Extending the Silk Road

Regional political leaders welcome the arrival of first freight train connecting Anhui province with northwestern Germany.

On 13 July 2021, at exactly 12:38 p.m., Lower Saxony state premier Stephan Weil and the mayor of the German coastal city of Wilhelmshaven, Carsten Feist, welcomed the first direct train from China on its arrival at the Jade-Weser-Port freight centre. Speaking of the importance of this new rail trade route, Stephan Weil praised this rail infrastructure project through Lower Saxony, saying that this new rail connection will play an active role in China’s “New Silk Road”.

Travelling via Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland, the train took 19 days to travel from Hefei before reaching its final destination in Wilhelmshaven. The city of Hefei (合肥市) itself looks back on a very long history indeed. During the Chu kingdom (楚国), it was the site of a number of small states, first getting it name Hefei during the Han dynasty (汉朝 206BC-220AD), yet the city itself dates back to the Song Dynasty (宋朝 960-1279).

Today, it is the capital and largest city of the eastern Chinese province of Anhui (安徽省), home to eight million people. Hefei is a world-leading centre for scientific research and higher education. Many Chinese universities are located in the city. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Hefei University together with the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang (李克强).

Some of the former leaders of Lower Saxony, such as Ernst Albrecht, Sigmar Gabriel and Christian Wulff, have paid high-level visits to the Anhui’s capital, seeking to deepen ties between the German federal state and the eastern Chinese province. This collaboration between Lower Saxony and Anhui dates back to 1984, making it the oldest partnership between a German state and a province of the People’s Republic of China.

Wilhelmshaven, on the other hand, is a young city with around 77,000 inhabitants. Once planned as an important deep-water port by the Prussian King Wilhelm, who later became German Emperor Wilhelm I, it gained a reputation after the Second World War as a run-down city affected by depopulation and deprivation. Named after the Jade and Weser rivers which flow into the North Sea, the Jade-Weser-Port has started to breathe new life into the city since its inception in 2012. The port still has capacity to increase its freight consumption and has significant advantages over other ports. Head of the Jade-Weser-Port-Marketing GmbH, Andreas Bullwinkel, spoke of the advantages of Wilhelmshaven’s location, such as the short distance between the sea and the train network.

The Chinese Consul General, Mr. Du Xiaohui (杜哓晖), based in Hamburg, showcased the benefits of the new “Silk Road” in his speech. He spoke of Hefei and Wilhelmshaven as being bridgeheads of the “New Silk Road”, internationally known as “One Belt – One Road (一带一路)”. 140 countries and 32 organizations have signed up to the “One Belt – Road” initiative, which got underway in 2013.

The first train from Hefei to Wilhelmshaven carried one-hundred Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) containers with household items, electrical appliances and textile goods. From the perspective of retail companies in Germany and across Europe, rail transport is an interesting alternative, not least because the goods can be transported faster than by ship, which normally takes around 30 days from Shanghai to Wilhelmshaven via the Suez Canal.

Recent disruption to international shipping with the grounding of the Ever Given container ship in the Suez Canal has revealed shortcomings in conventional shipping routes to transport goods from Asia to Europe. As one of the world’s most important trading routes connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, the six-day blockage of the Suez Canal has an immediate knock-on impact of global supply chains. It did much to illustrate the vulnerability of what is the shortest sea link between Asia and Europe, highlighting the need for other trading routes to relieve the Suez Canal of the stresses and strains exerted by mega container ships. This is where the railways may well come into play, and gain in importance over the coming decades. Indeed, freight trains from China have been arriving regularly in German cities, such as Duisburg and Hamburg, since 2019. This new Trans-Eurasian trade route not only links Hefei and Wilhelmshaven, but also serves other cities on the route. This Hefei-Wilhelmshaven maiden journey saw containers being unloaded in Poland, for instance.

Many critical questions arise regarding the new Hefei-Wilhelmshaven trade route, including whether freight trains are a viable alternative to large cargo ships. Though freight trains may offer a less polluting form of transportation, they are unlikely to replace the dominant form of sea freight transport or become a major competitor. Train freight capacity is no match for a freighter that can transport up to 23,000 containers across the seas and oceans. And yet, space on freighters is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive, so much so that freight transportation by rail may be able to offer a cost-effective, though somewhat limited alternative, given the substantial difference in capacity carriage.

There are also the questions of who gains from such a trade route. Who precisely is the winner? Which countries benefit the most? The flow of goods on the railways between China and Germany is practically a one-sided venture as the demand for Chinese goods in Europe is so enormous. Chinese producers, then, use the route to supply their manufactured goods to the German and, more broadly, European markets. Use of the Jade-Weser-Port in Wilhelmshaven with its spare capacity lends itself to the storage and distribution of these incoming goods, especially considering its logistics trans-shipment centre which sells Chinese goods in Europe. Increased trade in Wilhelmshaven will undoubtedly lead to more employment opportunities in the local region, turning around the fortunes of a once run-down city.

The maiden Hefei-Wilhelmshaven journey is the initial first step with countless opportunities in the pipeline. Northwestern Germany itself can benefit on many levels. The second container train from the Chinese province Anhui has since arrived in Wilhelmshaven with companies taking advantage of available capacity in Wilhelmshaven. Whilst storage space has become scarce in Germany in recent years, Wilhelmshaven still has about 60 hectares of total 160 hectares still available. Many investors are bound to be reviewing their strategy. These developments are helping Wilhelmshaven to expand its network with the world. In doing so, it is seeking to move away from its reputation as a run-down city towards becoming a vibrant trading post with China and the wider world.

The story of Imperial Judge Dr. jur. Georg Crusen and his villa Jiangsu Road No. 27

Copyright (text and photos) by Wang Dong, Qingdao

In the heart of Qingdao’s historical and protected area, there is a century-old boulevard. During the German lease period, it was named Bismarck-Straße (now Jiangsu Road). As one of the earliest streets in Qingdao, the Jiangsu Road runs from the north to the south through the old city and reaches the Qingdao Bay. The old houses along the street were built more than 100 years ago and have survived to this day. Their long history and often-elegant styles attract many visitors who enjoy their facades and interiors. Among these old buildings, there is one particular century-old house that was built in a rustic style. It is located at the top of the slope on the northern side of the street, at the remarkable six roads intersection (Jiangsu Road, Guanxiang 1st Road, Suzhou Road, Laiwu 1st Road, Fulong Road and Longshan Road). This old building with red tiles and yellow walls has survived throughout the past century, but for a long time, it was not well known. The story of Imperial Judge Dr. jur. Georg Crusen and his villa Jiangsu Road No. 27 weiterlesen

Memories of the Ming

I lived in Xisanqi, a district in the north of Beijing, between 1994 and 1998. Early on Chinese friends invited us to visit famous sight-seeing spots with us. We went to Badaling to see the Great Wall riding on top the mountain ridges, and in passing we also visited the Sacred Road and the Changling tomb. After seeing so many wonders in one day we hardly realized what we were looking at. One of our friends, Mr. Li, told me the history of the Ming emperors in a few sentences. In Spring 1995 my husband’s company gave us a car, and at the same time both of us received Chinese driving licenses. Having relied on bus and taxi until then, we now looked forward to excursions by car. On a weekend in May 1995 our American friends invited us to a picnic. Driving in a northern direction, the foreign community met in a walled garde; the Germans brought potato salad, the Italians pasta, the French contributed baguettes, the English roast-beef and the Americans burgers. After a pleasant meal I asked for the name of this place. Shisanling, I was told.

Memories of the Ming weiterlesen

Wild China; Beautiful China

From record-breaking growth rates to the smog of Beijing, China often makes the headlines for its economic rise and its environmental problems. But the country is rarely considered for its highest mountains, hot deserts, cold terrains, sceneries of outstanding natural beauty as well as plant and animal life on which China and the Chinese so greatly depend. The nature documentary series Wild China, a pioneering series capturing China’s spectacular array of creatures which inhabits the country’s most beautiful landscapes, aims to put that right. Wild China; Beautiful China weiterlesen

Tempo of Time

Like each other old city in China, Beijing (北京) has one drum and one bell tower. They are situated at the northern end of the Zhongzhou road (中轴线); literally meaning: central axis of the inner city.
Zhongzhou Road is not the name of any particular road; it refers to the trunk road from Beichen Bridge on the northern 4th ring through to Zhonglou North Bridge on the northern 2nd ring (north stretch) and south of Yongdingmen (south stretch). Tempo of Time weiterlesen

Tsingtao Beer (青岛啤酒): A Story of a Century

Qingdao (), the coastal port city of in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong (山东省), is sometimes referred to as ‘China’s Munich’. This nickname is not just down to the German-looking Prince Hotel on the city’s pier, the Bavarian-style castle where Chairman Mao (毛泽东 Máo Zédōnɡ) stayed in 1957 or the railway station in its German Renaissance architectural style. It is very much informed by a beverage introduced by German and British tradesmen at the start of the twentieth century: beer. For Qingdao is today both home to the Tsingtao brewery (青岛啤酒 Qīnɡdǎo Píjiǔ) and a 16-day festival that is the closest thing that China gets to Munich’s Oktoberfest.

Tsingtao beer bottle
Tsingtao beer bottle

Tsingtao Beer (青岛啤酒): A Story of a Century weiterlesen

Soundscapes of Handan (邯郸)

Culture Shock is defined as the feeling or perception of being in a place whose customs are far removed from those experienced at home. Reading up on a country prior to departure can do much to reduce the severity of the shock. The textual nature of travel guidebooks, absorbed with the eye, ensures for a visual glimpse into a country. And yet, visual readings of place cannot prepare the visitor’s ear for shock of the urban soundscape. This was true of my own acoustic experience of China: a cultural shock to the ear that no guidebook can prepare the visitor for. Soundscapes of Handan (邯郸) weiterlesen

Living in Chinese Style

Chinese furniture has a long history. The earliest piece of furniture was found in a tomb from the late Warring States period (战国时期475 to 221 BC). Back then people knelt on mats, so the furniture was low and cater to a lifestyle in which people ate, slept and worked on the ground.

By the sixth century high chairs and tables appeared, and during the Song dynasty (宋朝960-1279) a multitude of furniture pieces was made for all purposes.

Living in Chinese Style weiterlesen

Treatise on Architectural Methods

China’s history of architecture goes back centuries. The professions of architect, structural engineer and craftsmen was not as highly regarded as the Confucian scholar-official. So, little written knowledge about these trades has survived over the years. Architectural knowledge was mainly passed on orally, in many cases from a father to his son. During the Song period (宋朝 960-1279) structural engineering and architecture schools existed. Already in early times Chinese architects started to develop modular systems for their buildings.

Treatise on Architectural Methods weiterlesen

Smellscapes of China

A fragrance of jasmine flower wafts into my nose. I close my eyes and see blossoms in full bloom. It is spring-time, the time of prosperity. Then I open my eyes again and see a mountain of rubbish that is placed across the street. My new nose plugs which I have just bought in the supermarket are certainly effective.

Smellscapes of China weiterlesen