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New Road Across China's Largest Desert Opens to Traffic

The second road across China's largest desert opened to traffic Thursday, boosting connections to the landlocked region in the country's northwest.

The 424-km north-south highway, running across the Taklimakan Desert in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, cut the distance between the two important regional cities of Hotan and Aral by 550km and the travel time by about seven hours.

The 790-million-yuan (US$107 million) project is expected to promote cargo and passenger traffic between the resource-rich and densely-populated Hotan City, in southern Xinjiang, and Aral, an underdeveloped new city on the northern edge of the desert, said Xinjiang's Chairman Ismail Tiliwaldi at the opening ceremony.

The blacktop road was funded by the central government. Construction of the road began in June, 2005. It will provide easier access to the southwestern Tibet Autonomous Region as well as central and southern Asian countries such as Pakistan and Tajikistan.

It will also speed up transportation of Hotan's farm produce to Aksu, a pivotal communications center, by cutting off 430 km and about half of the time used before.

The first highway across the Taklimakan, running 522 kilometers from Lunnan in the north, to Minfeng County in the south, was opened to traffic in 1995. However, vehicles bound for Aksu had to make a detour along the westernmost border of the desert.

"The new one is wider with less sharp turns than the first road, and the surface is very smooth," said Cao Jun, a veteran driver in Xinjiang.

The Taklimakan desert is located in the center of the Tarim Basin south of the Tianshan Mountains, covering 337,600 square kilometers.

Builders spent 29 months in the desert, fighting surface temperatures of up to 80 degrees Celsius in summer and continuous sandstorms.

Workers introduced some tricks, including using reed stalks and planting salt-resistant trees, to fix the flowing sand and turn the road into a green corridor in the sandstorm-ravaged desert.

About 96 percent of the highway runs through the active sand areas and 82 percent was uninhabited, suffering from bad weather conditions.

A number of maintenance zones, parking lots, meteorological stations and electric billboards were established along the road to aid travelers.

The road is one of China's most ambitious infrastructure projects to develop its remote west. The country opened the first ever railway to Tibet in July, 2006.

(Xinhua News Agency November 2, 2007)

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