2014 | CHINA
A voyage on the high-speed Lanzhou-Urumqi line offers a guaranteed change of scenery. The train follows the path of the mythical Silk Road, the great passageway toward Central Asia. Fertile valleys, remote deserts stretching to the horizon, snow-capped mountains...the sumptuous landscapes are interrupted by stops at ancient oases that have become modern cities. This line, inaugurated in 2014, is one of the large-scale development projects undertaken by the government in the early 2000s, to better integrate western regions into China’s territory. Due to the precipitous terrain and extreme climate conditions of the regions crossed, the construction of this line proved to be an extraordinary technical and human achievement.
Strategically situated on both sides of the Huang He - or Yellow River, which owes its name to a high concentration of silt -, Lanzhou is a windswept city. This centre for regional agricultural products trade is perhaps best known for its fruit orchards and rape, vegetable, and cotton production. To the north of the river, visitors can take a cable car or climb stairs cut from the slope’s rock to reach White Pagoda Hill, home to tea houses, mosques and pavilions. In the southern part of the city, the vast Five Springs Mountain Park is ideal for a nature walk. The park is laid out according to traditional garden design: streams, pavilions, ornamental gates, and boulders. The high-speed journey begins in the immense rail station of Lanzhou West, inaugurated in 2014 to coincide with the launch of this high-speed line.
This line stretching from east to west is known as Lan-Xin – “Lan” for Lanzhou, “Xin” for Xinjiang. Works undertaken in 2009 were completed five years later, spanning 1785 kilometres. Thirty-nine rail stations line the track, which crosses two provinces, Gansu and Xinjiang. The latter shares its borders with eight countries of Central Asia. Xinjiang has a population of 24 million, which is lower than other Chinese provinces.
→ A CRH train crossing the Yellow River on the Bapanxia Viaduct, west of Lanzhou.
After Lanzhou, the train runs through the desert plateau of the Qilian Mountains, where altitudes can reach over 3000 metres. This dramatic snow-clad mountain chain seems almost unreal. The line then plunges into the narrow Hexi Corridor, which runs 1000 kilometres through the Tibetan and Mongolian highlands. From Xining, passengers can visit Lake Qinghai, an immense blue-green expanse of supernaturally pure saltwater. The city of Zhangye, lined with skyscrapers, offers powerful contrast to the rainbow-coloured rock formations of the incredible Danxia National Geological Park, a few kilometres away. The train continues on into the Gobi Desert, passing clusters of wind farm turbines. Jiayuguan is home to an impressive Ming Dynasty fortress, the last stronghold of imperial China when it controlled the sole passageway between China and the deserts of Central Asia. Nearby stands the westernmost end of the Great Wall, part of which has been restored. Highly recommended is a side trip from Jiayuguan to the desert oasis of Dunhuang, where Crescent Lake is surrounded by a majestic chain of sand dunes.
A few kilometres from here is the region’s principal attraction, the Mogao Caves. Hundreds of niches carved into the rock feature a series of unique Buddhist wall frescos, some of which can be traced back to the 4th century. The train crosses Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China, where the local population represents a mosaic of origin: Uyghurs, Hans, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs. Tall grasses sway in the winds that sweep across this Great Steppe landscape. At 150 metres below sea level lies Turfan, another ancient oasis along the Silk Road. Here visitors can admire the dome of a red-brick mosque, flanked by a slender minaret. To the north of the city lies the Grape Valley, set against the red sandstone flanks of Flaming Mountain. The line then crosses the lunar landscapes of the Tarim Basin, then the Baiyang He Pass. After travelling through vast expanses of desert landscape, a stunning green valley leads the train to its final destination: Urumqi.
→ The new Xining Station.
With altitudes varying from 150 metres below sea level to 3,600 metres high, glacial temperatures in winter and heat waves in summer, or violent sandstorms across vast stretches of desert, the construction of the Lanzhou-Urumqi line – on which trains run at 250 km/hr - proved to be a veritable technical and human challenge. It was necessary to contend with violent winds - that could attain 60 metres per second – by erecting reinforced concrete wind-barrier walls as well as a 1.2-km tunnel in the windiest area. Across the regions traversed by this rail line, day and night temperatures can range from 80°C in extreme cases, with nocturnal temperatures plunging to -40°C. In addition, as ballastless track is sensitive to thermal amplitude, tracks were divided into segments between which expansion joints were inserted.
To counteract freezing and underground water infiltrations in the Qilian mountain range, tunnels were reinforced with a surfacing product, the equivalent of a padded cotton jacket. Forestays, mortar and shotcrete were used to resist deformations caused by such extreme climatic conditions.
Finally, in order to avoid the site of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, the line travels 20 metres beneath it via a long tunnel. Engineering works brought about archaeological digs, and the installation of safeguards against vibrations incurred by trains travelling at high speeds.
A large number of railway engineers are trained each year in Lanzhou, China. In 2003, the former railway university in Lanzhou became the Lanzhou Jiaotong University. This leading institution trains engineers and managers for railways and transports. Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, among other cities, also offer university degrees for transportation professions.
CRH trains are entirely designed in Chinese plants, and thus manufacturers are able to design virtually custom-made solutions for different rail lines. Such is the case for the Lanzhou-Urumqi line, which is impacted by the full range of extreme conditions. The Chinese high-speed trains, CRH5G, were developed to address specific problems along this line: they can run in difficult climatic conditions, on frozen ground, in mountainous or desert regions, and are able to contend with violent crosswinds, sandstorms, and intense ultraviolet radiation. Finally, the resistance of these trains enables them to travel long distances.
The CRH5G boasts a long nose, white livery marked with a blue line, and counts eight cars - five of which are self-propelled – as well as a cabin at each end, a first-class coach and one that is adapted for mobility-impaired passengers. Each train offers a total of 613 seats.
→ A CRH at the station.
Its name signifies “beautiful pastures”. Situated at the north-western border of China, the capital of the autonomous province of Xinjiang extends across a fertile plain, in the shadow of the Tian Shan Mountains. This modern city, with its inevitable high-rises, is a modern-day oasis built upon the exploitation of its mining and petroleum resources. Urumqi is home to a fascinating museum that retraces the history of the Silk Road as well as a lively bazaar. A hundred metres to the east is Tian Chi, the Heavenly Lake, a destination not to be missed. At an altitude of 2,000 metres, the deep blue waters of the lake reflect snow-capped summits and prairies where herds of yaks roam free.
The city’s ultramodern rail station, inaugurated in 2016, receives high-speed trains. Today the station has become an essential hub for the Xinjiang railway network. The edifice, lined with high pillars underpinning the grand roof vault, can accommodate up to 8,000 people.
The ultimate showcase of Chinese economic success, high-speed rail is also a symbol of modernisation and a geopolitical instrument destined to better integrate the western provinces into the country’s territory. Indeed, over the course of recent years the reconciliation of distant provinces to central authority has been a clear governmental volition. By serving areas that were previously remote as well as the city of Urumqi, at a distance of 3,800 kilometres from Beijing and 4,100 kilometres from Shanghai, this highspeed line has contributed to territorial integration. The line is also a segment of the Silk Road to Samarkand and points west, thus connecting Xinjiang Province and all of China to Eurasia.
The Chinese railways have carved a position of influence in the worldwide rail market thanks to a reliable offer and competitive pricing. Today, with the technology transfer from German, French, and Japanese manufacturers, China possesses high-performance national industrial sector, and is in a position to export its technology around the world. The nation’s projects are ambitious: China is participating in the construction of High Speed 2 in the United Kingdom, and sells rolling stock to Turkey, Uzbekistan and the Czech Republic. Interconnection projects are underway between China and Thailand, as well as Laos. Within the context of the new Silk Road project, the Asia-Western Europe liaison is under consideration with a high-speed train connecting Kazakhstan, Russia, Belorussia and Poland.
TOKYO > OSAKA
TURIN > NAPLES
MADRID > SEVILLE
COLOGNE > FRANKFURT
BARCELONA > MADRID
SEOUL > BUSAN
BEIJING > SHANGHAI
ANKARA > ISTANBUL
LANZHOU > URUMQI
SHANGHAI > KUNMING
TOKYO > HAKODATE
ZURICH > MILAN
BEIJING > HONG KONG
TANGIER > CASABLANCA