China has built railways through towering mountains, above permafrosted soils and across choppy seas. But the completion of a railway around the edges of the Taklamakan Desert in western Xinjiang is further proof of its mastery of hostile terrain.
The final 825-kilometre stretch of the Taklamakan loop line opened on June 16 connecting the cities of Hotan and Ruoqiang on the southern fringes of the desert.
Two thirds of the new track runs through areas at risk of sand storms, says Chinese state media, requiring 50km of bridges that lift the line high above the dunes.
“For the railway to run properly, the sand can’t get over the track. So our first task is to protect the line against the sand,” CGTN quoted Wang Jinzhong, chairman of Xinjiang Hotan-Ruoqiang Railway, as saying.
That’s easier said than done in a desert known for its shifting sands, as well as steep-sided dunes that can reach heights of up to 90 metres.
The new link completes a loop where construction began back in the 1990s, a time when tensions between Han Chinese and Uighurs had started to grow in the region. Then, as now, Beijing wants to integrate Xinjiang more tightly with the rest of the country. Transport links, as well as the increases in economic activity that they are bring, are part of the strategy.
The newly completed line – measuring 2,700km in total length and known locally as the He-ruo Railway – runs through all the major cities in the desert region including the oil-producing district of Korla and the cotton sector of Aksu (both in the north); the historic city of Kashgar in the west; and Hotan in the south, known for its silk weavers and jade carvers.
The Taklamakan has been a barrier to travellers for centuries because of its inhospitable terrain – there’s a shortage of oases, as well as extreme temperatures in summer and winter, for instance – so traders on the ancient silk routes would skirt its northern flank if they were headed to Samarkand (in modern day Uzbekistan) or pass to the south if the destination was the Indian subcontinent.
Although no one fully understands the etymology of the Taklamkan desert’s name, the popular belief is a meaning that eerily roughly translates as “the place from which no one returns”.
“The He-ruo Railway has once again proved to the world that China can turn the impossible into the possible,” the chief engineer of the line told Tielu.cn, a website dedicated to the railway sector.
To limit the chances of sandstorms submerging the track, scientists spent four years studying how and where the desert sands were most likely to move. In each location they then elevated the line, shielded it or planted shrubs to anchor the sand.
At least 50 million square metres of grass grids have been sown, with 13 million shrub and tree seedlings also planted, CGTN said.
The engineers are hopeful that all of these solutions, as well as the lengthy bridges above the desert’s floor, will help to reverse the ongoing impact of desertification by providing structure, shade and grip.
An automated irrigation system has also been introduced to feed the newly planted vegetation with water and in places where desert antelope are known to roam special gaps have been left in the rail defences to allow them to pass through.
“We hope to help with the governance of the desert without destroying its original ecology,” Guo Yangyang, an engineer told state broadcaster CCTV.
Trains will travel along the new track at maximum speeds of 120 kilometres an hour, meaning that any future line extensions in the same region are unlikely to be affected by the government’s new restrictions on the construction of unnecessary high-speed rail projects.
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