A 1.3km unconstructed stretch of highway - slightly longer than the Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia - in western Xinjiang's Horgas city stands in the way of President Xi Jinping's ambitions to link China with Europe through the Central Asian states.
Construction is targeted to be completed by this year's end on the final stretch of a 4,500km highway that will connect Lianyungang port in China's east to the country's western border with Kazakhstan.
Goods from Lianyungang in Jiangsu province could be transported along this transcontinental highway to Rotterdam in the Netherlands 10,800km away in 11 days, compared to a 66-day sea route.
"This effectively connects the entire China to the West, and it serves a wide audience, not just cargo," Mr Haliale Kesaijiang, a Horgas city official, told reporters on a recent visit organised by the Chinese foreign ministry. "This will also be a draw for Chinese tourists, given the boom in self-drive tours."
Drawing Chinese tourists will fall in with Beijing's plans to develop the Xinjiang autonomous region, one of its poorest areas, in the hope that this will stabilise a region plagued by violent unrest in recent years.
The region's largest ethnic group, the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who are mostly Muslims, have felt marginalised as economic development under communist rule has been accompanied by the influx of large numbers of Han Chinese.
Ethnic clashes, sometimes violent, have broken out, particularly since the 1990s.
But the broader vision that President Xi has for the Silk Road Economic Belt, as the overland route is called, is to link China economically and strategically with the rest of Asia, the Middle East and Europe, together with a sea route that connects China to the West through South-east Asia.
The two routes are known as the "One Belt, One Road" initiative. The highway that runs through Horgas, which is on the Kazakhstan border, is expected to be a key overland transport route of the Silk Road initiative.
Our roads, railway and aviation links are ready. Next, we will need companies with competitive advantage to make use of the One Belt, One Road to go out, especially when our local manufacturing is facing constraints.
MR HOU GAOZHI, an Ili official.
Horgas, part of a network of hubs in Xinjiang under the initiative, will be the transport, energy and logistics hub. History played a part in the choice: It was a major transit point for traders travelling from the West to China via the northern route of the ancient Silk Road from as early as 2,000 years ago.
Horgas now also boasts a new railway - China's second international rail link in its west after Alashankou - that connects it to Rotterdam, and a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to the city has been in operation since 2010.
The city also has a free trade zone and an economic zone with four industrial parks. The other hubs in the region include Alashankou city in the north and Kashgar city in the south. Both are border gateways complete with rail and road links, as well as economic zones.
The core development area under the Silk Road project, however, is Urumqi, the region's capital some 670km from Horgas.
Key components of the Urumqi core area include a free trade zone and a 37 sq km commercial and residential development.
A high-speed rail now links Urumqi to neighbouring Gansu province's capital Lanzhou, some 1,776km away to the east.
By the end of next year, however, when the building of the high-speed rail link between Lanzhou and Shaanxi province's Xi'an city is completed, it will be possible to traverse the 3,166km to Beijing from Urumqi by high-speed trains. Travel time will be cut from 34 hours now by normal train to between 16 and 19 hours.
"This will be a real game-changer," said Mr Zhang Weimin, chairman of Urumqi High-Speed Railway Hub Development and Construction Investment company.
"Urumqi is right smack in the middle, serving 1.3 billion people to the east - on the (Chinese) mainland - and 1.3 billion people to the west, (from) Central Asia to Europe."
IMPACT While there has been a lot of buzz on the Silk Road initiative, it is hard to ascertain its impact on Xinjiang three years on.
As with many projects under the umbrella of One Belt, One Road, most of the transport and infrastructure developments in Xinjiang predate 2013, when the idea was first mooted by Mr Xi.
But Xinjiang officials said work on the various projects has picked up speed since a comprehensive road map under the initiative was drawn up in 2014.
"We last counted a list of 320 infrastructural projects in railway, highway and civil aviation construction, with an investment value of nearly 2 trillion yuan under this initiative," said Mr Cheng Jianjun, vice-director of the development and reform commission in Xinjiang's regional government.
Nonetheless, it is unclear how the improved connectivity will boost trade between Xinjiang and its Central Asian and Russian trading partners. Its external trade last year was US$19.6 billion (S$26.4 billion), down 28.9 per cent from US$27.6 billion in 2014.
"The devaluation of our trading partners' currencies has a direct impact on our trade numbers," said Mr Yang Kaixin, head of the commerce department of Xinjiang's regional government.
He was quick to point out that this was "only a temporary problem". "With our One Belt, One Road initiative, I believe our trade and investments will resume to its previous levels and grow from there," he said.
Local officials in Horgas share his optimism. Mr Kesaijiang noted that its joint free trade zone with Kazakhstan has attracted more than 6 billion yuan worth of commercial investments, and more than one million people visited the zone last year, up 72 per cent from 2014.
According to statistics given by officials from Ili prefecture, which includes Horgas, tourism is booming here. Nearly nine million tourists visited Ili in the first half of this year, bringing in 6.8 billion yuan of revenue, up more than 130 per cent from the same period last year.
Home-grown companies like fruit and vegetables wholesaler Jinyi Group have benefited from the buzz as well. It saw its revenue increase by 30 per cent to top US$100 million last year. "We transport our fruits and vegetables by trucks which take 24 hours to reach Almaty, a major city in Kazakhstan some 380km away from Horgas," said Ms Wu Chunzhi, deputy general manager of the company.
She is hopeful the new highway will help cut transport time and help the company expand to other markets further along the Silk Road, such as Iran and Russia.
But the broader goal is not just the export of goods, but also for companies to expand overseas too.
Said Mr Hou Gaozhi, an Ili official: "Our roads, railway and aviation links are ready. Next, we will need companies with competitive advantage to make use of the One Belt, One Road to go out, especially when our local manufacturing is facing constraints."
Improved livelihoods a stabilising factor
At the height of violence in China's western Xinjiang region as recently as 2014, Mr Alamjan, an ethnic Uighur working as a hotel chef in Ining city, felt his colleagues from other ethnic groups were wary of him.
But as unrest subsided over the past two years, the 41-year-old, who would give only his first name, told The Sunday Times that working relations have improved. His own level of happiness has also risen as his salary doubled from 2,400 yuan (S$485) to 4,700 yuan in the past five years.
"The government has pumped in lots of money to help develop Xinjiang - building flats, and helping the poor," he said. He noted that the city in northern Xinjiang has become more prosperous and vibrant - there are a lot more shops and malls, and people have better jobs.
The Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang has been plagued by terror attacks in recent years. In 2014, more than 100 people lost their lives in multiple deadly attacks carried out by separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang's capital city of Urumqi and other counties.
Mr Alamjan's sentiments are echoed by several Xinjiang residents, who said improved livelihoods could have helped lower social discontentment among the Uighurs and thus the frequency of violence.
"Xinjiang is very safe. Don't keep thinking that this is a bad place," said Ms Li Hua, 40, an ethnic Hui herdswoman who lives near the Sayram lake in Bole city, in northern Xinjiang.
She noted that with increased stability, there have been more tourists and investment flowing into the region. "The shop that I operate in the hot spring area has seen businesses pick up in the past two years," said Ms Li, who also runs a sundry shop that sells food and snacks to augment her income from selling lambs.
But fears remain among some in the south, such as in Hotan city, where most violent incidents such as attacks on policemen and police stations took place. The southern areas are less developed and poorer, and are also dominated more by Uighurs than Han Chinese.
According to the 2000 population census, 80 per cent of the Uighurs in Xinjiang live in the south, while the same proportion of Han Chinese congregate in the north.
A Uighur mother of two toddlers from Ining city, who did not want to be named, said she would not dare to travel to the south as "it's not safe".
Professor Yang Shu, a terrorism expert at Lanzhou University, said the stability in recent years could be partially attributed to improved livelihoods. He also believes that the tough measures taken by the authorities to clamp down on terrorism have produced results.
"Now, whenever there's an incident, the police are required to arrive at the scene within two minutes. This goes to show how much resources have been pumped in to ensure the society remains stable," he said.
Chong Koh Ping