All the way from the Yellow River to the Elbe: Zhengzhou – Hamburg.
10,214 kilometres. 15 days. 44 containers bound for Europe.
The Silk Road is forging new paths. The Chinese phrase “yi dai, yi lu” illustrates the global dimensions of the “One Belt, One Road” project: it covers 65 countries and 65 percent of the global community and transports 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. By ship, aircraft and train. The Silk Road is a trade route and a development region, a master plan and a long-term project, a myth and a vision. From Java to Uzbekistan, from Djibouti to Hamburg.
China is investing billions to transform the old Silk Road into a global infrastructure and transport project consisting of pipelines, roads, factories and digital logistics nodes. As part of this project, the railway is experiencing a renaissance as a mode of transport. The new Silk Tracks offer an intelligent alternative to air transportation and sea freight.
Across seven time zones and three gauge widths, it provides sustainable routes for world trade, and it is environmentally friendly, low-cost and fast. There are currently 232 weekly container train connections between Hamburg, Europe’s leading rail port, and 20 Chinese industrial centres. Among these is Zhengzhou, on the Yellow River.
Follow the very own story of the world’s oldest trading route.
Zhengzhou’s new train station has 32 platforms. These dimensions demonstrate the rapid pace of change which has long since spread to the Chinese hinterland. By 2020, Zhengzhou expects to reach a population of 11 million. The district capital of the province of Henan is undergoing a transformation. Four world inventions originated here: paper, gunpowder, printing and the compass. Nowadays, Henan’s innovations include electric engines, high-tech robots, environmental technology and biotechnology.
The skyline of this city set on the Yellow River tells us a great deal about the future which is taking shape throughout provincial China. An imposing set of twin towers, designed by Hamburg architects, marks the gateway to the city centre. Behind these towers’ glistening grey facades, visitors will find high-quality office and shopping units, event spaces for art exhibitions and concerts – and even a spa. Welcome to the hinterland! As well as its traditional textiles and automotive industries, Zhengzhou is forging ahead with the technologies of the future – entirely in keeping with Beijing’s “Made in China” innovation strategy: less imitation and more innovation.
Data processing equipment, electrical and optical goods such as computers and consumer electronics were among the most important goods Germany imported from China in 2018, and they also pass through Zhengzhou North railway station, Asia’s largest freight and shunting rail terminal. From here, goods ride the rails all the way to Hamburg, and this is also where various container train connections from Europe culminate.
The Henan hub links more than 130 cities in 30 regions and countries. Goods are transferred as far as Korea and Japan. Above all, Zhengzhou is central China’s gateway to an enormous consumer market of 1.4 billion people. The Hamburg-bound block trains cover the 10,214-km route across China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland to Hamburg in just 15 days. The trains are around 800 metres long when 44 containers set off on their long voyage from the Yellow River to the Elbe.
Block trains are the modern equivalent of caravans. They travel along three different corridors on their voyage from Asia to Europe. The transcontinental rail network’s routes are between 10,000 and 13,000 kilometres in length. To the north, the tracks pass north of Mongolia via Siberia to Europe. On the central route, they run through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland. On the southern route, the wagons are shipped from Kazakhstan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, before continuing across Romania, Ukraine and Poland towards the Elbe.
As a third way which offers an alternative to air and sea freight, trains are twice as fast as container ships, with only 20 percent of the costs of cargo aircraft. They also have a significantly better carbon footprint. Depending on the starting and destination station, the distances covered range between 9,000 and 13,000 kilometres. For German companies, access to China’s hinterland cities is more convenient by rail than via the country’s seaports.
On the Silk Tracks, cars, spare parts and machinery as well as consumer goods such as red wine, jam and luxury shirts are carried. 107,000 standard containers were transported via rail between Hamburg and China in 2020 (2019: 100,000). Approximately 878,000 TEU of boxes were transported on Eurasian rail corridors in 2020. The international railway organisation UIC assumes this number could double by 2025.
The railway supplements the sea route – and changes the modal split: use of the shipping, aircraft and rail modes of transport. The sea route remains the dominant mode of transportation. Measured in terms of tonnes, approximately 74 percent of the goods the EU imports from non-EU countries and as much as 80 percent of the goods exported to non-EU countries are transported by sea. In terms of the EU’s foreign trade with China, the current figure is at 90 percent. 2.4 percent of imports are handled by rail – but the volume transported on the Silk Tracks is growing very quickly every year.
*Source: Eurostat (data series DS-022469)
Xi’an | Kilometre 505
The city of the terracotta warriors is situated today in the heart of China’s Silicon Valley. The old imperial city of Xi’an marks the gateway to the old Silk Road and has today become the centre of a booming software and high-tech industry; nowadays it is silicon rather than silk. The Xi’an metropolitan region is officially a trendsetter driving economic development in the west of the People’s Republic. The goal is innovation made in China. This city of eight million is ideal for this – 63 colleges and universities in Xi’an turn out more than 300,000 graduates every year, and many of them are programmers and engineers. For Beijing, they are the ambassadors of a New Silk Road. While the old Silk Road remains a role model for today’s transport planners, it is inspiring a new generation of Chinese to strike out on new, digital paths. So far, no one knows where a digital Silk Road will begin or end. Meanwhile, the containers continue on their journey towards Hamburg.
Dostyk | Kilometre 2,194
Every train has to stop at the border between China and Kazakhstan. Their tracks end at the state frontier close to Dostyk, a Kazakh town on the steppes. It marks the start of the Russian gauge width and is the first stopover for the 44 containers on their westward journey. There is a difference of 71 millimetres between standard gauge (1,453 millimetres) and broad gauge (1,524 millimetres). Back in the day, the Russian Empire adopted broad gauge in order to repel invasions. But nowadays it is merely an obstacle to world trade. Globalisation stands still for 15 hours – that is how long the process of transferring from one gauge to another takes. A gantry crane lifts the containers off one wagon and onto a Russian-gauge wagon. The axles are replaced through a different process. Each individual wagon has its own replacement set of axles, which are stored separately. Up to nine trains are handled each day. With a new locomotive, the journey continues across the dusty steppe.
Oktyabrsk | Kilometre 5,377
Straight through Russia’s breadbasket, at a speed of around 35 km/h, the 44 containers are moving across one of Russia’s most fertile regions – along the banks of the Volga. Oktyabrsk is a small town of 28,000 set on the Volga’s northern shore. From May up to the end of October, these bodies of water and the surrounding rivers are easy to navigate for Russian cargo. An electronic waybill takes care of the international formalities, ensuring a smooth trade route across Eurasia.
Brest - Małaszewicze | Kilometre 7,378
Rail transport between Poland and Belarus represents a technical challenge. The border separates not just two countries but two different railway gauge widths: here, European standard gauge (1,453 millimetres) meets Russian broad gauge (1,524 millimetres). Depending on the volume of traffic, this will mean a wait of between 6 and 24 hours until all 44 of the containers have been transferred from one gauge to another.
With 17 terminals, HHLA’s subsidiary Metrans operates the largest intermodal network in Central and Eastern Europe. Every week 550 trains criss-cross Europe, and more than a million TEU empty containers are handled at the depots. There is nowhere that cannot be reached from here. Metrans uses trucks to cover the proverbial “last mile”.
Since its founding in 1990, Metrans has been continuously developing. And since 1992, when the first train set off from Hamburg to Prague, intermodal logistics solutions have been among the standard repertoire of HHLA’s subsidiary. Thirty years of logistics expertise have established a dense network of connections in Central, Southern and Eastern Europe. What HHLA provides for maritime containers, Metrans makes possible for cross-continental transportation: a gateway to Europe. Every 48 hours, a train from China enters the European rail network via the Metrans network.
Posznan | Kilometre 7,821
The tracks fork in Poznan – in every direction. This western Polish city is an intermodal hub in the Metrans network. Poznan is one of Metrans’ state-of-the-art logistics nodes which intelligently dovetail rail tracks, roads and shipping routes throughout Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. From its head office in Prague, Metrans organises more than 500 weekly train connections from Budapest to Salzburg, from Poznan to Hamburg – from European cities to the European hinterland. In record time. This includes customs clearance and carriage by rail as well as onward transportation by truck or ship.
As the market leader for European port hinterland traffic, Metrans combines the best of both worlds: individual Eurasian routes and decades of European logistics expertise. New connections are established in response to growing international demand. The intermodal company manufactured 913 trains in 2020 (2019: 426 trains) that originated in or went to China. This is an increase of 114 percent, with imports recording the largest growth (+131 percent). Only 518 kilometres to Hamburg.
Hamburg | Kilometre 10,214
The city on the Elbe has long been China’s gateway to Europe. In 1731, Hamburg’s first daily newspaper had not yet been printed when the first Chinese ship from Canton called at the Port of Hamburg. In 1982, the first container freighter from the People’s Republic of China docked at HHLA’s Terminal Tollerort. From then on, trade with East Asia grew continuously until the first train from Beijing arrived in 2008. As well as docked ships, now there were also coupled wagons.
Over the past few decades, the Port of Hamburg has become a key hub for Germany’s trade with China. Today, more than half of Germany’s foreign trade with China is handled via the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. In 2020 alone, more than 2.4 million standard containers (TEU) were handled in Germany’s largest seaport. Fifteen liner services operate between the North Sea and the China Sea.
In Hamburg, the quayside and the rails are close to one another. On the tracks of the Hamburg port railway, approximately 200 goods trains and 5,500 wagons are handled rapidly and efficiently every day. There are now more than 160 rail operators using these tracks, with a dense network of wagon load traffic as well as shuttle and block train connections throughout Europe. Every week, there are 1,958 connections to and from Hamburg – just over 230 of them per week with China.
This process of exchange has long since expanded beyond the docks, and Hamburg is much more than just a port of call on China’s map of the world. The Chinese name for the Free and Hanseatic City, “Han Bao” (“China’s castle”), aptly reflects the place’s status: 500 Chinese firms have located their German or European head offices on the Elbe. More than 800 Hamburg companies are currently active in China. Hamburg is Germany’s China hub and thus a natural node for the continental Silk Road – and the destination for those 44 containers from the Middle Kingdom.
China’ has an unbridled desire for jam. The Middle Kingdom loves strawberry jam – and the Austrian company DARBO is one of the European firms benefiting from this vogue.
Beyond high-end cars and luxury handbags, the status symbols of an established Chinese middle class include products such as wine, pasta and spice mixes. Their purchasing power has risen rapidly, and European consumer products are in strong demand. DARBO transported more than 800 tonnes of jam from Austria’s Tyrol region via Hamburg to China. The rail connections, the handling time and the extensive range of routes mean that Hamburg is an export node for efficient Far East supply chains – even for companies located beyond the Alps.
The Silk Road project has always thrived on exchange – and not just via the road alone. This project encompasses trade and research, finance and politics. China’s driving motive of connectivity is permanently opening up new routes – on land, on water and now via the internet. Chinese fibre-optic cables around the globe are connecting up new places: from Pakistan to France, from Guinea to Brazil – Digital Silk Roads. China holds unwaveringly to a wise old saying: make tentative steps to cross the river. The journey continues.
The geologist and geographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen (1833-1905) identified a network of routes used to transport silk to Europe and called it the "central asian silk roads".