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Follow the New Silk Road

In the first part of a week-long series revealing the effects of China's Belt and Road Initiative on cities around the world, Jon Watts journeys from the steppes of Central Asia to the Black Sea and into Europe, as Beijing's grand plan radically remakes the lives of people in its path

  

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The Journey

The Silk Road setting feels timeless: an expanse of desert scrub below the Tianshan Mountains, where weather-beaten farmers herd flocks of sheep much as their ancestors might have done in Marco Polo’s day.

Rising up surreally in their midst, however, are the new landmarks of a modern development: the gleaming yellow gantries of the world’s biggest dry port and the shopping mall towers of a duty-free zone the size of a city.

Welcome to Khorgos, China’s new land gateway to the mineral-rich resources of Central Asia and the consumer-rich markets of Europe. Further from the sea than almost anywhere on Earth, it is both the middle of nowhere and the centre of Beijing’s plans for a new world order.

China is opening new commercial routes across Eurasia. The construction of a new network of Silk Roads – as well as railways, pipelines, ports and ferry routes – is part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

It is a vague concept, but there has been concrete progress. Next month Xi is due to open a China-to-Europe highway, which stretches 8,445 kilometres (5,247 miles) from the Yellow Sea to the Baltic. Last year, a new section of railway came into operation between Khorgos and Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Almost every week there is a new opening, unveiling or funding announcement.

Nurkent, Kazakhstan

Set to become one of the biggest Kazakh cities

Future Khorgos

Plans include a circus, racetrack and water park

Khorgos, Kazakh side

Construction here more modest than on the Chinese side

Nurkent, Kazakhstan

Set to become one of the biggest Kazakh cities

Future Khorgos

Plans include a circus, racetrack and water park

Khorgos, Kazakh side

Construction here more modest than on the Chinese side

Nurkent, Kazakhstan

Set to become one of the biggest Kazakh cities

Future Khorgos

Plans include a circus, racetrack and water park

Khorgos, Kazakh side

Construction here more modest than on the Chinese side

For those who fear China’s rise, the Belt and Road is terrifying. They worry Beijing will use trade routes to increase its influence and export an authoritarian brand of politics. Some have warned of an “infrastructure power grab” and a new Great Game, referring to the 19th century scheming as Britain and Russia vied for control of commerce between Europe and Asia.

Others see Belt and Road as a boon that will redraw the world’s trade routes and turn peripheral countries and cities into hubs. Ancient routes are being rejuvenated, new ones opened, and cities are being built from scratch.

The Guardian visited three cities on the central corridor of the new Silk Road – Khorgos, Aktau and Anaklia – to find out how China’s grand plan is reshaping this often overlooked part of the world.

Khorgos

“There’s China and there’s Kazakhstan,” says young trader Nurzaman Nurkadilov as he looks down at the border fence from the roof of his 20-storey hotel in the Khorgos special economic zone. “And there are shops, shops, shops. Nothing more. Nothing less. This will be the world’s biggest duty free.”

He points out the dozen or so mega-malls – each the size of an airport terminal – that have risen from the desert in the past few years; then the cluster of cranes building ever bigger emporiums: one topped with a yellow dome, another jagging up several dozen storeys in a Dragon’s Teeth design.

“In a couple of months, my uncle is going to build a Happy Land theme park over there,” he says, gesturing towards the Kazakh side, where there are far fewer cranes, more empty plots and lower buildings.

The disparity between the two sides of the city is unsurprising given Khorgos itself is a manifestation of political will and old school centralised planning. Although both countries are invested in the project, the one calling the shots is China (population 1.4 billion, GDP $11.2tn) rather than Kazakhstan (population 18 million, GDP $133bn). That imbalance is a source of concern but also a force many hope to tilt in their favour.

Rauan Akkeshin, chief of staff of Khorgos International Centre of Boundary Cooperation, predicts a million people will move to the city on the Chinese side. He wants to lure tourists and businesspeople across the border into Kazakhstan with entertainment and conference facilities.

He shows off tiny white plastic models of the planned circus, race track, water park, hotels and a conference centre where Chinese executives will be able to meet foreign partners without needing a passport.

Despite doubts about the pace of progress and rumours of corruption that resulted in the fall of his predecessor, he says investors have committed money and the goal is to finish everything by 2022. “This place is already the centre of the Silk Road. At first the visitors were only Kazakhs. Now they come from all over Central Asia. In future, we hope they come from Europe.”

Tourists clearly enjoy posing for selfies on the border line, where a single step over the red-blue division on the road can take them across two time zones. But very few areas are bustling and some, such as the Yiwu mall on the far extreme of the neutral zone, are eerily empty.

Driving tourism?

Chinese tourists take selfies on the Kazakh side

Tension and discrimination

Security restrictions in a Chinese mall

“Eerily empty”

Yiwu mall in the neutral zone

Bordering on deserted

Few areas are bustling

Driving tourism?

Chinese tourists take selfies on the Kazakh side

Tension and discrimination

Security restrictions in a Chinese mall

“Eerily empty”

Yiwu mall in the neutral zone

Bordering on deserted

Few areas are bustling

Driving tourism?

Chinese tourists take selfies on the Kazakh side

Tension and discrimination

Security restrictions in a Chinese mall

“Eerily empty”

Yiwu mall in the neutral zone

Bordering on deserted

Few areas are bustling

Chinese tourist Lanzhen Tang is unimpressed. “I like it but it’s a bit small. There aren’t many people,” she says before posing for photographs beside a stretch limousine.

Traders say visitor numbers collapsed a couple of months ago after the Chinese tightened import controls and restricted the movement of people between the two sides. This was ostensibly done to crack down on corruption, but ethnic discrimination and political tension may be a bigger factor.

On the walls of every shopping mall on the Chinese side are posters forbidding entry to any man with a long beard or any woman with a hijab. Visitors must pass through a metal detector and have their bag checked by security guards. On the streets outside, there are CCTV cameras and the police presence is striking. This is due to tensions in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Several cities there have witnessed ethnic riots, terrorist attacks and fierce repression by state security forces, who have blocked all public displays of Islamic faith.

This threatens to undermine Khorgos. Most traders are Muslim and unhappy at restrictions on their co-religionists. As businessmen, they are also troubled by the frequent regulatory changes.

It is clear China is calling the shots, but its heavy-handedness has not halted corruption. Businessmen in the neutral zone say they can bribe customs officials to ensure their goods get through, that illegal casinos and brothels operate inside the shells of half-completed buildings, and that there have been secret bare-knuckle boxing tournaments, where spectators could gamble on two teams formed of 10 Chinese and 10 Kazakh fighters.

But Khorgos is more than a bizarre bazaar. The entire region around it is being transformed. Construction will soon begin on an airport. Work is already under way on an industrial centre, which will offer a rent holiday and zero taxation until 2035. Eventually the region’s planners hope to attract IT and robotics companies. By 2025, they aim to create 25,000 jobs.

Zhasulan Khamzin cheerfully admits he had never heard of Khorgos before moving here five years ago to manage the world’s biggest dry port and the installation of three 41-tonne gantries to move containers across flatbed trains on the different gauge tracks on the two sides of the border. “We are developing an area where there was nothing before,” he says. “We are pioneers.”

The first train passed through in July 2015. A year later, the facility handled 45,000 containers. This year, it is set to exceed 150,000. Meanwhile, a new dormitory town – Nurkent – has been built from scratch and is home to 4,000 families. Khamzin predicts this too will become a city.

“Nurkent is still just a baby, but it will grow. This will be one of the biggest cities in Kazakhstan. By 2035, we expect 100,000 people will live here,” he says.

The climate is not exactly welcoming. In winter, residents put up with thick snow and temperatures as low as -36C (-32F). In summer, they bake in 40C (104F) heat. But relatively high salaries, no tax and free accommodation are bringing people in.

“I didn’t want to come but I had no choice, because my previous company went out of business,” says crane operator Osipova Galina, as she sits down after a 12-hour shift. “My first impression wasn’t good. Just very ugly shopping malls surrounded by a barbed wire fence.”

But she has warmed to this place on the corridor into central Asia. “The people here are very committed. They are invested in this,” she says.

The people of Khorgos

Zhanyge Asanuly

 

“During Soviet times, there was nothing here. Visitors weren’t allowed, only the military and locals. Now more and more people are coming.”

Berik Akhmetov

 

“We have built a city from scratch. By 2025, we estimate that we can create 25,000 jobs.”

Osipova Galina

 

“My first impression wasn’t good. Just very ugly shopping malls surrounded by a barbed wire fence. But the people here are very committed. The prospects are good.”

Ainura Beisenbayeva and son Alan

“I never imagined I would raise a child in the desert, but I believe in the future of this place. I want to stay and see it develop.”

Kambar Satybaldiyev

 

“In the first year, I was moving 30 cranes a day. Now it is over 100. There’s a lot of work and I’m proud to be here.”

Roman Akeshin

 

“This place is already the centre of the Silk Road. At first the visitors were only Kazakhs. Now they come from all over Central Asia.”

Aktau

As the sleeper train clunks slowly out of Khorgos, passengers watch the evening sun dip below the dunes. Almost all are small-scale traders and shoppers, making the journey from the megamalls on the border to their home towns.

The train trundles overnight to Almaty, once the capital of Kazakhstan. From here, people and goods are sucked away in a spaghetti of directions. The architects of the New Silk Road are working to upgrade three main routes: north, through Russia; southwest through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran; and – most direct but complex of all – due west along a central corridor that passes for more than 1,500km across the vast deserts of central Kazakhstan to the Caspian Sea port of Aktau and beyond.

During the Cold War, this Soviet-era port city was shrouded in military secrecy. Built by prisoners in the 1950 and 60s, it was initially little more than a barracks and a uranium mine. That legacy is still apparent in the garrison-like housing blocks in the centre, an MiG fighter plane that seems about to fly off from a marble plinth, and the grimly contaminated Lake Koshkar-Ata on the outskirts, where farmers take horses and camels to drink despite radiation hazard signs and a stream of stinking black effluent pouring from an industrial complex. On windy days, contaminated particles blow into the city, which is home to 178,000 people.

Over the past 30 years, Aktau has opened up and the focus has shifted to oil production. Belt and Road is seen by the Kazakh government as an opportunity to accelerate the city’s rebirth as a logistics hub, tourist resort and conference centre.

City planners want to clean up the lake and plant rows of trees to hold back the dust, but progress has been slow. Russian influence is still strong here, but Chinese companies have invested in oil fields and a bitumen plant, which supplies the needs of the growing number of Silk Road highway upgrades.

New silk rail

The train from Khorgos to Almaty

Trading places

A modern-day Silk Road trader

Aktau

Murals of historical political figures on buildings

On the road

A Kazakh trader leaving Khorgos

Old power, new money

Russian influence vies with Chinese investment

Derelict factory, Aktau

The city is hoping for a rebirth

New silk rail

The train from Khorgos to Almaty

Trading places

A modern-day Silk Road trader

Aktau

Murals of historical political figures on buildings

On the road

A Kazakh trader leaving Khorgos

Old power, new money

Russian influence vies with Chinese investment

Derelict factory, Aktau

The city is hoping for a rebirth

New silk rail

The train from Khorgos to Almaty

Trading places

A modern-day Silk Road trader

Aktau

Murals of historical political figures on buildings

On the road

A Kazakh trader leaving Khorgos

Old power, new money

Russian influence vies with Chinese investment

Derelict factory, Aktau

The city is hoping for a rebirth

The first consignment from Khorgos to Europe passed through earlier this year. It was a container of tomatoes, farmed in Xinjiang, and sent to a paste processing plant in Italy. Last month, there was another first when a consignment of cars passed through on a journey from Chongqing via Khorgos to Iran. It took just 14 days.

“We can do it in half the time it previously took,” says Martin Voetmann, who heads the Aktau Port operation for logistics company DP World. “If we had sent it by the regular sea route, it would have taken 40 to 45 days.”

Anaklia

Although it is the shortest distance across Eurasia, the central corridor of the Silk Road requires multi-modal shifts between trains and ships, and the bureaucracy of border checks in at least five countries. The old Soviet ferries which ply the Caspian are not made for modern container lorries. There is no timetable. Both cargo and people can wait more than a week for passage, which takes another 20 to 40 hours depending on weather.

The high expectations of China are shared by senior figures in business and politics in Tblisi. Ketevan Bochorishvili, a former Georgian vice minister of economy, hopes Beijing will push forward with a $2.5bn plan to build a deep sea port at Anaklia on the Black Sea coast.

The scheme has been in limbo for most of the past 10 years, but she says the Belt and Road Initiative has nudged it close to reality. A new free-trade agreement with China came into force this year, and last month Bochorishvili signed a memorandum of understanding with a Hong Kong logistics firm.

Anaklia is currently little more than a village. Cows and pigs wander across the single-lane access road. In September, the UK consultancy Buro-Happold will present a masterplan for a free industrial zone and city at Anaklia. Work is already under way to clear the site of the planned new city – an area of marsh and dunes patrolled by security guards on horseback, whose main role is to fend off invading cattle.

Modern landmark

The dry dock at Khorgos

Ports create possibilities

New routes have cut transport times

Modern landmark

The dry dock at Khorgos

Ports create possibilities

New routes have cut transport times

Modern landmark

The dry dock at Khorgos

Ports create possibilities

New routes have cut transport times

The project has been briefly held up by unexploded Russian bombs, which had to be dismantled and removed – a reminder of recent conflicts with the breakaway region of Abkhazia. A major Silk Road project in this troubled region would be a geostrategic boost for Georgia, which pitches itself as the most democratic and market-friendly of the former Soviet states.

If the project comes off, Anaklia will be the yang to Khorgos’s yin, the western gateway on the shortest overland route between China and Europe. “It will be a mix of Khorgos and Dubai but with the climate of California,” says Bochorishvili.

What next?

There are still many ifs in these three New Silk Road cities – one embryonic, one hoping to be reborn and the other created out of nothing – but their architects feel the long-term trends may be in their favour.

The material impact on global trade should not be overstated – it will never compare to the shipping industry – but the political ramifications are significant.

In many ways the New Silk Road is typical of the Old Silk Road, which has usually been an east-west flow of goods and people, with heavy restrictions in the opposition direction. The exception was during the 13th century, when the Mongols briefly unified the Eurasian landmass and opened up the west-east path for European traders. That allowed Marco Polo to make his famous 24-year round-trip to China.

He returned to Venice with silk, spices and incredible tales of the cities he visited. “I have not told half of what I saw for I knew I would not be believed,” he said. He might say the same of claims made for the New Silk Road – but the journey would certainly be shorter.

Photography by: Danil Usmanov

Design and Development by: Frank Hulley-Jones and Garry Blight

Maps by: Pablo Gutierrez



https://www.theguardian.com/cities/ng-interactive/2018/jul/30/follow-new-silk-road-china-belt

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