Turkmenistan's southeastern desert, not far from the border with Afghanistan, is a forbidding place. Its bleak, dusty vistas are punctuated by the ruins of ancient caravansaries: once rest stops on the old Silk Road. But, the silence of that long lost East-West artery is now regularly broken by the rumble of Chinese truck convoys. These are not ordinary tractor-trailers, either: they move slowly carrying massive loads of natural gas extraction equipment, and according to Turkmen officials, the shepherds' bridges and village roads have had to be reinforced from the impact of their weight. The equipment is headed to one of the top five natural gas fields in the world; Formerly known as South Yolotan-Osman, in 2011 the field was renamed "Galkynysh" or "revival" in Turkmen. The name is apt because this gargantuan reserve of natural gas is the prize motivating CNPC, China's largest oil company, to revive the old Silk Road -- only this time by pipeline.
Silk Road scholars often point out that there was never one route from China to Europe through Central Asia. The old Silk Road was, instead, a network of interlinking corridors that formed a spider web of connections across Eurasia. CNPC 's energy strategy for Central Asia roughly traces this route. It is anchored by a main artery -- the Central Asia-China gas pipeline -- that runs all the way from China's east coast cities to Galkynysh: a distance of more than 6,000 miles. But before that was even finished, CNPC began building spurs from that main line not only to the major energy producers of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but also to energy-poor Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. CNPC plans not just to source gas from Turkmenistan to China, but also to distribute Turkmen gas to other countries in the region. By Chinese standards the volumes are small, but they provide important geopolitical leverage for CNPC and the Chinese government.