A Trip to China (Through the Eyes of an Engineer)

My wife, Becky, and I recently were part of a group that enjoyed an 18-day tour of China. (This was a tour, not a vacation…there’s a difference.) This is a chronological trip summary and emphasizes some of the engineering aspects of the tour.

In this day of the H1N1 virus, every passenger arriving at the Beijing Airport was scanned to see if anyone had a fever. Apparently no one on our flight did. (We were told those arriving with a fever were quarantined.) Beijing (pop. 17 million), of course, is the capital of China and hosted the 2008 Olympic Games. At about the same latitude as northern Missouri, it is considered a northern city in China. In Beijing we visited Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. The city has six ring roads, limited subways (for its size), unbelievable traffic congestion (about 800 additional new cars per day are registered in Beijing) and horrendously poor air quality. Helping to improve the air quality are propane-powered taxis and buses and huge landscaping and tree-planting projects citywide. All major street rights-of-way are landscaped. There are an unbelievable number of bicycles, battery-assisted bicycles and battery operated scooters which operate in dedicated lanes separate from the car and bus lanes. Gas-powered scooters were banned several years ago in an attempt to improve air quality. From the building face, a typical cross-section on a busy boulevard would be: Building face, perhaps a 20-foot sidewalk, a 4-foot landscaped strip, a curbed 18-foot bike/scooter lane, another 4-foot planting strip, and then 2, 3 or 4 lanes of traffic to another planting strip serving as a median. (This is true for all the cities we visited in China.) Traffic congestion is absolutely unbelievable. Their driving would be called controlled chaos. Transportation planning for Beijing is a huge challenge.

Also while in Beijing we visited part of the Great Wall (just northwest of the city) and no, it is not visible from the moon as the tour guides will tell you. Built, rebuilt and maintained between the 5th century B.C. to the 16th century, it stretches for about 5500 miles across northern China. Not all that length is complete today, but the heavily-visited area near Beijing is impressive and draws huge numbers of tourists. Also while in Beijing we saw the “Bird’s Nest” stadium and the “Water Cube” natatorium and yes, we were treated to the famous Peking Duck Dinner.

From Beijing we flew southwest to Xian (pop. 8 million), at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. One of the oldest cities in China, it has previously served as its capital. In Xian we visited its Bell Tower which is central to an 8-mile long city wall and moat which surrounds the old city. About 24 miles east of Xian is the Terracotta Army site. The site/museum contains probably a thousand or so terracotta figures of soldiers, horses, chariots, most of which have not yet been unearthed. These life-size figures were made and placed there in about 210 B.C. to guard the tomb of the First Qin Emperor. The soldiers were discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. Today a few hundred of the soldiers have been unearthed, reassembled and placed in the pits where they originally stood. The site/museum complex is covered by several large buildings, the largest being about 800 feet by 400 feet, which covers most of the soldiers. This is one of the must-see places for any trip to China.

Just like Beijing, Xian had very poor air quality while we were there and horrendous traffic. Many of the street intersections are not striped or signalized and have one lone policeman standing on a pedestal in the middle of the intersection directing traffic by frantically waving his white-gloved hands. Yikes! Surprisingly, it seems to work! We saw few accidents and no American-style road rage. Kansas City is the American sister city to Xian.

From Xian we flew further southwest to Chongqing. Chongqing city’s population is about 5 million, but if you add in the immediately surrounding areas, the population is 32 million. (Three times the size of New York City and you, like I, never heard of the place.) It is a river town, built in a very hilly area. No bicycles here, much too hilly. The Jialing River flows into the Yangtze River at Chongqing. When the Three Gorges Dam reservoir is full (elevation 175 meters), it will reach Chongqing. During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s the city became Chiang Kai-shek’s provisional capital and was heavily bombed by the Japanese. During World War II many of China’s factories were moved to Chongqing which was never occupied by the Japanese. The region remains heavily industrial today. While we were there Ford announced they would build a plant in Chongqing, in partnership with a Chinese car maker.

During part of World War II General Joseph Stilwell was commander of the China-Burma-India Theater and made his headquarters on a steep hillside which overlooked Chongqing, the Jialing River, and his Army’s airfield, located on an island in the river. Today his headquarters building is a museum.

While in Chongqing we drove by what has to be one of the world’s largest Wal-Marts. Three or four stories tall, a huge building and parking lot with the familiar blue Wal-Mart sign. It is near the Chongqing Zoo where the Panda bear exhibit is located. Yes, the Pandas are pretty cute.

In Chongqing we boarded a river cruise ship for a three-day cruise down the Yangtze River to the Three Gorges Dam. After about a week in China, constantly surrounded by masses of people in urban settings, getting on the river was a welcome change. However, while there were some rural areas on the 300 river miles from Chongqing to the Three Gorges Dam, practically all the way, on both sides of the river was built-up. Of course, preparing for the reservoir to fill, the development is all relatively new (within the past 20 years) and above elevation 175 meters.

At the Three Gorges Dam we were locked through four locks from the upstream reservoir, down to the River, about 200 vertical feet, as I recall. (The reservoir was not at its 175 meter, maximum elevation.)

We toured the Three Gorges Dam. Construction on the project was begun in 1994 and is now nearly complete. It is a massive dam and project. Some facts: First envisioned in 1919. Dam length is about 1.4 miles. Height, 331 feet. Estimated cost of the dam, $39 billion. The dam creates the Three Gorges Reservoir which has a volume of about 32 million acre-feet of water from a catchment area of about 386,000 square miles and has a surface area of about 403 square miles. From 32 turbines it can generate 22,500 MW. 1.24 million people displaced by reservoir. Dam contains 35.6 million cubic yards of concrete. The dam and reservoir have created a myriad set of environmental problems, some of which were addressed, others which have not. The locks are complete and operational, being two “lanes” (upstream and downstream “lane”, 5 stages). Only the dam’s ship lift is not complete. It will be an elevator for smaller ships and will cut the time to “lock through” from 4 to 5 hours for the locks to about 40 minutes from the lift.

This huge project is worthy of study for any aspect of civil engineering. The environmental aspects alone are VERY interesting.

From Yinchuan, a town near the Three Gorges Dam, we flew to Shanghai, then by bus to nearby Suzhou. Known for its ancient system of canals and being located on the ancient Grand Canal (1100 miles from Beijing to Hangzhou), it sometimes is referred to as the “Venice of the East”, but since Suzhou is older than Venice perhaps Venice should be called the “Suzhou of the West.” Air and water pollution are huge problems for China. From our boat tour of the canal system I can confirm wastewater treatment for the central part of Suzhou still needs work!

From Suzhou we went by bus to Shanghai (about 40 miles). S
hanghai is the largest metropolitan area in the world, at about 20 million people. The city is on the Yangtze River delta. The Yangtze flows into the East China Sea on the north side of the city. The center of the city is bisected by the Huangpu River. There we saw the Bund District, examples of amazing architecture, beautiful parks and landscaping, and the very unusual Oriental Pearl Tower (a misadventure in architecture, in my opinion.) We also visited the Shanghai Museum, a trip highlight.

The polluted Huangpu River is being cleaned by water treatment scenarios constructed in and along the river. Large areas in the downtown area are being converted to parks and landscaped areas. The city boasts the world’s first “maglev” train, which runs from city center to the international airport. It covers the 19 mile route in 7 minutes, 20 seconds (that’s an average speed of 155 mph). A one-way ticket costs $7.27 (with proof of an airline ticket). Trains depart every 15 minutes.

From Shanghai we flew to Guilin in southern China (a small town, having a population of only 1.3 million). Guilin and the Li River which flows through it are known for their mountainous scenery. We took a cruise on the Li which is known for its scenic beauty through small, high hills and is often compared to Haling Bay in Vietnam. An image of the Li River and its surrounding mountains are used on the Chinese 20 Yuan note.

From Guilin we flew to Hong Kong, the last town on our itinerary. Hong Kong (pop. 7 million) was a British colony until 1997 when sovereignty was transferred to China. China is one country with two systems, Hong Kong being the second system, with its own currency, legal system, political system and immigration policy. (They also drive on the “wrong” side of the road ala Britain.) Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Mandarin is spoken on the mainland. One of the most densely populated areas in the world, Hong Kong boasts being the most vertical city in the world, with more people living above the 14th floor than anywhere else. Victoria Peak, overlooking the city and harbor and Stanley Market are standard tourist attractions in Hong Kong. We made them both.

To give some idea of the scope of China’s efforts in railroads and airports, here is a summary. Within the next three years China will build about 8000 miles of high speed railroads. They will carry trains with speeds of about 200 mph. The first phase will be opened next year, being the route from Beijing to Shanghai (about 700 miles). Next year they will test a high speed train which will have a cruising speed of about 312 mph. The three-year budget for new railway construction is about $293 billion. By 2020, the goal is to have about 75,000 miles of railway nationwide (which is roughly the size of the U.S.).

Relative to airports, in the next five years, China plans to spend $17.4 billion to build 17 new airports. Seventy three are being expanded and 11 being moved. At Beijing, in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Terminal 3, the international terminal was built. It stands 7 stories tall, is 2.4 miles long, and has about 9,000,000 square feet and cost about $3.5 billion.

China faces huge challenges in the coming years: Social conflicts and issues, their environmental issues, cultural changes, trade imbalances, their place at the “world table”. The country has been completely transformed in only the past 20 years. It will be interesting to see how this 60-year old country (The Peoples Republic of China) develops in the coming years. From an engineering/construction viewpoint, there is huge opportunity (and difficulty) in China. For example, 8000 miles (a distance equivalent to roughly three crossings of the U.S.) of a new high-speed rail system to be built in a few years is unbelievable, compared to the U.S. (We can’t even get I-70 rebuilt from St. Louis to Kansas City.)

Given the opportunity to travel to China, you should go. It will change your perspective on life. But doesn’t all travel do that same thing? Get out there. Go somewhere.

Dick Elgin
Adjunct Professor of Civil Engineering






Drinking the wine. Yes, those are snakes in the jar. Yes, had some. Drinkable, but barely.