Adventure at West Qinling:Treacherous Roads, Spicy Food, and TBMs

A few months ago one of my colleagues and yours truly presented a two day seminar to the Dongah Geological Company of South Korea on Robbins Hard Rock TBMs. The following is our story of the ensuing trip:  Fueled by copious amounts of South Korean hospitality known as Soju (for those of you who don’t know Soju or Shōchū is a Japanese distilled beverage. It is usually distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, or rice. Typically, shōchū contains 25% alcohol by volume.  It’s weaker than whiskey or standard-strength vodka but stronger than wine and sake. It does actually taste like weak vodka, at least the first one or two do, after that…well you should get the picture!) our agent Mr. Kim in South Korea suggested that we should further develop our relationship with our hosts and provide some on-site practical training for our hosts.

We needed to find a project that would be similar to the potential project in South Korea–similar meaning, similar in purpose, design and diameter. The machines in South Korea we learned could be up to 12m in diameter and possibly larger. Someone, I am not sure who, volunteered the West Qinling project in Gansu Province, China as the project most similar to the ones in South Korea.

Robbins currently has two 10m diameter hard rock main beam type machines in operation there. With the Soju in full effect we all thought this was a great idea and it was decided that West Qinling would be our next port of call. (For more on this project, view our news release and case study).

After a day or two of recovery and not expecting to hear anything more (Soju has that affect on you) there followed a flurry of E-mails, a few phone calls and before you knew it we had arranged a trip to the West Qinling project.

Gansu province is located in the northwest of the People’s Republic of China. It lies between the Tibetan and Huangtu plateaus. The landscape in Gansu is very mountainous in the South and flat in the North. The mountains in the South are part of the Qilian mountain range. At 5,547 meters high, Qilian Shan Mountain is Gansu’s highest elevation. The West Qinling Project is located in the mountainous region to the South. Similar to the great expedition in 1845, it’s only about 500km (310miles) from Chengdu to the jobsite.

I have been to the West Qinling site before; there is no way to get there other than by a four wheel drive vehicle. You have to drive; the nearest airport was severely damaged by the deadly 7.8 earthquake in the region in 2008. On a good day the drive could take 8 hours. Generally it takes at least 10 hours. On my first trip it took over 13 hours. If it rains you can expect landslides and mudslides, it has taken some field service personnel nearly two days to get off the mountain and back to Chengdu. In a weak attempt to dissuade Mr. Kim from actually going ahead with the visit to the jobsite, we tried to paint as black a picture of the journey as we could. No matter what we told him he always replied “Guk-jung-ha-jee-ma!” which in Korean literally means “No worries!” or “Don’t worry!”  To which we replied, “But Mr. Kim are you aware that this is the rainy season?” And to that we got the same answer “Guk-jung-ha-jee-ma!”

The Mountain Road to West Qinling

Start of the mountain road to the West Qinling jobsite.

After meeting and greeting our party of seven guests, accompanied by Mr. Kim from South Korea, at Chengdu Airport on the evening of 12th May we held a briefing on the same evening about the journey and the schedule for the days ahead. Arrangements were made to meet in the hotel lobby the next morning. “Any questions?” I asked. “Guk-jung-ha-jee-ma!” was the now familiar reply.

8am Friday 13th May:

I thought I wasn’t superstitious, but setting off on Friday 13th on a 10-hour journey in the rain to a remote jobsite in the mountains gets you thinking a little. So with Mike (our field service training supervisor), Andy (the Robbins China project manager for the project) and myself in the lead vehicle we set off in convoy, 4 vehicles in total, for West Qinling. Four hours into the journey and lunchtime is approaching. As some of you will be aware meal times are sacred in China–the drivers are getting short tempered and need to stop. We’re driving through Sichuan province and we’re close to the last major town before we hit the mountains and dirt roads.

The majority of food in Sichuan is spicy. The locals love nothing more than Chilies of any and all kinds with their food. We stop at a local restaurant in Baolun, (this is one of the small number of places where you will see few, if any, American style fast food joints, a rarity in itself these days). Andy orders food and leaves instructions ‘not too spicy’ with our smiling waitress. It seems as though something got lost in translation and most of the food is spicy. There are a few newcomers in our group to this part of China and the last thing you need on a long road trip into the mountains is to be looking for restrooms. Even some of the more experienced travelers have been known to get caught out once or twice (myself included).

In the more remote parts of non-Westernized countries or parts of countries that have had limited exposure to Westerners or “lao wai” (foreigners in China) you shouldn’t expect Western style facilities either; a hole in the floor type convenience would be the norm…if you’re lucky.

We set off again after lunch, the first few hours are on black top. Although the road is winding up and over the first mountain range it’s a relatively smooth ride and the views are spectacular. We enter Gansu province around 3:30pm in the afternoon.

Relative to the food we’ve eaten and the roads we’re traveling on, the condition of the digestive system is, in weather related terms, (refer to the Beaufort Scale) around Force 7:  ‘High Wind, moderate gale, near gale.’”

Again for those of you who don’t know, The Beaufort Scale (pronounced bou–fart, need I say more) is an empirical measure for describing wind speed based mainly on observed sea conditions (on land it is categorized by the physical effects it has on vegetation and structures). Its full name is the Beaufort Wind Force Scale.

Not long after we’re on the dirt roads, top speed is roughly 20km/h (12mph) about an hour in we stop at a small village, where wind speed for some of the group has increased to force 8 (gale, fresh gale), and all of our guests need a pit stop. We find a ‘restroom’ in a small village, the wind dies down and we set off again.

We pass through an area that has just been cleared of a landslide (see photo below), which had closed the road for 2 days prior to us travelling. If the landslide had not been cleared we would have had a four hour 150km detour to endure.

Landslide area on the road

The landslide area on the way back down the mountain.

Unexpectedly the wind starts to increase again, Mike is feeling it the worst, without warning we (he) experiences Force 11 (Violent storm) – we need to stop immediately!

Luckily we’re not far off another camp about 2 hours from our destination. We pull in and Mike calms the storm. There’s a lot of curiosity when we arrive at this camp. It’s not often you see four vehicles in convoy travelling these roads. Add to this the fact that we’re all ‘lao wai’ and pretty soon we’re surrounded by curious onlookers. A bit of ‘Chinglish’ (Chinese English) with the crowd, they hand out cigarettes to those who want them, we have a laugh and joke (‘laugh and joke’ by the way is cockney rhyming slang (slang mainly used in London in the UK) for ‘smoke’, and head on up the mountain.

Continuing on the journey

On the road again!

We arrive at the camp at around 6:30pm, where we’re greeted by our host from MOR18, Mr Wang. Everyone is shown to their rooms.  We throw the bags in, wash up and head for a welcome dinner. We’re all weary after the long journey, a few beers take the edge off and the expedition team starts to relax.

Camp at W Qinling

The camp at the West Qinling project.

Saturday May 14th:

First day of training, we split up into two groups. Mike takes a group for some classroom study, Andy & I with the other group head into the tunnel. First of all we explain some general rules on safety and what to watch out for when we’re in the tunnel. “Any questions?” – same answer: “Guk-jung-ha-jee-ma!”

When we were on site the previous year we were there to assemble, test and commission the machines. Due to bad ground at the start of the tunnel we had to walk the machines some 2.5km from the portal to the starting point of the bored tunnel. Since then the machine we’re visiting has advanced another 4.5km. Average production on the machines is close to 500m per month. Considering the location and the logistical nightmare that this project is, this is an excellent achievement. By anyone’s standards 500m per month on a 10m main beam machine is good going.

These tunnels form part of a massive project that will eventually cut rail transportation times between two major cities in the region from 12 hours to roughly 4 hours.

View of the jobsite

View of the site from the camp.

It takes us an hour on the loco to get to the machine, along the way we see several slip forms that are used by the contractor to complete the final lining of the tunnel. There are two rail tracks all the way to the back of the machine. There are currently nine rail switches at roughly 500m distance throughout the tunnel, and we constantly switch from the left line to the right line as we progress towards the machine to prevent any hold ups to the works.

On this project excavation, preliminary ground support consisting of rock bolts, mesh, ring beams and shotcrete is done at the machine and the final lining using the slip forms is carried out simultaneously in both tunnels. The excavated material is transported out of the tunnel on a continuous conveyor also supplied and installed by us.

We spend the whole morning on the machine and our guests get to see a lot of activities being carried out, ask a lot of good questions and get a good feel for hard rock tunnel boring. We manage to get into the cutterhead and witness a cutter inspection. For most of our guests it is the first time they have seen a hard rock boring machine in action. In South Korea tunnels in hard rock have typically been excavated by drill and blast methods and metro tunnels have been excavated by EPB machines. I think everyone is taken aback by the sheer size of the machine, the heat and noise and the amount of activities being carried out in the tunnel.

We see first-hand the machine boring whilst the crew installs ring beams and mesh and drill for rock bolts. Behind us in the L2 zone shotcreting is ongoing.

Around 1pm we’re out of the tunnel. After a light lunch Mike and I swap teams and once again we head back into the machine with the second group. More questions, more explanations and all in all a productive educational day.

Ground support in the tunnel

Ring beams installed on the West Qinling machine.

We have two machines on this project that are boring parallel tunnels, we’ve been on the left side machine all day, due to the way the project is organized this is actually the right line machine. This machine is operated by MOR18, our other machine is operated by CRTG. We think it only proper that we visit both machines. Two different contractors, two different ways of working, it’s good for our guests to see & understand that there are many different ways to approach this kind of work.

Saturday evening we get invited to dinner by CRTG, Mr. Dai is our host and knows how to throw a good reception. The food is excellent: Mike and myself demolish a large plate of bull frogs (tastes and looks just like Chicken) our guests however don’t seem too fond of them. They are washed down with Mr. Dai’s special Baijiu. Baijiu is almost the Chinese version of Korean Soju but around 50% stronger. Literally translated Baijiu means ‘white liquor’. For the most part Baijiu is an acquired taste; it kind of percolates out of you for around 3 days after you’ve been drinking it. Mr Dai has a special Baijiu that contains herbs and spices that make it good for the health, or so they say (and who am I to argue). I don’t want to upset our host and join with him in several toasts to the health of our guests — there’s no need for translation this evening. Baijiu is a wonderful translation tool — it’s funny how we can all understand each other so well. Our guests reciprocate with several toasts of their own, we sleep well that night!

Sunday May 15th:

Sunday morning is spent looking around the jobsites as a group. We visit the segment plant (all segments are fabricated on site), the ring beam plant, the wire mesh plant, the cutter workshop and the three batching plants. Three batching plants are needed as the invert segments, the shotcrete and the final lining concrete all require different quantities of sand, cement and aggregates for each application.

The team at the MOR18 Camp

The Expedition team at the MOR18 Camp. (Mr. Kim, our Robbins Korea Agent on the LHS of the picture, Mike (back row) and myself on the right in the Hi-Vis workwear)

We take a look at the continuous conveyor installations and explain to our guests how it all works and ties in with the boring machine.

Sunday afternoon we visit the right side machine (left line), as they have just come off an 800m plus month. We think it’s a record for this size of machine, an outstanding performance.

Installing invert segments

Installing invert segments at West Qinling

Later on in the day we’re invited to a question and answer session by the contractors. Our guests get a lot of useful information from them as do we.

We get a weather report for the next few days, not so good, rain is forecast. We need to change plans and decide to make a run for it down the mountain before the rains start. Sunday evening we attend another excellent dinner, this time hosted by Mr. Wang of MOR18. Once again the Baijiu replaces our translators and we communicate in a common language. We need to be cautious though; wind is also forecast for the next morning especially after a large dinner. We don’t need a repeat of our inbound journey!

Monday May 16th


We cannot thank our hosts enough for their hospitality; we have been welcomed with open arms, a great experience for our guests. We set off down the mountain at 7am. Winds are Force 0 – Calm!!

Around 6pm we’re back in Chengdu. A bit of rest and recuperation is in order—a couple of hectic days & hard nights takes its toll on you.

Tuesday May 17th


We pay a visit to one of the workshops in Chengdu. We are currently assembling the 2nd machine for the Chengdu metro project there. It’s an EPB machine and is nearly completely assembled. The shop is impressive and our guests are very interested in the unit. They have a lot of experience with EPB machines and ask a lot of pertinent questions.

Later that morning we stop off at the jobsite and see the sister machine in the workshop being assembled in the pit at site. Most of the back-up is completed, the middle shield is standing up and the site crew are preparing for the arrival of the forward and tail shields.

Chengdu Metro machine assembly

Robbins Chengdu Metro EPB Machine – Middle Shield

Back-up at the jobsite

The back-up just behind the middle shield.

Monday afternoon is spent taking in all the information from the visit. We have a final question and answer session with our guests and arrange a farewell dinner.

Wednesday morning 5:30am, we put our guests on the bus for the airport. We made it back from the mountains safely and the expedition is over. Mike gets on a plane for the US, Andy flies back to Shanghai; I jump on the high speed train from Chengdu to Chongqing, we have two hard rock single shield machines to build there. The first is about a month away from completion…back to reality, we’re on a tight schedule and there’s work to be done. All of a sudden I get the familiar feeling of a Force 11 (violent storm) coming on, must be something I ate at the farewell dinner. Luckily I’m on the train, there is a decent restroom and the storm is over before we know it. Winds return to Force 0 – Calm!

Steve Chorley