To better understand the opportunities and challenges posed along China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the members of The New Silk Road Project will travel 10,000 miles across China’s Economic Belt to explore the people, projects, countries, and landscapes involved. We expect to depart from London and Rotterdam, two western termini of the Belt and Road, in June 2018. Over 60 days, we will travel to Yiwu, a city in East China that houses the world’s largest wholesale market and aspires to send more of its goods along the BRI’s overland routes. We will focus on two key corridors: the New Eurasian Land Bridge and China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor, attempting to visit over two dozen ‘Silk Road’ hubs along this fast-evolving axis.
All the necessary documents are in place to begin applying for visas at the end of March, and our route, itinerary, sponsorship, and board of specialist advisors are all confirmed. We have been reaching out to the relevant authorities, organizations, and individuals along our route with whom we hope to share insight with during the journey.
While it is difficult to accurately anticipate our insights, we expect to observe a substantial disparity in cargo volumes between the outbound and return journey to Europe. This has been one of the criticisms of these emerging overland corridors. We also expect to find a substantial Chinese workforce and Chinese equipment at some of the project sites we visit. We anticipate signs of lengthy delays to cargo shipments at border crossings, particularly between Kazakhstan and China, due to the different railway gauges.
We want to gauge public awareness and opinions on this initiative. Chinese state media has reported a threefold increase in global awareness of BRI between 2014 and 2017 according to a survey issued across 22 countries. Along the way, we will pose a variety of questions to some of the people we encounter: Do you know what the Belt and Road Initiative is? Do you perceive BRI as primarily Chinese-driven or as an international collaboration? What impacts, both positive and negative, has your community or local economy experienced? Are you supportive of the initiative? We anticipate higher levels of awareness of this initiative in China, as well as heightened suspicions of Chinese motives in Central Asia. However, firsthand observations will inform our final analysis.
Given the distances and the regions we will cover, we expect to face certain challenges. Vehicle maintenance will be particularly important, and we will be taking courses to efficiently deal with breakdowns and mechanical difficulties if they arise. Corruption and bribery is likely to be widespread, particularly in Central Asia, though we will try to limit our exposure to this reality when possible. Beyond Turkey, we expect to encounter increasingly tedious bureaucratic processes at border crossings and challenging linguistic barriers within the countries. In Central Asia, Russian remains the lingua franca despite the country’s dwindling influence in the region. Our team’s Russian proficiency will make communication with curious officials less complicated, though this challenge will remain elsewhere.
En route, we will aim to visit intermodal terminals, transit hubs, industrial parks, seaports, residential developments, and railway upgrades. Examples include: Duisburg Intermodal Terminal, where DHL goods are conveyed by freight train directly to China; the China-Belarus Great Stone Park in Belarus; Chornomorsk, where the China Harbor Engineering Company is bidding to dredge the port; the new Georgian deep sea port and free trade zone of Anaklia on the Black Sea; the Tehran-Mashhad rail line which is being electrified using Chinese investment; the Almaty-Bishkek Regional Road Rehabilitation Project; Khorgos Gateway, where Chinese freight will depart to Central Asia; and Chengdu, which connects BRI with regional engines for economic growth such as the Yangtze River Economic Belt.
Most of these projects involve BRI institutions either in the form of financing or contract awards. However, we will not ignore other important infrastructure developments along the route that are helping to meet Eurasia’s infrastructure need, which is currently estimated at $1.7 trillion a year. Taken together, these developments tell a wider infrastructure story that is underway across Eurasia – that meaningful economic connections are forming that gradually cohere the supercontinent into a contiguous whole.
For example, on the Azerbaijan-Iran border, we hope to gain firsthand insight into the Astara Transit Terminal. It forms part of the recently-operational North-South Transport Corridor, which stretches from Mumbai to Saint Petersburg and provides an alternative freight route to the Red Sea. Commentators have hailed it for its economic viability and halving transit times between these two major cities. Here, and at other border crossings, we hope to observe the efficiency of vehicle movements in both directions. We will also engage with the business leaders, politicians, and managers behind these projects, the workers building them, and the people whose lives are being affected as a result.
Our route intermingles with that of the historic Silk Road and will provide a compelling basis to compare it to China’s new initiative. We will pass through the remote and picturesque lands of the South Caucasus, Iran, and Central Asia, and visit remarkable legacies and architectural monuments from its heyday millennia ago. This is a journey which looks to the past as much as the future.