No Longer What It Was Before

By Yan, Qide, the first leader of China’s wintering team in Antarctica, writing after his return to the Great Wall Station


On October 22, 2013, Mr. Kung Wai Yip of the Antarctic Forum and Qin Tang, his secretary came to the China Polar Research Center to visit its leaders and I was honored to attend the meeting. During the conversation, Mr. Yip said: ‘Mr. Yan, I am glad to learn that you are one of the founders of China’s polar research undertaking and you have been to the Antarctic and Arctic for many times for scientific research as well as the first leader of China’s wintering team in the Great Wall Station, China’s first scientific research base in Antarctica. It was 29 years ago. If you have a chance to visit the Great Wall station again, there must be a lot of memories, reviews and dreams.’  I said: ‘Yes! In an instant, 29 years has passed! Old man says that a man should be independent at the age of thirty. The Great Wall station has been there for 29 years. It is just like my own ‘child’. All parents in the world miss their own ‘children’. I would like to see the changes of the Great Wall Station that my colleagues and I built on the land covered by snow and ice again with my own eyes someday already. I’d like to touch the flag pole with the five-star red flag flying on its top with my own hands and visit Building 1 that I stayed in for over 300 days and nights. In a moment, the past of building the Great Wall Station and receiving the instruction to take the post of wintering team leader in the station and the smiles and faces of 8 wintering team members began to linger in my mind.


I was very lucky to participate in the expedition to Antarctica of the Antarctic Forum 2013. On November 28, I took a ship named Le Boreal to arrive excitedly in the Great Wall Station that I had left 29 years before with friends in a rarely nice weather in Antarctica. Everything was so familiar and so strange. 29 years before, with five-star red flag high raised in hand, we took the boat named Great Wall No.1 against the blowing winds and snow through freezing sea water thinking quietly in heart- “Antarctica, we Chinese are coming!”


On November 20, 1984, from Huangpu River in Shanghai, two 10000-ton ships named Xiangyanghong 10 and J121 carrying the first China Antarctica expedition team of 591 members played the Heroes Overture of Chinese expedition to Antarctica with one long blast of sound, shouldering the great trust of the motherland and the people.


The Chinese fleet crossed the Pacific Ocean for the first time and arrived in Ushuaia on December 19, 1984. After a 4-day stay for supply and inspection, it crossed the Drake Passage. The fleet stopped in the bay of George King island on December 26 and began the preparation for building a base including selecting the location of the Great Wall station. The ground breaking ceremony of the Great Wall station was held on December 31. After 45 days and nights of hard working, the Great Wall station was completed on Feb. 20, 1985. Two orange-red main buildings of 1.8 meters stood high above the ground, i.e., Building 1 and Building 2 and their supporting facilities such as power generation house, food bank and meteorological observation yard occupying an area of 500 square meters totally laying to the north and east on the south of George King Island. The newly built Great Wall station set a precedent of having wintering team in the same year when the base was built in the world history of expedition to Antarctica and won time for our country to get the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Status in 1985 without any delay.


It was extremely cold and the blizzards were wild in winter in Antarctica. The sky and the ground both covered by gray polar night seemed heavy. There was no color or sound except boundless snows and always howling blizzards. It was hard to tell days from nights. All lives seemed to be in hibernation and all activities in the world seemed to stop at the same moment.


In the first winter in the Great Wall Station, not only the weather and environment were very bad, the houses’ heating system, water supply and drainage system, power generation and communication facilities did not meet the strict requirements of wintering in Antarctica. We had to punch holes on the lake ice of 1 meter thick and then pumped out drinking water with the water pump. There was power supply only for 12 hours from 10:00 a.m. to 22:00 p.m. every day to extend the usage span of the power generator and to save the fuel. The room temperature was below zero degree from midnight to the next morning. The snow cover was over 2.5 meters on average and 3.8 meters deep maximum in the Great Wall Station area in the first winter. The snow did not only cover the doors and windows of the power generator room but also its roof to block the exhaust pipes. In July with ferocious gales and lowest temperature, there were 25 days when the wind speed exceeded Grade 7, 15 days when the wind speed exceeded Grade 9 and 11 days when there were strong blizzards with wind speed over Grade 11. The maximum speed exceeded 50 meters per second. The gales shook the buildings, overturned and blew away the roofs of the warehouses, damaged the wind speed meter capable of bearing a wind speed at 60 m/s, blocked the doors and windows of our houses and broke the water pipes. It was even hard to start a fire with liquefied gas tank. The gales brought a lot of difficulties and severe tests to our life and work. The team members huddled up for several nights continuously but still kept seizing the ‘Antarctic life-saving rope’ to observe and record meteorological elements, sea birds, sea ice, tides and so on to complete scientific research work such as short-wave communication tests and snow cover thickness monitoring every day without any interruption. The 8 team members spent over 300 polar nights in George King Island isolated from the rest of the world with snow and winds in loneliness and silence without seeing the sun. It sharpened their will, cultivated their soul, broadened their visions and increased their knowledge. I took full advantage of the rare opportunity of retreating away from the world to write and publish 2 books named ‘the First Night in Antarctica’ and “Australians in Antarctica”. 29 years has passed since the first winter in Antarctica. Many breath-taking, dangerous and interesting stories of the first winter are still vivid in my mind as if it were just happening yesterday. (Remarks: When I was observing the changes of sea ices outdoors on one day of July, I fell into a sudden attack by blizzards in Antarctica and couldn’t find the way back to the dormitory with poor visibility. I almost lost my life.)


Polar scientific research reflects a country’s economy and comprehensive scientific power. With our country’s reform and opening as well as continuous economic development, more investment and support have been given to the Antarctic scientific research undertaking. Since 1985 when the Great Wall Station was completed, there have been 3 rounds of upgrading and expansion. The Great Wall Station today is not what it was before. There are remarkable changes of quality and quantity in terms of appearances, buildings, research conditions, communication facilities, transportation equipments and interior decorations. It occupies an area of 2.5 square kilometers including 4100 square meters building area totally with 12 large or small buildings for scientific research, communication, power generation, living, arts and sports and vehicle maintenance, etc. It is top among all the 8 research stations of 7 countries in the George King Island. The most distinctive change is that there is internet facility in the station. It is possible to transfer scientific data to our country in real time and have video and audio communications. It connects the Great Wall station which is 17000 kilometers away from Beijing and 12 hours different in time with the motherland without any distance. Today, the polar low-temperature ecological dynamics laboratory built in the Great Wall Station mainly engages in scientific researches such as cryobiology, ecology, meteorology, sea, geology and mapping. It can hold 40 researchers in summer and 25 researchers in winter. It has been established as one of the overseas scientific observation bases open to the world by national science & technology department.


For 29 years, our country’s polar scientific research undertaking has been the history of hard work, inheriting fine tradition and setting a new course for the future, toughness and success to start an undertaking as well as the history of expedition from small to great and strong out of nothing of great-leap-forward development. Under the great support of the Party and the people all over the country, our country has completed China’s Zhongshan Station, Kunlun Station and Tai Mountain Station in Antarctica one by one after the Great Wall Station and the Yellow River Station in the North Pole. With China Polar Research Center and Snow Dragon, an advanced polar research ice-breaker, the business and logistic support system of ‘One ship, five stations and one center’ for polar scientific research has been formed. 30 Antarctic and 5 Arctic expeditions have been implemented successfully and scientific research achievements highly appraised by the world have been fulfilled. China has made its due contributions to understanding the North and South Poles for human beings and to peaceful use of polar regions, which has won honors for our motherland.