Height of romance: The giant who found love under his nose

Bao Xishun's wordlwide search for a soulmate is over. By Clifford Coonan
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It's not easy being a Mongolian herdsman. Especially if you're 7ft 9in tall, and looking for love. Again and again, Cupid failed to draw back his bow for Bao Xishun, 56, despite combing the world in his quest for a partner.

Even the personal ads didn't work, though on paper he was possibly a slightly worrying prospect. In the end, love was right there under his nose in his home town of Chifeng in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. The man listed by Guinness World Records as the tallest man in the world married Xia Shujuan a saleswoman half his age and half his height.

"After sending out marriage advertisements across the world and going through a long selection process, the efforts have finally paid off," the Beijing News reported.

Women were always put off by Bao Xishun's height and he never even had a girlfriend until he met Xia Shujuan. His bride stands at a mere 5ft 6ins.

Born in 1951 in the Inner Mongolian autonomous region of Wenniete league, reportedly a descendant of the warrior Genghis Khan, he has five brothers and sisters who are all of normal height. His height was also normal for his age until he was 15 years old, when he went through an extraordinary growth spurt that saw him reach 6ft 9ins by the age of 20.

Mr Bao weighs just short of 26 stone, has legs that stretch for nearly 5ft and the width of his palm extends for 15 inches.

The doctors are baffled as to where the growth genes come from but they do not think that he suffers from a growth disorder, which would have ruled him out of the Guinness book.

His lifelong curse has been rheumatism, an illness Mr Bao developed 36 years ago, as he often slept outside on the grassland without being able to cover his long legs.

When his father took him to Shenyang, the capital of neighbouring Liaoning Province, to get treatment for his rheumatism he was spotted by an army basketball coach, Leng Wanju, who was so impressed by his height that he recruited him. He was a shoo-in to the army basketball team, as you would expect from someone who is able to reach the basket simply by stretching his arms.

Mr Bao says his days in the army were the happiest of his life, but his rheumatism prevented him from developing a career like that of another giant from China, Yao Ming, who at 7ft 5ins is the tallest player in the United States' National Basketball Association league, where he plays for the Texas team the Houston Rockets.

"Yao Ming would be the second Bao Xishun if Bao were a successful player," said Leng Wanju, Mr Bao's former coach.

Mr Yao had a head start - his 6ft 7in father and 6ft 3in mother both played for China's national basketball team and, in some accounts, he was bred to be China's ball giant. "If it weren't for the disease, I might have become a basketball superstar just like Yao," Mr Bao has said ruefully.

He retired from the army in 1973 and headed back home to Chifeng - back to herding livestock, and doing the occasional publicity stunt. For most of those 30 years, Mr Bao remained in the Inner Mongolian grasslands with his livestock, crippled by an inferiority complex over his height, unhappy at being considered a freak in the wider world.

Things began to change when he met a local restaurateur, Xin Xing. He asked Mr Bao to work as a greeter for 10 days, and his extraordinary presence at the door created a sensation. He visited a local hospital and doctors reassured him that he wasn't suffering gigantism. "I'm a normal person, growing naturally," he said afterwards.

Mr Bao was adjudged officially 0.2 cm taller than the record holder, Radhouane Charbib of Tunisia, when he was awarded the title of world's tallest man.

On Christmas Day last year, he paid a visit to his old army base in Shenyang, and resumed contact with his long-lost basketball coach, as well as many comrades from the army.

But Mr Bao's life remained a lonely one. "Wherever I appear, I immediately become the centre of attention. But back in my home town, I still live a normal life," he said in an interview with the China Daily. One advantage of being so tall was that he did not have to raise his arms when he helped build houses, he said.

His mother's death, when he was 40, came as a terrible blow to Mr Bao, who relied on her to make his special clothes and shoes and to look after his particular needs.

Last year, he travelled to the port city of Dalian in Liaoning province to be treated for rheumatism. As he arrived in the clinic, there was chaos as people jostled to get a look at the famous giant. The clinic had a chair specially made for him and lengthened his bed.

Since he was named world's tallest man in July 2005, he has done a fair amount of travelling, including trips to Japan and Brazil and a host of product endorsements and advertisements.

But he remains a shy man. "I want to live a normal life like my father, who is 94," he said.

Before his marriage he would spend his days walking and playing cards with the neighbours, occasionally reading a Mongolian novel. He likes to watch television a lot, which might disprove the oft-repeated parental mantra about telly stunting your growth.

Earlier this year, Mr Bao's 3ft 4in arms were called into service. Two dolphins at an oceanarium in Fushun, in the Chinese province of Liaoning, had been nibbling at the edge of its cage and managed to swallow chunks of plastic, and the dangerous items were causing the dolphins distress. The vets were at a loss, but Mr Bao's long arms were able to rescue the detritus and save their lives.

Chinese people are generally not tall by European standards. Deng Xiaoping, the former supreme leader of China who is credited as the architect of China's economic boom and policy of opening up to the rest of the world, stood less than 5ft tall.

The average Chinese woman is about 5ft 2in tall, while the average male is about 5ft 6ins. Improved living standards mean that Chinese people are getting taller - almost an inch taller than a decade ago.

Nowadays, many Chinese people feel discriminated against in their jobs if they are not tall or good-looking enough. And they are discriminated against in some cases - some job ads have height requirements, especially in the service industry.

The famously tall Dutch have had to renovate to stop people banging their heads entering their dyke-side villas. Expect the same thing in Chinese apartments sometime later this century. In China, men wear step heels, or inches-giving insoles and television ads regularly show the footwear. Chinese people's increased sensitivity about their appearance has seen a rash of cosmetic surgery clinics springing up around the country, offering a huge array of different kinds of surgery.

On television there are advertisements offering stretching machines to add essential centimetres. Vitamin supplements are in much demand.

Height holds a fascination. One holiday park outside Beijing is called the "Dwarves Holiday Park" and its original claim to fame was a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves-themed holiday experience, where there used to be a dwarf floor show featuring (naturally) seven height-challenged people. There is now just one short person left. Another restaurant near Beijing was staffed entirely by short people and sold itself as a Dwarf Restaurant.

Flushed by the success of Yao Ming, agents are sending over enormous Chinese basketball players to try for a place in the NBA. Many of them are there because of abnormal pituitary glands, rather than an innate sense of ball skill, but no one wants to be the college that turned down the next Yao Ming.

To achieve those vital inches, mothers stuff their sons with food, believing it will make them grow up, and not out. Predictably, it makes them grow out and China's school yards are filled with stumbling, overweight boys.

Now that he has found love, being so tall is less of a burden than it used to be. "Before, I wanted to be normal, but now I am satisfied," he said. Mr Bao is the tallest living man, although the tallest man in the record book remains Robert Wadlow from Illinois, who stood at 8ft 11ins. There are two other contenders for the tallest living man title, Leonid Stadnyk and Ajaz Ahmed. Both of them claim a height of 8ft 4ins, buttheir record claims not currently accepted by Guinness.