Riding the WE-WC Highway (again)
“We’ll go on the new road. It’s not officially open yet but the driver said that he went down it the other day and it was fine,” Karl spoke as the driver in front of us nodded his head.
The new road that he was talking about was the Western Europe-Western China (WE-WC) Highway, aka the New Silk Highway — the great transport corridor that will stretch from the Yellow Sea at Lianyungang in China all the way to the Baltic Sea at St. Petersburg, Russia, 8,445 kilometers away.
At the place where the old Soviet road meets with the WE-WC Highway our driver pulls off to the side of the road, steps out, and procures an orange flashing light — like the kind used on construction vehicles — from rear of the SUV and sticks it to the roof. Apparently, we now look official enough to drive down the unopened highway.
What was traveling down this road like?
Imagine a race track that went straight ahead without any obstacles or other vehicles for a hundred kilometers. The road was immaculate — wide, completely smooth, a fully modern roadway cutting through a completely undeveloped and for the most part unpopulated stretch of the world. Speed limits were irrelevant. At one junction we flew passed a police car that was parked in the median. Apparently, the light worked.
For a stretch, the WE-WC Highway runs parallel to the new train tracks that extend to the Chinese border. At one point we all got out to watch a train carrying containers speckled with Chinese characters pass by.
This was the third time in an 18 month period that I would travel along the Almaty to Khorgos span of the WE-WC Highway. The first time in May of 2015 it looked a little different: A young Uighur pointed it out to me from the bus we were riding in, but when I looked out the window all I saw were five-foot-high piles of dirt.
The WE-WC Expressway is a major part of the Western Europe-Western China Transport Corridor, which Kazkahstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev described in a 2012 speech as the “construction of the century.” It is to be part of a new multimodal, high-speed nervous system, which will link together other highways, rail lines, and transport hubs as it ties together China, the CIS, Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East — helping to turn Kazakhstan into the logistical heart of the Eurasian landmass.
“Kazakhstan is coming from a landlocked country and is becoming the most linked-in country on the whole continent. If you take Russia, the largest country; China, the largest economy; India, one of the largest populations, and you put these three together, right in the middle is Kazakhstan. It’s this place,” Karl, the former CEO of the Khorgos Gateway dry port on the Kazakhstan/China border, told me previously.
The WE-WC Transport Corridor is also one of Kazakhstan’s major contributions to the New Silk Road, which aims to increase infrastructural, economic, and political connectivity between more than 65 countries across Eurasia, covering half the population, 40 percent of the GDP, and 75 percent of the known energy resources in the world.
Illiyar, the young Uyghur who originally pointed out the WE-WC Highway to me, was anxious for those piles of dirt to morph into roadway. He was from Zharkent, a remote city 30 kilometers 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 old, pothole-ridden highway into the city to pick up a load of broken phones. He complained about how long it took to cross such a short distance and claimed that the new highway would cut his trip down from 320 km to just 220 km, down from four hours to two hours each way.
“The road itself is finished,” Karl said after I mentioned the delays that had been hampering the project virtually since its inception. However, the company who received the tender for the bridges for the on and off ramps ran into some funding issues, and the delays have continued.
However, some other sections of the WE-WC Highway in Kazakhstan have already come alive.
Soon though, the entire road will be fully commissioned, and will directly connect the the seas on both sides of Eurasia, making it possible to deliver goods by truck from one side to the other in just ten days.
The best view in logistics
Then I saw it: the Khorgos Gateway dry port with its giant 41 ton cranes rising up from the sparkling snow covered terrain like a mirage. Snow-capped mountains framed the scene. Everything glistened in the bright sun.
“It’s the best view in logistics.”
The last time I was here was in November of 2015. A lot has changed since then. The first time I was at “the place where the east meets the west” — the place in the dry port where the tracks coming from China are aligned with those coming from the CIS and Europe — the giant yellow cranes were in piles, yet to be assembled. Now they are up and running day and night, as container volume passing through here doubles by the year.
This dry port is right on the Kazakhstan / China border, and specializes in processing China-Europe trains.
When Karl first arrived in Khorgos three years ago the place was little more than sand dunes and mountains. The nearest Kazakh city is the diminutive 30,000 person Zharkent, which is a 30 minute drive away. While Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural and commercial capital, is more than 300 kilometers distant. 230 backhoes cleared away the dunes and flattening the earth, preparing the place for the new city that would soon be built there — a new city in one of the most remote parts of the world.
Khorgos sits 670 kilometers west of Urumqi and 300 kilometers east of Almaty, far out in the Saryesik-Atyrau desert in the shadow of the Dzungarian Alatau Mountains, a tick or two from the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, the farthest point on earth from an ocean — which is to say, proverbial no-mans-land.
But the dry port in this far flung place is now running at full speed. The surrounding SEZ has been commissioned. The new residential area has been built and people just began moving in. That improbable Khorgos dream, which was much doubted all through its initial stages, has happened. It’s there, it’s real, it’s working — you can go out there and look at it.
“We’re building the next Dubai,” Karl once blurted out when given a speech in nearby Zharkent. This line resonated, and kind of became the project’s defect slogan.
The idea is the same: go out to a strategic area and build a world-class transportation hub. Add warehouses. Add factories. Add housing. Add facilities. Add people. This is how new cities are born, and this is the model for pretty much every new station along the New Silk Road.
Crane ride at night
“Are you afraid of heights?” Gulina taunted me at first sight. She was the crane operator that was going to teach me a little about her work. Even though I’ve spent the past two years traveling to dry and sea ports from one side of Eurasia to the other, I’ve never actually been up in a gantry crane before.
Gulina was working the night shift, so I was going to get the duel bonus of not only being able to get into the crane to see how they work but to see the dry port under the lights at night.
I tried to start my interview but Gulina preferred poking fun at me. She picked on my thin, trendy blue jeans. It was fiercely cold out, so she had a point. They were kind of dumb.
“What do you like about operating a crane?”
“It’s extreme, and I love it.”
“Was it difficult to become a crane operator because you’re a woman?”
“No. My teacher was a woman!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
She told me that in the Soviet times most crane operators were women. Apparently, there is even an old documentary about it.
“Why were they mostly women?”
“Because women are more accurate.”
We entered the port and climbed the stairs up to the crane high above. I stopped for a moment at the top and looked out over the port. The powerful lights radiated off the thin layer of snow and ice that covered the ground, proving a type of backlighting that seemed to make the entire place glow. I got into the cabin of the crane, and Gulina began her work.
“Do you want to see me put one in a wagon?”
“Do you want to see me put one on a platform?”
“Want to see me put one on a truck?”
She gave me a full demonstration.
“I’m nervous,” she said.
“Don’t be,” I replied. “I can’t do what you do.”
She then laughed and grabbed my knee. “I can’t do what you do either.”
I thought she was talking about being a traveling journalist. But then she finished her statement with a cackle:
“Going out in the cold with these thin pants!”
“I like my job . . . and my warm pants,” she added.
I’ve written about this company and their highly-sophisticated, climate controlled, remotely operated shipping containers before on Forbes. This is one of the new technologies that is enabling the New Silk Road to come alive. Producers in China now no longer need to worry about temperature when shipping high-tech products to Europe, and producers in Europe are now able to ship fresh meat, wine, and high-value produce to China. It may seem simple, but these containers really are a turnkey type of innovation, and will soon cause a ripple effect through the supply chains of Eurasia.
While I’ve seen these containers stacked up in many dry ports in Asia and Europe, I’ve never actually seen them on a train before. When I was up in the crane with Gulina there was a full train loaded with Unit 45 containers below us. As she moved boxes from place to place, I got to watch this train depart for Europe.
It may sound simple, but this was actually something kind of special for me.
Return to the ICBC
The International Center for Boundary Cooperation (ICBC) is a free trade zone that straddles the border of China and Kazakhstan, and is shared by both countries. The last time I was here was in May 2015, and the Kazakh side had nothing but a stale tent selling some junk that nobody wanted to buy sitting next to a burning pile of garbage. Now, it has a large trade center that is open to vendors and customers, a large Japan / Kazakh warehousing and distribution enterprise that’s in operation, and two more large trade centers and a hotel under construction.
The nearest established town to Khorgos is Zharkent, a small city of 30,000 people. Zharkent is an old Silk Road town, and the legacy of those ancient trade routes still live on here — the town’s main street is even called the “Silk Road.” The new projects that are emerging on the Chinese border are reviving this old trading post, suddenly making it relevant again. This is a place in rapid transition. After a long decline into oblivion — being the proverbial last stop at the end of the earth — the outside world has again come to Zharkent as the chasm between continents has been bridged.
“It all started when the Turkish and Italian guys came to build the WE-WC Highway,” said Naziyam. “Then people in Zharkent realized that they could make money.”
Like in the past, the people here are still traders. They do runs over the Chinese border to the new city of Horgos or even all the way to Urumqi to buy merchandise that they can resell in Kazakhstan for a profit. Recently, they are starting to do more business in the ICBC, where a huge portion of the town’s residents now work.
“When we first started there was no traffic,” Karl began. “Now when we went down the road from Zharkent to Khorgos we got stuck in traffic. My driver turned to me and said, ‘See boss, it’s starting.’”