New Silk Roads in action at China-Kazakh border: Pepe Escobar

New Silk Roads in action at China-Kazakh border: Pepe Escobar for The Saker

We are cruising on a pristine, 380 km-long four-lane superhighway from Almaty to Khorgos – finished in 2016 for $1.25 billion, 85% of the cost covered by a World Bank loan. And then, suddenly, riding parallel to us, there’s the real superstar of New Silk Road connectivity.

Meet Yuxinou, the container cargo train plying back and forth along the 11,000 km-long railway corridor connecting Chongqin in Sichuan province via Xinjiang and Kazakhstan to Russia, Belarus, Poland and finally Duisburg in the Ruhr valley. And all that in a mere 13 days.

Along the way, the Yuxinou stops in, among other places, Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent, Tehran, Istanbul, Moscow and Rotterdam: a who’s who of Eurasian cities. It carries  laptops, BMWs, spare parts, clothes, machinery, international post packages, chemical products, medicine and medical instruments – all manner of goods, made in China and made in Europe. And all that for only 20% of air freight cost.

The train called Yuxinou, hauling cargo between Germany and Chongqin, seen from the Almaty-Khorgos superhighway. Photo: Pepe Escobar / Asia Times

This operation platform is called Yuxinou (Chongqing) Logistics Co., Ltd., a joint venture among the railways of China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Germany and the Chongqin municipal government, which is quite proud of its “seamless integration of multinational railway logistics” – complete with a fast custom clearance procedure called “single declaration and inspection on entire journey.”

The key Yuxinou crossroads is the intersection between Alashankou, on the Chinese side of the Kasakh border, and Khorgos, a special economic zone in Kazakhstan. The whole project may be in its infancy. After all, the Belt and Road Initiative is still, according to Beijing’s detailed timetable, in the planning stage.

So Khorgos may still be far from metastasizing into the new Dubai, as the hype claimed a few years ago. But watching Khorgos in action is a fascinating experience, unparalleled in its usefulness for gauging Belt & Road’s potential. As much as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the northern part of which I traveled a year ago, this is one of the jewels in Belt & Road’s crown.

Hitting the malls

There are actually three places to take care of border-crossing buisness at Khorgos. I arrived, via the superhighway, at the exclusive crossing for container trucks. Then I visited the border crossing used by Kazakhs and Central Asians from everywhere, leading to a collection of duty-free mega shopping malls officially called the International Center for Boundary Cooperation (ICBC). Then there’s the train station in Altynkol, where Yoxinou stops as do the Urumqi-Almaty cargo/passenger trains. The actual SEZ – many buildings still under construction – is in the periphery of Khorgos.

The timetable at Altynkol station, featuring the Almaty-Urumqi trains. Photo: Pepe Escobar / Asia Times

The ICBC – 5.3 square kilometers housing five multi-story shopping malls with over 2,000 shops – is a sort of neutral no man’s land. If you’re Kazakh or Chinese, no visa is needed. But people from all over Central Asia also come – by bus, eager to take advantage of unlimited Made in China bargains.

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