A track laying machine works at the construction site of the section between Lhasa and Nyingchi of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway in Gonggar County of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. Dr Paruk writes that the completion of the railway will not only drive the regional economy and strengthen the link between the region with the inland areas, but it can also serve as a major transportation artery linking China and South Asia. File photo: Xinhua/Purbu Zhaxi.

The ancient Silk Road evokes images of merchants and caravans travelling from China, through central Asia, crossing Persia, Babylon and finally ending at the gates of Constantinople.

It is a story of travel and commerce, of profits and prophets, of riches and rogues, and spices and silks. What significance does the old Silk Road have for China and its current developmental trajectory?

While scholars and journalists are familiar with this history, there is another very neglected Silk route that was just as dramatic and epic. 

This was the Southern Silk route that provided an economic lifeline between China, its Southwest Autonomous Region, and India, for more than 1900 years.

The Tea-Horse route was used to transport tea from China to its Southwest Autonomous Region, as well as medicines, wool and warhorses. 

The “Tea for Horse” route passed from China’s Southwest Autonomous Region to the Indian port of Bengal.

Over time caravans began to carry spices, corals, pearls, glass vessels, incense and perfumes from India to China’s Southwest Autonomous Region, and ultimately to China. 

While the Southern Silk Route declined in importance during the 17th and 18th centuries through the advancement of maritime technology, the reopening of this route in 2007 ushered in a new era for cross country trade and commercial exchange.

In 2014, construction began on the 1,629 km long, US$36.88 billion Sichuan-Tibet Railway route. While it will take 10 years to complete, the route once again will serve as a major transportation artery linking China and South Asia. 

The completion of the railway will not only drive the regional economy and strengthen the link between the region with the inland areas, but it can also serve as a major transportation artery linking China and South Asia.

While Sichuan was the beginning of the old southern Silk Road, today it stands as a key point for President Xi Jinping’s massive commercial and trade project, the “Belt and Road” Initiative, linking various countries via land and sea in a throwback to the ancient Silk Roads.

The Sichuan-Tibet railway will make it possible to build a railway connecting China, Nepal, India and other neighbouring countries, which will boost the regional economy with convenient and super efficient transportation. 

Strategically situated on this route is Xigaze, Tibet's second-largest city on the border, which has excellent conditions to become a base and gateway for processing trade between China and South Asia and its neighbours. 

In 2018 Southwest China's Autonomous Region’s import and export trade was about US$693 million. Investment in the region was approximately US$280 million in countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Tourism figures for 2018 indicate that almost 30 million tourists visited Tibet, almost 10 times that of the population in the region.

In 2006, India and China resumed trade across the Himalayas along the southern Silk route. 

Giant warehouses and roads were constructed on both sides of border, which once accounted for 80% of the trade between the two neighbours. 

With Lhasa becoming a gateway to the west, trade is expected to be much the same as in the old Silk route days - yak tails, sheepskins, raw wool, China clay and Chinese silk. 

Manufactured goods such as electrical appliances, watches, crockery, shoes and canned food will also be traded.

The immediate beneficiaries of this will be the border towns and states. With Lhasa just 460kms from the border town of Nathu La, businesspeople in the area expect the value of trade from their tiny state to reach US$70 million.

Not only will the direct commercial ventures bring in much needed revenue, the region as a tourist destination has seen a steady rise in visitors to the country. 

At an elevation of 3,700 meters, Lulang Town lies along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. Situated in the Nyingchi region, Lulang boasts stunning alpine scenery and forests and is regarded as the "Tibetan Switzerland". 

With Chinese investments into its Southwest Autonomous Region topping US$567 million, Lulang received more than a million tourists last year generating revenues of more than US$70 million. 

The regional government expects to further boost the tourism sector, which accounted for more than a third of the region's economy in 2018, up from 29 percent in 2017. The Southwest Autonomous Region’s GDP grew by 9.1 percent in 2018, and was among the nation's fastest.

In a bid to attract more tourists during the winter, the region has rolled out a spate of preferential policies including waiving admission charges for some scenic spots and discounted flight tickets during the winter season. 

The region received 2.46 million tourists from November 2018 to March this year, up 84.2% year on year, and the region's tourism industry brought in around US$410 million during the same period, a year-on-year growth of 41.1%, according to the country’s tourism department.

These new developments in trade and commerce will provide a tremendous boost to President Xi Jinping’s vision of a global highway linking China to the rest of the world. 

These new networks of routes will develop a sustainable path for the expansion of trade to newer markets, opening up bilateral commercial and financial relations.

Today, these new industrial Silk Roads will see merchants, travellers, trains and trucks move from China, through Iran, Azerbaijan, Athens, Venice and eventually dispose of their wares at the gates of Istanbul and beyond. 

The reverse exchange in trade augurs well for China’s growing demand for goods and services. 

* Dr Paruk was on a recent trip to China’s Southwest Tibet Autonomous Region

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.