ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- Kazakhstan has launched a new transit railway linking China to Europe, aiming to beat rival routes for journey time in the competition to handle a growing flow of goods along the ancient Silk Road trade route.
"Kazakhstan is a virtual bridge linking the East and the West," Yerkin Meirbekov, deputy railway department chief at Kazakhstan's Transport Ministry, said in an interview. "You can actually say this is the revival of the Silk Road."
Centuries ago, it would take months for caravans of camels and horses from China to reach Europe across the sun-scorched steppes and deserts of Central Asia to exchange silk for medicines, perfumes and precious stones.
Now it takes just 15 days for trains carrying containers with electronic goods, construction materials and other cargo to cover the 6,750 mile route from Chongqing in southwest China to Duisburg in Germany's industrial Ruhr region.
Late last year, Kazakhstan completed construction of a 183-mile stretch from Zhetygen to Korgas at the Chinese border, looping it in to the existing national railway network and opening the second China-Europe link across its territory.
Meirbekov said that the annual volume of freight turnover along the new route, guaranteed by China, was set to total 2 million metric tons this year and would rise eventually to 15 million metric tons.
Zhi Jun / ColorChinaPhoto via AP, file
A train carrying 45 tons of liquefied petroleum gas imported from Kazakhstan arrives at the Alashankou (Alataw Pass) Port in Bozhou in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on June 14, 2010.
"The Chinese side, as well as the Kazakh side and European partners -- everyone is ready (to handle these volumes) already tomorrow," Meirbekov said.
"All railways, as well as customs and border guards, are ready to assist fast passage of cargo across their territories."
Europe-bound trains from China cross from Kazakhstan into Russia. Then they go via Belarus and Poland before reaching Duisburg in Germany.
Transit routes are a major earner for the fast-growing economy of Kazakhstan -- the world's ninth-largest nation by area but with a population of only 17 million.