The second road across China's largest desert opened to traffic Thursday, boosting connections to landlocked regions in the country's far northwest.
The 424-km north-south highway, running across the Taklimakan Desert inside the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, cut the distance between the two important regional cities of Hotan and Aral by 550 km 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, opened to traffic in 1995. However, vehicles bound for Aksu had to make a detour along the westernmost border of the desert.
"The new highway 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 along with 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 areas where sandstorms are prevalent and 82 percent of the territory is currently uninhabited and suffers from adverse 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 development projects in the remote west. The country opened the first ever railway to Tibet in July 2006.
(Xinhua News Agency November 2, 2007)