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Westward Ho: How a new Chinese cargo carrier can revive an ancient Silk Road outpost

For centuries, the fabled Silk Road that wended its way between China and Europe brought together fragmented caravans of traveling merchants, facilitating the exchange of goods from geographically disparate regions of the world – much like a modern express carrier does today. Brilliantly colored Parthian tapestries and other luxury goods were transported across the relentless Gobi Desert by traders on camelback, where they eventually made their way to the eastern-most terminus of Chang’an, the ancient Chinese capital – now the modern-day city of Xi’an.

When a sea route between Asia and Europe was discovered in the 15th century, however, merchants turned to the more easily navigated ocean for safer passage. Gradually, cities along the overland Silk Road fell out of favor and sank back into the desert. Xi’an, too, saw its prominence rapidly decline as a prosperous commercial hub.

Even today, with the reignition of economic activity in modern China, most cities in Western China, like Xi’an, have been largely left out of the boom times of the last two decades. Freighter flights, sparked by the growth of e-commerce, quickly connected many of the prominent cities along the ancient Silk Road route to destinations in Eastern China, but have mostly ignored the western desert cities.

But these nearly forgotten outposts may soon be given new life. As history shows, supply chains are fluid and open to revision. Over the next few years, exotic Persian tapestries and other commodities may soon find their way to Western China’s rising air cargo gateways. As capacity continues to dwindle at the crowded air hubs of Eastern China, some western cities are poised to handle the overflow of air cargo. Also, the Chinese Government’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to reconstruct a modern, multi-modal Silk Road, is moving forward and may be the catalyst for a Western China revival. With multiple start-up cargo airlines, and an ambitious air cargo development plan, Xi’an may once again find itself back in favor with the descendants of those Silk Road merchants from centuries ago – only this time, the goods will likely come in 757s rather than on camels.

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