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The hide and soul of a wild horse
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The Prjevalski horse is considered stubborn and nimble with quick reflexes. It can also run 60 km per hour and could be domesticated for horseback riding, but taming the wild horse is exactly what the Centre wants to avoid.

Jimsar is located northeast of Urumqi. Further in the same direction, one finds an immense rough terrain that will become the Karamaili-protected natural reserve with 16,000 sq km. It is at Karamaili that the Centre, aiming to cultivate the wild horses, frees the animals when they are ready. Six years ago, the Centre began sending horses back to their natural habitat, but until then they are not completely independent. The potential danger for them happens when, instead of feeding themselves from the grassland, they approach domestic herds and eat their food. There is also the danger that they will mate with domestic animals, which interferes with the breed's strain. That is why they have to be constantly monitored. Their current number allows scientists not to consider them as a potentially extinct species, unless they are left to their own devices. Horses wear an ID neck band. Cooperation with the United States and the Cologne Centre of Germany remains high with regard to equipment and technical support. Cologne gave five horses to Jimsar, two of which have already been freed. The Centre also gave 15 horses to Shanghai in 1995, two to Altay, and 15 to the Urumqi Zoo in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

Zhang Hefan wrote a book excerpting some pages of her diary and some love stories of the horses. I read a deeply moving page and was eager to hear her talk about life at the Centre. Zhang, in subtly poetic comparisons, had stressed the loneliness of the horses, which also mirrored her emotional state. The perfect calm, the silence of the place, struck me as soon as I arrived. No one was around: the staff was not numerous and the activity field was expansive. No booming radio or TV – only an occasional whinny.

Zhang Hefan's work at the Centre constitutes a remarkable contribution. Zhang had reorganized and compiled the collateral genealogy of the horses, which is the only way to avoid inbreeding. Mating is not random at the Centre; experts choose mares for each stallion according to their genealogy. On the occasion that a male rejects a female, the female is replaced. Due to Zhang's diligent work, for 294 births the inbreeding is below 0.2 percent and annual reproduction exceeds 21 percent.

Zhang has never been wounded by a horse but some of her colleagues have. The most dangerous moment is when one needs to lasso a horse, such as when it requires treatment.

In front of the Centre is a large expanse of bright flowers, of which Deputy Director Ma Dan was very proud: "We have not changed the soil; it is the local earth that produced all this!" In the uncultivated area, red willow (hongliu) bloomed freely. This plant requires little water and is thus suitable for desert conditions. The Centre's ground is huge and unexploited up to now. Administration could save much of its expenses by growing forage on its 600 hectares.

If the desert is Zhang Hefan's homeland, the horses are her children. She named her favourite ones "Prince," "Princess," "Snow Lotus," "Commander-in-Chief," and "Xiu Xiu." Zhang claimed: "I already took the horses' skin color, I want to have their soul." In the 12 years that Zhang has spent at the Centre, conditions have improved greatly. Two years ago, the Centre was relocated to a new building. New, comfortable apartments have been allocated to the staff that now numbers 40. In addition, more and more visitors come.

However, among the specialists, Zhang is still the only woman. Certainly she would like to marry, but will she be able to? There are no bachelors among her male colleagues who live at the Centre, and their wives and children live in town. A few years ago, the schedule was modified and 18 days of work are now followed by 12 days off, allowing a worker a chance to go home to see his family. Personnel is needed constantly. Horses must be fed four times a day, the last feeding being at midnight. In the winter, carrots and cereal gruel are added to the hay diet for more substance. Before, employees had holidays for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and once again during the year, but they didn't always have time to enjoy their vacation.

According to Zhang, she doesn't feel stressed and finds her work very pleasant and not overwhelming, with no deadlines. Her task consists of vaccinating the animals, treating the sick, and helping to deliver foals. She no longer feels lonely as she did before and claims she is happy.

She would like to travel when she is off, but said that her salary – 400 yuan at the beginning, more than 1,000 now (plus a three-month allowance at year end) – won't accommodate that. On the other hand, she enjoys free housing, medical insurance, and a pension plan. When she goes back to Urumqi, she stays at home cleaning, reading, and writing. She has published a book of 75 poems about horses.

She has little contact with former classmates, and when I asked if she had friends, she answered that her colleagues were her friends. I explained that the word "friend" has a different meaning in Western culture, and concluded, "So you have no friends." I can't help but think that her horses, with which she created unseverable ties, are her friends, in fact…. She no longer thinks about leaving the Centre; her heart has taken root there.

In her book Wild Horse – Return to Karamaili , an unexpected success – the author said that she wanted only one thing: that more people become interested in protecting and saving wild horses. No wonder she calls herself "Yema Hefan" (Wild Horse Hefan).

I offered Zhang the chance to use the car that was slated to take me back to Urumqi. Her 12-day leave began that day. On the road, we continued to chat. "The night before graduation," she recounted, "I had a dream: a heavenly horse rushed right up to me. It was superb, vital, and elegant. I didn't know yet that I had been assigned to the Xinjiang Wild Horse Centre. This has been a recurring dream throughout the years."

Then she told me the story of Snow Lotus – the filly that before had pushed me against the fence in a burst of energy. She was only 21 days old when her mother died from a heat wave in the region. The ground temperature had reached 65 degrees Celsius. This news rapidly spread around Xinjiang, and pupils from the whole region "adopted" the orphan by giving one yuan each for a total amount of 14,000 yuan. They also chose her name by voting.

I asked Zhang to personally tell me a moving story that I had read in an article she wrote: the story of Stallion No. 34, whose loneliness was pitiful in front of the iron gate, despite his fierce and stoic appearance. "To return to wild life might be the ultimate aspiration of any wild horse," wrote Zhang. "Freedom literally: vertical and horizontal!"

(Source: Foreign Languages Press)

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