“That is the China, Kazakh, Russia road,” said Ilyar, a 20-something Kazakh Uyghur, as he pointed out the window of the bus.
I looked out but only saw five foot high graded and leveled off piles of dirt that would pop up from time to time as we rumbled along the dilapidated old Soviet road towards the Chinese border on the far eastern fringe of Kazakhstan. Those unassuming mounds looked more like the dirt ramps of a backcountry BMX track than the foundations of what is set to become one of the greatest thoroughfares on planet earth.
A roaring highway that will traverse continents, connecting east with west, will soon be built here. This road will stretch from the rusty Yellow Sea port of Lianyungang on the coast of China to St. Petersburg, Russia, 8,445 kilometers away. It has aptly been been dubbed the Western Europe-Western China (WE-WC) Road Corridor, or, more romantically, the New Silk Highway.
The WE-WC highway is among the first of a deluge of massive transport and trade routes that are being built across Kazakhstan as part of the New Silk Road, or the Belt and the Road strategy, as put by the Chinese. The plan is to lay a grid of highways, rail lines, logistics hubs, commercial centers, and pipelines from China to Europe, increasing geopolitical connectivity and making it easier and cheaper to move goods and natural resources throughout the region.
This highway project completely bisects both China and Kazakhstan on its trans-continental push. Locally known as the Lianhuo Expressway it spans 4,243 kilometers, roughly the distance between London and Baghdad, in China, and is the country’s longest highway. On the Kazakh side, it traverses 2,787 kilometers from Khorgos in the east to Russian border at Zhaisan in the west. Although in Kazakhstan only 300 kilometers of the New Silk Highway will be in new territory, as the grand majority of it will consist of upgrades to existing road ways, many of which were laid during the Soviet era.
“Kazakhstan might perform the function of an important link, a transcontinental economic bridge, for interactions between European, Asia-Pacific and the South Asian economic regions,” stated Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s everlasting president.
Kazakhstan is aiming to be the keystone country of Asia — a landlocked wedge holding together east and west politically, infrastructurally, and economically — and projects such as the WE-WC Highway is helping them put this together. In no small way Kazakhstan is taking on the historic role of ancient Parthia, the middleman of the ancient Silk Road who facilitated trade between the great civilizations on both of its flanks. Although rather than enabling the exchange of silk and gold and flowers between ancient Romans and imperial Chinese, the middleman of the New Silk Road are facilitating the trade of mobile phones, wine, and automobile parts between the European Union and Communist China.
“Kazakhstan’s government is using the WE-WC as a poster child of its geopolitical and geo-economic centrality. The Silk Road narrative is still alive in the public discourse and the new highway represents the future,” said Paolo Sorbello, the Business News Editor at The Conway Bulletin, an independent news source covering Central Asia.
As of now, upwards of 80% of China’s US$600 billion of trade with Europe is shipped by sea, but as demand for the premium electronics and other high value added goods that China is now producing grows, so too does the demand for faster shipping options. Once completed, the WE-WC highway will conceivably allow products to be shipped between China and Europe in a mere ten days, as opposed to 40 to 60 days by sea and twelve days by rail. As this overland route will go through the Eurasian Customs Union, there is only a single customs inspection along the way.
Although at US$5.6 billion for the Kazakhstan segment alone, this continent-linking new highway does not come cheap. The bulk of its cost has so far been covered with loans from multiple major development banks. The World Bank is the project’s main backer, and via its IBRD branch has so far thrown down $2.125 billion, making it the most expensive single project the organization has ever invested in. Other major patrons of the WE-WC highway include the Asian Development Bank ($700 million), the Inter-American Development Bank ($414 million), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development ($197). To put it simply, a lot of money from a lot of places is being thrown down for this road, as huge interests on both sides of the Eurasian gap are converging in the middle.
Construction on the WE-WC highway began in 2009 and was slated to be completed by 2014, but wasn’t. Then it was projected to be finished by the end of 2015, but it won’t be. Now, the grand opening is expected to come some time in 2016 or 2017. As with any large scale, multi-national development project, there have been challenges.
Reports indicate that labor disputes and corruption have been sources of delays. In an article by Sorbello in 2014, the head of the Central Asian Foundation for the Development of Democracy said that, “The reason that there hasn’t been much ado about the delay of the completion of the construction of the road is because those who have control over its construction, the local governments, have already received bribes, given at the assignment of the tender. With money already in their pockets, they don’t care about the development of the project and don’t want to attract attention to the issue.” Officially, the causes for the highway’s delayed completion have been attributed to difficulties obtaining concrete and weather.
In spite of this, the road continues being built. Nazarbayev described the WE-WC highway as the “construction of the century” in a 2012 speech, although the first time I traveled along its eastern stretches in May 2015 this impending monumentality wasn’t yet evident.
Heading east out of Almaty the road was freshly paved, wide, and smooth — it was in every way the super highway it was touted to be. Although a couple of hours later the bus slowed down to a grinding crawl as we passed an idle huddle of yellow backhoes and road rollers sitting next to long stagnant piles of road construction materials. The new international expressway suddenly turned into an old Soviet road, which was essentially a narrow two lane, pot hole riddled path which only got worse as we slowly rumbled on towards the border. As the bus crept forward, as the hours passed, it was almost unfathomable that I was moving towards the Khorgos free trade zone and the incredible Khorgos Gateway land port — places that are being built to be a major epicenters of cross-border trade and commerce. In all, the 300 kilometer ride took seven full hours and I was nearly ready to write off this highway as a bust.
Six months later I returned to find a very different scene. Sections of road that were nothing but piles of dirt were now freshly molded into a smoothly paved, four lane wide, divided expressway, while other sections that had not yet been touched by construction crews were being actively built. As interest in the New Silk Road Economic Belt heats up, a flip seems to have been switched, and the intervening summer months had obviously boded well for this section of the WE-WC Highway. Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city will soon be connected to the Chinese border by a fully functioning, uber-modern expressway, as this continent crossing road nears completion.
Although Kazakhstan officially estimates that WE-WC Expressway will double the country’s transport capacity by 2020 and then increase it tenfold by 2050, where this traffic will come from remains a question.
“The point of this WE-WC road is to ship luxury goods and hi-tech goods, but are companies really going to use this road? That’s the big question,” posited Stephanie Koole, a researcher who wrote her master’s thesis on the highway.
Originally, this highway was envisioned as an essential transportation artery where trucks from China could flow over the border and deliver goods locally as well as to Russia and Europe beyond. Although this has been compounded due to trade restrictions of the Eurasian Customs Union as well as the fact that the border crossing from China to Kazakhstan is often riddled with inefficiency, delays, and unabashed corruption. There are many reports of Chinese truck drivers bringing goods into the country being stuck in the immigration queue for entire days to even weeks, proper visas not being grated to them, as well as complaints about being extorted for bribes — which has prompted them to formally appeal to their government for assistance, according to Koole.
But Kazakhstan and the broader New Silk Road Economic Belt is still in a transition phase, and the entire border crossing apparatus is being rapidly overhauled. Once fully built, the WE-WC Expressway will pass right by the Khorgos Gateway dry port. Although the dry port itself is still in the initial phases of construction, a representative informed me that they will soon begin processing cross-border trucks in addition to trains, which will drastically streamline the operation and cut out the lingering fat of the Soviet era. Improvements can already be seen. Kazakhstan jumped up 63 places year on year in the World Bank’s Doing Business report, which ranks countries according to ease of cross-border trade. Although with a ranking of 122 out of 189 countries, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Paradoxically, the biggest impact of this great international transport corridor may be local. As the world builds transportation infrastructure in Kazakhstan to more effectively connect east and west, there is a growing suspicion that the country may be used merely as bridge between the booming economies on its flanks. Whereas trains laden with goods from China and Europe more or less pass through Kazakhstan as though zipping through a vortex, the WE-WC Expressway presents a transportation corridor that can easily be utilized by local businesses and residents.
“Given the poor state of highways in Kazakhstan, this project helps repair and rebuild some of them, something that has a positive impact nationally,” said Paolo Sorbello. “I think the road will be mostly used in smaller sections, rather than origin-to-end shipments. It will give a boost to intermediate centers that can become small hubs along the way.”
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest land-locked country, being 11 times larger than the UK, but only has 17 million people. So the distances between cities and towns are often vast and scantly populated. The WE-WC highway will help close the gap and increase connectivity between these widespread locales, allowing locals to more easily travel between them, which will bolster domestic trade and increase efficiency for local exporters. According to the World Bank, the new highway will improve transportation for roughly half of Kazakhstan’s population.
Although there are now multitudes of trains rolling through Kazakhstan between China and Europe, many local Kazakh companies still prefer to export their goods by truck. In spite of the fact that trans-continental trains stop at the Khorgos Gateway dry port just a few hours away, the budding Arba Winery, which shocked Europe with its award winning wines in recent competitions, exports exclusively by truck. I asked the owner, Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, if he considered using the new refrigerated rail cars that stop at the nearby border on their way to Europe. “It’s better to use a truck,” he replied. “China’s close; China’s right here. One week and it’s in Europe.”
The young Uyghur who originally pointed out the WE-WC road to me during my first visit to eastern Kazakhstan was anxious for those piles of dirt to morph into the expressway they’re destined to become. He was from Zharkent, a small, remote city a tick from the Chinese border, and his work consisted of repairing cell phones for people in Almaty. Each week he would make the bumpy seven hour ride along the slow, torn-up highway into the city, pick up a backpack load of broken phones, and then ride all the way back home, where he will spend the next week fixing them before returning again. He complained about how long the bus took to cross such a short distance and claimed that the new highway would cut the trip down to under four hours.
“When this road is finished, will it be good for Zharkent?” I asked him.
The New Silk Highway will help put remote places such as Zharkent and Khorgos on the map, and as these places grow, logistics and manufacturing zones will be created, businesses will pop up, and lives will change. Places throughout Central Asia that have long wallowed as backwaters for successive empires and administrations will regain the status they once had as the Silk Road comes back to life. Only this time it will be paved.