• Statue of 'Timur The Great', depicting the man who sought to make the Silk Road the monopoly link between Europe and China. (SBS)Source: SBS
We all associate the Silk Road with historical figures like Marco Polo, but the route continues to be used today for reasons beyond fine silks.
James Mitchell

8 Feb 2017 - 12:05 PM  UPDATED 8 Feb 2017 - 12:05 PM

Trains are the new caravans on the new Silk Road. Laptops, oil, copper, and wine are the new silk, jade, and spices. The ancient route explored in SBS documentary series The Silk Road is today being seismically modernised.

Trains shifting modern commodities are hardly as exotic a sell as Marco Polo and fine silks. Still, in a landmark moment, the revitalisation of the Silk Road of old lurched towards maturity with the arrival early this year of the East Wind freight train from east China to Britain.

It’s part of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ programme to resuscitate the Silk Road route linking Asia with Europe and Africa as a major trade route for 65 countries or 60 percent of the world’s population. Rail transportation on the Silk Road has become an attractive option for international companies at half the cost of airfreight and taking less time than by sea.

Fortune magazine reports that $US3 trillion is currently slated to be spent on the wide reaching infrastructure build.

Here are some of the modern day “treasures” of the new Silk Road.

All aboard the HP train

One of the biggest industries transporting its goods on the new Silk Road is electronics - predominately laptops.

It was tech company Hewlett Packard who spearheaded the revitalization of the ancient trade route transporting millions of notebook computers from its thriving manufacture centre in Chongqing, southwest China, to Europe via train.

HP has invested in special temperature controlled containers to protect its expensive and temperature sensitive product to be able to freight 12 months a year on the route which passes through Siberia and Kazakhstan, countries which can reach temperatures of -40°C.

Destroying one treasure for another

The Silk Road and its surrounds are a goldmine for valuable minerals, some essential components for anything from iPhones to satellites and cancer screening machines.

One of the most valuable resources is copper and under the ancient Buddhist city of Mes Aynak, 40km southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan, reportedly lies the world’s second-largest copper deposit.

The walled city which dates back 5,000 years, is in danger of being destroyed with China’s planned building of an open-pit mine. In 2007, Metallurgical Group Corporation made the deal to pay Afghanistan US$3 billion to lease the area for 30 years. It plans to mine US$100 billion of copper.

Archaeologists are attempting to save the site and around 2,300 treasures have already been removed to be housed in the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Black Gold

China’s energy needs are forecasted to triple by 2030, so the new Silk Road is a vital gateway for resources. The country has reportedly signed major agreements with Russia to buy oil and has won the rights to develop wells in Afghanistan where there’s said to be 1.8 billion barrels of crude oil.

Infrastructure is being built to transport the oil and other resources. China has already constructed an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan and another which will fast track oil from Russia to China.

Born in Bordeaux

It’s one of the most valued regions of wine production in the world and while you’re probably not going to find a ridiculously priced bottle of vintage Bordeaux on a new Silk Road train line, rail has become a significant transporter of product from the region.

Decanter.com reported in November 2016 that 14,000 bottles from the region would be transported to China on one train trip. The journey takes 16 days by rail, less than half the time it takes by sea.

Bordeaux was recently listed at the top of the prestigious Liv-ex Power 100 list of powerful fine wine brands from around the world and red wine, and wine in general, is a big deal in China.

You’d be right to be concerned that your fine Bordeaux may face a fate of the smashies on a long rattling train trip. To prevent that, air cushions are placed in the gaps between containers and trays to protect the fine wine.

The Silk Road airs Sunday nights at 7:30pm on SBS. Catch up with previous episodes on SBS On Demand:

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