Crossing The Caspian - Where Waters Lap Up Against Europe, Russia & Asia

Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

It remains unknown whether any Chinese official, upon hearing of the One Belt, One Road idea asked the Chinese President Xi Jinping what to call the Caspian Sea part. The Belt refers to the maritime section of the project, encompassing much of South-East Asia then eventually washing up at Piraeus Port in Athens,while the Road follows the overland route -the section the New Silk Road Project team are tackling. One almost wishes for a Pythonesque, Chinese civil servant to have piped up and said "Yes but what about the Caspian? It's not a Road and it's not part of the Belt. Shall we call it the Gusset?" Alas we will never know the answer. 

However, the Caspian is to some extent an anomaly, in that it is part of the "road" yet needs to be navigated by ship. Which is a bit of an issue when you are a Chinese freight train. Accordingly, just like the ancient Silk Road routes that had to tackle the Taklimakan Desert (the name means "Go in and you won't come out"in Uyghur) the Belt & Road also passes to the north of the Caspian by heading from China and up into Russia, then heading west using the trans-siberian rail route, or south by taking advantage either of rail links into south-east Asia (a route currently stymied by Malaysia, who do not want a high rail speed link with Singapore as it will compete with the lucrative Kuala Lumpur-Singapore flight schedule) or via ship from Hong Kong,  Shenzhen, or other southern Chinese routes.  Which would be fine, except that large parts of China's massive interior Provinces such as Sichuan, Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang would be cut off from direct connections heading west. Consequently, Kazakhstan became strategically very important - but at its Western end one has to cross the Caspian. With a train. 

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The Caspian Sea itself is a mighty body of water, and there are no passenger only cruise ships on these waters. It is the largest enclosed inland body of water on our planet by area, and borders Kazakhstan to the north-east, Russia to the north-west, Azerbaijan to the west, Iran to the south, and Turkmenistan to the south-east.

Geophysically, it also has interesting characteristics - the sea bed in the southern part reaches 1,023 meters (3,356 feet) below sea level, and is the second lowest depression on earth after Lake Baikal, also on the Belt & Road in Siberian Russia. The Caspian is therefore classified as either the world's largest lake - waters naturally flowing into it from its massive catchment area as no rivers feed the Caspian - or as a fully fledged sea, depending on whose definition one cares to use. It is technically known as an endorheic basin and is further distinguished by its waters - which have a salinity of about a third of most seawaters. The surface area is 371,000 km2 (143,200 sq miles) - a bit larger than Germany or Japan, and about 1.5 times the size of the UK. 

There are several routes across the Caspian, all operated by cargo ships,although these do take passengers. The main western port of exit is Baku, in Azerbaijan, from which our team are about to depart. From there they have a choice, either directly across to the main Port of Turkmenbashi, in Turkmenistan, or to head north-east to the Kazak Port of Aqtau. There is also a route from Olya in Russia also heading to Turkmenbashi. 

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The New Silk Road Project are heading for Aqtau, but first a few words about the Turkmenbashi Port. This opened for business just last month, at a cost of US$1.5 billion,.with Turkmenistan looking to the facility to improve the countries export prospects and establish it as a regional hub connecting Europe and Asia. Turkmenistan wants to diversify its economy, which largely depends on natural gas exports for revenues and is a main source of hard currency. That took a hit in 2016 when Russia, once its main customer, stopped all purchases following a pricing dispute. 

While the country is reluctant to open up its borders, it is hoped that Turkmenbashi Port will triple Turkmenistan’s cargo handling capacity to 25-26 million tonnes a year. At the Port's opening ceremony, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said the new port will be an important link in a modern maritime transport system giving users favorable conditions for access to the Black Sea area, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and that Ashgabat is ready to discuss use of the seaport with its landlocked neighbors - a reference to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan already has a railway link with China through neighboring Kazakhstan and the new port could help Ashgabat win some of the cargo flows moving between China, the Middle East, and Europe.  That rail link is also likely to be accompanied by a new Highway connecting Turkmenbashi via Garabogazthrough to Kazakhstan - a  242 km journey. At present the road looks like this: 

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It remains to be seen how much impact the new Port, Rail and Road links will have on Turkmenistan. These are huge steps for it to be taking after years of an isolationist policy. Chinese influence though appears to be persuading Ashgabat to open up and become more connected, while Ashgabat traders are already familiar with Western China, often visiting markets in Urumqi to bring back cheap products for resale.   

Our team though are heading through to Aqtau Port in Kazakhstan, Established in 1963, the Port has been significantly expanded and upgraded on numerous occasions, most recently in 2015. It has taken on a highly strategic import/export and transshipment role for Kazakhstan, recently acquiring new loading equipment to handle all types of general and bulk cargo, containers and rolling cargo, and now includes the ferry complex, where rolling cargo is processed along with rail cars. A large territory (more than 50,000 m2 of outdoor and a 6,000 m2 covered transit warehouse) and a container yard provide for secure storage of cargo including heavyweight loads. The port also deployed an internal Wi-Fi network to support the usage of radio terminals. 

Although Khorgos Port, poetically sited in the middle of pretty harsh Central Asian terrain has generated all the headlines -it is the largest inland Port in the world (our team are visiting it in about ten days) it is Aqtau that actually connects Kazakhstan with the West. 

And the trains to and from China? These are loaded onto the ferry as well. In fact, history was quietly made in August last year, when the first test container train, the “Nomad Express” arrived from Aqtau via ferry to Baku, the same Port as the lads are about to leave from heading in the opposite direction. The first Nomad Express train started from China’s Shikhezi in Xinjiang Province, and crossed the border into Kazakhstan. That train took five days to journey cover the 2,200 miles to Aqtau, where it was loaded onto the ferry for the final voyage to Baku. Although unlike our explorers, one imagines the train driver didn't have to queue for tickets. 

So there you have it. Chinese trains take the Caspian ferry, which when you think about it, is quite extraordinary. 

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Chris Devonshire-Ellis is an Advisor to the New Silk Road Project. He is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associateswww.dezshira.com  a professional services firm advising European countries in Asia, and the Publisher of Asia Briefingwww.asiabriefing.com which includes the Silk Road Briefing www.silkroadbriefing.com website. He can be contacted at silkroad@dezshira.com