Much of the time things in Chinese cities tick over in a way that gives the impression that there isn't that great a gulf between the western and eastern ways of life. China is after all a highly technological nation. Shanghai is a model of glossy, hi-tec living. Last year they put three astronauts into space and brought them back safely. Even here in Baiyin a stroll round the streets at night looks like Las Vegas with all the flashing lights and neon signs.
And then you realise that it's not all that it seems.
It's been apparent since I came back after Summer that something has changed in the administration. Specifically in whatever passes for the town planning division of the administration. Last year there were occasional times when you would walk down a street and find a trench along the side accompanied by the mountain of dirt that had been dug out to accomplish whatever electric, gas, sewage or heating works were needed. There were holes here and there that the unwary might fall down as they hadn't been there the day before. There was some chaos. But this year there are "civic improvements" going on. This year there is progress. And here progress seems to be a synonym for chaos.
If any English town planner suggested that it would be a good idea to simultaneously dig up every road and every footpath in the city he would be quietly moved to another department where he could do less damage. Here though it has struck someone as necessary and from thought to inception is about a heartbeat when you are an official with any power. So, and it's no exaggeration, in the downtown area of the city approximately seventy-five percent of all the roads, pavements and paths have been dug up along their entire length. I, for example, cannot go the couple of hundred yards to the local market without clambering over several mountains of mud, balancing precariously on concrete slabs used as temporary bridges across three separate gaping holes in the ground and jumping half a dozen two foot wide, six foot deep trenchers.
Last week I went to dinner at my administrator's home and to get to the front door had to negotiate a hole that was the full width of the alley between the buildings, five-foot wide and eight foot deep with rusty iron piping at the bottom should I fall. There were two muddy ledges, one on each side, to act as stepping stones.
The reason for this chaos is that they have decided to replace the heating system.
Now, to understand fully, you need to know how the heating works. In most countries householders control their own heating. They have gas or electric central heating or just free standing heaters or even coal fires. They turn everything on or off as they choose. Here in China that's not how it works. Here there is a citywide grid of underground pipes and then more, narrower pipes that are fastened to the walls inside and outside the apartment blocks and narrower still pipes that go into the apartments and into the radiators. On a fixed day each year the heating is turned on and hot water is pumped around the whole city and on another fixed day it is turned off.
It's an inefficient and ineffective system at best.
This year I have serious doubts that we'll have any heating at all. I can't see how they can possibly have all this finished by the official 1st November heating switch-on.
Of course, everything can always get worse. And it does.
The workmen digging the roads up power their tools by running jumper-cables from the junction box in any one of the apartments. This is NOT a good idea as was demonstrated by the way that last Friday they blew out the main generator taking out apartment blocks in the process. Mine included. Power has only returned today on Tuesday morning and the way they have fixed it is with a truly scary Heath-Robinson-ish lash up of cables and boxes that they have strung from apartment to apartment hanging from open junction boxes, trailing across floors, leading out of open fourth storey windows, dangling across the gaps between buildings and joining the apartment blocks like bulbs on a Christmas tree.
So I've been in darkness from about six-thirty onwards for four days and as a result have gone over to visit friends who live outside the affected area. That too hasn't been altogether a good experience. On Sunday I went over to watch a movie and have a couple of beers at Carole's. In her apartment block there is power. There are also, a work gang refitting the inside pipes who were hammering and drilling the whole time I was there from seven till about ten thirty. They were, I am told, still hammering and drilling at twenty tow midnight. The noise sounded as if the whole block might come down. The net result of their work is that the stairwell is filled with a spaghetti-like tangle of pipes, all lagged with a kind of black rubber. They are screwed in random variations to walls and ceilings. They poke through crudely chipped holes into apartments, drop through holes in the floor to the level below and continue their twisting, turning journey to the ground floor where they disappear outside through a hole in the wall and join a larger pipe in a hole in the ground.
Carole was told yesterday that this week the workmen will need access to her apartment to make the final connections.
This, of course, is progress.
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