Bulungkol, Xinjiang: The village was as quiet as a museum.
Bordering Tajikistan at an altitude of 3,800 meters, many of its homes were empty while residents went herding in the mountains.
The whirring of two white windmills in the wind broke the tranquility. Part of the village's wind-solar-diesel hybrid power system, they have been generating electricity for the past five years.
The Kirgiz people of Bulungkol have been herding sheep and cows for generations. Their only source of light at night used to be candles.
The remote location, about 130 kilometers southwest of Kashi in central Xinjiang, made it difficult for the provincial electrical power grid to reach residents.
But their lives changed in 2002 with the launch of the power system. Scattered across five places in Bulungkol County, it cost 6.56 million yuan (US$820,000), and was paid by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The facility, bringing electricity for lights and small domestic appliances, made life much easier.
Abudulamuti, 16, can now do his homework and watch TV after sunset. "It was one of my happiest moments," Abudulamuti, speaking the Kirgiz dialect to reporters through an interpreter, said of the day when the lights went on and his 35-centimetre television screen began to show images. "We were so excited," said he, wearing a worn-out baseball cap and a blue jacket. "My three brothers and I stayed up till midnight watching TV. It was fun."
Five years ago, television and lights were just pictures in textbooks. His teachers said he could watch TV if he could travel to Kashi. Now, his television, which his father, a livestock dealer, bought for 560 yuan (US$70), can receive two channels broadcasting Uygur-speaking programs.
Abudulamuti said soon they will be able to receive eight TV channels and four radio stations, including programs in Mandarin.
The information that local people can access via TV can broaden their horizons dramatically. "It has a huge impact on people," said Shen Yiyang, program manager of the Energy & Environment project for the United Nations Development Programm(UNDP). "They watch news and gather more information, which diversifies their perceptions and values."
Like the rest of the 140,000 Kirgiz who are scattered throughout the southwestern part of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the villagers go out herding for months.
"When spring comes, the village has seen no outsiders for months," said Luo Bin, Party secretary in Bulungkol County. "They move from one place to another, looking for the best grassland."
Bulungkol is the educational center for hundreds of herdsmen families in nearby mountain areas. It has a primary school and a junior middle school. The children stay at the school studying when their parents go out herding.
The arrival of electricity has been improving such township public services as education and medicine, which has a crucial impact on the region's sustainable development, Shen said.
"The lighting helps children do more homework," said Dilalamu, 29, a politics teacher who only speaks Kirgiz dialect. "Students can have two hours of classes in the evening to finish their homework every day."
Some students are thirsty for more. Abudulamuti was looking forward to going back to school, which has just recruited two new computer teachers and five Mandarin teachers. "Our (previous) Mandarin teachers didn't speak good Mandarin, and we didn't have many chances to practice," Abudulamuti said. The Kirgiz ethnic dialect uses the Arabic alphabet.
The young man is also keen to learning English even though there are no English courses offered at school. "I've met some foreign visitors in our village, but I couldn't understand them when they tried to talk to me," he said.
He was especially thrilled by 34 brand-new computers, purchased by the local education bureau last year. However, learning how to use them was delayed because there were no computer teachers available then.
Students love the new computer courses. "They have a great passion and curiosity for new technology," said Bairdibayi Turdi, 36, the school principal, who has been teaching for 14 years. "Parents want their children to learn how to use computers. Computer literacy will help our children find better jobs in the towns."
Medical treatment in the county hospital has been upgraded as well, as more advanced facilities can be used since the arrival of electricity.
Four years ago, there were only three readings that medical staff could use to diagnose patients temperature, blood pressure and pulse. "We couldn't really do any medical diagnoses, so we had to send our patients to Kashi," said Akelali, 28, a doctor for eight years.
Now the hospital is equipped with advanced facilities such as an electrocardiograph and there are more doctors. "Now we can diagnose heart disease and some minor illnesses to save our people from traveling," Akelali added.
The productivity and income of herding people in the county have also increased. In Subashi, located about one hour by car from the Bunlunkou village, and 30 minutes from Karakul Lake, one of the most renowned tourism sites in southern Xinjiang, villagers earn their living by selling ethnic souvenirs to tourists, and most of them own motorbikes.
Most homes in Subashi have installed portable solar panels outside their houses or at their yurts when they go out herding. The 40-kilogram-panel is part of another government project, The Silk Road Project, which began in 2003.
The local government has subsidized the purchase of the panels. A 1500-yuan (US$187) panel is therefore sold for 300 yuan (US$37). Not every household can get the subsidy due to the large number of herders. But the advantages of the panels have lured many herdsmen into buying them. Kelimu Samaiti, 24, from the Subashi Village, saved for two years to buy a panel.
In the small yard of Samaiti's two-room house are the lines connecting the panel to a tape recorder. The household might not have access to a radio but at least they can listen to music. Most of the Kirgiz are talented dancers and singers. Samaiti's wife, 21-year-old Abake, was listening to a recorded song called "Pretty Girl."
Samaiti has a family of seven and owns 40 sheep and six cows, making their average per capita income 800 yuan (US$100) a year. It is considered one of the high-income families in the poverty-stricken village.
"We have light at night, which prolongs the time we have to make blankets and rugs," said Kelimu, standing next to the stove in the middle of the two-room house. A 1-square-metre handmade rug, which took nearly one month to make, can be sold for 200 yuan (US$25).
Abudulamuti, who has been to Kashi only three times, sees the world differently from the television programs he has watched.
(China Daily September 26, 2006)