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Transportation systems are poorly developed throughout most of Asia. No comprehensive continental land transportation system exists. Few railroads cross international boundaries, except for the route between China and Russia, and one connecting Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. The international road network is also poorly developed, and in Central and Southwest Asia routes are often closed due to local skirmishes. Navigable rivers provide limited international transport. The Amur River, which links Russia and China, is one exception. The Mekong River starts in southwest China and meanders through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before emptying into the South China Sea off Vietnam. Because of local political instability and problems with navigability, however, the river has not been used to its full capacity. Recent improved cooperation between nations along the Mekong and funding support from the Asian Development Bank have led to plans to remove obstacles to river transport.
Most of Asia’s international transportation is by sea or air. Both regularly scheduled and general-service ships connect all major Asian ports with each other. Port facilities are varied. Japan and China contain large ports. Shanghai is the largest Chinese port, but Qinhuangdao, Dalian, and Qingdao are also important. Singapore is the major port of Southeast Asia, well ahead of the ports for Bangkok, Jakarta (at Tanjung Priok), Kuala Lumpur (at Kelang), and Manila. Mumbai and Kolkata are important ports of the Indian subcontinent, and there are large oil exporting ports in the Persian Gulf, such as Iran’s Kharg Island. Singapore and Hong Kong are particularly important as entrepots, serving as major redistribution points. Air services link all major cities. A high-volume air corridor links Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore. These airports are in the most developed countries along the Pacific coast of Asia and therefore generate more demand for business and tourist travel than interior Asia. Singapore and Bangkok have large international air terminals and sophisticated facilities in an attempt to maximize their share of Asian air services.
Domestic transportation in most countries is limited. Rural settlements are poorly connected with one another or with larger towns. Highways are few and rural roads are often unpaved. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, and much of the Philippines are the exceptions. Malaysia has recently completed construction of a freeway that runs from the far north of the country to Johor Baharu, which is adjacent to Singapore. Highways in many other countries are directed toward the capital city’s greater metropolitan region and its connection to the airport. An example is Jakarta, where in-city tollways and overpasses ease congestion in the city and outlying freeways link Jakarta to the satellite towns of Bekasi, Tangerang, and Bogor.
Navigable rivers are often the main highways of commerce, but not all countries have them. In China, the Yangtze River has long been the major east-west transportation artery. It is connected to Beijing and the Huabei Pingyuan (North China Plain) by the Grand Canal, which intersects the Yangtze near Shanghai.
The continent’s chief transportation mode is the railroad. Japan has a dense railroad network, the centerpiece of which is the Shinkansen, a high-speed rail which connects Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Okayama, and Hiroshima. Traveling at speeds of up to 249 km/h (155 mph), the bullet train is one of the world’s fastest. China has the world’s sixth longest railroad system and by the mid-1970s had linked all of its major manufacturing centers and provincial capitals into one vast network. Despite its enormous size, the Chinese rail network is unable to meet demand for either freight or passenger traffic. Korea and Taiwan are well served by rail. The countries of Southeast Asia, except for Thailand and Malaysia, and those of Southwest Asia have railroad systems that are small and truncated. In South Asia an integrated railroad system, originally built by the British, was divided by the political separation of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The Trans-Caspian and Turk-Sib railroads are the most important rail lines in Central Asia. The Trans-Siberian Railroad and its branches, such as the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) line, form the main transportation system in Siberia.