Beijing (AFP) - China tied the restive far-western region of Xinjiang closer to the rest of the country Friday, opening a high-speed rail line between its capital Urumqi and Lanzhou, in neighbouring Gansu, nearly 1,800 kilometres away.
A slick bullet train took off from Lanzhou West Railway Station at 10:49 am (0249 GMT), with female attendants in Uighur and other ethnic costumes serving 622 passengers, live footage on state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) showed.
The line, the first high-speed railway in China's remote and poor northwest, stretches through the high-altitude Qilian mountain range, an ancient section of the Great Wall and five strong wind zones, slashing travel time between the two cities by half to less than 12 hours, CCTV said.
Another train left Urumqi for Lanzhou two minutes later, according to the report.
Xinjiang, a vast area bordering Central Asia, is home to Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups. It has long had a population of Han, China's dominant nationality, whose numbers have increased strongly over the past half century through immigration.
Though rich in natural resources such as oil and gas, the region has been the scene of ethnic and religious unrest characterised by clashes between local groups and authorities as well as violence both inside and outside the region that Chinese authorities have classified as religious-inspired terrorism.
China is engaged in a crackdown on militancy in the region and earlier this month a court condemned eight people to death for two deadly attacks in Urumqi, state media said, bringing the number of death penalties or executions announced for Xinjiang-related violence to around 50 since June.
According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, the line linking Gansu's capital of Lanzhou to Urumqi is 1,776 kilometres (1,100 miles) long and its trains are designed to travel at a maximum speed of 250 kilometres an hour.
- Plagued by scandal -
The line was one of several being opened this month, including one that cut train travel times between the commercial hubs of Shanghai and Guangzhou from 16 hours to seven.
Completion of another high-speed line linking Beijing and Lanzhou in 2017 will cut train travel times between the Chinese capital and Urumqi from 41 hours previously to just 16, Xinhua said in a report last month.
Other new lines opening Friday include destinations in some of China's more remote and poorer provinces and regions, among them Guiyang in the southwest province of Guizhou and Nanning in Guangxi in the south.
China has long had an extensive rail network but in recent years has emphasised the development of super fast trains that have slashed travel times between major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and made rail travel competitive with flying.
Only begun in 1999, China's high-speed rail network has quickly become the largest in the world, with more than 11,000 kilometres of track in service during 2013, with the total expected to reach 16,000 kilometres by 2020, according to official media.
In late 2012, China opened what it hailed as the world's longest high-speed train line linking Beijing with Guangzhou, near Hong Kong.
The high-speed network, however, has been plagued by graft and safety scandals following its rapid expansion, with a deadly collision in July 2011 killing more than three dozen people. The accident triggered a flood of criticism of the government and accusations that the authorities had compromised safety in its rush to expand.
The Lanxin high-speed railway linking Lanzhou and Urumqi comes as China is pushing a Silk Road Economic Belt to boost commercial ties with countries in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, and beyond.
Xinhua last month quoted He Weigang, vice principal of the Communist Party school of Urumqi, as saying that convenient and efficient transportation was needed for Xinjiang as a bridgehead for the plan.
"The high-speed rail, by connecting Xinjiang with the rest of China and Eurasian countries, will play an important role in regional development and economic integration in the larger picture," he said.