China Tuesday began building a railway to the Lop Nur, a former lake area known as "the sea of death" in northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Construction the 360-kilometer railway from Hami Prefecture on the China-Mongolia border to the Lop Nur near China's largest desert, the Taklamakan, started Tuesday and would take about two years, said Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, Wednesday.
The two places are linked by a highway that opened in 2006.
The 3.28-billion yuan (470 million U.S. dollars) railway would provide easier access to, and speed up exploitation of, the region's potassium salt, one of China's rarest resources used in fertilizer production, he said. The area has an estimated 500 million tonnes of reserves, valued at more than 500 billion yuan.
Without adequate exploitation of the Lop Nur's potassium salt resources, China's total reserve is about 457 million tonnes, less than 3 percent of the world total. The country imports at least 4 million tonnes of potassium fertilizer every year.
"When the railway opens, it will be easier to transport Lop Nur's potassium salt," said Wang Huisheng, president of State Development and Investment Corp.
The state-owned investment holding giant launched a potassium fertilizer production base in the Lop Nur at the end of last year, which produces 1.2 million tonnes a year. "The second phase of the production base will be launched in 2014, with a designed annual output of 3 million tonnes, Wang said.
Along the Hami-Lop Nur railway is also a leading coal base, which has more than 23 billion tonnes of proven reserves. "The railway will provide strong logistic support to the building of a huge coal-fired power generation base in Hami," he said.
The railway is also a boon to adventurers and tourists, most ofwhom used to hitchhike to the Lop Nur unless they could drive all the way across the desert region themselves.
"I'm waiting to take my next expedition trip to the Lop Nur by train," said Wang Baowei, an amateur adventurer based in Urumqi.
At least 11 railways are under construction in Xinjiang. By 2020, the region's total rail mileage will top 10,000 kilometers compared with the present 3,000 kilometers.
The Lop Nur was the largest lake in northwestern China before it dried up in 1972 as a result of desertification and environmental degradation.
It once nurtured the civilization of Loulan (Kroraina). The ancient city was one of the pivotal stops along the famous Silk Road, but mysteriously disappeared around the third century AD.
Due to its typical geology, geography and historical values, the Lop Nur has attracted the attention of scientists from home and abroad since the mid 19th century.
In 1980, Peng Jiamu, a noted Chinese scientist, went missing on his fourth expedition to the Lop Nur and was never found.