The Taklamakan Desert railway loop also allows Beijing greater access
to rebellious Kashgar and elsewhere in Xinjiang province, populated by
restive Muslim Uighurs of ethnic Turkic origin.

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Ancient Silk Road travelers cursed China's
largest desert as "Takla Makan," an ominous Persian-Turkic expression
which translates as "enter and you may never return."

Undeterred by its sandstorms and merciless terrain in the oblong basin
north of Tibet's glacier-packed peaks, China has announced completion
of the final section of a Taklamakan Desert railway loop line, the
world's first to encircle a desert.

Elsewhere, China is constructing maglev train systems, capable of
hurtling passengers and freight hundreds of miles per hour, including
an underwater route near Shanghai to reach tiny offshore islands.

These latest railways increase China's military, industrial,
agricultural and political prowess, amid escalating rivalry with the
U.S. over each nation's capabilities.

The Taklamakan Desert railway loop also allows Beijing greater access
to rebellious Kashgar, a distant southwestern city near vulnerable
borders with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Kashgar and elsewhere in Xinjiang province comprise a large population
of restive Muslim Uighurs of ethnic Turkic origin.

Beijing denies allegations that its security forces behavior.

Many Uighurs dream of escaping Chinese control andwant closer
relations with brethren in central Asia's Turkic-speaking nations,
with Turkey as their beacon.

Last year, international democracy activists boycotted Disney's movie
"Mulan" -- starring dual U.S.-Chinese citizen Liu Yifei -- after the
company thanked China's Bureau of Public Security for help with
filming in the Taklamakan Desert.

The railway loop also enables exploitation of the Tarim Basin
oilfield, estimated to cover 350,000 square miles (560,000 sq kms)
under the Taklamakan's huge dunes and shifting sands.

"Workers tighten the screw of the rail," and finished the final
Hotan-Ruoqiang link on Sept. 27, China's official Xinhua news

From the oasis town of Hotan, an existing line continues to Kashgar.

"This railway line runs through the southern edge of the Taklamakan
Desert," said Yang Baorong, chief designer of the final 513-mile
(825-km) section.

"Sandstorms pose a serious threat to railway construction and
operation, as tracks can be buried," Mr. Yang said.

This newest link is expected to start selling tickets in June 2022
allowing the entire loop to encircle the Germany-sized Taklamakan,
which is second to the Sahara Desert in world size.

The Taklamakan loop is hailed by Beijing as a way to help the region,
especially Xinjiang's impoverished southern edge near northern Tibet.

That edge includes an existing Golmud-Korla Railway which now joins
the new loop.

Other trains already go south from Golmud to Lhasa in Tibet, and
future plans envision continuing those tracks south from Lhasa to
Nepal's capital Kathmandu.

More than 2,000 years ago, Bronze Age inhabitants buried mummies in
the Taklamakan, according to a French-funded excavation.

As the desert expanded southward, ancient kingdoms crumbled into ruins
or were buried.

These included the flourishing Loulan kingdom on vast century.

By constructing a railway around the desert, Chinese engineers
recreated Silk Road caravan routes which linked China and Europe by
skirting the Taklamakan's rim.

Buddhist monks also trudged those routes spreading their godless
religion east, until medieval sea routes replaced hazardous overland
treks to East Asia.

The Taklamakan Desert parches 124,000 square miles (320,000 sq kms)
and is about 600 miles (960 kms) east to west.

It bulges up to 260 miles (420 kms) across, flanked by the snow-capped
Tian Shan range on the desert's north, and the Kunlun Mountains along
its southern curve. Rugged Pamir peaks form its western ridge.

The railway had to cross, or route around, elevations up to 5,000 feet
(1,500 meters).

"Grass grids" were laid across 165 million square feet (50 million
square meters) of dunes which were virtually devoid of plant life,
officials said.

"Anti-desertification programs" planted 13 million seedlings, they said.

In the harshest, most unpredictable zones -- battered by sandstorms
and smothered by swollen dunes -- engineers designed lengthy bridges
above chaotic sand.

Closer to Beijing meanwhile, a maglev train project is starting in
Shanxi, a northcentral province.

Magnets allow maglev train carriages to float without wheels.

"The high-speed train uses superconducting magnetic levitation
technology to disengage from the ground to eliminate frictional drag,"
Chinese engineering expert Ma Tiehua said, according to London-based
Railway Technology news.

This maglev uses "a near-vacuum internal duct line to per hour)," Mr. Ma said.

China already boasts the world's fastest commercial maglev on a
19-mile (30.5-km) route in Shanghai, linking Pudong Airport to an
urban metro system on the city's edge within seven minutes, at up to
268 mph (431 kph).

Nearby, a bullet train is preparing to zip under the sea at 155 mph (250 kph).

"Construction is well underway," the UK-based website IFL Science
reported in May.

It would be "the world’s first underwater bullet train, which would
extend nationally from Ningbo, a port city near Shanghai, to Zhoushan,
an archipelago of islands off the east coast.

"Covering a 47.8-mile (77-km) stretch of almost entirely newly-built
railway, the new route will include a 10-mile (16.2-km) underwater
section," IFL reported.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction
books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos,
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes,
Smugglers & Freaks" are available at