© 2021, Science Press Springer-Verlag.This article contributes to a small but growing body of multi-sited and multi-scalar research on the Belt and Road Initiative. We focus on relations at the national, regional and international scales, and present original research from China and Turkey, to show how the Istanbul-Ankara high-speed railway has served as a testing ground for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Its construction was initially funded by the European Investment Bank, but it is now part of the backbone of the Turkish Government’s Middle Corridor plan which enhances west-east connectivity and integration with the Caucasus and Central Asia. We show that in contrast to multinational corporations from the OECD that seek to remain footloose, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) seek to adapt to, apprehend and ultimately shape local institutions. In the case of Turkey this proved difficult given its institutional alignment with the European Union. Thus, while the railway project was completed successfully by a consortium led by a Chinese SOE, Turkey’s dynamic and complex regulatory environment discourages Chinese SOEs in the infrastructure sector. We conclude that the Turkish and Chinese governments are currently pursuing complementary territorial visions yet their cooperation is project-based and pragmatic.