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Reviving Past Glory of Silk Road Center
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Gubanova Lvanova's shopping list in China is surprisingly detailed: tiles for the toilet made in south China, silk flowers from east China and furniture made in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.


Because of people like her from oil-rich Kazakhstan, the wholesale market of construction materials, furniture and accessories in Urumqi has become a landmark building in the city.


"I can get every Chinese product I want here in Urumqi," Lvanova says.


She came here to shop for her new house and buy things to sell at home. "My friends and I will rent a cargo container and fill it with all we can get here."


Not only the clients, but also goods sold in the market are international -- pine trees were logged in Russia's forests, shipped here by train, made into fine furniture and sold to the West.


Xinjiang, the westernmost region of China, is once again becoming a major trading point along the West-East trade route.


Last year its export and import volume reached a record nine billion U.S. dollars with 550,000 people crossing the border.


When Xinjiang was named "Xiyu," or Western Regions in Chinese, it was the most international and multicultural melting pot in the world with the great Silk Road running through it.


In a document from the Tang Dynasty 1,500 years ago, officials from the Chinese government wrote, "West to Yinwu (today's Hami in east Xinjiang), east to Persia, goods come and go non-stop, caravans travel endlessly."


The Silk Road linked four major civilizations in the ancient world: China, India, Persia and Roman Greece.


With it, China's silk, porcelain and printing technology were taken to the West while spices, music and Buddhism spread to Far East.


But this trade route through central Asia gradually lost its significance in the age of sail.


"We were always complaining that Urumqi was so far from Beijing or Shanghai that we hardly benefited from the country's economic boom," said Hu Wei, deputy chairman of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.


But, with strong demand from both eastern China and Central Asian countries, locals are changing their perspective of the world.


"On a map of China, Xinjiang is the westernmost border, but on a map of Eurasia, Xinjiang is the geographical center. It could be the intersection of East and West and the frontier of China to the West," Hu said.


Businessmen from the east have flocked to seize the opportunities. Some come to sell and the others to buy raw materials from across the border.


Hisense, a leading electronic appliance manufacturer from east China, has set up a TV factory in Kashgar, southwest Xinjiang; Uni-President Enterprises Corp., a Taiwan food producer, has an instant noodle plant here; SK Telecom, from South Korea, has founded a mobile phone plant.


"Xinjiang has the best access to Central Asia and further west," said Yang Wenyi, a shoe retailer from east China's Zhejiang Province who runs a store in Urumqi.


The region shares borders with eight countries and has 15 state-level land ports, two international airports and 11 provincial land ports. Passenger buses and trucks run on 103 cross-border roads.


Yang says that after Central Asian buyers order shoes, he sends the orders back to his suppliers in Zhejiang and the shoes are either loaded on to a train at Lianyungang, an east China harbor linked with Xinjiang by a national railway, or on trucks to one of land ports in Xinjiang.


The old Silk Road ended in the east at Chang'an, the ancient Chinese capital (today's Xi'an in Shaanxi Province), but the modern trade route extends to the coast.


At the Alataw Pass on the China-Kazakhstan border, China's second largest land port, half of the new exports in the first half of this year were goods imported from Japan, South Korea and the United States through Tianjin harbor in north China, says Hu Wei.


Meanwhile, the economic growth of Xinjiang averaged 10.1 percent annually over the past five years.


In 2006, the industrial sector, driven by investment from outside and foreign trade, increased by 13.5 percent and services by 10.7 percent.


Aishanaj, a young Uygur man running a small textile shop in the big bazaar of Kashgar, says, "The last two summers, business was really good. Middlemen from the north came here to buy silk, scarves and carpets."


Kashgar, once the Silk Road's main intersection is a wholesale market of foreign goods from South Asia and Europe thanks to its location near the China-Pakistan border port Kunjirap.


At Aishanaj's 15-square-meter shop, clients buy silk scarves from Italy, shawls from Pakistan and carpets from Turkey.


He sells 50,000 yuan (US$6,648) worth of goods a month in summer, the high season, to middlemen and tourists from the east.


The camel caravans are consigned to history, but this year the region has spent 10 billion yuan (US$1.33 billion) building highways with a total distance of 9,523 km, and a major project is to link Horgos, another China-Kazakhstan border town, with Lianyunkang.


A railway is under construction to connect Horgos with the national railway network so that Xinjiang will have the country's second railway border crossing after the Alataw Pass.


Urumqi started expanding its international airport with an investment of 2.8 billion yuan (US$372.34 million) in April. It will be the fourth regional air center in China after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.


At a meeting of the State Council, China's cabinet, on Wednesday, Xinjiang was singled out by Premier Wen Jiabao as "having strategic significance to China's development and stability".


According to the press release, more efforts would be made to improve transport and power supplies and speed up bilateral or regional free trade in Central Asia.


"The central government will continue giving more support to Xinjiang," the press release said.


(China Daily September 24, 2007)


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