Magazine

The Silk Roads, Past and Future

If China’s ambitious initiative can recapture the magic of the ancient Silk Roads, it will change the world.

By Peter Frankopan for
The Silk Roads, Past and Future
Credit: Rooney Chen, Reuters

The world seems to be turning at a frantic pace. One minute, all eyes are on Syria and the U.S. launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against the Shayrat air base near Homs; the next, it is all atwitter over American use of the giant GBU-43/B large yield bomb – better known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) or colloquially as the Mother of All Bombs – in eastern Afghanistan. Next up, it’s attempted missile launches in North Korea, the rumored deployment of a U.S. carrier strike group, and the regime in Pyongyang warning that thermonuclear war could break out “at any moment.”

Then it’s all about Turkey’s referendum, and the sweeping new powers that its passage gives President Erdogan, which look set to fundamentally change the country’s relations with the European Union and the West. Just as things seem to be quieting down, a surprise general election is announced in London. It is all breathless stuff.

Amidst the high-stakes geopolitical poker, fears of the impending apocalypse and major power shifts, few would have been paying much attention to Stanford-le-Hope in Essex, an obscure town near the mouth of the Thames, whose main claim to fame is that it was the home of the writer Joseph Conrad. On April 10, as most were busy checking Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, a train pulled out of the station, heading for the Channel Tunnel. Its destination: Yiwu in eastern China.

The locomotive that set out was undertaking the return journey of a train that arrived in Essex in January, bringing electronic components, textiles, and garments; the 30 containers sent back were filled with whisky, soft drinks, and pharmaceuticals. The opening of a direct train link between China and the U.K. is more symbolic than it is a game-changer in the way the two countries trade with each other.