Safeguarding the power supply in a no man’s land
Deserts and snow- capped mountains, hail and sandstorms — this is the bleak, desolate district of Dabancheng in Urumqi. Yang Wenping is in charge of a section of electric lines here, in the far west of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Despite being hundreds of miles away from the nearest populated area, millions of people’s lives depend on Yang.
In December 2014, the first highspeed railway in Xinjiang started operation, greatly reducing travel times between Urumqi and Lanzhou, the capital of neighboring Gansu province.
To guarantee the railway’s smooth operation, experienced technicians, including Yang, were dispatched to maintain the railway’s power transmission lines.
By the end of this month, Yang will have been patrolling the railway for almost two years. Under his watch, the Dabancheng section has never had any power outages.
Over that time he has developed a unique skill — he taps the transmission towers with a stone and by listening to the sound they make, he is able to pinpoint the exact position of a loose screw. It’s a skill few technicians have been able to master, according to Yang’s colleagues.
“I have been doing this job for 23 years — all of it is patrolling and checking on the lines and towers. No big deal,” Yang said.
The five towers under Yang’s care are just five kilometers apart as the crow flies, but the inhospitable terrain means that he has to walk more than 1,000 km between them each year.
Liu Wen, one of Yang’s apprentices, said the technicians, who carry 6 kilograms tool bags, have to take a circuitous 15 km route to reach all five towers.
The region’s changeable weather only serves to make the job more difficult. When the earth on the slopes starts to thaw in spring, the slippery ground and loose stones make navigating extremely treacherous and just one misjudged step could be disastrous. In summer, the sun beats down on the parched desert floor and temperatures can hit 50 C.
Yet of all the weather the technicians have to contend with, the wind is by far the worst. Sandstorms can occur suddenly, whipping up fine sand that stings the skin and eyes. Yang was once trapped in the desert for 10 hours because of a sandstorm so ferocious that he could barely see his hands in front of his face.
At the end of one patrol, five huge dogs suddenly set upon us — we were lucky that our vehicle was nearby.”
In response, Yang and his team have developed some novel ways of predicting the severity of an incoming weather front.
“If there is heavy wind, we first lean on a power pole, cover our hands with our helmets and stand facing the wind. If the wind creates a continuous sound like ‘ da da da’ on the helmet, it means a high wind is coming. This is a warning to us — we must get back to base as soon as possible,” said Zhang Yanzhe, another of Yang’s apprentices.
Another threat to the technicians’ safety comes from the wild animals that prowl the area.
“At the end of one patrol, five huge dogs suddenly set upon us — we were lucky that our vehicle was nearby,” Liu said.
In total, 37 technicians including Yang work side by side, day and night, maintaining more than 11,300 transmission towers in Xinjiang that stretch over 2,380 km.
Normally, they will ask to transfer to another post after working in the same area for several years. But Yang is happy to stay, as he thinks that the more time he spends there, the more experience he will gain and the more valuable he will be as a worker.