The Silk Road train encircles the dreaded Chinese desert
Travelers on the ancient Silk Road have cursed China’s greatest desert as “Takla Makan”, a disturbing Persian-Turkish phrase that translates to “come in and you may never come back.”
Undeterred by its sandstorms and ruthless terrain in the oblong basin north of the glacial peaks of Tibet, China has announced the completion of the final section of a rail loop line in the Taklamakan Desert, the first in the world to surround a desert.
Elsewhere, China is building maglev train systems, capable of carrying passengers and freight at hundreds of kilometers an hour, including an undersea route near Shanghai to reach tiny offshore islands.
These latter railways augment China’s military, industrial, agricultural, and political prowess, amid growing rivalry with the United States over the capabilities of each nation.
The Taklamakan Desert Rail Loop also allows Beijing better access to rebel Kashgar, a remote southwestern city near the vulnerable borders with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Kashgar and elsewhere in Xinjiang province have a large population of reluctant Muslim Uyghurs of Turkish ethnicity.
Beijing denies claims that its security forces are imprisoning Uyghurs in concentration camps scattered across Xinjiang, to erase suspected extremist Islamist beliefs, policies and behavior.
Many Uyghurs dream of escaping Chinese control and want closer relations with their brothers in the Turkish-speaking countries 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 350,000 square miles (560,000 km2) under the immense dunes and quicksand of Taklamakan.
“The workers are tightening the rail screw,” and completed the last Hotan-Ruoqiang link on September 27, China’s official Xinhua Newspaper reported.
From the oasis town of Hotan, an existing line continues to Kashgar.
“This railway line crosses the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert,” said Yang Baorong, chief designer of the final 825 km section.
“Sandstorms pose a serious threat to the construction and operation of railways because the tracks can be buried,” Yang said.
This new link is expected to start selling tickets in June 2022, allowing the entire loop to encircle the German-sized Taklamakan, which is second after the Sahara Desert in global size.
The Taklamakan Loop is hailed by Beijing as a way to help the region, especially the impoverished southern edge of Xinjiang near northern Tibet.
This edge includes an existing Golmud-Korla railway which now joins the new loop.
Other trains are already going south from Golmud to Lhasa in Tibet, and future plans contemplate continuing these routes south from Lhasa to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
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 flourishing kingdom of Loulan on the vast Lop Nur lake, before its water evaporated in the 5th century.
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.
Buddhist monks also took these routes to spread their ungodly religion eastwards, until medieval sea routes replaced the dangerous overland treks to East Asia.
The Taklamakan Desert dries up 124,000 square miles (320,000 km2) and stretches about 600 miles (960 km) from east to west.
It stretches up to 420 km in diameter, flanked by the snow-capped Tian Shan mountain 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 (1,500 meters).
“Grass grates” were laid on 165 million square feet (50 million square meters) of dunes that were virtually devoid of vegetation, officials said.
“Anti-desertification programs” have planted 13 million seedlings, they said.
In the most difficult and unpredictable areas – battered by sandstorms and choked by swollen dunes – engineers designed long bridges over the 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 near-vacuum internal duct line to dramatically reduce air resistance, achieving travel speeds of over 1,000 kilometers per hour (620 miles per hour),” Mr. Ma said. .
China already has the world’s fastest commercial maglev on a 19-mile (30.5 km) route in Shanghai, connecting Pudong Airport to an urban metro system on the outskirts of the city in seven minutes, at speeds of up to 268 mph (431 km / h).
Nearby, a high-speed train is about to spin under the sea at 250 km / h.
“Construction is well advanced,” UK website IFL Science reported in May.
It would be “the world’s first high-speed submarine train, stretching nationwide from Ningbo, a port city near Shanghai, to Zhoushan, an archipelago of islands off the east coast.
“Covering an almost entirely new 77 km section of railway line, the new route will include a 16.2 km underwater section,” IFL reported.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent who has been reporting on Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new non-fiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. – Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York “and” Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks “are available at https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com
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