Desert rail line, last link in China’s push for influence and control
BANGKOK – Silk Road travelers in ancient times cursed China’s greatest desert as “Takla Makan,” a disturbing Persian-Turkish phrase that translates, roughly, to “Come in and you can’t. never come back “.
Undeterred by the sandstorms and ruthless terrain in the oblong basin north of the glacial peaks of Tibet, Chinese engineers announced the completion of the final section of a Taklamakan Desert rail loop line, shown like the first in the world to surround a desert.
Trains became a central part of the Communist leadership’s push for internal control and foreign influence. A rail link to the remote Tibetan capital of Lhasa has been hailed as a key milestone in connecting the troubled region to the rest of China, and railroad construction projects feature in a number of international infrastructure support programs of Chinese President Xi Jinping. .
At home, China is building maglev train systems capable of carrying passengers and freight at hundreds of kilometers per hour. An underwater route near Shanghai will reach tiny offshore islands.
The latest rail system has become a topic of discussion for China’s military, industrial, agricultural and political prowess in the state-controlled press. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is struggling to get its own major infrastructure bill passed through a reluctant Congress.
The Taklamakan Desert Rail Loop adapts to the pattern of strategic rail lines for Beijing, allowing better access to rebel Kashgar, a distant southwest city near the vulnerable borders with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kashgar and elsewhere in Xinjiang province are home to a large population of reluctant Muslim Uyghurs of Turkish ethnicity. Their treatment by the central government has been harshly condemned by the United States and other Western governments, as well as by private human rights groups.
Chinese official accounts offer a much bleaker explanation. They say the railway line will contribute to the economic development of one of the poorest regions of the country.
“With an expected speed of [72 miles per hour], the fully completed railway line is expected to reduce the journey time between Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang and Xining, capital of northwest China’s Qinghai Province, from three to one, ”he said recently Chinese official cable television network CGTN reported. “The project will bring rail service to five counties in southern Xinjiang and integrate southern Xinjiang into a vast network of railways along the Belt and Highway routes. “
Beijing denies widespread reports that its security forces are imprisoning Uyghurs in detention camps scattered across Xinjiang to erase suspected extremist Islamist beliefs, policies and behavior. The Trump and Biden administrations have said the comprehensive campaign to suppress Uyghurs and increase the Han Chinese population in the region amounts to genocide.
Many Uyghurs dream of escaping Chinese control and want closer relations with their ethnic and linguistic brethren in the Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia, with Turkey as the beacon.
Last year, international democracy activists boycotted Disney’s film “Mulan,” starring Chinese-American dual citizen Liu Yifei, after the company thanked China’s Public Security Bureau for the assistance given to filming in the Taklamakan desert.
The rail loop also enables the exploitation of the Tarim Basin oil field, estimated to cover an area of 350,000 square miles under the immense dunes and quicksand of Taklamakan. From the oasis town of Hotan, an existing line continues to Kashgar.
“The workers are tightening[ed] the rail screw ”and completed the last Hotan-Ruoqiang link on September 27, the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.
This link is expected to start selling tickets in June, allowing the entire loop to circle the German-sized Taklamakan, the second largest desert in the world after the Sahara.
Beijing hails the Taklamakan Loop as a way to help the region, especially the impoverished southern edge of Xinjiang near northern Tibet. This edge includes the existing Golmud-Korla railway, which now joins the loop.
Other trains are already going south from Golmud to Lhasa in Tibet. China plans to continue these tracks south of Lhasa to the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu.
The tracks run through a rich history of culture and conquest, as well as ancient trade routes that the Belt and Road program hopes to revive in modern form. Over 2,000 years ago, Bronze Age residents buried mummies in Taklamakan, according to a French-funded excavation.
As the desert extended south, ancient kingdoms collapsed into ruins or were buried.
These included the thriving kingdom of Loulan on the vast Lop Nur lake before its water evaporated in the fifth century. Buddhist monks traveled these routes to spread their ungodly religion eastwards until medieval sea routes replaced the dangerous overland treks to East Asia.
By building a railroad around the desert, Chinese engineers recreated the Silk Road caravan routes that linked China and Europe along the edge of the Taklamakan. The road is flanked by the snow-capped Tian Shan range north of the desert and the Kunlun Mountains along its southern curve. The rugged peaks of the Pamir form its western ridge.
The railroad was to traverse or bypass elevations of up to 5,000 feet. “Grass grates” have been laid on 165 million square feet of virtually devoid of vegetation, officials said.
They said 13 million seedlings have been planted through desertification control programs.
In the harshest and most unpredictable areas – battered by sandstorms and choked by swollen dunes – engineers designed long bridges over chaotic sand.
Closer to Beijing, a maglev train project is starting in Shanxi, a north-central province. Magnets allow maglev train cars to float without wheels.
“The high-speed train uses superconducting magnetic levitation technology to disengage from the ground to eliminate friction drag,” Chinese engineering expert Ma Tiehua said, according to London-based Railway Technology News.
This maglev uses “a line of internal close vacuum ducts to dramatically reduce air resistance, achieving travel speeds of over [620 mph]”said Mr. Ma.
China already has the world’s fastest commercial maglev on a 30 km route in Shanghai, connecting Shanghai Pudong International Airport to an urban metro system on the outskirts of the city in seven minutes, at speeds of up to 268 mph.
Nearby, a high-speed train prepares to slip under the sea at 155 mph. UK website IFLScience reported in May that the project would be “the world’s first high-speed submarine train”.