On a cold morning in March 2012, I was brusquely woken up by a stewardess on a Chinese train returning to Beijing from Shenyang, in north east China. I jumped from my berth, gathered the luggage and hastily stepped down onto the bank. As I did so, I heard the loudspeakers’ metallic voice informing passengers that “the train directed to North Korea is leaving from platform…” Had I slept more, I would have found myself on the way to Pyongyang – where, of course, I would not have been able to set foot.
This story is a sign of how common it is becoming to sit on Chinese trains directed abroad. According to a 2009 World Bank study, “in 1949, China had only 22,000 km of poorly maintained and war-damaged railway line, less than 1,000 km of which was double-tracked with none being electrified.” Since then, however, “the government has transformed the railway sector into a vital element of China’s national transport system and a key contributor to China’s extraordinary record of economic growth. Today, China Rail is the second biggest carrier of rail freight and the biggest carrier of passenger transport in the world. It has the largest combined rail traffic task of any national railway system in the world, carrying about a quarter of the world’s railway traffic on about seven percent of the global route-km of public railway.” And, together with a large domestic build up, Chinese authorities are now reinforcing their bridges to foreign countries.
A quick look to a travel website allows users to choose from various possibilities. If you are not enthralled by North Korea, you can go South, to Hanoi in Vietnam, or west, toward Alma Ata and Astana in Kazakhstan. You may pick Ulan Bator in Mongolia or opt for the great classic route: Harbin to Vladivostok, and then to Moscow through the trans-Siberian. And the future looks even more “interconnected.”
The so-called Eurasian Land Bridge – of which the trans-Siberian line is part – and the New Eurasian Land Bridge are railway networks which aim at connecting China to Europe through Central Asia. A plan to unite the two continents remained a dream for a long time due to the Cold War, which sealed the borders between Central Asia and Europe. With the end of geopolitical deadlock – and with skyrocketing trade which is putting existing infrastructure under stress – the idea has been revived.
In June, Reuters reported that Kazakh authorities have added a link to the project, launching a new transit line between Zhetygen and Korgas. The last stretch of railway was completed last year. In an interview with the news agency, Yerkin Meirbekov, deputy railway department chief at Kazakhstan’s Transport Ministry, said the annual volume of freight turnover along the new route could reach 2 million metric tons this year and would rise to 15 million metric tons.
Meanwhile, another project proceeds swiftly on the other side of China. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chinese workers are building a 223-mile high-speed rail link to the North Korean border as part of three planned high-speed railways that will connect China and North Korea. China reacted with some anger to Pyongyang’s nuclear experiments last winter, but Beijing does not appear willing to structurally alter its foreign policy: building ties with its unpredictable neighbor remains a priority.
The mighty peaks of the Himalayas are not cut off from development either. According to Xinhua News Agency, the construction of a 253-km line from Tibet’s capital Lhasa to Xigaze should soon be completed, either at the end of this year or at the beginning of the next. And there are talks of a possible rail link with Nepal, where Chinese companies are already building various infrastructures, including a new airport at Pokhara.
More controversial is the plan to build a new line between Vientiane and Kunming, in southern China, which would serve as a trade route between the two countries and as a link in a planned connection between China and Singapore. According to Laos’ Energy and Mining Minister Soulivong Dalavong, by 2020 the railway could supply about 5 million tons a year of mineral resources to China, but Vientiane needs a US$ 7 billion loan from China’s Export-Import Bank in order to kick-start the construction. Considering that Laos’ total GDP last year was US$ 8.2 billion, one can understand how massive and controversial an enterprise this can be. Some say it is a white elephant which will not be really useful and could saddle Laos with a heavy debt. Others fret about the countries’ dependence from China. Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp, told Time that “in political terms, no country that owes 86 per cent of its GDP to another can be said to have a truly unfettered foreign policy.” In any case, news this spring had it that the construction is about to begin.