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January 7, 2010

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Fast track to the rural heartlands

CHINA'S rural regions will benefit from a new phase of the country's opening up over the next few years as extensive rapid rail networks are constructed to facilitate hinterland development. Fei Liena and Wang Li assess the progress.

In the small 2,000-resident village of Basha in southwest China, Wu Laoguang lives a peaceful, rustic life interrupted by the occasional tourist.

Although well-preserved traditions of Miao ethnic culture increasingly make the mountainous village a tourist attraction, the 56-year-old plowman never travels far. He has little connection with the outside world, except when asked by excited visitors to be in their photos.

Wu still wears hand-woven clothing and retains a topknot hairstyle, a tradition of local Miao men. However, the serene but rather isolated life of him and his fellow villagers may soon change.

A high-speed railway connecting Guiyang, capital of Guizhou Province, with south China's metropolitan Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, will pass through the mountainous region. Construction started in October last year and will be completed in four years.

Once finished, the village famous for its hunting tradition will be just two hours away by train from the Pearl River Delta, China's dynamic commercial heartland.

"I have no idea what Guangzhou looks like," Wu says. "But I was told that once the railroad is complete, many people will come from big cities and foreign countries to visit. Then we can earn more money."

The Guiyang-Guangzhou railway is just part of China's ambitious plan to expand its rail network in the west to speed up local development. The plan was accelerated after the government announced the 4-trillion-yuan (US$585.6 billion) stimulus package to grapple with the recent global economic downturn.

Mostly constructed in the 1960s, railways in western regions are increasingly bottlenecking the rapid rise of transport demands with their modest capacity levels.

No one understands the need for expanding rail transport better than Zhou Yingxin, vice general manager of the Fangcheng Port Company, which operates the busy port of the Beibu Gulf in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

"In the first 11 months, we had cargo throughput of more than 40 million tons, up 20 percent from the same period last year," says Zhou. "However, we don't have enough trains to transport the cargo out of the port. The port is almost 'dead' with loads of overstocked goods," he says.

Robust economic recovery in China's southwest region has driven strong demand for raw materials, including coal, iron ore, sulfur and soybeans, yet the goods sometimes pile up in the port.

Trade between southwestern Chinese provinces and Southeast Asian nations is very active, but the backward rail network is obstructing business, says Wang Binde, vice general manager of Dahai Cereal and Oil Industries which imports soybean from the United States and Canada to manufacture cooking oil.

"Economic growth is actually 'forcing' railway construction to speed up," says the manager based in Fangcheng Port.

At least 10 new rail projects are being planned or constructed in the west, which eventually lead to the Beibu Gulf region, the "gate" for western provinces to the sea.

With a new rail network, even Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the far west inland will no longer be far from the coast.

Construction of the second phase of China's longest high-speed railway, the Lanzhou-Urumqi route, started last month. Within five years, the travel time between Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, and Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, could be shortened from the present 20 hours to less than 10 hours.

The 143.5-billion-yuan project passes through Xinjiang, Gansu and Qinghai Province, which covers almost one-third of China's land mass and is home to 40 percent of the country's coal reserve, as well as 25 percent of oil and gas reserves.

Once completed, the railway will be connected with several other lines such as the Lanzhou-Chongqing high-speed railway that joins the southwest and northwest.

Eventually, grueling journeys of more than 70 hours from Urumqi to Beihai or Guangzhou in the south will be history after the travel time by high-speed rail is shortened to 20 hours.

Yuan Renbiao's home in Xiaobao Village of Rongjiang County is not far from Basha Village in Guizhou. Unlike Wu, he has been working in Guangzhou for more than a decade.

But every trip to Guangzhou is a "long march" - he walks 40 minutes to the roadside to catch a minibus. It will take about two hours for him to catch a sleeper bus to Guangzhou and the whole journey could take more than 24 hours.

"With the new railway, it will take me just several hours to Guangzhou. It's just incredible," Yuan says.


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