On Nov. 18, an 82-container freight train left the eastern Chinese industrial city of Yiwu. It was embarking on a landmark journey that is supposed to end 21 days later, in December, in Madrid. The distance the train covers — more than 6,200 miles — marks the longest route taken by a freight train, longer still than Russia's famed Trans-Siberian Railway, as the map above shows.
Yiwu is the largest wholesale center for small consumer goods in China, making it home to a curious mix of foreign businessmen and petty traders, including a large community of Arabs. Now it's plugged into a far larger project: China's zeal to deepen the links between its booming economy and markets in Europe.
The Yiwu-Madrid line is one of a series of routes unveiled following Beijing's new effort to revitalize intercontinental land trade. Dubbing the project the "New Silk Road," the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping has allocated an initial $40 billion to invest in better infrastructure and freight logistics for the trains.
While container-borne trade still moves mostly by sea, the growing appetite of the Chinese market for European luxury goods means that Eurasian railway freight is catching up, says the Economist. China also wants to muscle into a transportation sector still dominated by European companies, reports Reuters.
China is already at the heart of global trade, but a sense of historic primacy is driving the project. The route of the Yiwu-Madrid train cuts through China's far-western region of Xinjiang and then the vast Central Asian state of Kazakhstan; centuries ago, caravans bearing Chinese goods trudged through its steppe lands and taiga.
Another proposed freight route would enter Europe through Turkey. A map published this year by Chinese state media outlet Xinhua depicted the new Silk Road on land as well at sea. China's maritime trade ambitions have seen its state companies plow billions into port-building projects across the Indian Ocean rim, from Bangladesh to the Hambantota project in Sri Lanka to facilities in Kenya.
Meanwhile, Xi's new Silk Road project, some experts say, has a geopolitical edge with its intent to better knit together logistics and markets in Europe and Asia. It's "a push against the U.S. rebalance to Asia," writes Min Ye, an assistant professor of international relations at Boston University.