(Image by James Reilly at the Almaty train station)

From the comfortable seat of a fast train speeding across the vast dry plains of western China, one is impressed by the imminent arrival of China’s New Silk Road in Central Asia. Transferring to a Kazakh train traveling from Urumqi to Almaty over a leisurely 30 hours offers quite a different perspective.

Simply purchasing these tickets is an accomplishment. Tickets for such cross-border trains are not available through the online Chinese railway system. Most China Rail telephone operators do not even know that the only way to purchase the Urumqi to Almaty tickets is to arrive early on the morning of your trip to the lobby of the venerable Ou Ya (Europe-Asia) Hotel.

In the best Soviet style, the Ou Ya lobby is outfitted entirely in grey marble, with high ceilings and dusty chandeliers. It sits, rather inconveniently, just inside the first half of the thick security cordon now blanketing the Urumqi station, set up by China’s public security bureau after the 2012 mass knife attacks at the station. One must now pass through two bag-and-identity checks to get close to the station, and then through two further inspection points to enter the station itself.

While waiting in the long inspection lines, a furtive glance at the small tanks and machine gun-wielding soldiers brings home the security imperative driving Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.

We purchase our tickets without incident and then spend the day resting and purchasing supplies, as we’ve learned that our Kazak train on carries no dining car. The train departs just before midnight, and we are soon lulled to sleep by its rocking motion, blissfully unaware of the adventures ahead.

We are awoken sharply at 6 am by the train attendants announcing our arrival into Qingshuizhen, the last Chinese town before crossing into Kazakhstan. We dismount for a pleasant stroll along the platform, using the station’s washrooms for a quick face-and-foot wash.
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Savvy travelers disembark here, travel to the border via taxi or minibus, cross the border on foot, and then board busses or hire cars to take them to the Kazak cities of Almaty or Astana. Reportedly, border procedures are relatively quick and efficient in the city of Horgos, where Chinese highway G312 meets up with the new China-funded Kazakh highway A353.

Blissfully unaware as our train inched forward, we soon embarked upon an 8-hour odyssey to traverse the Customs and exit/entry procedures, first from China and then Kazakhstan, followed by changing carriages due to the different rail gauges (a Soviet legacy). This included a 3-hour period when the train windows were shut, the air conditioning shut off, the toilets locked, and we were not permitted to leave the train—even as the mid-day temperatures soared toward 40 degrees Celsius.

One reason for the delays was that both Chinese and Kazakh border guards searched all train compartments thoroughly—even removing wall panels—probably in search of drug smuggling.

Finally, by 3 pm our trusty train crawled up to our first stop in Kazakhstan. A number of Kazakh residents trundled aboard the carriages, loaded down with bulging Chinese shopping bags.

They were returning from a wholesale shopping complex within Horgos city, where Chinese sellers have shops within a number of linked warehouses. Chinese sellers store their goods in the warehouses, and then enter each morning at 7 am. Kazak citizens are permitted to enter the zone (from the Kazak side) by 9 am (no visa required). They can purchase all sorts of Chinese consumer goods, using either RMB or Kazak tenge, but must depart by 5 pm, after which the warehouse empties out until the following day.

This arrangement encourages Chinese investment into Horgos while enabling small amounts of Chinese consumer goods to be sold directly into Kazakhstan. It is one example of China’s national policy of helping to support local border residents by permitting them to engage in small-scale cross-border trade while forgoing any tax revenues from the border trade. Local residents can thereby capture the profits available from price differentials created by the national border.

Indeed, Horgos is rapidly emerging as a crucial linchpin in China’s new Silk Road strategy. New warehouses, cross-border highways, and Customs infrastructure are emerging, in hopes of facilitating cross-border trade into Kazakhstan and beyond. Horgos is also where major oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan cross into China, feeding oil and gas from throughout Central Asian into China’s domestic pipelines.

Sitting in Horgos, China’s trade balance with Central Asia is obvious: gas and oil flow inward; Chinese products flow outward.

While natural resources and merchandise trade are indeed a crucial part of today’s Silk Road story, ultimate success for Beijing’s grand initiative will depend upon the individuals who travel back and forth across this dry border region, just as they have been doing for millennia.

People like the 22 year-old Kazak man on our train who went to Beijing for high school at age 15, and stayed for 7 years. He learned Chinese, then studied business and economics, and is now returning to Almaty to do business—almost certainly trading business that will draw on his fluency in Chinese, as well as Russian, Kazak, and his basic English.

Or the young mother we met, along with her 8-year old son, both of whom are ethnic Kazaks and Chinese citizens. She is a native speaker in both Mandarin Chinese and Kazak. Her son was born and grew up in Urumqi, and speaks excellent Chinese, but after they moved to Almaty for her husband’s work a year ago, her son began Kazakh school in Almaty. Fluent in both Mandarin Chinese and Kazak, he will grow up able to navigate easily between these two worlds.

I met also 19 Chinese workers on their way back to the massive CPNC oil project in western Kazakhstan after their annual holiday in China. Knowing little of Kazak history, culture, or language, they come only to earn money to send back home, in hopes that their children will enjoy a better life than their own. Living in an industrial bubble, insulated from the Kazakh world around them, their arrival will undoubtedly begin to elicit anxieties in Kazakhstan, as the arrival of Chinese workers has in countries around the world.

Beijing’s success in overcoming such distrust depends less on the proliferation of Confucius Institutes than on individuals such as the young architecture student I also meet on the train. A Kazak citizen, she ventured to Chongqing five years ago to study architecture, and is now staying on to finish her graduate degree. Having become enraptured with traditional Chinese architecture, she has traveled throughout China to view traditional Chinese buildings, traveling as far as Shenyang, Changsha, Xi’an, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, and Nanjing. We soon find we share a passion for the beauty of ancient Chinese buildings we have visited in Changsha and Shenyang.

Such people, with their complex, multiple identities and a deep understanding of both societies, are the modern embodiment of those ancient traders, Buddhist missionaries, and curious adventurers who have traversed the Silk Road for millennia, bridging the gaps between China and its Central Asian neighbors. Far more than the concrete highways and thick pipelines, it is upon their backs that the new Silk Road is being recreated.

By JAMES REILLY