The first freight train of China Railway Express to depart from Weihai port to Duisburg, Germany is pictured in Weihai, East China's Shandong Province on September 15, 2017. (Photo: IC)
Truck driver Lusso waits patiently at the Duisburg Intermodal Terminal (DIT) for a freight train from China. He is one of the several hundreds of truck drivers waiting at the largest of the nine terminals of the Port of Duisburg in western Germany to ship a China Railway Express-branded container.
The 50-year-old Macedonian, who gave his name only as Lusso, said the freight train running between China and Duisburg has been a great help to his business.
Business in Duisburg, the world's largest inland port, began to pick up after the rail freight services were launched in 2011, and remarkably boosted by the China-proposed Belt and Road (B&R) initiative from 2013.
Linking China and Europe, the China Railway Express (CRE) plays a vital role in reviving and extending the ancient trade route, the Silk Road.
A road for ordinary people
Lusso has transported an increasing number of containers from China to cities across Europe in recent years.
"I've no idea about what things are inside those containers, what I know is that I get delivery contracts," Lusso said. He has also encouraged his son to earn a living as a truck driver.
In the past, silk or porcelain products were usually found inside the containers, but not any longer. Made-in-China laptops, mobile phones and clothes are now the most popular CRE shipments, while fine European wines and BMW vehicle parts are among the typical goods that travel back to China.
Nowadays, about 25 freight trains travel every week between Chinese cities and Duisburg, namely 15 China-bound trains and 10 Europe-bound ones, accounting for nearly one-third of the freight volume of DIT, which has had to hire more drivers and workers to handle truck containers, as well as to build more warehouses.
Johannes Pflug, Duisburg's city official in charge of Chinese affairs, said the rail transport business has created over 6,000 jobs.
CRE freight trains, a key project under the B&R initiative, leave from Alashankou in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and then cross Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland before reaching Germany after about two weeks.
The trains have also linked many other European cities including Hamburg, Madrid and Warsaw to Chinese cities like Southwest China's Chongqing, Yiwu in East China's Zhejiang Province, and Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province.
In Poland's railway hub of Lodz, Hatrans Logistics is among the many local businesses benefiting from the new trade route. In 2016, the company became the first Polish enterprise to invest in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province. With the support of the CRE freight services, the enterprise has opened a mall in Chengdu to sell Polish products.
Hatrans has also set up a platform for cooperation between enterprises of the two countries. It now sells over 300 kinds of Polish products across China, while bringing Chinese clothes, cosmetics and electronics to Poland and other European markets.
A road for connectivity
The B&R initiative, also known as the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, was proposed by China in 2013 in a bid to seek common prosperity. Enhanced connectivity is both its approach and benefit.
Similarly to the ancient Silk Road, Europe is one of its key terminals. In addition to the CRE, China is working on other transport infrastructures there.
In Croatia, a Chinese enterprise is building the Peljesac Bridge, a historic infrastructure project, by connecting the port city of Dubrovnik with the rest of the country.
In Serbia, the E-763 highway is expected to be completed at the end of this year, while in Greece, Chinese company COSCO in 2016 began operating the Port of Piraeus, the southern gateway to Europe.
The Athens-based Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research estimates that the deal will create 25,000 jobs by 2052.
Investments have been flowing into Europe thanks to the new Silk Road as well.
In Serbia, the over 100-year-old Smederevo steel plant was saved from bankruptcy in 2016 when China's largest steelmaker HBIS Group purchased it.
Renamed Hesteel Serbia, the plant now employs over 5,000 workers, bringing local unemployment rates down to 6 percent from 18 percent.
"Our jobs are guaranteed now, the feeling is totally different," said 34-year-old electrician Aleksandar Pavkovic. He can now join his children for a seaside holiday with no fear of losing his job, and his father is a veteran in the plant working as a senior workshop quality inspector.
Since its rail connection to Chengdu, Lodz has seen more investors, warehouses, small and medium-sized enterprises, trade deals as well as higher employment, said Monika Karolczak, deputy director of the Polish city's trade and international cooperation office.
A road for shared views
The B&R initiative is becoming a household name for many Europeans.
"From the very beginning, we considered B&R as an initiative for promoting peace," Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said earlier this month. He also believes that B&R projects have helped boost Serbia's economy and improved Serbian people's living standards.
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said in April that the Chinese-contracted Peljesac Bridge project is of long-term strategic importance, and its bidding was in accordance with Croatia's public procurement procedures and EU standards.
Meanwhile, Slovakia is looking forward to taking part in the B&R initiative.
"I am convinced that the B&R initiative is the future of Europe as a whole. Slovakia is at the intersection, so it means that for the Slovak economy in the next 25 years, this project can provide a relatively trouble-free existence," said Dana Meager, state secretary of the Slovak Finance Ministry and government proxy for the B&R initiative.
"The B&R initiative is a key opportunity for Europe to achieve development," said Jochen Scholz, a political analyst who is writing a book titled The New Silk Road: The Key to a Prosperous European Future.
Scholz's book was inspired by Michael Schaefer, German Ambassador to China from 2008 to 2013 and now chairman of the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt.
Schaefer wrote in the Berlin Policy Journal in January 2016 that the new Silk Road may well represent a sincere attempt by China to start a new kind of diplomacy based on inclusiveness, equal opportunity and respect for the diversity of cultures and political systems.
The EU should take China's offer seriously - and act soon, he suggested.