A team of four students is preparing for what it calls The New Silk Road Project—an exciting expedition across Eurasia to see the entire breadth of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, visiting ancient Silk Road centers as well as other infrastructure projects, including major railway upgrades, seaports, intermodal hubs, industrial parks, and residential developments.
The expedition will commence in June 2018 in London and will end in August in Yiwu, paralleling the direct Britain-China freight route. By visiting these hubs and engaging with both projects and people, the venture aims to build a more coherent picture of the change that is under way across Eurasia.
Charles Stevens is the Founder of The New Silk Road Project and will lead the expedition when it departs in June 2018. In 2016 he became one of the youngest people to cycle the Silk Road from Beijing to Tehran.
What is the mission and the route of your project? What are the ultimate goals?
In June 2018, three colleagues and I (from the University of St. Andrews, the University of Oxford, the University of Bath, and Georgetown University) will embark on a 10,000-mile, 60-day trip along the length of China’s Economic Belt, which extends from London to Yiwu. In collaboration with the CSIS “Reconnecting Asia” initiative, we aim to investigate and evaluate the ongoing opportunities and challenges of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which proposes to transform the Eurasian and global economic landscape. We will center our investigation on more than two dozen “Silk Road” hubs across Eurasia.
We will center our investigation on more than two dozen “Silk Road” hubs across Eurasia.
The journey will begin in London, the Western terminus of the BRI, and Rotterdam, China’s mooted Atlantic port. It will end in south China, in Yiwu, a new town that houses the world’s largest wholesale market—a market that is at the epicenter of this project. Along the way, we will examine the emerging entrepôts that most Westerners have never heard of: the China-Belarus Great Stone Park in Belarus; the new Georgian port city of Anaklia; the Tehran-Mashhad line, which is being rebuilt in Iran by Chinese companies; Aktau, a new strategic port on the Caspian Sea; the massive new road that connects Kazakhstani Almaty to Kyrgyzstani Bishkek; and the Khorgos Gateway, the huge new train station where Chinese freight will depart to Central Asia. We will publish research, film a documentary, and produce papers for our universities.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a project on the scale of which we have never before witnessed. It is projected that a minimum of US$4 trillion will be spent on its development, dwarfing America’s Marshall Plan, which cost US$130 billion in 2015 dollars. It is important to engage with—and build awareness of—any such large-scale project, as it is highly likely to impact us. This is all the more true as the world’s center of economic gravity continues to shift away from the West.
How did you plan the route? Why did you include the China-Belarus Great Stone Park in Belarus and the Tehran-Mashhad line, for instance?
I planned the route in 2017. I wanted to capture the scope of BRI, both as an economic area and as an initiative built of many individual projects. This helps create a bridge between the grand theory of the project and the individual elements of which it is comprised. With a development project of this scale, it can be hard to visualize what is making it tick; understanding it through first-hand insight is one of our key aims. Furthermore, I wanted a route that would convey a sense of narrative, which I believe this one does. As we journey from London to Yiwu, we will tell as many stories of successful cooperation as we will stories of tensions emerging along two of its key corridors—the New Eurasian Land Bridges Economic Corridor and China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor.
We also wanted to engage with a diversity of projects. Among these, the Tehran-Mashhad railway is an important development. This project is the start of the wider electrification of Iranian railroads, which should be completed by 2025 and will bring sizable benefits to the country. Its electrification is indicative of the greater investment coming to Iran: the US$1.5 billion line of credit which the Chinese have opened to the Iranians is the first and largest to be made available since sanctions on the country were lifted in January 2016. (This credit, along with a US$200 million contribution by Iran, will finance the project.) The railway also has practical importance: it should increase transportation capacity, cut pollution, and reduce travel times between two of Iran’s major cities.
In regards to the wider visualization of the “New Silk Road,” this line forms part of a new trans-Eurasian railroad, which should provide an alternative to the Trans-Siberian Railway. There are plans for it to meet up with Turkey’s rail network in order to connect Iran with Europe as well as the burgeoning Central Asian rail network, which is, in turn, planned to link up to Xinjiang Province in China. The growth of these new transport networks is incredibly exciting and worth keeping an eye on.
The China-Belarus Great Stone Park highlights some of the inroads that China is making into Europe. It shows that China’s BRI is not only about transportation links, but also about wider investment in the 65-plus countries that it is currently partnered with. Like the historic Silk Road, it is easy to think of China’s BRI as a single transportation route through Eurasia, but it is much more than that. It includes power plants, wind farms, and even a “Digital Silk Road.” To understand and evaluate the BRI, we need to engage with as many of its individual elements as possible.
How do you relate to the notion of connectivity? How different are Chinese and European perspectives on the Silk Road?
Connectivity is a very interesting concept. It can easily be envisaged as something purely digital, relating to Wi-Fi and online platforms such as Facebook, Weibo, or WeChat. But it can also take many other forms: economic, political, linguistic, cultural, and more. Meaningful economic links, for example, are a pillar of what the BRI aims to achieve.
I believe connectivity becomes much more meaningful when it is accompanied by reciprocal understanding of one another’s aims and positions. An example of this is India’s recent agreement to lease Iran’s Shahid Beheshti Port, located in Chabahar. Without this understanding, connectivity can become a vacuous concept that is used solely by politicians (as a rhetorical device) and by corporations (in marketing slogans).
While technological advances, the proliferation of air travel, and instant access to vast information resources have increased levels of cultural understanding, linguistic familiarity, and economic interdependence in developed regions, many areas have not fully experienced this growing connectivity. China’s Belt and Road Initiative seeks to increase economic connections with partially excluded regions and countries, such as Kazakhstan, Iran, and Pakistan. Some of these nations do not have alternative prospective investment partners, and they welcome the opportunities China offers.
In regard to the Silk Road, we must remember that the Chinese—specifically the Han Chinese—view themselves as sitting at the center of this Eurasian network. For millennia, China ran a tributary system across East Asia, over which it held sway. This was brought to an end only with European colonialism and the concomitant Century of Humiliation. China’s rich and distinct history and culture, of which the Silk Road is a part, has forged the Chinese into an extremely proud people. China’s Belt and Road Initiative—or its “new Silk Road”—is a manifestation of its people’s historical ambition. The centerpiece of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, it is a path to restore China to its position as regional and global hegemon. The Silk Road, despite being a 19th-century neologism developed in the West, is not an abstract concept to the Chinese. China sees itself at the center of the Silk Road, which makes the term both political and economic in its implication (not to disregard the cultural or linguistic aspects of the term). Europe, on the other hand, historically acted as the terminus for luxury goods, including silk, from China and surrounding regions. As such, I think the continent sees itself less as an actor in the development of Eurasia and more as the eventual terminus of an ancient trade network.
People note a lot of traffic going from East to West and less from West to East. If this is accurate, how can the Silk Road be considered multidirectional?
Historically speaking, you are right that luxury goods predominantly traveled from East to West, though Europe did export commodities and less valuable items to the East. Today, far more freight is moving overland from China to Europe than vice versa, but this is slowly changing. Last year, wine was transported from Europe to China by train for the first time. It is very realistic to expect that this and other luxury goods may come to travel overland from West to East on a large scale. In April 2017, a train traveled from London to Yiwu—the largest wholesale market in the world—carrying UK-produced whisky, vitamins, and other high-value items in one of the first journeys of its kind. This is an interesting reversal of the pattern during the historic Silk Road, and may become a broader trend as these links become more developed.
Moreover, the growth and increasing wealth of the Chinese middle classes will continue to push up demand for luxury goods: French wine, Italian leather, and British whisky. That being said, it remains to be seen whether train will be the main method of transporting these goods. This will depend on many factors, including access to more accurate transportation information, corruption, and customs taxes.
What do you as a Londoner get from the Silk Road?
London acts as more than just an entrepôt; it is also a world-leading financial center that can fund many of the projects taking shape along the key corridors of the new Silk Road. Although China has been reluctant to partner with the private sector on many of its BRI projects, institutions headquartered in London are poised to take on this role. HSBC, for one, is very keen on the Silk Road, regularly using its name and alluding to the initiative in its marketing. In Asiamoney magazine’s first New Silk Road Finance Awards (in September 2017), HSBC was named Best Overall International Bank for the Belt and Road Initiative.
Nor is HSBC the only bank interested. Black Rock, Standard Chartered, and Credit Suisse are all eyeing up potential opportunities. As China’s debt-to-GDP ratios continue to grow and its investments become increasingly risky—such as those in Pakistan (along its CPEC corridor) and Tajikistan—the country is likely to become more open to partnering with such emerging-market investors.
As China’s debt-to-GDP ratios continue to grow and its investments become increasingly risky, the country is likely to become more open to partnering with such emerging-market investors
For its part, the London Stock Exchange Group is already playing a leading role in supporting BRI. The Bank of China, via its Hungarian branch, has listed its first Euro-denominated bond on the London Stock Exchange in order to fund BRI projects. Around 290 companies from 38 countries along the Belt and Road are represented, and US$170 billion of debt capital has been raised via its markets. This is only a small part of the role London is playing and will continue to play.
What local barriers do you expect to see—border guards, corruption, crime? How do you expect to handle these?
Most significant will be the linguistic barriers. We are fortunate that Tom is a Russian speaker, so that should make life much easier in Central Asia. From my travels in the region in 2016, I am aware that many people know English, but Russian is much more common, particularly among those who grew up during the Soviet era. We may have a Persian-speaker with us, but this is not confirmed. We are also planning to be accompanied by a translator in China, which will be a particular help in Xinjiang province, where tensions between the central authorities and the native Uighur population are rife.
My experience with border guards is that as long as you are patient, polite, and have the correct documentation, you will not have too much of a problem. (Having a pack of Marlboro Golds on you never hurts either.) Whenever one is abroad, it is good practice to remain vigilant and to do a bit of research into where is safe. This should help to mitigate many of the problems one could face.
Can you share any interesting experiences from your journey from Beijing to Tehran in 2016? What dos and don’ts emerged from that experience?
One of my favorites was the hospitality in Iran. In an article I wrote, I described it as “The Xenia of the East.” We experienced kindness nearly everywhere we traveled, but in Iran, the people were particularly friendly. More often than not, shopkeepers and restaurant owners would refuse payment for services and meals. We would have to leave money on the table and make swift departures to stop them from returning it. I remember sitting in Bojnurd, a city nestled just east of Golestan National Park, having an ice cream in their equivalent of a gelateria. Every time I finished, I was presented with another one. They did not want anything in return, not even thanks.
On another occasion, Will, my cycling companion, was cruising down a hill at upwards of 30mph. As I sat behind him, a white saloon car pulled up to his left. The driver, while keeping his eyes on the road, extended a bag of apples toward Will. As soon as Will accepted the package, he accelerated away, his facial expressions muted. There was nothing self-gratifying about his actions; he did not acknowledge his own kindness with so much as the glint of a smile, the raise of an eyebrow, or the flicker of an eye. The selflessness was so beautifully pure. So much was communicated by so little. The coexistence of a culture that promotes such a strong sense of community and generosity, particularly toward foreigners, within a contemporary capitalist framework was something I had never before experienced. It is heartwarming that cultural norms can be powerful enough to trump economic incentives. Never judge a people or a country before you experience it. That is something I will never forget.
What is your impression of Central Asia? How far is it from becoming a real transit hub? And why did you not include Uzbekistan in your route?
Central Asia is a beautiful region. The people are kind and generous, the culture is authentic, the landscape is surprisingly varied, and the architecture and archaeological legacies are some of the richest anywhere on the planet. It is also a region which has not yet seen a huge influx of tourists, so I would recommend moving it to the top of your list and visiting sooner rather than later.
Its path to developing into a real transit hub will be a long one. It is hard to put an exact figure on it, but the amount that needs to be spent on infrastructure is in the trillions of dollars. Development will also depend whether BRI and other relevant projects sustain the pace they have taken or they run into roadblocks. For example, maintenance has already been an issue with some of the roads in the region. In addition, much is contingent on whether the will and enthusiasm of the political classes in these countries endures. Given the progress that has been made in the past five years, I am optimistic.
It would have been interesting to travel to Uzbekistan, but as we only have a limited amount of time, we prioritized the projects and regions which we felt would be of most interest to our investigation. The development in western Kazakhstan, in Aktau, was a priority for us. I would be interested in looking at BRI projects in Uzbekistan, but that will have to be on another trip.
An increasing number of travelogues about Silk Road have been published, the most recent of which is The Dawn of Eurasia. Have you read it? If so, how would your account be different?
The Dawn of Eurasia is next on my reading list; I have read many reviews of it. Our project will be the first-ever attempt to drive along the full length of the world’s next great trade route. Therefore, while BRI is central to our journey, we are also embarking on a trip where travel and first-hand investigation are central. Our project is as much about the people whose lives are being transformed and shaken up by this initiative as it is about infrastructure on a staggering scale. We will also be able to produce the most up-to-date accounts—both quantitative and qualitative—of this rapidly developing initiative.
How can people support your project?
A central aim is raising awareness of the global shifts that are under way and the very real possibility that they will impact all our lives. This is not a development we need to fear, necessarily, but it is worth being aware of and understanding.