Tang Zheng stood on top of the brick fort, at 4,300 meters above sea level on the Pamir Plateau. The political instructor of a People's Liberation Army company, stationed at the remote Wakhan Corridor in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, pointed to a snow-capped mountain in the distance. His troops have been tasked to stop terrorists and religious extremists from sneaking into China from training camps in Pakistan, located on the other side of the mountain.
Tang, 26, said the corridor at the Tashkurgan Tajik autonomous county in Kashgar prefecture, which was once a bustling trade route for merchants on the ancient Silk Road, is now being used by terrorists to get in and out of China.
The Wakhan Corridor in China is actually a valley about 100 kilometers long, running from east to west, with the remaining 300 km in Afghanistan. At the very end of the Chinese side of the corridor lies the only connecting point between China and Afghanistan.
The narrowest part of the valley, which also borders Pakistan and Tajikistan, is less than 1 km wide. Local Tajiks say when a rooster crows in the corridor, it can be heard in four countries, which shows how the location is extremely important.
"With US troops withdrawing from Afghanistan and Pakistani troops constantly busting terrorist cells in their country, their job has become more important and tougher than ever as authorities fear terrorists might flee to China via the Wakhan Corridor," Tang said.
The old fort, which has become a seasonal outpost of the Mingtiegai company lead by Tang, was built by the Kuomintang army to secure China's border in the past. PLA soldiers now take turns to be stationed there from July to October as no one can pass the area when heavy snow seals off the valley.
From higher ground, Tang's men closely observe any activity in the corridor－a passage people must pass if they intend to enter China or Pakistan via the area illegally. Even the sudden movement of sheep or yaks belonging to the local Tajik herdsmen grazing in the valley will alert the troops because it might be caused by strangers. And having strangers in the area is not a good thing.
A surveillance camera powered by solar panels was installed on one side of the fort. On the other side, several scarecrows in PLA uniforms were set up facing the snow-capped mountain. Tang called them "false targets", which he said are as important as the latest military technology.
Mingtiegai means "a thousand camels" in the Tajik language, which perfectly describes the shapes of the mountains on the Pamir Plateau. That is also where Marco Polo discovered a large argali with spiraling horns, which was named after him when the Italian made his way to China.
Traveling westward from the outpost along the valley and almost reaching the border between China and Afghanistan lies Keketuluke, which means "where flowers blossom" in Tajik. But with snow and rocky mountains in the high altitude all year long, the idea of seeing flowers blossom in this area is only a dream.
The troops based there have to bear the harsh environment and try to make the most out of being in a no man's land, said Wang Lie, a political instructor of the battalion in charge of the Wakhan Corridor-based companies.
"A soldier there once asked me if he could have a few days off because he wanted to see a tree," said Wang, 37, who has been serving in the corridor for 18 years.
His skin has become extremely tan after working on the Pamir Plateau, where ultraviolet radiation from the sun is very strong. The PLA has developed a special sunscreen lotion for troops based on high plateau areas. Wang said it works wonders in protecting skin, but getting tanned cannot be prevented.
A barbed wire fence appeared after another 20 km west of Keketuluke. The fence separates China and Afghanistan amid the 92 km border area.
"Although the border between the two countries is not long, separatist extremists and terrorists always attempt to penetrate China through it," Wang said.