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From Camels to Horsepower: new Silk Road future of trans-Eurasian freight

By Vaughan Winterbottom (Beijing Review)

08:08, September 24, 2012

APPRECIATING EXOTIC GOODS: A visitor carefully examines a rug in the international exhibition hall of the second China-Euroasia Expo held September 2-7 in Urumqi, capital of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (WEI XINAN)

Local opinion is divided as to what the International Convention and Exhibition Center in northwest China's Urumqi most resembles. Some say it's a UFO; some say the bridge of an aircraft carrier, while others reckon it to be a giant piece of naan bread, the local dietary staple in the multiethnic Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, of which Urumqi is capital.

Whatever it looks like, there's no doubt the center is an impressive structure. Built last year to host the first annual China-Eurasia Expo, September 2-7 this year saw the crowds return to the center for the second installment of the event, billed as a key gathering of political and business leaders from China, Central Asia and beyond.

At the expo's opening ceremony on September 2, a key theme was reviving the Silk Road, the interlinking network of trade routes that once laced its way from east China to North Africa and Europe.

Where camels once dominated, it's horsepower, tarmac and railways that are smoothing the way for the 21st century incarnation of the Silk Road of yore. And in good time, too.

"Logistics and the lack of logistics in many parts of the world has become the largest non-tariff barrier to the growth of trade," said Babar Badat, Vice Chairman of the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations, at a forum on logistics held during the expo.

"In the 20th century, inadequate logistics infrastructure was especially acute in Central Asia, which, when Pakistan and Xinjiang are included, is home to some 250 million people," Badat noted.

Shipping is involved in 90 percent of international trade, and it was the rise of cheap, reliable shipping that led to the demise of the original Silk Road. For landlocked Central Asia, the cost of sending goods more than 1,000 km overland to the nearest ports before onward shipping historically rendered the area irrelevant to the development of international freight transport.

Lack of access to shipping is particularly pronounced in Xinjiang. The region lays reluctant claim to the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility—the furthest point in all of Eurasia from a coastline. From Urumqi, 320 km south of the pole, it's still a 2,647-km haul to the nearest sea, off the coast of Pakistan.

After the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was founded in 1996, SCO member states, which now include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, soon realized that their geography was an advantage—improving road and rail linkages between them could mean reducing transit times for freight sent anywhere between the Far East and Europe by up to half. The idea of a new Silk Road was born.

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