Letter from Khorgos: does the ‘new Dubai’ on the Kazakh-Chinese border live up to its promise?

Letter from Khorgos: does the ‘new Dubai’ on the Kazakh-Chinese border live up to its promise?

On the desolate Kazakh-Chinese border, the steppe is being transformed into a dry port, complete with a town and bustling shopping complex. But as Dana Rice discovers, a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Almaty, things aren’t exactly what they seem.

4 May 2020
Text and image: Dana Rice

Shivering from the winter winds that blow across the snow-covered steppe, my fellow shoppers stamp their feet. While we wait for the next shuttle bus out of the tax-free shopping haven between Kazakhstan and China, two friendly Kazakh women quiz me about my homeland of Australia. I am a long way from home. In fact, where we stand is almost exactly the point Halford Mackinder, father of modern geopolitics, termed the Pole of Inaccessibility — that is, the farthest point from any ocean on Earth.

My research on Chinese investment in Kazakhstan was what initially spurred my four-and-a-half-hour trek to Khorgos. In less than a decade, this former Soviet outpost has transformed into a laboratory for Kazakhstan’s grand experiment of economic hyper-connectivity. There’s now a dry port, a Special Economic Zone, and a massive duty-free shopping area (the International Centre for Cross-Border Cooperation or ICBC). The Central Asia-China gas pipeline and railroad also pass nearby. Referring to it as the “new Dubai”, Kazakh ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev expounded the potential of Khorgos as an international transport and logistics hub. By the end of 2020, the Kazakh government predicts that the Special Economic Zone will generate 50,000 new jobs for the country. Meanwhile, construction is underway for a town of 110,000 people. Much of this has only been possible through China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) initiative, which is reinvigorating ancient economic ties.

Specifically, I’d come to visit the Khorgos Gateway dry port. Like the SREB, the gateway’s name alludes to the historic importance of this region. Known as the Dzungarian Gate, the mountain pass near modern-day Khorgos offered convenient passage between the Eurasian steppe and the Chinese kingdoms of the east. Herodotus, the ancient Greek pseudo-historian, supposedly associated this “gateway” with the home of the Hyperborea, the race of giants who lived beyond the lands of Boreas, the North Wind.

My journey started in Almaty. My driver and guide, a Cossack named Sergey whose family had lived in Almaty for 150 years and who spoke only Russian, provided interesting conversation during the long drive. He explained to me that we were travelling on the new Western Europe-Western China highway financed by China. He was not shy about sharing his negative perceptions of China’s growing influence, insisting that the only thing China had to offer Central Asia was debt.

For over four hours, there was nothing to see but the windswept Central Asian plains. Until then, I had only known this landscape through the stories of Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov. As I gazed out of the jeep’s window, I couldn’t help but think of the last lines from his novella Jamila, so fitting for the setting: “Soon the steppe wind began to blow, the sky became muddy and the cold rains, the forerunners of snow, began.”

At last, the Dzungarian Alatau mountains rose in the distance and the yellow container cranes of the dry port became visible. On first glance, I was surprised by the lack of activity, and the relatively few containers in a place touted as the world’s soon-to-be largest inland port. My impressions were later confirmed by other researchers who visited around the same time. “Always there’s an excuse for the inefficiency,” one from the University of Paris told me, “an official visit or something”.

We arrived at 13:05, just as the workers’ lunch break was beginning. My contact at the dry port advised us to visit the ICBC — the duty-free shopping zone — for an hour and then return. The ICBC was just a few kilometres down the road and we soon neared the entrance, driving past a huge poster of ex-President Nazarbayev. Where Khorgos “town” was remained unclear. Despite an uninterrupted view of the landscape from the main road, I had seen only a few rows of white houses on our way here, perhaps workers’ accommodation. Apparently, the town on the Chinese side, also called Khorgos, is far more developed, already housing 100,000 residents.

The ICBC, which in reality is the main section of Khorgos, was nothing like I had imagined. Barbed wire and guard posts framed the zone. I was later told that the extra security measures were to stop Chinese (especially Uighurs, members of a minority ethnic group being systematically persecuted across the border) illegally crossing into Kazakhstan. Whether true or not, the first checkpoint which visitors were corralled into gave the impression we were headed to a detention centre rather than a shopping complex. The impression was amplified when I attempted to take photos. Two Kazakh guards rushed out, shouting at me to put down the camera.

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Once inside, I realised I had left my migration card at the hotel in Almaty. Intrigued by having an Australian visitor, however, an officer stamped my passport anyway. After paying the 2000 tenge ($5.20) each to enter the ICBC, a mostly empty bus took us several kilometres, past two more checkpoints and a number of buildings still under construction.

The relatively quiet corridors reminded me more of the low-budget shopping complexes of Southeast Asia than Dubai’s glitzy modern malls

We were dropped right at the entrance of the Chinese-run side where we passed through Chinese security. The Chinese zone was far more lively, boasting an amalgamation of sights from a Transformers statue to what appeared to be a Chinese temple.

Entering a five-story building nearby, the relatively quiet corridors reminded me more of the low-budget shopping complexes of Southeast Asia than Dubai’s glitzy modern malls. I visited the various floors selling clothing, electronics, toys and other goods, took some photos and then decided to head back after 20 minutes to make my way back to the dry port.

Outside, I was shocked to find the previously empty square now filled with Kazakh men and women with mountains of shrink-wrapped purchases. Evidently, they had taken earlier shuttle buses into the ICBC and simultaneously re-emerged from the labyrinth of shops to start their journey home.

Almost immediately the free shuttle back to Kazakh immigration arrived. The bus took the corner too tightly, nearly pinning the waiting passengers to the shelter wall. Men, women, and elderly grandmothers alike began pounding on the doors, causing the bus to shake. Those at the front pushed, shoved, and kicked their way on. As the driver forced the doors shut, the 80 or so remaining shoppers wailed through the windows.

The frenzy subsided only after the bus sped off. Shoppers staked out their positions, deciding on the best tactics to secure a seat on the next bus — whenever that might be. My driver, Sergey, suggested he wait while I go and explore more shops.

“There’s food from pets over there,” he said, pointing.

“You mean for pets?”

“Dogs and cats for human consumption,” he laughed.

I decided to stay put, realising that exotic meat was not the best choice given the long car ride back to Almaty. By this time, many shoppers had calmed down and had become quite talkative. A number told me they were merchants from Almaty. “Everything is so cheap here!” one said. Apparently, Khorgos is a popular place for Kazakh shopkeepers to buy inexpensive goods in bulk for resale. Almost no one was local, since only ICBC workers lived in the “town” nearby. Some shoppers had travelled by bus from as far away as Kyrgyzstan to snag a good bargain.

Just as the snow was beginning to fall, a second bus arrived. My temporary “truce” with the Kazakh women next to me was broken as the jostling began again. By some miracle, Sergey and I managed to wrestle our way onto the bus. As we took our seats, the driver’s door was wrenched open and people began pouring in. By the time the driver, manning the main entrance, noticed the unwanted passengers, it was too late for him to do anything but shout. Sergey captured the mob on video but would not share it with me later, saying it was a rather “black advertisement” for the country.

Finally, the doors closed. The bus was underway. And then we stopped. For an hour. We started moving. And then stopped again for another hour. We were at some kind of border check. There was nothing we could do but wait.

By the time we reached the Kazakh customs and immigration building, it was dark. I don’t know where the people came from, but the terminal was overflowing. There were no clear lines, only massive crowds with trolley after trolley of goods. Those with less baggage were climbing on top of the iron railings to bypass the disorderly queue.

A stampede ensued through the “nothing to declare” line in which multiple people were trampled. My guide said “run” and I followed. At last I was stamped back into Kazakhstan. There was instant peace and quiet on the other side of the terminal.

My intended one-hour visit had turned into seven; everyone from the dry port had gone home. Yet perhaps I saw the more authentic side of Khorgos: a strange border town that encompasses Kazakhstan’s dream to return to an idealised past. A dream to become, once again, the centre of Eurasian trade. Indeed, Khorgos has been a little like a miracle, arising from the desolate steppe in a matter of years. But to call Khorgos the “new Dubai” as some Kazakh and Chinese media outlets have, is a stretch — at the moment, Khorgos is little more than a cross-border shopping centre with a unique Kazakh-Chinese flavour. Departing what my guide called “the middle of nowhere”, I looked out at the dwindling lights on the horizon. The ICBC had closed. The dry port was devoid of any activity. The town in the middle of the steppe had fallen asleep until the next rush of bargain-savvy merchants tomorrow.

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