Aishan, a Uygur mountain guide in Urumqi , has led many tourists into the beautiful mountains of Xinjiang over the past 10 years. The 35-year-old had his first camping experience in the wild when he was 11, and scaled the 5,445-metre glacier Bogeda Peak when he was 25. In 1998, the mountain took on an extra meaning for Aishan when three Hong Kong climbers disappeared there, forging an unexpected bond between him and Hong Kong
How did you become a climbing guide?
I grew up in a farm area in Yili , in western Xinjiang, a Kazakh area but where most of the people were Han. At the time, they were always showing films outdoor for the public, and since I understood Putonghua, I was a frequent goer. Some of these films were about climbing, and one that left the strongest impression was an American film called Glacier Rescue Team. Those films made climbing look fun and heroic, and they inspired me to take up climbing.
I moved to Urumqi when I attended primary school. Living in a city did not stop me from venturing into the wild. I organised the first camping with two Han classmates when I was 11. It was all very primitive - we didn't have sleeping bags or anything like that. We pooled together some money to buy a used army backpack from the flea market, took a cotton duvet from home, a plastic sheet in case there was rain, several naans, and a ceramic milk pot - without permission from my mother.
We stayed one night in a nearby mountain, made our own fire and cooked. When we returned, my mother was not upset about my staying out but was furious to see her pot charred. However, she slowly came to accept my love for camping - as long as I took the same pot every time. My father is a factory worker, and my mother a housewife - neither have ever climbed. But my father influenced me through his respect for nature.
At university, I studied to become a physical education teacher, which I did for six years at a primary school. In 1997, I decided to make what I love into a career and became a student of the renowned climber Hu Fengling. About 10 of us became the first mainland climbers to reach the summit of Bogeda Peak that year.
What is one of your most unforgettable climbing experiences?
When I was about 13, my two Han classmates and I decided to trek up the famous Tianshan and camp beside Tianchi [Sky Lake]. It was very far away - the bus journey took five hours and then we had to walk for seven hours. When we found a camping spot, some Kazakhs tried to scare us away by telling us that there were bears around. However, because I spoke Kazakh, we became friends.
But that day everything fell out of plan. It was bright and sunny during the day but it rained at night. Fatigue and the cold made us so hungry that we finished our food earlier than expected. One of my classmates went to a nearby shop to get food but he brought back only one naan and an energy drink. In the end, we had to seek help from our Kazakh friends. The next day, we had to beg some tourist bus drivers to take us home because we had no money.
That experience taught me the need to make friends with the locals and to learn the basics of their language, their habits and their taboos. I always try to inform tourists as much as possible about the local culture.
How did the disappearance of the Hong Kong climbers affect you?
I met them by chance through a Hong Kong climbing instructor, Ho Chi-ming. That day in August 1998, I was coming down from the summit of Bogeda when I was told that a group of Hong Kong climbers needed a guide to take them to Camp One. I accepted the job and got to know the team very well. It was my first time meeting people from Hong Kong and they impressed me as being very positive and passionate.
I returned to Urumqi after leaving them at Camp One. The next morning I learned that three of them went missing after a blizzard at Camp Three. My heart sank.
A search team consisting of climbers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan searched for almost a month but we only found three rucksacks. Since then, whenever I returned to Bogeda, I always tried to see if I could spot anything. Ten years passed and nothing was found.
Then one night in August 2008, I received a telephone call saying a body was found. We identified it as one of the Hong Kong climbers. We eventually cremated him in the mountains and scattered some of his ashes in Bogeda. Mr Ho took the rest back to Hong Kong.
Do you feel any difference living in Urumqi after the July 5 riots? How can ethnic relations be improved?
Of course, there is. It is especially hard for people like us, who learned Putonghua and grew up among the Han people. But after July 5, there is suddenly a barrier between us. I have been rejected by Han taxi drivers many times. And especially when I was on the bus, I could tell that the people were avoiding me, thinking that I might pull out a syringe at any moment.
The only thing we can do now is smile. Hopefully, through these friendly gestures we can slowly heal the wounds. I always tell my Uygur friends that even if we are wrongly accused, there is nothing we can do now but to try to be patient. It is going to take time, but we must do it. After all, so many Han people died that day.
At the same time, I also realised that people like me are in the best position to do something to heal the wounds.
My Han friends and I are still in touch. In fact, we tried hard to spend time together because we want to overcome the barrier.
I hope I can eventually start teaching underprivileged children in Xinjiang the fun of trekking and hiking, no matter which ethnic groups they are from.
Many young Uygur people these days are only playing internet games and going to discos. I hope I can help them develop an interest in healthier activities as well as help bond the younger generation.