It was unusually warm in Heihe. For a few hours, overnight, the temperature got as high as minus three.
What would usually fall as snow fell as rain.
And that caused big problems.
Because when the rainwater hit the ground, it froze instantly. And then the temperature dropped to minus 10.
The water stayed frozen.
Heihe became an ice-rink; every street a hazard.
The pipeline opens this week, and will bring millions of cubic metres of Siberian gas to cities across China. It has cost more than $50bn to build and there’s a lot of scepticism that Russia’s Gazprom will ever be able to charge enough to make it worthwhile.
But for both countries, the project is one that is as much about politics as it is about economics. China and Russia are strategic allies. Both want to show commitment to the other. A pipeline does that.
People in the countryside around Heihe – most of whom still burn coal inside their homes for heating and cooking – will see little direct benefit. Some have had jobs helping to build the pipeline, others will help monitor its operation.
But, for most, the pipeline is simply a project that passes near their homes – delivering gas not to them but to China’s large cities to the south.
Not that many even wanted to talk about that while our team was there. All most wanted to talk about was the weather.
Because these conditions were unusual, and the city was not ready for them. I had naively assumed that in a notoriously cold part of China, authorities would be prepared for icy conditions.
Not at all.
We were supposed to be flying out of Heihe’s airport, 14 kilometres from our hotel in the centre of town. We had a car booked and had left an hour – given the conditions – for the drive. In fact, it took us three.
For much of that time, we were outside the car pushing. Not that pushing – minus 10 and, fool that I am, I’d forgotten gloves – helped much.
It was near impossible to get any grip beneath our shoes so pushing the car ‘forwards’ more often meant sliding backwards and down.
Marginally more successful was using metal poles to scratch and break the ice directly in front of each wheel. Once the car had a little traction and motion, momentum kept it going.
Sometimes it kept it going too much – more than once the car slid into the highway’s central reservation. We saw at least a dozen cars that had slid and dropped into ditches on either side of the road.
We did reach the airport, eventually. But there it quickly became clear no flights could possibly land, so none would take off. The runway, like the roads, was under ice. Three hours back to town; more pushing, more aching, then numb, hands.
We eventually left Heihe that night by train.
The journey to Harbin took eleven hours; overnight in a carriage styled like a barracks – rows of three beds stacked one on top the other. As the only way out of town, it was packed – with people, bags and cigarette smoke.
On the top bunk, squeezed almost up against the train’s ceiling, it was hot. Having been frozen all day, all night I sweated. The train rumbled south, following the route of the gas pipeline we’d been filming.
And as I dozed, it struck me. For all the modernity, speed and ambition of its grand projects, China sometimes misses the basics.
For headlines, a few gritting trucks and a bit of salt don’t match a billion-dollar pipeline.
But, for the people of Heihe, they’d have a lot more practical impact.