Mammoth project in Khorgos

Paving the way for prosperity

Once upon a time, textiles, porcelain and exotic spices found their way along the Silk Road from China to Europe. Today mosques and madrasas in central Asia still testify to the glo­ries of an age when the trade between East and West brought affluence to entire regions.

Naziyam Ibragimova already feels at home in Khorgos. (Image: Edda Schlager)

China now intends to revive this legend – by investing more than a billion euros in a “New Silk Road.” At the end of 2013 the Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the giant infrastructure project known as the “Belt and Road Initia­tive” (BRI). The BRI is already dwarfing its medieval proto­type, with China investing in improved transport routes worldwide.

Zhenis Turkiya from Kazakhstan also has high hopes for the mammoth project. He is an investor and the developer of a hotel and shopping complex in Khorgos, on the site of the so­called International Center of Boundary Cooperation (ICBC). “We are one of the first investors here from Kazakh­stan and there are bound to be a fair share of risks,” says Turkiya. “But there are some incredible opportunities, too.” Situated about 1,000 miles southeast of the Kazakh capital Astana, Khorgos is Kazakhstan’s gateway to the New Silk Road. The ICBC is an 800­hectare area on either side of the Kazakh border with China – a base where the two countries can run joint commercial projects while benefitting from tax incentives and visa­free travel in both directions. Turkiya’s hotel is due to have 180 rooms and attract business travel­lers and tourists alike. Casinos, a racetrack, wellness centers and beauty clinics are also planned.

There is scant sign of all this so far. While a completely new town has risen from the dust on the Chinese side of Khorgos, the Kazakh side has remained a gigantic building site for three years. Despite the lack of progress, Turkiya wants to complete construction of his hotel in 2018. “The Kazakh authorities are often slow to issue permits,” he says. Naziyam Ibragimova already feels at home in Khorgos. “I don’t understand why; after all, there is huge potential for us to sell our own products in China too.”

Some twelve miles further along the New Silk Road, the logistics already seem to be up and running. The Dry Port of Khorgos is a transhipment hub where containers can be transferred from Chinese to Kazakh trains, a necessity given the different track gauges in the two countries. It used to take 45 to 50 days to transport Chinese goods to Europe by sea. But the overland route via Kazakhstan takes only half as long. And while the costs are ten times higher, many customers consider it worthwhile.

As head of PR at the Dry Port of Khorgos, Naziyam Ibragimova regularly gives guided tours around the site with its bright yellow gantry cranes. The 25­ year ­old fully expects Khorgos to generate an economic revival in the entire southeastern corner of Kazakhstan. Ibragimova grew up in the region but spent several years living in Almaty. “I would never have believed I would ever return from the capital to take up a better job,” she says. Her employer found her an apartment in Nurkent, a satellite town built exclusively for the facility’s employees just a few miles away. It currently has a population of 1,200 but has been designed for 100,000. Despite the somewhat desolate surroundings – the steppes begin directly behind Ibragimova’s concrete high­rise – the young woman feels happy in her new surroundings. “We don’t pay any rent and we have everything we need here – a kindergarten, school and shops.” Every day a shuttle bus ferries residents to and from the Dry Port, and that too is free.

Ibragimova has no thoughts of returning to the capital. And, if necessary, Turkiya is happy to wait for hotel guests to bring a return on his investment. Kazakhstan’s dream of an economic boom in the Khorgos region may not been realized as quickly as hoped, but the gateway to the New Silk Road is open wide.

Edda Schlager lives in Kazakhstan and is a journalist specialized in Central Asia.

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