Khorgos in the Wilderness of Xinjiang

Khorgos in the Wilderness of Xinjiang

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Khorgos, the border town that straddles two countries – Kazakhstan and China – is a beehive of activity with construction cranes crowding the horizon. A steady stream of Kazakhs queue up at the immigration booth, waiting to cross into China and bring back manufactured goods for marketing back home in Almaty and other towns. The ICAF rally reached Zharkent on Sunday and drove to Khorgos on Monday morning and was received with much warmth by Kazakh officials at the border. Although the delegates did not have a visa to enter China, the team was whisked around in a bus across the customs check post into China’s Xinjiang region to showcase the development planned for the city.

On the anvil are commercial complexes, casinos, hotels, hospitals, malls, theatres, sports stadia etc sprawled over more than 500 hecatares straddling both the countries. Kazakh and Chinese nationals can visit each other without a visa and can stay upto 30 days on the other side of the border for conducting trade and commerce.

There is also a proposal to build a gas pipeline from the Caspian to Xinjiang through this border. Kazakhstan is anxious to balance its excessive dependence on Russian outlets by connecting to China even if that means several thousand kilometres to the border. There is already a rail track linking Kazakhstan with China, but it is proposed to introduce a fast train service that will cover the distance between towns in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang with Almaty in just six hours. The entire infrastructure and connectivity is expected to be completed by 2018.

The Chinese, however, do not seem to believe in leaving things to the last minute. Already quite a few hotels and commercial complexes have come up. Aneat ribbon of road, smooth as silk, leads upto Turfan and beyond. We meet quite a few shoppers from Almaty picking up everything from mobile phones to tyres and silk scarves in the sole mall that has just been opened.

The cross-border arrangement is likely to be an unequal bargain since Kazakhs can never match the Chinese when it comes to manufactured goods. Wages in Kazakhstan are much higher than those in China. However, Kazakhstan can attract tourists from Xinjiang region to balance the engagement. Also, on the Kazakh side, the population of Khorgos and adjoining Zharkent is equally divided between Kazakhs and Uighurs. When questioned as to the concerns of opening borders with a radicalised region of China, namely Xinjiang with its restive Uighur population, Marat believes Kazakhstan can maintain full control over the border and take preemptive action to nip in the bud, any undesirable influences from across the border.

Lake Balqash whose waters flow from China is said to be dying, its level going down by a centimetre every year. That Balqash town is dying is evident from the abandoned beach shacks and spas which once must have been buzzing with holiday makers. Balqash is also the uranium district of Kazakhstan although the rally route did not touch the uranium areas of this region.

On the road from Balqash to Taaldeqorgan lies an unreal town called Khabshiga on the banks of another dazzling lake. This town, in the middle of nowhere in a desert of dust and black soil with nary a tree or grass, hosts at least a dozen casinos and gambling houses whose glass and chrome facades glint in the harsh desert sun. Lexuses and BMWs vie for road space with herds of sheep and donkey carts.
(Published in The Hindu dated Sep 24, 2013)