Li Zheng: Rooting in Central and South Asia to Tell Stories about Infrastructure Construction

Updated: November 25, 2021 Source: China Profiles
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Photo shows Li Zheng who is at present the Project Manager of Multi-lane Road Tunnel project under the river Karnaphuli.

Moving overland from Kashgar in China's Xinjiang to Takot, a city in northern Pakistan, you would see one of the most awesome mountain landscapes on the planet. Vast snow mountains, ice peaks, rugged rocks, plains, barren mountains, steep-sided valleys, villages surrounded by snow mountains, plateau lakes, rivers and deserts… The scenery changes endlessly along the way.

Karakoram Highway, known as an "engineering miracle of the world", meanders in between. Built in the 1960s, this highway, which symbolizes the China-Pakistan friendship, has gained new life thanks to the reconstruction and extension undertaken by China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) subordinate to China Communications Construction Company Ltd. (CCCC) since 2008.

Among the tens of thousands of workers devoted to this highway, Li Zheng is an ordinary but special one, in that he has participated in the three construction projects of the highway.

After 11 years' of working in Pakistan, he is now in Bangladesh, as the manager of the Kanapuri River Bottom Tunnel Project of CRBC, continuing to forge ahead in the field of expertise.

Rooted in South Asian countries for more than a decade, he has always bore in mind the belief that "Working on a project can benefit local people". Now he is rather proud that more and more countries have paid attention to stories of China's infrastructure construction, and looked forward to listening to the voice of China's infrastructure construction as well as China's infrastructure construction plans.

Encouragement from the Karakoram Spirit

Li Zheng's bond with Pakistan was not planned.

He was admitted to Changsha University of Science and Technology in his hometown in 2004. Electrical engineering automation was his first major option then, but later on he was transferred to the engineering management major due to his slight hypochromatopsia, starting his bond with infrastructure construction.

During college years, working overseas had never been considered by him. Upon graduation, he was recruited by CRBC, and he realized most new employees would be dispatched overseas when accepting the induction training. "I was a little confused, but more curious at that time, and had the impulse to meet the challenge." After the induction training, he and his colleagues came to Pakistan for the reconstruction and extension project of the Karakoram Highway in August 2008.

The Karakoram Highway, also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway, was built in the 1960s with a legendary history… From 1966 to 1978, China was invited to assist Pakistan to build this road, the only economic lifeline in northern Pakistan to be connected to the outside world. It started in the east from Kashgar in Xinjiang, China, ran across Karakoram, Hindu Kush and the Himalayas, passed through the Khunjerab Pass, the China-Pakistan border port, and reached Takot, a town in northern Pakistan, with a total length of 1224 kilometers and an elevation ranging from 600 to 4700 meters.

The construction of the Karakoram Highway is the most difficult in history due to the extremely complicated geological conditions and frequent occurrences of natural disasters. During the 12 years of construction, more than one hundred Chinese workers sacrificed their lives there. Among them, 88 were buried in the Chinese martyrs' cemetery in Gilgit, Pakistan, which was built in 1978. After entering the new century, China and Pakistan decided to reconstruct and extend the highway which had not been repaired for years. The reconstruction and extension project was officially launched in February 2008 by CRBC.

Li Zheng learned a vivid lesson when he first arrived in Pakistan. "As new employees, when we first arrived at the Karakoram Highway project, we were organized to visit the Chinese martyrs' cemetery and pay tribute to them… I learned through introduction that the road builders had opened up this vital road connecting China and Pakistan by relying on their shoulders and hands and with their strong will and the 'Karakoram Spirit' of fearless sacrifice…"

Adhering to the spirit of his predecessors, Li Zheng has become more and more firm in his belief in taking root… In the beginning, he was responsible for the bridge site construction, including technical works such as measuring and experiment, etc. More than a year later, a colleague of him fainted on the construction site one day because of a sudden altitude sickness and was immediately sent to a low altitude area. Upon hearing the news, Li Zheng volunteered to change to the high-altitude section to take over the work of his colleague.  

When asked if he had altitude sickness, Li Zheng laughed and said, "I was only in my 20s at that time. I was in good physical condition and hardly had altitude sickness. The working environment made me forget altitude sickness…"

In the face of the harsh natural conditions in Karakoram, altitude sickness is unworthy of mentioning. In Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway would pass the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Pamirs. In this oxygen-deprived area, geological disasters such as snow slides, landslides, rockfalls, snow mantle, ice accretion, mudslides, earthquakes often occur. In Li Zheng's words, "Many of them are unheard of."

In a word, the reconstruction and extension project of the Karakoram Highway would include road extension, protection wall building, the construction of 39 new bridges, 1110 culverts, 18 open cut tunnels and one tunnel, and the restoration of 26 bridges, all under a dynamic environment.

Owing to geological complexities, the construction work were mostly conducted on cliffs and precipices, and the transport of construction equipment had become a tough issue. "There was no road in the first 400 kilometers of the section, but many cliffs and precipices," recalled Li Zheng. According to him, they had to blast to create a construction site, disassembled large equipment like air compressors, bulldozers and model board trolleys for concrete, and then transported them in pieces and assembled them at the construction site.   

The construction tasks had been aggravated by uncertain natural calamities. "When floods hit a newly finished road section, it needed to be reconstructed. The melting of huge glaciers at the top of mountains would quickly make a brook into a large river. When the roadbed had been scoured by a few hours, reconstruction was also inevitable," said Li Zheng, adding that people working on the project were already accustomed to this, and solving these problems was routine.  

Danger would also pass by from time to time. There was a time when Li Zheng was driving on the way, a landslide occurred just tens of meters away. On another occasion, he verged to be washed away by mudslides. This was "all by sheer luck in misfortune". "In the 1960s, the road builders faced more complicated situations and more adverse circumstances. Sometimes workers had to be tied with a rope so as to make holes on the cliffs and blast them with explosives. Their spirit still inspire us now," Li Zheng said firmly.

Chinese Standards for Going Global

It was already floundering enough to conduct construction work in a high-altitude area known as the "world geology museum". Nature, to the surprise of all the project staff, suddenly added the difficulties.

At the beginning of 2010, one third of the reconstruction and extension project of the Karakoram Highway had been finished. On January 4th, 2010, a massive landslide of a mountain of 700 meters high occurred in the middle section of the project, blocking the Hunza River and forming a barrier lake of more than 20 kilometers long with a storage capacity equivalent to four west lakes. The huge, long and narrow barrier lake completely submerged the 25-kilometer highway under intense construction at this section and cut the project in two.

Li Zheng, who had not had a vacation for two years, was in China at that time. Upon hearing the news, he immediately stopped his vacation and rushed back to the project site… The general manager Ye Chengyin had led the project team in working out solutions. Li Zheng still remembered Ye's words then "We must guarantee workers' safety, reopen the highway and minimize the loss".

"At first we were mostly worried about that the collapse of the mountain would lead to a dam break. If it really happened, the accumulated lake water would become a huge flood and wash away the construction site downstream." Fortunately, the strength of the mountain was enough according to measurement. After careful study, the project team decided to change the route of the original section and set up the Karakoram Highway barrier lake rerouting project, specifically including building five new tunnels with a total length of seven kilometers between the mountains and another four bridges. As a backbone of the technical team, Li Zheng was also transferred to the rerouting project to help tackling challenges.

The construction work needed to be continued, but the road traffic was completely cut off here. Most sections of the project were located on the cliffs by the barrier lake, where the topography was extremely steep. The construction machinery must rely on the barrier lake for shipping. In winter, it is so cold in Karakoram that when water drops, it would freeze. However, the lake was not solidly frozen. Docks suitable for the ups and downs of large machinery such as excavators could not be built by the side of the newly-formed barrier lake. When the large machinery came ashore, it was easy to slip and fall into the lake.

Li Zheng recalled the days of 24-hour construction and three shifts. "The office walls in the construction site camp were covered with drawings, rules and regulations, densely marked with the construction schedule and requirements. The engineering staff had a tight schedule, working on the construction site during the day, and having meetings at night." After three years of unremitting efforts, the five tunnels have all been open to traffic. Beside the wall at the entrance of the tunnel, the words "Long Live China-Pakistan Friendship" are eye-catching .

Just as the barrier lake rerouting project was coming to an end, Li Zheng, who had been abroad for six years, returned to Beijing to report on his work. After working in the headquarters for more than a year, he was transferred to the Phase II Project of the Karakoram Highway.

The Phase II Project of the Karakoram Highway (the Havelian-Takot section) is 118.124 kilometers in length, with the altitude in the project area ranging from 860 to 1880 meters. Based on the upgrading and reconstruction of the original road, the Karakoram Highway would gradually be extended to the hinterland of Pakistan. As Li Zheng introduced, located at the core section of the land passage of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the project is an important part of the road network connecting Pakistan's north and south. Li Zheng was the project manager of Section C (40km). The entire project, located in mountainous areas, covered many complex sub-projects. Except that the 10km section at the end of the project needed reconstruction, the rest part of the project all needed to be newly built. "The Phase II Project includes a 39.305-kilometer highway which passes through mountainous areas, and thus is in need of building bridges and long tunnels. This puts higher requirements on our technology and construction." Acting as a project manager for the first time, Li Zheng encountered a rather big test.

With the experience in the barrier lake rerouting project, Li Zheng has long been familiar with tunnel construction. "Due to the soft texture of the local mountains, reinforcement work must be done in advance during construction. The mountains, water and soil on both sides of the road should also be effectively reinforced through means such as setting up anchor rods or anchor cable frame beams, arched skeletons, etc., and green plants are also needed to prevent landslides." The geological conditions of the construction area are poor. The rock formations are loose, and there are often cracks, which are prone to collapse during excavation, making the construction very difficult. Under the premise of ensuring safety, Li Zheng instructed workers to clean up the gravel first, and then backfill the cavity with a large amount of concrete, to ensure that the tunnel structure was safe.

Li Zheng said, compared with the Phase I Project, in Phase II, except for some large construction equipment that needed to be transported from China, the necessities such as steel and cement had basically been supplied locally, dramatically promoting the development of related industries in Pakistan, and meanwhile creating a lot of local employment opportunities.

On July 28, 2020, the Havelian-Takot section of the Karakoram Highway Phase II Project was officially opened to traffic, giving new life to the Karakoram Highway symbolizing China-Pakistan friendship. As a participant of all the three projects concerning the Highway, Li Zheng said frankly that the project team had truly defied the odds and grasped the difficulties in the face of the dual pressure of disaster prevention and production. Thanks to the highway they built, more and more local people have moved out of the mountains for a new life, and the original aspiration of the project workers has been accomplished. What makes Li Zheng feel more proud of is that the Chinese designs and standards were adopted in the Karakoram Highway project, to help break through many technical problems and elevate the quality of roads in Pakistan, showcasing the "Chinese elements" and the "Chinese wisdom" in the Belt and Road construction.

Surmounting Difficulties

On August 2, 2020, the super-large-diameter shield machine independently developed and exported by CCCC slowly moved into the steel sleeve of the left-line receiving shaft, and the left-line of the Kanapuri River Bottom Tunnel Project was officially opened. Since the shield machine entered the hole on the left side of the west bank of the river on February 24, 2019, 525 days had passed. When the machine crossed the Kanapuri River and arrived at the receiving shaft, it marked that a major breakthrough had been made in the first overseas long and large tunnel undertaken by a Chinese company.

In 2019, the Kanapuri River Bottom Tunnel Project in Bangladesh was launched. The total length of the project route is 9293.095 meters, of which the main project is 3315 meters. The shield section is 2450 meters long and adopts a double-tube four-lane shield scheme. The project adopted Chinese standard design and a two-way four-lane standard, with the width of the driving lane set at 3.65 meters, the design speed at 80 kilometers per hour, the service period at 100 years, and the fire resistance grade at level one.

After 11 years of working in Pakistan, Li Zheng was dispatched to Bangladesh as a project manager. He was well aware of the significance of the project. It is the first overseas large shield tunnel project undertaken by a Chinese company, as well as the first underwater tunnel in Bangladesh. It constitutes a vital part in the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, and is an important link in the Belt and Road construction.

"In the Karakorum Highway project, I have participated in the construction of many tunnels. At that time, the task was relatively tight, and the superiors thought that I had some common experience, so they transferred me (to Bangladesh)…" Li Zheng, however, knew clearly that although there are similarities between tunnels, the construction environment of the highway and the river bottom are very different, and so are the construction methods. Moreover, the duties of a project manager, such as land acquisition and demolition, project drawing approval, communicating and coordinating with the owner and the international consulting team, etc., should not be neglected.

"To excavate two shield tunnels each with a diameter of 11.8 meters at a depth of more than 40 meters under the estuary where sea water and river water meet, the difficulty can be imagined." Difficulties came one after another. Affected by the climate, the rainy season in Bangladesh is from June to October every year. The rainy season has a concentrated rainfall, often causing disasters. In addition, Bangladesh is located on the southern slope of the Himalayas and faces the huge Bay of Bengal in the south. The unique geographical location makes it suffer from hurricanes every year.

The climate impact is only one aspect. The project's international consulting consortium engineers came from European and American countries, and they raised many questions and doubts about China's equipment and standards. Most of the staff of the Chinese construction team went abroad for the first time, and they were not adapted to the supervision of the European and American consultants…

The tunnel excavation process was not smooth, either. According to Li Zheng, there were three major technical difficulties: the initial reception of shields in water-rich silt and fine sand formations, the shield attitude control in upper soft and lower hard formations, and the shield tunneling control in iron plate sand formations.

Facing multiple pressures, Li Zheng started from communicating with foreign engineers. He thoroughly studied the issues restricting the approval of the drawings and then explained them in a clear way. Finally, the shield machine developed by CCCC won the recognition of the foreign engineers, and became the first large-diameter shield machine independently developed and manufactured by China, exported overseas and applied to the project. He also imparted the experience he accumulated in overseas project management to the Chinese construction team, and encouraged the Chinese staff to face questions from the foreign engineers and actively communicate with them. With these efforts, the project construction team and the consultant team gradually reached a consensus and formed a joint force for the smooth construction of the project.

A fight against the technical difficulties was the next step. In tackling the three technical barriers, Li Zheng and the expert team had quickly formulated a solution after surveys and discussions: in the water-rich silt and fine sand formation, end rotary jet pile reinforcement and steel sleeve would be used to extend the actual length of the door ring and thus guarantee the safety and convenience of the initial receiving work; in the upper soft and lower hard stratum, 450 triple-tube high-pressure jet grouting piles would be used to strengthen the soil and stabilize the attitude of the shield machine; in the "iron plate sand" stratum, measures of optimizing tool design, extending the profiling tool, and injecting concentrated bentonite slurry would be used to effectively reduce the thrust of the shield machine, and solve difficulties such as the control of the shield attitude beyond the limit, the large load of the propulsion system and the fast tool wear.

For the young team led by Li Zheng, this project was undoubtedly a huge challenge. As the project manager, Li Zheng, by joining hands with all participating units of the project, organized a competition to elevate the basic skills of the project professionals. The events of the competition included actual operation items such as crane hoisting, rebar lashing, formwork support, tunnel shield machine excavation, segment assembly, as well as quality knowledge and other theoretical knowledge competition.

"Focusing on the goals and tasks of the competition, all departments and staff worked together to innovate working methods and improve working efficiency, giving full play to the role of vanguard models and youth force to ensure the smooth progress of the construction." Due to the good effects, the competition won the 2019 labor competition advanced collective honor of CCCC, which greatly inspired Li Zheng and his team.

"In the course of construction, not only the front-line construction workers tried their best, enterprises in China also provided strong support," Li Zheng introduced, as the tunnel excavation progressed, the ring segments in the tunnel were also installed in an orderly manner. "More than 20,000 segments were required, and each weighed about 13 tonnes. These segments were prefabricated by enterprises in Zhenjiang City of east China's Jiangsu Province, carefully packaged and then shipped to Bangladesh." In order to reduce the damage in the transportation link, lots of efforts had been paid in the package process, with special personnel arranged to watch the transportation process. Li Zheng smiled, "The concrete components were transported as porcelain or handicrafts."

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world at the beginning of 2020 when the project was still in process. Restricted by the control measures of the Bangladeshi government, Chinese management technicians and professional technicians could not arrive at the project on time and it's difficult for materials and equipment needed to enter the construction site, greatly impacting the project progress. Li Zheng led his team to swiftly make out plans on the overall epidemic prevention and control and production and operation of the project and adjusted them dynamically.

Li Zheng had conquered obstacles time and again, helping safeguard the smooth construction of the project, create economic benefits, and moreover, make the brand of CCCC highly recognized by the owners, consulting engineers and all sectors of Bangladeshi society.

At present, the Kanapuri River Bottom Tunnel Project is in the final critical stage of tunneling, and Li Zheng's goal is to make it a high-quality project and benchmark project, letting the Chinese technology, standards and equipment to go global. "I feel honored to join the Belt and Road construction, contributing to it to realize the value of my life and make me have no regrets in my youth."

Editor: Gao Jingyan