The city is host to the world’s largest inland port, with 80% of trains from China now making it their first European stop

For much of the 20th century, the city of Duisburg in Germany’s industrial west was a steel-and-coal town whose chimneys cloaked the skies in smoke. And yet there is something about this soot-stained spot in the Ruhr valley that seems to encourage a particularly clear-sighted view of the rest of the world.

A freight train leaves for Duisburg from Weihai port in Rongcheng, China.
A freight train leaves for Duisburg from Weihai port in Rongcheng, China. © VCG/Getty Images

In 1585, it was in Duisburg that Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator published a book of maps of European countries – the first ever “atlas” to carry that name. And it was here that Mercator first presented his new world map, the “Mercator projection”, that was so revolutionary for maritime navigators keen to steer merchant vessels across the high seas in the straightest possible line.

If in 2018 Duisburg is slowly rediscovering its cosmopolitan past, it is not just because four centuries after Mercator, traders are still trying to find the most direct route from A to B. As the threat of Donald Trump’s tariffs and Brexit-related trade barriers is driving wedges between the EU and the Anglosphere, this former rust-belt town town allows one to see in real time how Germany and China are intensifying their economic ties.

Every week, around 30 Chinese trains arrive at a vast terminal in Duisburg’s inland port, their containers either stuffed with clothes, toys and hi-tech electronics from Chongqing, Wuhan or Yiwu, or carrying German cars, Scottish whisky, French wine and textiles from Milan heading the other way.

In Duisburg’s port, where train tracks run straight to the edge of the Rhine River, goods are loaded straight on to ships, stored for further dispatch in one of several football pitch-sized storage units, or sent on by train or truck to Greece, Spain or Britain.