Picture riding the Orient Express sans Monsieur Hercule Poirot. And give Istanbul a miss. Freezing and boring? Well, the rake that left Yiwu in eastern China for Madrid on November 18, for a 21-day, 10,000-kilometre journey, is only a freight train. It doesn’t boast Count Dracula or Vlad the Impaler on its passenger list. But the route map would gladden Vladimir Putin, whose envisioned “harmonious economic community” from Vladivostok to Lisbon has just been given one long railway line to squat on, courtesy Xi Jinping, of “New Silk Road” ambitions. But in this era of new-age nationalisms, “Czar Putin” might shed a secret tear for the Yiwu-Madrid line overtaking the Trans-Siberian Railway to claim the crown for the longest route ever taken by a freight train. Poirot’s Orient Express, sadly, had run roughly one-fourth this distance.
But Constantinople and Transylvania apart, Beijing and Moscow, with a little help from Berlin — Trans-Eurasia Logistics, which runs the train, is a Deutsche Bahn AG-Russian Railways joint venture — are attempting to change the geo-economic map of the world. They are not just countering Barack Obama’s maritime pivot to Asia by taking to the transcontinental high road but also re-charting the historic silk route to demonstrate their ties to “new” and “old” Europe, which can be leveraged to pull the EU economy into Beijing’s closer orbit, dropping off goodies in Putin’s West-shunned Moscow. The route expands both ways the railroad feeding Chongqing, China’s important economic hub on the Eurasian corridor, already connected to Duisburg in western Ruhr by railroad in 2011.
Istanbul, left out of this route, may again sit at the heart of a future continental shift, when another proposed freight route passes through it. In this Chinese century, which state would delude itself about Beijing not asserting its historic silk route primacy?