A freight train leaves Yiwu in Zhejiang province bound for Madrid on April 15. Chen Jian / For China Daily
In ancient times, Chinese merchants headed west to transport tea to Europe. Today, Italian trader Nicola Sangiovanni is helping European wines travel east to China.
Two years ago, he was inspired to start a business selling imported food and drink in Chongqing, a bustling metropolis in the southwest, after hearing about the Belt and Road Initiative.
"I think China is very open, and this kind of opening up (the initiative) is a good opportunity for cooperation," he said, standing in the Italian Pavilion at the Chongqing International Exhibition and Trading Center, where his business is based.
"Moreover," he added, "the Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe freight trains provide fast, low-cost and convenient transportation, which makes importing and exporting easier."
The service, now part of the rebranded China Railway Express network, departs from Chongqing and travels more than 11,000 kilometers across Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland before arriving in Duisburg, Germany. The service has been credited with greatly boosting trade and investment between China and countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
Chongqing, which the Yangtze River runs through, has more than 1,000 piers and is an important connection point between shipping and the railways. Goods from neighboring provinces and Southeast Asia all pass through here, with the freight trains able to deliver cargo to 36 cities in 12 European nations.
Since 2011, more than 1,000 trains have ridden on the Chongqing-Europe rail link, according to Yang Liqiong, deputy director of the local economy and information technology commission. She said the number this year is forecast to hit a record 500, up from 432 last year.
"The rail service is much faster than shipping and much cheaper than on an airplane," Yang said, adding that the train takes only 12 or 13 days to arrive in Duisburg - 30 days quicker than a ship - and is one-fifth the cost of airfreight.
Gu Yonghong, general manager of Chongqing Logistics City, where the rail services depart and arrive, said laptops and other electronic devices make up the majority of outbound cargo. The city manufactures about one-fourth of the world's laptops.
Last year alone, 3,200 containers carrying laptops were sent to Europe, he said, along with mechanical goods, petroleum exploration equipment, clothes, and agricultural products, including lemons.
"The goods arriving from Europe are mainly auto parts, food, milk, wine, luxury products, and raw materials like feed grain and nonferrous metals," Gu said, adding that the Belt and Road Initiative "will greatly strengthen Chongqing's image overseas and bring great benefits to Chinese manufacturing and trade".
Yang said the city has worked to improve its freight train services in recent years, such as by fitting containers with digital locks that have GPS and an alarm function to boost security, as well as doing research on containers that can store products in extremely cold temperatures for weeks at a time.
She said the local authorities also plan to connect the railway with air transport services, which would allow trading companies to send their goods to Chongqing by air and then onto Europe by rail.