AZAMAT KULYENOV, a 26-year-old train driver, slid the black-knobbed throttle forward, and the 1,800-ton express freight train, nearly a half-mile long, began rolling west across the vast, deserted grasslands of eastern Kazakhstan, leaving the Chinese border behind.
Dispatchers in the Kazakh border town of Dostyk gave this train priority over all other traffic, including passenger trains. Specially trained guards rode on board. Later in the trip, as the train traveled across desolate Eurasian steppes, guards toting AK-47 military assault rifles boarded the locomotive to keep watch for bandits who might try to drive alongside and rob the train. Sometimes, the guards would even sit on top of the steel shipping containers.
The train roughly follows the fabled Silk Road, the ancient route linking China and Europe that was used to transport spices, gems and, of course, silks before falling into disuse six centuries ago. Now the overland route is being resurrected for a new precious cargo: several million laptop computers and accessories made each year in China and bound for customers in European cities like London, Paris, Berlin and Rome.
Hewlett-Packard, the Silicon Valley electronics company, has pioneered the revival of a route famous in the West since the Roman Empire. For the last two years, the company has shipped laptops and accessories to stores in Europe with increasing frequency aboard express trains that cross Central Asia at a clip of 50 miles an hour. Initially an experiment run in summer months, H.P. is now dispatching trains on the nearly 7,000-mile route at least once a week, and up to three times a week when demand warrants. H.P. plans to ship by rail throughout the coming winter, having taken elaborate measures to protect the cargo from temperatures that can drop to 40 degrees below zero.
Though the route still accounts for just a small fraction of manufacturers’ overall shipments from China to Europe, other companies are starting to follow H.P.’s example. Chinese authorities announced on Wednesday the first of six long freight trains this year from Zhengzhou, a manufacturing center in central China, to Hamburg, Germany, following much the same route across western China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland as the H.P. trains. The authorities said they planned 50 trains on the route next year, hauling $1 billion worth of goods; the first train this month is carrying $1.5 million worth of tires, shoes and clothes, while the trains are to bring back German electronics, construction machinery, vehicles, auto parts and medical equipment.
DHL announced on June 20 that it had begun weekly express freight train service from Chengdu in western China across Kazakhstan and ultimately to Poland. Some of H.P.’s rivals in the electronics industry are in various stages of starting to use the route for exports from China, freight executives said.
The Silk Road was never a single route, but a web of paths taken by caravans of camels and horses that began around 120 B.C., when Xi’an in west-central China — best known for its terra cotta warriors — was China’s capital. The caravans started across the deserts of western China, traveled through the mountain ranges along China’s western borders with what are now Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and then journeyed across the sparsely populated steppes of Central Asia to the Caspian Sea and beyond.
These routes flourished through the Dark Ages and the early medieval period in Europe. But as maritime navigation expanded in the 1300s and 1400s, and as China’s political center shifted east to Beijing, China’s economic activity also moved toward the coast.
Today, the economic geography is changing again. Labor costs in China’s eastern cities have surged in the last decade, so manufacturers are trying to reduce costs by moving production west to the nation’s interior. Trucking products from the new inland factories to coastal ports is costly and slow. High oil prices have made airfreight exorbitantly expensive and prompted the world’s container shipping lines to reduce sharply the speed of their vessels.
Slow steaming cuts oil consumption, but the resulting delays have infuriated shippers of high-value electronics goods like H.P’s. Such delays drive up their costs and make it harder to respond quickly to changes in consumer demand in distant markets.