Positioned out on the farthest fringe of western China on the border of Kazakhstan, a tick from the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, the farthest point on earth from an ocean, places don’t get much more remote than Horgos. A city whose name technically means “place of much camel dung,” Horgos was once a thriving commercial center on the ancient Silk Road before beginning a long slide into obscurity as the trade routes that were its lifeblood were forgotten and covered in dunes. For the centuries that followed the place was cast off from the rest of the world by distance, deserts, mountains, and impermeable borders, but this frontier position is precisely why Horgos has now risen to the apex of China’s national interests.
Although its history extends back to the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), the modern city of Horgos is a little over a year old. On June 29, 2014 the place was formally elevated to city status by the central government. Upon this decree, US$3.25 billion of investment was pumped in and Horgos’ surface area was increased one hundred fold, swallowing up several nearby towns and villages into a municipality that’s twice the size of New York City. As of now, only 85,000 people live within this expanse, but this is set to change fast. When it matures, it is expected that the new Horgos will be home to 200,000 people.
Horgos is China’s main land port on the New Silk Road, a network of trade corridors, transport routes, pipelines, and logistics zones stretching from East Asia to Europe, covering a market of over three billion people. The vision is to grow Horgos into a urban counterweight to balance out the booming cities of China’s east coast. If Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen became catalysts of commerce partially due to being major sea ports then why shouldn’t the land ports of the west experience the same growth and prosperity? So cities like Horgos and Kashgar are being transitioned into major transport and shipping hubs, ports for trains and trucks rather than ships.
This new city on the frontier of Xinjiang has essentially become a back door for China to access the markets on the other side of the Eurasian gap. As manufacturing continues growing in the west of China it now seems redundant to transport products that are manufactured there across the entire country to the ports of the east just to ship them by sea back west again. Yet upwards of 80% of China’s EU trade goes the ocean route, a roundabout journey of 40 to 60 days. Like in the time of the old Silk Road, China needs a western gateway, so Horgos was reborn.
Trains are already running through Horgos. In roughly 15 days freight trains are traversing the expanse between Chinese cities like Chengdu, Zhengzhou, Yiwu, and Lianyungang and European cities like Hamburg, Duisburg, Lodz, Madrid, and St. Petersburg. This is less than half the time it takes to ship products between the same cities by sea, at a cost that’s 70% less than shipping by air. So the advantage of these new shipping lanes are obvious, and international companies like UPS and DHL have already jumped in. As of 2013 US$11 billion in bilateral trade per year was already flowing across the border at Horgos.
Although right now there isn’t much to this highly-touted epicenter of international commerce. The Western Europe-Western China Highway, aptly called Ya’ou (Asia’Europe) Boulevard locally, runs through the center of town, but its great breadth and slight amount of traffic makes it look a brawny man’s hat flopped down upon a scrawny child’s head. Cheap, trader-grade hotels that smell of vegetable oil, stale cigarette smoke, and unchanged linens line this strip, along with local noodle stalls and dusty confectionery shops. If it wasn’t for the skeletons of half-built high-rises and the shells of wholesale markets to-be, the place wouldn’t look different than any other Xinjiang backwater.
Even still, Horgos appears to be becoming the outpost it is intended to be. Its streets are flooded with Han migrant workers who were lured in from cities across the country with the promise of paychecks and better opportunity. They gather in the new central park; the women engage in their nightly line dancing routine while the men stand around in a circle smoking cigarettes and watching them. At the end of Ya’ou Boulevard is the border post; when you first cross through it into town you are met by a mob of taxi drivers, money changers, and trinket peddlers who welcome you with prying invitations to purchase their services and wares. Adjacent to the border post are the gates of the nascent free trade zone, a place where small-time traders buy and sell cheap Chinese white brand goods, which is really the only thing that keeps this small city from being an over-glorified truck stop.
The Chinese government’s intentions here are no secret. Massive propaganda signs showing images of the future Horgos are plastered all around town. They show the landmarks of the FTZ surrounded by an impressive array of skyscrapers. Yet another remote, rural nowhere is being turned into a city within the span of a five year plan or two.
“They want to make this place into a big city. What do you think of that?” I asked the Uighur owner of a run down mutton soup restaurant off the city’s main drag.
He tilted his head to one side and glanced up towards the pointed corner of his embroidered taqiyah.
“Very good,” he replied with a big thumbs up.
“Really?” I asked quizzically.
His thumb remained pointing upwards.
Almost everything of the old Horgos will have to go — probably even the Uighur mutton soup vendor and his little restaurant. Although I cannot be sure of his true sentiments, many on China’s far flung fringes often don’t possess the cynicism about the large-scale, rapid development that systematically dismantles and reassembles their towns all around him as many in the West would expect them to have. This destruction always comes with a promise: a promise that something will be built in its wake. With the rapid reinvention of a remote outpost comes prospects — the prospect of better schools, better infrastructure, better social benefits, better hospitals, more jobs, better access to modern facilities, better access to the world beyond. When living this far out such prospects mean something. For all its nefarious qualities — land grabs, forced eviction and relocation, poor use of land, inefficient use of resources — urbanization in China is often surprisingly welcomed by those who live at its fringes.
Horgos is still very young; it’s hardly more than a proof of concept splayed out upon a far flung Xinjiang plain. A year or two ago it wasn’t much more than a road, some train tracks, and a border. Fake plastic trees blooming with gaudy colored lights line the avenue leading to the free trade zone because the live saplings at their sides haven’t yet had time to grow tall enough. Construction projects ripple out from the center of the city, encroaching farther into the lavender fields towards the mountains beyond. A small, remote town is being turned into a modern city by all out fiat. The order came down to build it, so it is being built. China’s western borderlands will soon have big cities.
Development in China is often seen as something akin to a force of nature: a great inevitability that’s going to happen no matter what anyone does or says, like a storm rolling in. So if it is going to happen anyway it may as well be big, it may as well be something special — and few urbanization projects in China are as big or as special as Horgos.
The first new city of the New Silk Road has been born.