It is 7am in a hotel foyer in Guiyang in the heart of China and there is the usual herding cats moment as interpreter Peter Ling tries to round up an assorted group of UK engineers, a couple of journalists, and - hardest of all - a photographer. He has to get them aboard a convoy of four wheel drives and be on the road by 7.15 if they are to stand a chance of seeing one of the country's most challenging highway projects in daylight.
The Chongzun expressway is the missing link in a dual carriageway that will connect the industrial cities and agricultural land of Guizhou and central China with the south coast ports. The 118km of new expressway will cut an 11 to 12 hour journey between Chongxihe and Zunyi, through switchbacks with names like 72 ZigZags, to four and a half hours. And it is being built in anticipation of a huge increase in road transport as the Chinese economy expands.
The route is part of the country's national trunk highway system of 12 east-west and north-south corridors that will connect poorer inland regions with the markets of boom areas like Shanghai and Shenzhen.
They will, the government hopes, allow the transfer of some of the wealth being created in the east back into the rest of China.
At the moment traffic is not a problem - there are still very few cars in this part of China. It only takes our convoy 10 minutes to weave round buses, bicycles and mopeds and get out into the country, heading north to Sichuan and the 35M people who live in the municipality of Chongqing.
The RMB6.7bn (£480M) Chongzun expressway is being part funded by a £115M Asian Development Bank (ADB) loan.
ADB has appointed UK consultant Halcrow as its supervising engineer. Halcrow is building a business in China, led by its Asia Pacific MD Bill Austin, and this scheme is a bit of a showcase for what the company can do in one of the fastest growing markets in the world.
Most of the engineers aboard the 4x4s are directors from Halcrow's headquarters in Britain, keen to see how the firm is operating.
Xu Deyu of client the Guizhou Expressway Development Corporation (GEDC) explains why the expressway has not been constructed until now: 'It is a very difficult project, possibly the most difficult in all China. Some people doubted that we would ever be able to build it.' What makes it is such a tough scheme to construct becomes more and more apparent the further north you go. Gentle river valleys and rolling hills give way to densely forested, razor sharp Karst limestone peaks with just the sort of 70- slopes that children like to depict when they draw mountains. The only routes through are already taken by the existing single carriageway road and a railway.
The sole option for the expressway builders has been to elevate the road, driving much of it through the mountains in tunnel, and crossing intervening valleys on bridges. Local media have nicknamed the road the 'expressway in the clouds' (see box). In all, 22% of the road is carried on 121 bridges, many connecting directly with the portals of the 17 drill and blast tunnels that make up another 16% of the expressway.
It has been a tough brief for the Guizhou Provincial Communications Department (GPCD) which has been charged by GEDC to manage the Chinese designers and 17 contractors carrying out construction. 'When we were surveying it was almost impossible for our engineers to find somewhere level to stand, ' says chief supervision engineer on the project for GPCD, Xiao Zezhang. Xiao was asked to come out of retirement to run what is Guizhou's biggest ever scheme because of his experience and understanding of local conditions.
Soaring bridge piers, viaducts swooping in semi-circles round mountain slopes and tunnels emerging onto sheer drops are evidence that the tough brief is being met. Construction work started in July 2002. The slightly easier southern section of the expressway is due to complete next month, one year early, with the whole route finished by the end of 2005. At the peak of tunnel construction there were 50,000 people working on the project.
It is obvious to visitors bouncing along the semi built sections of route that the Chinese need no help from the West for the civil engineering.
So what is the role of the international consultant on the scheme?
The official version is technology transfer and training, advice on construction management, assistance to the Chinese supervision consultants and to aid liaison between the client and ADB. But that is pretty much shorthand for quality control. ADB is insisting on it as part of the loan deal.
'But there is a new drive to tighten up on quality in China generally, ' says Halcrow project director and deputy chief supervision engineer for the expressway project Michael Yu (see Working Lives, page 50).
'Over the last six months there has been a big campaign against corruption. The government has a team of 19 auditors checking construction projects. One was with us for three months.
'The client also has an independent auditor on site. And the local government has sent three members of the disciplinary committee to site too, as extra pairs of eyes on the project.' What can go wrong if quality slips was obvious to everyone on the trip up to the start of the Chongzun expressway construction. We travelled on a section opened in 1998 which had large sections of failing carriageway. One bridge had needed to be rebuilt because the original was understrength.
Managers responsible for the route were reportedly marched off to prison because of the poor quality, and corruption and bribery in the award of materials contracts.
'The Chongzun Expressway is 10 times better than the first part of expressway, ' Yu tells us.
'Three things have improved.
Design standards are higher, the substructure is better and there is a thorough quality management system.' Yu and the supervisory team have made contractors re-do work when it is substandard. 'We have a strict system of seven-day and 28-day strength tests, ' Yu says. 'If the concrete is not up to standard the contractors have to break it out and start again. Even the colour of the cement can be wrong and has to be changed.' As an extra encouragement the client is holding 5% of the value of each of the 17 contracts making up the scheme for five years as a further guarantee of quality.
The project is being constructed under European Fidic terms and conditions.
'Before 2003 it was only projects with foreign funding that used Fidic. But since then the government has adopted the contract, with some fine adjustment, for the whole of the country. It's lowest price wins, so it can be difficult to get the quality required if the contractors start to find they have bid too low, ' Yu says.
But it is not all bad news for the contractors. Fidic has also introduced the idea of claims to the Chinese construction market.
'I have managed to get two claims by contractors accepted by the client, ' Yu tells us. 'It is a big cultural change for the client to accept that it, too, can make mistakes.' Everyone on the scheme wants the expressway to be a showcase for Guizhou. A sign of what it should be like is the recently completed section up to Chongqing. It is a high standard, high speed route that shoots travellers into the heart of the city.
For anyone who wants to try it out, now is the time to go. There is hardly any traffic. But with 35M people and car ownership rising at 15% a year, the nose to tail jams that are part of life in the UK will not be far away for Chongqing and all points south.