I think most foreigners view China’s massive freeway-building project, akin to the US Interstate Highway System begun under Eisenhower, with ambivalence if not outright hostility. They should have followed the Japanese railway-centered model rather than the US freeway-centered model, saving energy, reducing greenhouse gas output, limiting the increase of urban smog from the same cars that cruise the pikes. They have opened up previously quaint minority and rural areas to globalization, coke, and general erosion of local differences. And of course they have spent a lot of money that could have gone to local infrastructure that would have been more use to the rural and the poor. I agree. But…
I rode the freeway from Chengdu to Xichang and back again in late August. I want to be contrarian about two things. First, this saves a lot of time and effort. It used to take two days to drive, or an overnight train and a long car ride, to get from Chengdu to Yanyuan county, where Yangjuan school is located. Now the overnight train or day-and-a-half car trip is shortened to six hours on a comfortable, relatively energy-efficient bus (it takes over 40 passengers in relative luxury) or four and a half hours in a private car with a fast driver. For people who need to get from Liangshan to Chengdu or the other way around, this is a great boon, and an inexpensive alternative to the ridiculously pricey and even less energy-efficient air tickets (the bus cost 195 RMB, a little more than a hard sleeper train berth but less than a soft sleeper) while I was quoted 1300 for a one-way plane ticket.
More importantly, one has to admire the engineering. This freeway goes through some of the steepest, most fractured mountain terrain in the world, while keeping the grade of the slope at less than 4%, as indicated on detailed signs posted everywhere there is a steep grade upward or downward. There are innumerable tunnels, including one that is signed at 10007 meters long (10K and 7 meters, for the decimally challenged), through which even normally fast drivers proceed cautiously at the posted speed limit of 70 kph. And I wanted to show you a picture that partly illustrates something really remarkable:
You are standing at the edge of a parking lot at a rest stop. Start by looking at the right center of the picture. If you are going up the mountain, you will drive out of the picture frame to the right, across the short section of trestle you see there, and into the entrance of a tunnel, just out of the picture behind the slope of the hill. That tunnel spirals around, climbing inside the mountain for a bit more than 360 degrees, then emerges a couple of hundred meters higher, just to the left of the edge of the picture, makes the crossing on the big trestle you see wrapped around the mountain (how high are those pillars? 50 meters? 60 meters?) and then soon goes into another tunnel to proceed on its way. Whatever you think of the social and environmental effects of building this freeway, you have to hand it to the engineers. Seems to me it’s right up there with the Mars mission.