In 2013, President Xi Jinping formulated China's vision of Eurasian connectivity: The Silk Road Economic Belt. The strategy envisages the construction of infrastructure networks that will enmesh the Eurasian continent and form an interconnected space of exchange. Since the plan was announced, the Economic Belt has attracted much academic and media attention in terms of the infrastructure being built and its future potentialities. At the same time, questions about the sustainability of this infrastructure in a dynamic Sino–Inner Asian borderland, with its highly fluid terrain and socio-political geography, have been virtually absent from the debate.
The inevitable decay, maintenance and social ambiguity surrounding transport infrastructure lack the appeal associated with new construction projects; yet, discussing them is crucial in the context of mega initiatives such as the Economic Belt. It is important to bring it back ‘down to the ground’ and into more mundane terms. By zooming in on a single desert road in northwest China that has been designated as a crucial conduit in the westward arc of the Economic Belt, this article draws attention to the social complexity and ecological vulnerability of transport infrastructure in the Sino–Inner Asian borderlands. At one scale, this infrastructure is part of China's vision of globalization; at another scale, however, it is firmly embedded in local contexts. By pushing the political, ecological and material complexity of road maintenance to the centre of our inquiry, the article offers a new perspective on the current construction boom and its sustainability.