Xiaoxiang Highway Project – Hubei, China

You know that a trip is not going to go smoothly when your wife comes into your room and wakes you just before 5 a.m. with the announcement ‘The alarm clock didn’t go off and your flight leaves in an hour’.

Suffice to say that we broke all records. I had my clothes on in a minute. Lis rushed out and got the car on the driveway. Grabbed my computer and bags and was out the door within six minutes. Breaking the speed limit, we were at the airport just under 20 minutes from the time Lis woke me. Whew … I was on my way to China and trying to do a four week mission in just over three so it was a good thing that I caught the Air Canada flight.

Arriving in Toronto I was pleased to see that my suitcase had also made it, as I was resigned to it missing the flight due to my late check in. I grabbed a shower and breakfast at the Air Canada lounge before catching up with my colleague Anil who was joining me for the mission. Anil is an environmentalist who retired late last year from the Bank and the poor fellow had just got to Toronto two days earlier from vacation in Tanzania so he was going to suffer big time from jet lag.

It was a nice change to have someone to travel with and Anil and I caught up with a lot of things on the flight to Beijing. With many years of practical experience, I’ve learned a great deal from Anil not only about environmental issues, but also about how to be a Task Manager for the Bank.

We arrived in Beijing and breezed through immigration. Anil’s suitcase was out quickly but mine didn’t appear. Ho hum. It’s an occupational hazard with all the traveling that I do, but it’s intriguing that the last two times have both been with Air Canada. Not a good advertisement for them!

There was nobody around from Air Canada but I found my way to the Air China office where I reported the missing bag. They provided me with a form and told me to call Air Canada and check on the status. Because of my previous experience, I asked them to call the number then and there just to make sure it worked. Sure enough, they called the number and nobody answered. They then tried the general airport number. Again, nobody answered. Welcome to the nightmare that is … Air Canada’s Customer Service. 

By the time I finished with the baggage people Anil had disappeared so I went through to the domestic departures. I caught up with Anil in the lounge and Jean-Marie was also there, having just arrived from Paris. Jean-Marie is my highway engineer and is someone else who has taught me a lot about doing my job well. I’ve been very fortunate to inherit projects with Anil and Jean-Marie on my team.

I continued to call the Air Canada number every 15 minutes to no avail. Finally after 2 h I called my office who gave me Air Canada’s reservation number. I immediately got hold of someone and asked a manager to contact the baggage people and have them call me. Another hour passed and I found myself on the tarmac as our plane waited for a take-off slot.  Ever the optimist I tried Air Canada again and got hold of someone! Lucky me, or so I thought.

When I asked why nobody answered I was told I must have called the wrong number. Uh, no, I had it programmed in my cell phone. This was a bad start. I was then told that there was absolutely no record of my bag in their system. Not good. So when may my bag arrive? There are flights every other day from Toronto so probably Friday, if they find it. But they could send it sooner via Vancouver which has daily flights or with another airline … Yes, but they won’t. What a great airline! 

So I arrive in Wuhan with the clothes on my back and a few small things I had in my carry on. Ms. Liu, from the Hubei Provincial Communications Dept. (HPCD) me us at the airport and she didn’t believe me when I said my luggage hadn’t arrived since I wasn’t upset. No sense throwing a wobbly over something you have no control over. Save them (when you can!) for when they bring some benefit (besides feeling better!).

After our meeting to confirm the program for our visit, I went with Liu Zhefu, my social specialist, shopping to get some things to tide me over until my case arrived. Ms. Liu directed us to a shopping centre but it was obviously aimed at people much better paid than I am since the shirts all cost $50-$100. Hard to wear since I get my tailor in Bangkok to do custom made shirts for $20. Especially since I’m in China, not Paris. We managed to find a sale and I got a dress shirt. We then headed over to another shopping centre where there was a Nike shop so I got another shirt, some trousers and running shoes.

China is 11 time zones from Washington D.C. so jet lag is a real issue. What does one do when you wake up at 05:00 ready to roll? Go for a bike ride of course. I have a bike in Wuhan which I leave with the HPCD which they had kindly delivered the night before. I was on the road by 05:30 which is the best time to ride in China – although still dark, there is very little traffic on the road. Come 07:00 the buses are out in force and that is when you want to be off the road. 

I have several rides that I do in Wuhan. My favourite is to cycle across the Yangtze river to ‘East Lake’ and cycle around the lake. It is 50 km so takes about 1.5 h. It was fun to be on my bike with the empty streets and I was at the lake by 06:00. The sun was rising and the waters were very still. It was an idyllic way to start my first day back in China. Unfortunately, the idyll was broken by a tyre puncture. Bother. At least I had the right gear with me so I swapped the tyre out under a street light, watched by a Chinese fellow.

It was quite light by the time I got the tyre fixed and it was great to be cycling in the beauty of East Lake. Unfortunately, the time it had taken to fix the tyre meant that I had my return run after 07:00 so I was playing dodge the buses – and even worse, people getting on/off without looking. There were quite a few cyclists out and one student began racing me which was fun. Anyway, got back to the hotel without incident after a good workout.

After breakfast with my team we went to the HPCD and confirmed our schedule. This meant that we were leaving that afternoon for Shiyan, about 600 km NW of Wuhan. After packing, which didn’t take too long since Air Canada still had my bag, I called Air Canada for an update. I was told that they hadn’t found it and that it would probably be a week. Not good. The fellow then called back 2 minutes later to tell me that the bag would be in China on Friday afternoon. When I enquired why he had told me before it wasn’t found he admitted not checking the computer. He said that they would send it to Wuhan airport and I would need to go to the airport to collect it. I declined telling them it was their responsibility to get it to my hotel. They called back and told me it was all arranged – the hotel would collect it. I was to pay the hotel and visit their office for reimbursement. I don’t think so I told them. I was amazed (or gob smacked to use a kiwi term) that having left my bag in Canada, making me wait several days, that they would expect me to go through all these extra hoops. Even United, when it was going through the difficult time of bankruptcy, didn’t treat passengers with such disdain.

Of course the problem now was that I would be leaving that evening for Shiyan so I asked them to arrange to send it there. If the Shangri-La in Wuhan was difficult, Shiyan was insurmountable. In the end they decided to send the case to Wuhan airport Friday night, Saturday morning have it collected by the post office EMS service, and sent to Shiyan. Since Sunday I was leaving Shiyan I declined this offer as it would probably miss me there, and there would also have been too many hands to pilfer things. I had them send it to the Shangri-La and I would get it the following Wednesday. One week without my case is a bother, but much safer than it playing catch up with a moving target.

We drove north from Wuhan on the expressway system and then stopped at the start of the Xiaoxiang expressway (XXE) for the photo below. I’m on the left, with Anil Somani, Jean-Marie Braun and Liu Zhefu. In the background you can see the top part of the magnificent bridge which marks the entrance to the expressway. They sure know how to do bridges here in China.

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Our plan was to undertake a supervision visit on the XXE which had been open for 5 months and then continue to Shiyan for supervising the Shiman expressway (SME). The latter is still under construction. We drove over about 30 km of the road and it looked very good before heading to the city where we were staying for the night. Our hotel was a 3 Star and relatively comfortable, but cold. It dropped to 0 C during the night and it was very chilly throughout the hotel to say the least. There was also no internet connection which was good insofar as it meant that I wasn’t able to check e-mails.

The following morning we were on the road by 08:00 after a disappointing breakfast. I have a real problem being a vegetarian here in Hubei Province; much more so than anywhere else save Inner Mongolia.

We visited a road we have financed which connects the XXE to the local city. We had them install concrete barriers down the length of the road to try and make them safer since dangerous overtaking is a major problem here in China. Unfortunately, they still did silly things, like put a pedestrian crossing in the middle of an intersection. Not only is it unsafe for pedestrians, but the paint will soon be gone J. The HPCD staff were also surprised that the contractor did this and promised to put it right.

 

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The XXE itself is a fine highway. It is a delight to travel on a well engineered road. The big challenge was keeping the driver from traveling too fast. The first year of a project is called the ‘Defect Liability Period’ when the contractor much fix things, and half way through it looks like there will be relatively few issues to resolve.

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One area of disappointment was in the monitoring and control centre. As the photo below shows, we have built a large centre for monitoring the road. This shows information on speed, weather, use of emergency phones, video monitoring, etc. Unfortunately, it does not work properly yet. 

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We had worked out that there was a problem earlier when we stopped to check that the emergency phones were working. We got a recorded message saying the lines were busy and we should wait a moment. After 5 minutes we worked out that there was never going to be any response. Later, we stopped at another phone and it was completely dead; there wasn’t even a recorded message. We tried the one across the road and the same thing happened. Mr. Du from the HPCD and I posed for the photo below. 

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The manager of the control centre told us that we had the misfortune to test the phones at the time when they were running some debugging software. I have to admit that I found this a little difficult to believe. I mean what is the probability that they are running the debugging software at the exact moment when the six-monthly World Bank team are visiting the site, and when they are pressing the button. When I pointed out that the data for the other site was wrong – it only showed us pressing the button on one side of the road – he acknowledged that some of the phones were not working. Much easier to be truthful from the beginning. When we checked later on we found one that worked so at least we knew the entire system wasn’t down.

The monitoring problems were minor compared to the overall achievements of the XXE and it was nice to be able to report that there were relatively few issues the Bank team were concerned about.

Mr. Zhou from the SME team met us and we did a vehicle change before heading to Shiyan and the requisite banquet. Unfortunately, there was little for me to eat which was better than lunch which was (i) white rice; (ii) carrots; and (iii) lotus root. Protein? What’s that … While I don’t have high expectations for food, I do need a balanced diet. After dinner I went to the local market and bought some nuts, yoghurt and other things to keep me going for a while. They even had a granola which, although laced with sugar, is better than fried food which is what breakfasts in Chinese hotels usually consists of.

I was able to Skype Lis and have a chat with her Friday night, before crashing for an interrupted night’s sleep. Almost over the jet lag. I was up at 06:30 and went for a bike ride around Shiyan. It is a very hilly place and so it is great exercise. I have a bike race at the end of May called ‘Mountains of Misery’ and I really need to get my legs stronger or I’ll flame. After a 10 km warm up I cycled over to the hilly part of town and did 35 km of hill riding. A good workout, but I have a long way to go to be ready for Mountains of Misery.

After another chat with Lis  I spent the day reading and listening to some Podcast sermons. At 14:00 I went out with Zhefu for another bike ride. It was a beautiful sunny day and we drove up into a mountain road outside of town. It was delightful to ride through the fresh air on a warm, sunny day.  The road was quite steep in places so the going wasn’t easy, but we both enjoyed the ride, especially the long downhill run back to Shiyan.

This evening I have another banquet and then tomorrow we head up country to visit the site. I’ll be taking my bike with me as I hope to get a few rides in at the end of the day. Should be an interesting week …

 

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