KHORGAS, China — The world’s lost cities have all been unearthed. The modern-day equivalent — fulfilling an age-old desire to stand in a place wholly unknown to others — is a city built so recently that few have even heard of it.
The Chinese town of Khorgas, on the border with Kazakhstan and a strategic crossroads along the new Silk Road, can’t be found on printed maps. Built from scratch over the past three years, it has quickly become a sprawling grid of broad avenues with the feel of a Californian town. Tree-lined streets have wide, pristine sidewalks. Construction crews are busy at work. Looking from a distance — better from the Kazakh border — there is a nascent line of skyscrapers. Most street lights are not yet operational. As the city’s amenities are installed, the population already hovers around 100,000.
The Chinese conceive of Khorgas as a city linking the East and West, and an extension of their global economic project, the Silk Road Economic Belt, that seeks to link China with Central Asia and Europe by means of fast transport infrastructure, trade, finance and cultural exchange. Young people have been flocking here, not only from the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang but from further afield. A shop selling Georgian wine on a commercial side-street has signs in five different scripts: Chinese, Cyrillic, Roman, Georgian and Arabic — used for Uighur, the language of the province’s dominant ethnic group.
This must be something of a world record, I can’t help but think. I have dinner at Fuyun, a new and very busy restaurant that serves expensive fish and seafood. Businessmen meet in private booths to conclude deals. The staff use my visit as an opportunity to learn a few new English words. The place is buzzing, and the feeling mirrors that in the town: Everyone is too busy making a fortune to care about following the rules too strictly. China’s youngest city brims with ambition. This is the new Wild West — quite literally, for the many young people flocking to Khorgas from big Chinese mega-cities to the East.
On the Kazakh side of the border, the atmosphere is more subdued. The Kazakh Khorgos (the two cities share a name but it is pronounced slightly differently on either side of the border) is still more or less what it has always been: a couple of dozen old houses congregated around a pretty mosque. When I step off the night train at the new Altynkol station, the handful of fellow passengers quickly disappear and I am left alone, sand dunes on one side and a pasturing herd of sheep on the other. The imposing train station and modern two-lane highway stand in sharp contrast to the unshakable feeling that I am — quite literally this time — in the middle of nowhere.
Around a bend in the road, three giant yellow cranes shine in the morning sunlight. They are part of the Khorgos dry port, an ambitious project to build one of the world’s largest ports in what is likely the place furthest away from any ocean. Such are the ironies of globalization.
The port lies at a midway point between Europe and China, the world’s largest economies alongside the United States. Here, freight trains will converge, cargo will be unloaded and recombined according to the destination, with new trains quickly departing (these giant cranes are capable of moving cargo between trains in just 47 minutes).
Once the port is fully operational, new industrial areas and cities will start to emerge along the trade routes, taking advantage of new infrastructure, low labor costs and growing industrial specialization between different economic regions. The area is particularly attractive to Chinese manufacturers, who are starting to settle in Kazakhstan to avoid paying duties to enter the Russian market.
Karl Gheysen, a Belgian citizen who worked in Dubai before moving to China, is in charge of the dry port. We sit down to study the map of the port. The lack of infrastructure has been an obstacle, Gheysen tells me. But there is also a psychological barrier to tear down, he says: a sharp distinction between East and West; between Europe and China, around which businesses and governments have organized all their activities and planning. At some point, he assures me, this barrier will collapse and that will change everything. We’ll no longer have Europe on one side and Asia on the other, but one single continent, increasingly interconnected.
On the face of it, a network of railways, roads and energy and digital infrastructure linking Europe and China through the shortest and most direct route makes a lot of sense. Khorgas is fast becoming the border between China and Europe (after all, Kazakhstan is a European as well as an Asian country by virtue of its geography). It takes 36 days to ship goods from China’s ports to Europe; rail freight service along new overland routes will soon take as little as 10 days.
But the new Silk Road will do more than that. The project risks upsetting old geopolitical dynamics and reigniting a 19th-century world of great-power rivalry, a race for power at the heart of the greatest landmass on earth. Look carefully and you’ll see that’s already happening.
Start with logistics and you will quickly find yourself face-to-face with far more delicate issues. At a recent debate in Astana, Kazakhstan, a number of Chinese policymakers discussed the challenges of making the new Silk Road economically viable. How could they reassure investors about the political risks involved? It wasn’t long before the idea of a new security architecture and military units was floated as a means to protect their brand new transport and communication networks. Cheng Fude, a businessman working for state-owned China Datang Corporation, suggested enlisting international peace-keeping units, prudently underlining that he was not speaking for the Chinese government.
In Kazakhstan, the project has raised fears of increased Chinese presence and these fears sparked public protests that cast doubt over the stability of the Nazarbayev regime. In Moscow it has been met with growing concern. Over the last two years Russian analysts have suggested to me that the crisis in Ukraine was ultimately a product of Russian anxiety about growing Chinese power, which threatens to turn Russia into China’s junior partner, or worse. If Moscow wants to rival Beijing, it will need Ukraine to be part of its rival integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union.
The rewards of China’s mammoth project are potentially great, but so are the risks — for everyone. It begs the question of why the European Union has so far been left on the sidelines. You’d think Europe would be interested in a project to revive its land routes to Asia, but so far all the action is happening between China and countries such as Kazakhstan, Iran and Turkey.
Recently a number of historians have made the case that the ancient Silk Road — the complex maze of camel-powered caravan routes that crossed Central Asia for centuries until the beginning of our modern era — was less about trade in goods than it was about cultural exchange. The former was always limited in size and mostly local. The movement of ideas, religions and people changed the course of world history, not once but many times over.
This will also be the case with the new Silk Road — or, as the Chinese authorities prefer to call it, “The Belt,” envisioning a densely occupied economic corridor for trade, industry and people. The spillovers from infrastructure and trade into politics, culture and security are not a side-effect of the project, but its most fundamental feature.
Under Xi Jinping, China is shifting. The government has realized it runs the risk of becoming an economic powerhouse linked to the world through trade but itself a political island — and ultimately dependent on a global system it did not create and cannot control.
China wants its political and cultural influence to grow in line with its economy, starting with its periphery in Southeast and Central Asia. In my conversations with Chinese students in Beijing — where you can take a university course on the Silk Road initiative — I was told the same thing time and again: China wants to give back to the world what it received since economic reform started under Deng Xiaoping almost 40 years ago.
With the Silk Road Economic Belt, the Chinese authorities intend to change China’s image from willing participant in the global economy to a country that more actively influences and shapes it. By expanding its influence outside its borders, China will be called upon to develop new political concepts to rival those of the West. In the past, the steppes of Central Asia were the place where new civilizations were born, and where old ones would sometimes come to die. There’s a lot of history in Khorgas. But no past. There are no ruins, no mazārs or mausolea. What you’ll see there is the future.