Wu Xiaodong remembers the day he joined the railway. It was 1983. China had a mere 1% of world trade and, aged 17, his own ambitions went no further than a free uniform and a free train ride.
“Our trains were like tractors. We were running a steam railway.”
Now China is the world’s number one trading nation and he’s proud to be a foot soldier on new Silk Road.
He paces the Yiwu cargo yard in blue uniform and hard hat, barking orders at men with grappling hooks as they ease 40ft shipping containers on to freight carriages.
When Wu Xiaodong joined the railway, Yiwu was a shabby backwater. No-one dreamed of foreign trade back then, he says. Even sending freight across China took two months of planning. Now he’s in charge of sending trains off on a journey that crosses nine countries and more than 7,000 miles. But he's constantly being pushed to make further improvements.
“I’ve done almost every job on the railway - there’s not enough sleep in any of them. Security, logistics, co-ordination, repairs... We’re under a lot of pressure. We need the train to develop faster and better.”
Wu Xiaodong points out that rail takes only 18 days, compared to 35 by sea.
“The train can’t take the place of sea freight, but there’s lots of room for expansion, especially to landlocked countries.”
Beijing’s vision is about much, much more than a railway. It’s about roads, pipelines, ports, industrial zones and shipping routes.
But as it crosses two continents laden with Chinese goods, the freight train has become an important symbol of success.
With all 50 containers loaded, the cargo yard falls still, all now awaiting the engine that will pull this train west. The quiet brings a dragonfly to drink from a puddle. Wu Xiaodong lights a cigarette and glances out along the tracks.