Ancient Silk Road travelers cursed China’s largest desert as Takla Makan, an ominous Persian-Turkic expression that translates as “enter and you may never return.”
Undeterred by its sandstorms and merciless terrain in the oblong basin north of Tibet’s glacier-packed peaks, China has announced the completion of the final section of a Taklamakan Desert railway loop line, the world’s first to encircle a desert.
Elsewhere, China is constructing maglev train systems capable of hurtling passengers and freight hundreds of miles per hour, including an underwater route near Shanghai to reach tiny offshore islands.
These latest railways increase China’s military, industrial, agricultural and political prowess, amid escalating rivalry with the US over each nation’s capabilities.
The Taklamakan Desert railway loop also allows Beijing greater access to rebellious Xinjiang province’s Kashgar, a distant southwestern city near vulnerable borders with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Kashgar and elsewhere in Xinjiang comprise a large population of restive Muslim Uighurs of ethnic Turkic origin.
Beijing denies allegations that its security forces imprison hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in concentration camps scattered across Xinjiang, to erase suspected extremist Islamist beliefs, politics and behavior.
Many Uighurs dream of escaping Chinese control and want closer relations with 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 US-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, or 560,000 square kilometers, under the Taklamakan’s huge dunes and shifting sands.
“Workers tighten the screw of the rail” and finished the final Hotan-Ruoqiang link on September 27, China’s official Xinhua news agency announced.
From the oasis town of Hotan, an existing line continues to Kashgar.
“This railway line runs through the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert,” said Yang Baorong, chief designer of the final 513-mile section.
“Sandstorms pose a serious threat to railway construction and operation, as tracks can be buried,” Yang said.
Tickets to use this newest link are expected to go on sale in June 2022, allowing travelers to ride the entire loop to encircle the Germany-sized Taklamakan, which is second only to the Sahara Desert in size.
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.
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.
By constructing a railway around the desert, Chinese engineers have recreated Silk Road caravan routes that linked China and Europe by skirting the Taklamakan’s rim.
Buddhist monks also trudged those routes spreading their religion east, until medieval sea routes replaced hazardous overland treks to East Asia.
The Taklamakan Desert parches 124,000 square miles and is about 600 miles east to west.
It bulges up to 260 miles across, 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 added.
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 1,000 kilometers-per-hour,” Ma said.
China already boasts the world’s fastest commercial maglev on a 19-mile route in Shanghai, linking Pudong Airport to an urban metro system on the city’s edge within seven minutes, at up to 268mph.
Nearby, a bullet train is preparing to zip under the sea at 155 miles-per-hour.
“Construction is well underway,” the UK-based website IFL Science reported in May.
It would be “the world’s first underwater bullet train, which would extend nationally from Ningbo, a port city near Shanghai, to Zhoushan, an archipelago of islands off the east coast.
“Covering a 47.8-mile stretch of almost entirely newly-built railway, the new route will include a 10-mile underwater section,” IFL reported.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. – Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York and Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks are available here.