles.

Upon receiving emergency calls, Alimujan Dawut armed himself with a walkie talkie, a protective hat and an orange outfit. He started his vehicle and rushed to an accident site where a truck had slid off the road, rolled over and its contents of corn had spilled out all over the surrounding area.

He knelt down in the snow, heaped up the corn into piles and blanketed the grain with a tarpaulin. He reassured the passengers that he would help them "retrieve the loss when the weather got better" and escorted them to the rescue base, where they were each served a bowl of hot noodle soup.

"The rescue operations here are great challenges for us. But it is also par for the course," he said.

For more than a decade, Alimujan Dawut has been dealing with Maytas. He is familiar with the roads in the area and has become a veteran in steering vehicles despite poor visibility to conduct rescue missions and shovel snow.

However, the missions on recent evenings were especially difficult for him, not physically or technically, but emotionally.

Forty-two years ago on Jan. 23, his father Dawut Awut, who had worked with a road maintenance division in Maytas, was transporting coal. He saw three passers-by waving at him for help amid blizzards in the middle of the night.

After taking them to a nearby village, Dawut Awut's truck accidentally slipped down the roadbed and got mired in snow. To survive, he abandoned his car and tried to walk back to the village. He lost his way due to poor visibility. Three days later, rescuers found his body in the snow.

He died at the age of 33, leaving his wife and five children to fend for themselves. Alimujan Dawut's mother sought paid work to resume their everyday life and her children's education.

After graduating from junior high school, Alimujan Dawut worked as a road maintenance worker and a patroller with highway maintenance squads to help reduce his mother's burden. It was not until 2010 that he was transferred to the rescue base.

He has since patrolled the roads and rescued snowbound travelers from November to April, and then maintained the roads from May to October.

"It was like my father handed down his baton to me," he said.

He cannot remember the exact number of passengers he rescued over the years. The scenes, however, are still vivid in the minds of the rescued.

In February 2017, Wang Jing, together with her six relatives, got stranded in Maytas. Their off-road vehicle was blocked by the snowdrifts for about six hours, and their hands started to freeze. Before long, Alimujan Dawut came to their rescue.

"Seeing the babies in our vehicle, he took his outfit off immediately and wrapped them up in it," said Wang. "I didn't expect that anyone would risk their lives to save others until I saw him in person."

From then on, Wang takes her family to visit Alimujan Dawut during holidays from time to time. She also tells her daughter stories about the base.

In addition to the rescue efforts, the transport department of Xinjiang has invested heavily in the prevention and control of wind and snow disasters in recent years to make Maytas a safer place.

Snow barriers, snow fences, wind deflectors and guidance signs along the roads have been installed in Maytas. A research institute has also been entrusted to carry out wind and snow prevention tunnel experiments and instruct the workers to master technical means to optimize their snow removal operations and upgrade rescue capability.

"I often think that if my father had enjoyed safety brought by the mechanical equipment now installed here, maybe he would have been with us," he said, adding that now they have magnetic sensors and GPS avaialbe to ensure their own safety when out in the wild.

Thanks to the concerted efforts, the staff members at the base have rescued more than 5,300 passengers and recovered more than 1,363 stranded cars from 2016 to 2020, turning the once deadly roads into a passage of life.

As the wind stopped and the sky cleared up, Alimujan Dawut finally got a chance to take a rest.

He will continue to patrol the roads with other colleagues in Maytas as they always hold dearly the motto of the base -- "People first, life first." Enditem

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