Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Chinese System of Snow and Ice Control

With this being our fifth or sixth snowfall, I disremember how many… Sigh! I have to tell you that I had been wondering from the very first one how, with all of the smooth tile and all of the bridges, the Chinese keep from falling down everywhere and having car accidents when it snows.

Now, with equally inclement weather stretching across the States and torturing Dallas especially (my old stomping grounds and Superbowl City), it seems a good time to write about what I’ve found out about how things are done in China.

First, about those smooth tiles. It seems that every building I’ve been in, from shop to government office and including apartments, is tiled in 2’ square, smooth, cream-colored tile. Maybe there was a run on it at the local Home Depot, or maybe it is one of only few available flooring alternatives. The others being laminate, such as in my apartment, or concrete, like at Sam’s parents’ house. I’ve yet to see anything – restaurant, apartment or hotel that has wall to wall carpeting, except for an occasional hotel room. There really doesn’t seem like there is much choice when it comes to the floor.

When I first hit campus and got a load of Teaching Building #5, with it’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ side and a smooth tile breezeway in between, my first thought was: ‘that walkway is going to be fun to navigate in the winter, when it ices over. In addition to that, the staircases on this building, as well as building #1 are external. They too are going to ice over. How are they going to keep ten thousand students (and one clumsy foreign teacher) from falling down, given those conditions?

In addition to those questions came the question: what about around town? To facilitate traffic flow, major intersections have pedestrian overpasses. The pedestrians climb a set of stairs and literally walk over the intersections. It saves the pedestrians the temptation of challenging vehicles’ access to intersections (as they are prone to do when no overpass exists). However, again: how are they going to keep all of those pedestrians from slipping on the stairs when there are no handrails, or the handrails are out of reach because of the bike ramps conveniently built on both sides of the staircases?

Last but not least, I thought of the traffic conditions. On a good day, traffic is just short of murder. On snow and ice days, you can imagine how things might be. And, with all of the bridges, especially over bodies of water like the Yangtze and the Han Rivers right here in Wuhan, how are the traffic police going to find time to investigate all of those potential wrecks? Better yet: how will they be prevented?

In the States, people tend to not venture out in inclement weather. Unless they either live up North or in the mountains, where they have to deal with such weather all of the time. Or, they are just foolhardy and wish to challenge the elements and other drivers and see how many times they can spin out before scaring everyone else on the road. And then, with their mission is complete, they can drive back home doing 20MPH.

In the States there are sand trucks, salt trucks and plows, all of which get deployed at the first mention of ice or snow. The mountainous regions have chain laws. Who knows what they have here?

Well, for one, they have a very extensive and very busy infrastructure. I daresay if the buses and trains could not run, these cities would come to a standstill, and taxis would be busier than ever. Therefore, at least the buses and trains have to be able to keep transporting passengers. But that is not all. There is so much industry and so many goods to transport – raw and finished, if trucks could not make their dispatches and deliveries, that would be another catastrophe.

So, it seems to me that China cannot afford to stop everything and keep things parked as soon as a little inclement weather hits. There has to be a way to keep those pedestrians from sliding off the overpasses, students (and teachers) from sliding down the stairs and trucks and buses from sliding all over the roads.

I got my answer during the very first snowfall. Considering that was back in December, you can see how long I’ve waited to write about this topic, right? The answer is: straw mats.

Please go treat yourself to a Sundae at Baskin Robbins if you got it right. I would never have guessed it.

Are you wondering how the straw mats work? It is very simple. During the fall, a certain corps of older women (and perhaps some men) are tasked with loosely weaving straw into mats. These mats are thrown down on the staircases and walkways at the first drop of a snowflake. As pedestrians walk over the mats, the binding that kept them together disintegrates and the straw sticks to the sole of the shoes. It is then tracked upward. Having sufficiently dried the soles of the shoes, it then leaves that pair of shoes and lies, sodden and trampled, on upper stairs for people to track back down when they come downstairs. Thus there is always traction giving material on the stairs and walkways. How ingenious!

But what about the roads? I’ve yet to see a straw mat on the road, and I don’t think they would be very effective on the road anyway. And I have to admit that I am not on the roads enough to actually see their sanding/salting operation, if there is even one.

However, I did get lucky. Some friends and I were riding back from some remote part of town in a taxi one icy night and saw that the other side of the road had no traffic on it except for one small truck. Come to find out, that was the sand truck. The truck drove very slowly over the bridge while some poor soul sat in the back of it, probably freezing, and tossed bucketsful of sand out on the road.

This truck was not designated as an official vehicle; it looked just like any ordinary truck that just happened to be full of sand for the road. Whether there is actually a fleet of sand trucks or whether people get pressed into such duty is still a mystery to me, and no one in the car could tell me. Except for maybe the taxi driver, and he had all he could do to drive safely. Besides, I don’t possess the Chinese vocabulary necessary to broach such a topic and I probably would not have understood his answer if I had asked. Maybe I will be able to next year.

And where does the sand or salt come from? I don’t have the answer to that one, either.

If nothing else, this does prove that I do in fact deserve the name Question Queen. But at least I was able to provide you with some answers.

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