Much earlier that day, on the other side of the world, the telephone rang in the office of the attaché to General Yin Feng-hsu in Urumchi, capital of the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. The call was put through immediately.
General Yin concluded his conversation and put the telephone down. He called the staff in. The general rose and walked around the desk. He turned and spoke with authority, but quietly, earnestly.
“I have been ordered to proceed with the operation just as it has been outlined to you. Although you are all aware that the international situation is extremely volatile, you will do well to remember that the Republic does not possess long-range missiles sufficient to protect us from the harassment and unwarranted threats of the Russians. Short-range, yes, but not long-range. Or, I might add, to prevent the Americans from combining with the Russians against us. You will understand, then, the highest importance our superiors are placing on political negotiations. It is with this background in mind that I again urge you all to the efficient performance of your duties. By efficient I mean quiet. Move over to the map one more time, all of you.”
Yin looked at their faces, staring down at the map. How young they were. How ignorant they were. What did they know of the blood the desert had soaked up in the old days?
The staff marveled at General Yin's maps. Every detail was noted, every piece of artillery, every supply route. In colors alternate supply routes were marked, as well as secret depots with supplies buried in the Xinjiang desert. Many of the marks existed only on his maps.
“Comrades,” the general continued when they were all in place, “you will note the proximity of our future positions to the Kazakhstan border. You are all closely acquainted with the underground network along and near the border between our tunnels at Huocheng and the Russian buildup across the border at Panfilov. You must have all your units established underground by morning and out of sight of Russian air reconnaissance. The Russians know about the network of tunnels, but they are not sure of their location, length, size or capacity. Since the Russians have begun to build up the Kazakh border positions, Beijing wants us to be in position if they cross. While in the tunnels, we will remain on full alert. I believe you understand why we are moving now.”
The general straightened himself and turned slightly to sit on the table.
“All attention is focused on America. This has eased our position here in the Xinjiang somewhat, but as Moscow and Beijing look to Washington, we cannot expect the same thing from our counterparts across the border. Let me discuss with you the importance of this most recent concentration of Russian troops in the Kazakh Republic.”
With this he looked back at his maps and bent over it.
“If the Russians move the bulk of their troops along the border, say, above Mongolia or above Manchuria, we may be able to move out of Xinjiang very soon and leave the Regional Militia to defend the area. I have always doubted the Russian High Command would ever do this because in the north, what is it they are protecting from Chinese invasion? They are protecting the Great Siberian Plateau, which they neither wish to defend, nor we to attack. Across the Kazakh Republic, however, lies the most direct route to Moscow, through the Kazakh Hills. To the north of the Kazakh Hills lies the Great Siberian Plain, the heart of Russian agriculture. The Russian base, then, will remain here,” he stabbed a point on the map, “in the regional capital of Alma‑Ata. Since we have news of the Russian advance to the border town of Panfilov, we will go to our tunnels and await their movements. When they withdraw, we will withdraw.”
The general sighed, weary with the constant game of hide-and‑seek he and the Russian armies played along their mutual border which, when it was the Soviet Union, stretched across the face of Asia from Afghanistan to the Koreas. It had gotten much worse since the break-up of the Soviet Union. At least then there had been one army – now there was the Russian Army as well as the independent republics’ armies, but Yin knew it was worse for the Russians coordinating maneuvers and looking out for ruffled feathers than it was for him.
General Yin remained for several minutes leaning over his map table, his eyes squinting down as he surveyed the terrain of the Kazakh Hills, the marshy area around the mouth of the Ili River and Lake Balkhash. Suddenly he spoke to his staff again, as if having forgotten they were there.
“Report to your units.”
Placing his pencil on the map, he stood straight again. His staff came to full attention around him. He jerked his chin slightly upwards in what looked like a nervous twitch, but his staff immediately recognized they had been dismissed. They were all particularly happy to have the heavy-handed expertise of General Yin on this silent desert campaign. By staying out of politics, Yin had remained alive and in power long enough to be considered the greatest tactician in the Red Army.
The door closed behind the last of his staff, leaving the general alone. He walked over to the window behind his desk and looked out. He was a short man with fine, gray hair. He had to stand on his toes to unlock the window. Lifting it, he put his elbows on the windowsill and looked west out across the desert into the eye of the sinking sun. His military enclave was on the western outskirts of Urumchi and his office was in a small wooden building. He saw nothing but the desert stretching out to the west. A couple of hundred miles in that direction was the Kazakhstan frontier, and beyond that the high road to Moscow, a road he had never seen except on a thousand maps all his life and a road he hoped he would never see.
A wind was getting up and the sand whipped the few brush plants that hardly obscured the general’s vision as he looked into the slowly fading light of the desert. The general, so old now after many bitter and difficult campaigns, found himself reflecting that with the full moon expected tonight, the desert would be a beautiful place through which to travel. The desert would not be as safe with a full moon, but he didn’t worry about that because he couldn’t do anything about it. From his window, the desert was lovely in the twilight. It had not always been so lovely. Its serenity cloaked a bloody past. Yin’s own father, a decorated general himself, told him stories of the slaughter in the desert, of Mao’s command to drive hundreds of thousands of fleeing peasants into the desert where they preferred to die of thirst rather than return to be butchered.
So many struggles.
General Yin knew that the Russians had upwards of three million troops and that about a million of them hovered on China’s border.
Against that one million Russians, Yin had two and a half million troops ready to field with an easy three million to match the Russian reserve. But even with such a vast superiority in manpower, Yin knew he would lose a long war with the enemy. The superior Russian armor, artillery and other matériel would overwhelm the vast Chinese hosts.
He had been in the Xinjiang now for two months with occasional trips northeast to Chining where several hundred thousand men were deployed ready to march into “independent” Mongolia to stop any Russian advance from the north. In the Xinjiang his forces were made up of many old tribes and former blood enemies crushed into obedience by the current regime: Uigurs, Kazakhs (the same tribe that largely peopled Kazakhstan), the Tagik, Huis, Mongols and Uzbeks. He had trained them well and knew they would fight hard and, if necessary, to the last man. But it hurt him to think of them going by the hundreds of thousands against strafing fire from Russian fighters because his own outnumbered air forces would be driven from the skies. There were fourteen million people in the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region; it was General Yin Feng-hsu’s job to make sure they remained “autonomous.”
The sun sank majestically over the horizon. There was a knock.
A colonel entered with a piece of paper.
“The final weather report, Comrade General.”
“Yes,” said Yin, not raising his head, which he cupped in the palms of his hands as he leaned on the windowsill.
“Sunset,” reported the colonel, “will be in three and one-half minutes, there will be no rain, clear skies, but wind up to fifteen mile per hour gusts. And a full moon.”
“Yes,” said the general, looking out into the desert. He turned quickly and suddenly from the window. This sudden movement surprised the colonel, but General Yin didn’t notice the colonel’s surprise, for his mind was elsewhere. On an afterthought, the general turned around, lowered the window and stood on his toes and locked it. He turned back to his desk and began to collect his papers.
“Ten minutes after the official sunset time, Comrade Colonel, you will issue orders to all units to move out.”
“Yes, Comrade General.”
“As soon as you have done that, return here with the staff and help me with my papers and maps. We must move rapidly to be in place by morning, Colonel.”
General Yin turned for a final look at the sinking sun.
“The time has come.”