Desert Sand and Camels in the New Chinese Silk Road Project

By Marijn Nieuwenhuis

Remember Michael Ende’s 1983 The Neverending Story? In the book (and the film adaptation that followed), “the land of Fantasia is destroyed, with only a single grain of sand remaining. But that single grain enables the rebirth of the world.” (Welland, Sand: The Never-ending Story, 2009).

Not having read the book, I remembered watching the film after reading about China’s plans to pump USDD 900 billion in its new “Silk Road” development project. The initiative officially follows a two-track logic consisting of a so-called “Silk Road Economic Belt” and a “Maritime Silk Road Belt” forming what has popularly been dubbed as a “One Belt, One Road” project. The idea behind the revival is the revitalising of the trade route between Western Europe to East Asia along the illustrious path once taken by Marco Polo.

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The image of the ‘New Silk Way’ on the official Xinhua website (screen caption from February 2015)

What Marco Polo once did on horseback is anticipated soon to be possible using the USD 161 billion railway network that links China to Europe. The project has popularly been dubbed as China’s version of the US Marshall Plan, a name that Beijing has avoided to use out of fear for its geopolitical association. Chinese government officials prefer instead to stress the importance that the new “connectivity” will provide “to people of all countries along the Belt and Road”, creating a cliché win-win cooperation between China and Europe. What happens in the imagined geographic ‘void’ in-between is however just as (if not more) interesting.

The materiality of sand and the geographic imagination of the desert perform an important role in the project. In many ways one could argue that they define the project in a similar manner that the water and the ocean were the element and the domain that mythically symbolised the British Empire. Sand is in the Chinese project similarly to water imagined as an element that one can cut through, rather an obstacle that one has to step over or dig under. The train becomes a sharp knife, a bullet train which “slices past the edge of the Gobi desert, through gale-swept grasslands and past snowy peaks.” The desert is similarly imagined like the ocean; it does not impede movement, but facilitates it. It is the channel that allows capital to flow from one side to another.

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The image of the ‘New Silk Way’ on the official Xinhua

There is a certain lack of presence in the imagining of the places between Europe and China. The anonymous desert is portrayed to be filled with camels guided by a single nomad ploughing, rather than cutting, through the heavy sand under a burning sun. The slowness of movement and the lack of people, skyscrapers, and noteworthy monuments seem to depict an area far removed from the pace, modernity and civilisation that supposedly characterise the Eastern and Western side of the new Silk Road. Central Asia is obviously not really the destination; it is rather presented as the uninhabited desert that facilitates the road for capital to circulate. The people that live here often do not have passports or are, as in the case of the the Uighur in Xinjiang, denied from having one. Even travelling within your own country can sometimes be hard: “When Uighurs travel beyond Xinjiang, they are often unable to check into hotels, as ethnic Han staff view them as potential terrorists and call police to check their papers.”

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        (Above images all taken from the official Xinhua website)

The only moments the bullet trains are expected to stop in the desert is when capital feels the need to replace the fluidity of sand with the solidity of stone. The old city of Kashgar, Central Asia’s version of Middle Eastern Palmyra, has already gone through a relentless modernisation programme. The next couple of years will see the last phase of the ‘urban renewal’ programme in which the ancient city will be destroyed and many of its 13,000 Uighur families will be relocated.

Central Asia is in the Chinese (but no less in the Western) imagination portrayed as the desert land of camels and nomads which lies in-between places that are thought to matter more. Its dry, sandy plains with its oriental character symbolise something like Michael Ende’s magical land of Fantasia. This world of human imagination feels equally threatened by the storm of “The Nothing” which, as I remember from the movie, represents the apathy, uncaring and cynicism that lurks to manipulate and destroy the sandy imagination of Fantasia. This time however is not the dark storm of The Nothing which haunts and engulfs Fantasia but the trains that slice it up and the tourist industry that empties-out the dusty sand that lies in its way.

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Jolly “Afanti” at “China Xinjiang International Exhibition Center”

The sandcastles of the old will soon be melted into the thin air castles of the new. First, however, tourism and trade have to subdue the “Silk Road terrorists” that lurk in the caves hunting for innocent prey. Entertainment is put to use to pacify and domesticate the wild sand and its camel people. At the forefront of the new-anti-terrorism strategy is Apandiland, a Disney-like themepark, located near the borders to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here the terrorist Other is domesticated before being trademarked and turned into a doll named Afanti, after the Sufi philosopher Nasreddin from Eskişehir (today’s Turkey).

"Afanti" at "Apandiland"
“Afanti” at “Apandiland”


Afanti is showcased with a turban and, of course, a thick beard: “He’s the cheery fellow, smiling beneath his moustache and tugging the tail of a donkey that he’s straddling—backwards. Photographs online suggest that this pose is popular among both parents and children, who laugh at him together.” If all goes according to plan, this desert place “can become one of the most important commercial centres in Central Asia,” and even silly terrorists can become part of China’s “harmonious society”.


What remains of the desert is maybe a grain of sand, but then again, as the neverending story showed, what more is needed for the rebirth of the world?



Marijn Nieuwenhuis teaches Political Geography in the Department of marijn 2Politics and International Studies (PAIS) at the University of  Warwick. His research is at the intersection of geography, politics and continental thought. His current research focuses on the  politics of the air and deals with questions of technology, pollution, security, territory and law. He blog at elemental geographies.

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