BANGKOK, Thailand | Ancient Silk Road travelers cursed China’s largest desert as “Takla Makan,” an ominous Persian-Turkic expression which translates as, roughly, “Enter and you may never return.”
Undeterred by its sandstorms and merciless terrain in the oblong basin north of Tibet’s glacier-packed peaks, Chinese engineers have announced that completion of the final section of a Taklamakan Desert railway loop line, billed as the world’s first to encircle a desert.
Trains have emerged as a central component of the Communist leadership’s push for both domestic control and foreign influence. A train link to the remote Tibetan capital of Lhasa was hailed as a key step in connecting the restive region to the rest of China, while rail-building projects are featured in a number of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road program of international infrastructure support.
These latest railways have become a talking point for China’s military, industrial, agricultural and political prowess in the state-controlled press, at a time when the Biden administration is struggling to get its own major infrastructure bill passed through a reluctant Congress.
The Taklamakan Desert railway loop fits into the pattern of strategic rail lines for Beijing, allowing for greater access to rebellious Kashgar, a distant southwestern city near vulnerable borders with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kashgar and elsewhere in Xinjiang province contain a large population of restive Muslim Uyghurs of ethnic Turkic origin, whose treatment by the central government has been harshly condemned by the U.S. and other Western governments as well as by private human rights groups.
Official Chinese accounts offer a far blander expanation, saying the rail line will help bring economic development to one of the country’s poorest regions.
“With a designed speed of [72 miles per hour], the fully completed railway line is expected to slash travel time between Hotan prefecture in Xinjiang and Xining, capital of Northwest China’s Qinghai Province, from three days to just one,” China’s official cable TV network CGTN recently reported. “The project will bring rail service to five counties in Southern Xinjiang, and integrate Southern Xinjiang into a vast network of railways along Belt and Road routes.”
Beijing denies multiple reports that its security forces imprison Uyghurs in detention camps scattered across Xinjiang, camps intended to erase suspected extremist Islamist beliefs, politics and behavior. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have said the overall campaign to repress Uyghurs and increase the population of Han Chinese in the region amounts to a “geneocide.”
Many Uyghurs dream of escaping Chinese control and want closer relations with ethnic and linguistic brethren in central Asia’s Turkic-speaking nations, with Turkey as their beacon.
Last year, international democracy activists boycotted Disney’s movie “Mulan” — starring dual U.S.-Chinese citizen Liu Yifei — after the company thanked China’s Bureau of Public Security for help with filming in the Taklamakan Desert.
The railway loop also enables exploitation of the Tarim Basin oilfield, estimated to cover 350,000 square miles under the Taklamakan’s huge dunes and shifting sands. From the oasis town of Hotan, an existing line continues to Kashgar.
“Workers tighten the screw of the rail,” and finished the final Hotan-Ruoqiang link on Sept. 27, China’s official Xinhua news announced.
This newest link is expected to start selling tickets in June 2022, allowing the entire loop to encircle the Germany-sized Taklamakan, which is the world’s second largest desert after the Sahara.
The Taklamakan loop is hailed by Beijing as a way to help the region, especially Xinjiang’s impoverished southern edge near northern Tibet. That edge includes an existing Golmud-Korla Railway which now joins the new loop.
Other trains already go south from Golmud to Lhasa in Tibet, and future plans envision continuing those tracks south from Lhasa to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.
The tracks pass over a rich history of cultivation and conquest, along with ancient trading routes that the Belt and Road program hopes to revive in modern form. More than 2,000 years ago, Bronze Age inhabitants buried mummies in the Taklamakan, according to a French-funded excavation.
As the desert expanded southward, ancient kingdoms crumbled into ruins or were buried.
These included the flourishing Loulan kingdom on vast Lake Lop Nur, before its water evaporated in the 5th century. Buddhist monks also trudged those routes spreading their godless religion east, until medieval sea routes replaced hazardous overland treks to East Asia.
By constructing a railway around the desert, Chinese engineers recreated Silk Road caravan routes which linked China and Europe by skirting the Taklamakan’s rim. The route is flanked by the snow-capped Tian Shan range on the desert’s north, and the Kunlun Mountains along its southern curve. Rugged Pamir peaks form its western ridge.
The railway had to cross, or route around, elevations up to 5,000 feet. “Grass grids” were laid across 165 million square feet of dunes which were virtually devoid of plant life, officials said.
“Anti-desertification programs” planted 13 million seedlings, they said.
In the harshest, most unpredictable zones — battered by sandstorms and smothered by swollen dunes — engineers designed lengthy bridges above chaotic sand.
Closer to Beijing meanwhile, a maglev train project is starting in Shanxi, a north central province. Magnets allow maglev train carriages to float without wheels.
“The high-speed train uses superconducting magnetic levitation technology to disengage from the ground to eliminate frictional 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, to achieve travel speeds of more than [620 miph],” Mr. Ma said.
Nearby, a bullet train is preparing to zip under the sea at 155 mph. The U.K.-based website IFL Science reported in May that the project would be “the world’s first underwater bullet train.”