On Tuesday 24 February last year, the world changed. T.S. Elliot talks about how the world ends: “Not with a bang but a whimper”, fortunately for us, the world changes in a similar way. When it finally happened, no one batted an eyelid as the wheels of progress slowly ground into gear. A train loaded with Christmas trinkets set off from Yiwu in China and crossed two continents to reach Madrid before returning with a cargo of Spanish merchandise. It travelled along the new Yixin’ou line connecting China and Europe via Kazakhstan, Moscow, Eastern Europe into Spain. This is the longest rail line in the world, 450 miles longer than the Trans-Siberian Railway and a 16,156 mile round trip. Two months ago on Monday 15 February the world changed again, another train travelled for the first time from Zhejiang province to Tehran. An important difference between this and the other train journey was that this one passed through Central Asia instead of the Russian federation. Both however usher in a new direction for policy that will prove definitive of the age, if not the epoch; China’s New Silk Road initiative and the resurrection of the Silk Road.
The Silk Road is a term which has a tendency to be thrown around a lot. For many years I thought it was a single road by which silk was transported from China to Europe. I now realise that it is so much more than this and can be better understood as being a metaphor. The Silk Road, in reality, is not a single ‘road’ but more a network of routes that led the caravanserais across Eurasia, allowing the transmission not only of goods, but also of faiths, cultures and ideas. This route could be seen as the neurons of pre 16th century global society and Central Asia was the synapse connecting the two halves (or indeed the centre of the world according to Harold Mackinder’s ‘heartland theory’) of Europe and China. It is the thread which knits Eurasia together into a single entity. It is what transmitted the Black Death, fur from the Rus people and silver from South America around Eurasia. With this in mind Ferdinand von Richthofen’s coining of the term, the ‘Silk Road’ in the 19th century was not as helpful as first appeared.
People who know that Marco Polo famously travelled the historic Silk Road from Venice to Xi'an, suggest that we are not following it, simply because we neither start in Venice nor finish in Xian. This is a journey which Tim Severin recounts in Tracking Marco Polo (1964) with Stanley Johnson (Boris Johnson’s father) and Michael de Larrabeiti and since then has become clichéd. Given the protean nature of the Silk Road’s identity we are trying something new (or perhaps, something very old) at what I believe is a highly significant time in history. Whilst, I say we are travelling the Silk Road for simplicity’s sake I believe we are actually exploring something far more recent, interesting and forward thinking - the New Silk Road. This is what I am wanting to investigate along my journey from Beijing to Tehran, on a route similar to which that train took on the 15 February 2016.
The New Silk Road was a term coined in September 2013 by the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. In Astana, Kazakhstan, he inaugurated the New Silk Road Economic Belt evoking China’s historical legacy with the explorer Zheng He. Like the Silk Road it is not a single road but will be a confusing web of rail lines, sea lanes, roads, pipelines and belts aiming to reconnect China with Europe as well as stimulating the economies of Central Asia (as well as Africa and other developing nations). Those train journeys were the beginning of something very important, perhaps the most important geopolitical and economic development of this century.
Travelling the Silk Road now at this time in history means straddling the old and the new. A precious time when both the authentic cultural and historical traditions of Central Asia are visible as well as the economic potential and dynamism of the New Silk Road. Whilst, the New Silk Road is going to bring tremendous benefits which I shall be discussing further, the greatest ultimately might be its help in breaking down local borders and creating a more unified continent; I cannot see the cultural atavism of Central Asia being able to survive the huge financial injections which China is pumping into these regions and the concomitant globalisation, tourism and industrialisation. Like that train travelling from China to Tehran we shall traverse, albeit more slowly, the regions of Central Asia, trying to appreciate what may be lost for ever and foresee a potentially exciting future for Central Asia and the world.