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High-speed Railways Link China's West to Outside World

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In the small village of Basha with only 2,000 residents in southwest China, 56-year-old Wu Laoguang lives a peaceful, rustic life interrupted by the occasional tourist.

Although well-preserved traditions of Miao ethnic group makes the mountainous village increasingly a tourist attraction, the plowman never travels far, nor does he have much connection with the outside world, except when he is asked by exciting visitors to take a photo together.

He still wears hand-woven cloth and keeps the topknot hairstyle, a tradition of local Miao men. However, the serene but rather isolated life of Wu and his fellow villagers may be changed soon.

A high-speed railway connecting Guizhou, capital of Guiyang, with south China's metropolitan Guangzhou, will pass through the mountainous region where the Basha village is. The construction started in October last year, and will be completed in four years.

Upon completion of the railway, the village famous for its hunting tradition will be just two hours away, by train, from the Pearl River Delta, China's most 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 Guizhou-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 global economic downturn last year.

Mostly constructed in the 1960s, railways in western regions with low transporting capacity are increasingly bottlenecking the rapid rise of demands for transportation.

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

"In the first 11 months, we had cargo throughput of more than 40 million tonnes, up 20 percent from the same period last year," says Zhou Yingxin.

"However, we don't have enough trains to transport the cargo out of the port. The port is almost 'dead' with loads of goods overstocking here," he says.

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

Trade between southwestern provinces and southeastern 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 soybeans 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 ten new rail projects are being planned or constructed in the west now, which eventually lead to the Beibu Gulf region, the "gate" for western provinces to go to the sea.

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

The construction of the second phase of China's longest high-speed railway, the Lanzhou-Urumqi route, started last month. Five years later, the travel time between Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, and Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, could be shortened from over 20 hours at present 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 territory and is the 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 travelling time by high-speed train is shortened to 20 hours.

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

But every trip to Guangzhou is a long march: he walks 40 minutes to roadside to hitchhike a minibus. It will take about two hours for him to catch a sleeper bus going to Guangzhou from the county. 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.

(Xinhua News Agency January 1, 2010)

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