Belt and Road promises to open up Asia like never before

Other than the takeover of Reading FC by the Dai siblings, the big announcement coming out of China this month that will change the world as we know it was the 900 billion dollar “One Belt, One Road” project.

Sounding like a line from a syrupy U2 song, One Belt, One Road refers to a Chinese initiative of unprecedented scale that will see more than 60 countries connected through high-speed rail, bridges, harbours, tunnels, airports and goodness knows what else in the next 5 years…hyperloops and spaceports maybe. Hence “Belt” and “Road” (though confusingly the “Road” is the sea – the so-called Maritime Silk Road). As the professional world loves acronyms, One Belt, One Road is also known as OBOR, not to be mistaken for something cobbled together by the banking sector.

While the name doesn’t translate well into English, OBOR has a clear enough vision and even a template from the past: the ancient Silk Road that connected China with Europe, when bearded traders slugged over mountains with camels and spices, and told fantastic tales.

Marco Polo was a long time ago, of course, and today’s Central Asian countries, the “stans” from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, are relatively unknown to travellers even through they account for a huge chunk of the globe.

Gleaming new highways built with OBOR money might change that, in time helping to make those flyover states between East and West even more appealing destinations. If anything, that midlife London-Kathmandu bike trip should be a less arduous experience.

Railways are shrinking the map further. Earlier this year, the first ever direct train service from China to the UK arrived in Barking after 17 days, passing through 10 countries on a 7,456 mile trip. This was just a freight service., however, and there’s no sign of a commercial service any time soon, which is perhaps just as well: just imagine trying to buy a ticket to China from a train station machine (it’s hard enough finding the right fare from Reading to Oxford).

Commercial bullet train services will, however, string together countries in Southeast Asia. Despite the ubiquity of today’s low-cost airlines, Southeast Asia is not an easy region to navigate.

OBOR will connect Jakarta to Bandung, Indonesia’s third biggest city and creative capital, through a high-speed rail project opening in 2019. More spectacular still, a high-speed line will connect Singapore with Kunming in southern China (Singapore Kunming Rail Link, “SKRL”), through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

The 3,000km project will include sections such as Singapore – Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok. SKRL will, in a sense, “unlock” cities along its route – like the Laotian capital Vientiane – making them more accessible and propelling them into the future. Backpacking through Mekong countries will never be the same again.

Of course, a lot of this might not happen. The world is complicated enough and fraught with uncertainty. But if there is one thing we all need right now, it’s optimism. And OBOR optimism doesn’t get bouncier than this:

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