The railway station on the outskirts of Xi’an, the starting point of the ancient Silk Road, is set amid a sprawling complex where a large space is occupied by a sea of containers. From here, cargo is transported by a regular stream of trains that make their way into Central Asia and Europe. Plans are afoot to connect Xi’an with south Asia via a rail link. The trains are called Chan’gan, the ancient name of Xi’an. In a different age, Chang’an was the capital of the Zhou, Qin, Han and Tang dynasties.
Earlier this month, a freight train from Xi’an made its début towards Budapest, Hungary. In its 17-day journey — 30 days shorter than the previous sea and rail route — it would first encounter the Alataw Pass. After crossing this landmark in Xinjiang province, it would enter the rolling steppes of Kazakhstan, en route Russia, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia before reaching Hungary.
The train to Budapest is the fourth edition of the China-Europe rail link. Earlier trains from Xi’an have headed to Warsaw, Hamburg and Moscow. In turn, these trains are steeling the Ancient Silk Route, as part of the China- led trans-Eurasian Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). As the SREB project gathers steam, new rail arteries are also opening up, with an eye on Pakistan, India, Iran and Afghanistan — the civilisation hubs of the ancient Silk Road.
Apart from Xi’an, Yiwu, the bustling coastal city in east China, is also emerging as another starting point of the steel Silk Road. A train from Yiwu now heads towards Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s commercial hub. The Yiwu-Mazar-e-Sharif journey takes about 15 days.
On the way lie Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, through which threaded the famous Trans-Caspian Railway (TCR). The TCR wrote a crucial chapter in the Great Game — the feverish competition between imperial Britain and Russia, with India as the ultimate prize. The Chinese have also opened the port of Nantong, along the broad Yangtze river delta, as another point of transit for Afghanistan. The first train to Afghanistan left Nantong last year. The outreach by rail to Afghanistan may have security implications as well, as China gets increasingly involved in partnership with some of the regional countries in its attempt to becalm the restive Afghanistan.
Train to Tehran
Another artery of the steel Silk Road has opened into Iran. In February last year, the first train from China steamed into Tehran, completing the journey in 14 days, whereas it takes 45 days to transit cargo to the Iranian capital by sea. The railway connect can open the Chinese market for a variety of cargo, from ornate Persian carpets to petrochemical products. Iran, as an integral part of the SREB, can connect with Europe as well. But that would also mean modernising its 1,1000 km rail network, which currently carries 36 million tonnes of cargo and 26 million passengers every year. China would not mind that, for its Fortune-500 behemoths, such as the China Railway Group, are on the lookout for new and lucrative business opportunities abroad.
Xi’an is also in the fray for establishing links with south Asia on the SREB platform. Officials in the city say a train could be heading, on an experimental basis, along the Kashgar to Gwadar China Pakistan Economic Corridor. That would mean virtually knocking on the doors of India. Xi’an has vibrant cultural links of the Silk Road era with south Asia. The Wild Goose Pagoda in the heart of the city continues to stand out as an emblem of Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s epic journey from Nalanda. The seventh century monument, which has housed sutras and Buddhist figurines brought by Xuanzang, is a powerful symbol of China’s cultural and spiritual connection with India.