Belt and Road Initiative

Plugging China into Europe

— A visual explainer —

Yiwu - London Route Two-week train ride from China to the west

In January, the first train made the 12,000km, 18-day journey from China to the United Kingdom, making London the 15th European city with direct rail links to China. Last month, the first freight train set off from Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, for Yiwu in Zhejiang province, China. As Brexit looms, British Prime Minister Theresa May will likely be hoping trade ties between the United Kingdom and China continue to improve.

Land elevation of the Huzhou - Bengbu railway SCMP Graphic


The train heads to Zhengzhou, a rapidly-growing city on the southern banks of the Yellow River. Once, it was one of the eight ancient capitals of China, home to the famous Shaolin Monastery. Nowadays, it’s a major national railway hub within easy reach of Beijing, Xian and Hong Kong by high-speed train.

Dashengguan Yangtze River Bridge under construction in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province. Photo: Xinhua, Han Yuqing
Crowds gather to watch a performance during a temple fair in Zhengzhou, capital of central China's Henan Province. Photo: Xinhua, Wang Song

Land elevation of the Lanzhou - Xinjiang railway SCMP Graphic

The Industrial Belt

The train then passes through Baoji, Tianshui, Lanzhou and Zhanye, cities along China’s huge industrial belt, which have some of the worst air quality in the world. Ten of the world’s top 20 most polluted cities are in China.

Located in a narrow, curved river valley and hemmed in by mountains which block the flow of air, Lanzhou has become notorious for its pollution problem, despite recent improvements. In 2014, Lanzhou officials told residents not to drink tap water, because benzene levels were 20 times the national limit of 10 micrograms per litre

Red lanterns decorate the Zhongshan Bridge in Lanzhou, capital of northwest China's Gansu Province. Photo: Xinhua, Fan Peishen


Xinjiang-Tibet Highway is one of the highest roads for vehicles in the world with an average altitude of over 4,500 metres Photo: Xinhua: Jiang Wenyao

Land elevation of the Khorogos-Zharkent railway. SCMP Graphic


Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China, is a vast area of deserts and mountains which is home to many ethnic minority groups. The ancient Silk Road trade route linking China and the Middle East once passed through Xinjiang, and its legacy can still be seen in the traditional open-air bazaars of the oasis cities of Hotan and Kashgar. The region is home to the Turkic Uygur people, and 58 per cent of the population practices Islam. In recent years, the region has seen a rise in terrorist activity as tension escalates between Islamic separatists and the Chinese government.

An elevated section of the high-speed rail line between Urumqi and Turpan. Photo: REUTERS

Source: The Economist. SCMP Graphic

ASTANA The east door to the former Soviet transport network

The route crosses 2000 km of the former Soviet Union but passes through only two large cities: the old Kazakh capital Almaty, and Astana, Kazakhstan’s modern capital. The flashy city, built almost from scratch since 1998, is known for its striking and futuristic skyline.

A worker takes down a tent in front of the Khazret Sultan Mosque following the Kazakh Nauryz new year celebration in Astana. Photo: Reuters
The OVO wooden installation in Astana, designed by Belgium’s Odeaubois and ACT lighting design. Photo: REUTERS

Source: The Economist. SCMP Graphic


After entering Russia, the line crosses the Urals before arriving at Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. The Ural mountain range is viewed as the boundary between Europe and Asia.
Straddling that boundary, the political capital of the Ural region overflows with culture, and boasts close historical ties to the Russia’s tsars.

Land elevation of the Troitsk-Revda railway SCMP Graphic

A tram near the railway station in Yekaterinburg. Photo: shutterstock


The route crosses the Volga River into Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, a semi-autonomous region in Russia. The centuries-old Kazan Kremlin is a fortified citadel containing museums and sacred sites. Kremlin landmarks include the leaning Tower of Soyembika, the blue-and-gold domed Annunciation Cathedral and the vast, colourful Kul Sharif Mosque. In 2009, the Kazan Kremlin was declared a World Heritage site.

Train bridge over the Volga, the longest river in Europe. Photo: Flickr / Linda


Trade relations between Russia and China have improved since the countries signed a US$400 billion agreement in 2014 that will see Russia deliver 38 billion cubic metres of natural gas to China each year.

St Basil’s Cathedral in the Red Square, Moscow. Photo: SCMP archive

However, despite profiting from the “Belt and Road Initiative”, Russia is proving slow to join, preferring its own, five-nation Eurasian Economic Union. Straddling Asia and Europe, Russia is in a position to stifle trade between China and Western Europe

Minsk The western border of the former Soviet railway

After passing through the capitals of Russia and Belarus, the train enters Poland. It must switch train gauges — a process it last carried out more than 4000km ago, back in the China-Kazakhstan border city of Khorgos.

The Dudutki museum on the outskirts of the city of Minsk, Belarus. Photo: Flickr Clay Gilliland


Germany is China’s largest European trading partner. It is involved in five railway projects under the belt and road initiative, which will link five German cities with Chinese centres: Leipzig-Shenyang, Duisburg-Chongqing, Hamburg-Zhengzhou, Hamburg-Harbin and Nuremberg-Chengdu

The German city of Hamburg is a common destination for cargo trains from China travelling along the “Silk Road” railway Photo: Flickr / Wolfgang Staudt

Land elevation of the Vise-London railway SCMP Graphic

CALAIS - LONDON Final destination

Near the end of the route, the train crosses the English Channel, entering the Eurotunnel at Calais. After 18 days and 12,000km, the containers finally reach their destination: London.

The Palace of Westminster in central London, also known as the Houses of Parliament. At the northern end of the neo-gothic building is the world-famous Big Ben clock tower. Photo: AFP
A sign shows the distance from London’s Eurohub rail freight depot to some destinations as a freight train sets off with containers laden with goods from China. Photo: AFP

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