The Chinese train to a spaceport in the Gobi desert

A railway route to space

A vast desert stretches out before you. Only a handful of tufts of grass and far-away rock formations break the monotony of the landscape.  Suddenly, you make out some railway tracks, even though they weren’t marked on your map. They’re clearly old, but don’t seem to have been forgotten by those who built them. In fact, they seem to have been very well maintained, as if part of some incredibly important mission. We’re in the middle of the Gobi desert in the autonomous Chinese region of inner Mongolia, and this railway leads to one of China’s most important spaceports.

Built in the 1950s by Chinese workers, these rail lines stretch out over 278 kilometres, passing through this desert with very particular meteorological conditions. Every day, they must withstand the hostile climate of the Gobi. A team of specialists are spread out over 36 maintenance stations along the route. Soldiers dressed in blue uniforms walk up and down the route, with their equipment balanced on a small carriage. Their job is to check that the lines aren’t covered in sand or anything else. If it is, then they must remove it all with the shovels they’ve brought along. With their tools, they ensure that nothing blocks the railway. And if a section of it collapses during a storm, they must alert the authorities.

They’re so concerned with the security of this line because it leads to the spaceport named Jiuquan, or Base 20. Founded in 1958, it was first used to test medium and long-range missiles, before being chosen as a launch site for space missions. According to official communication relayed by the Chinese government to various media, today it holds three different space centre: Taiyuan (opened in 1968), Xichang (1994) and Wenchang (2016). One is used to launch manned missions, the sort allowing Taikonauts  – China’s famous astronauts – to travel into space on board Shenzhou spacecraft. It was the launch site for the Shenzhou 15 mission that was the first to visit the Chinese space station of Tiangong . Others are used to send reconnaissance satellites and small launchers into space.

Even more surprisingly, this part of China is also home to the educational spaceport Mars Base 1, around 20 kilometres from the urban zone of Jinchang. Opened on April 17 2019, this palace stretches out over 67 kilometres and apparently cost the Chinese government 2.5 billion yuan, or 343 million euros. Its main purpose is to inform visitors about the difficulties of life on Mars. That’s why college students were invited there when it opened, well before tourists could have access to it. In the relatively near future, it will become an actual training centre for Taikonauts.

The bizarre concentration of space-related activities in Inner Mongolia shows the outsize importance of this small railway in the middle of the desert. Because while it’s obviously impossible to know exactly what the trains that run along it have inside, you can certainly imagine that the carriages are filled in components of satellites or rockets. Others might hold food rations to be consumed in space, astronaut outfits or indeed the equipment necessary for scientific experiments that are carried out in space. Entire rockets might even be carried on these railways, pulled by passenger carriages filled with Taikonauts.

It’s no secret that the Chinese government has been ploughing colossal sums into the development of its space programme. As part of its broader campaign to reassert its power on the global stage, it is now playing catch-up with rivals like the USA in the space race. To the point that, perhaps surprisingly, the most important railway in the country is neither the high-speed train to Lhasa, nor any of those that link up the big Chinese metropolises. In fact, it’s a small line that’s been purposefully left off official records.

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