The Trillion-Dollar Nowhere - PhMuseum

The Trillion-Dollar Nowhere

Andrea Frazzetta

2018 - Ongoing

In the barely inhabited steppes of Asia, China is building an international shipping hub and free trade zone that will connect its coastal factories with the global economy. The area, near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility lies 1,550 miles from any sea or ocean on the planet and is home to some of the last surviving pastoral nomads in Central Asia.

Just across the border from the Pole, in Kazakhstan, a central hub is growing around village called Khorgos. Khorgos has spent most of its existence on the obscure periphery of international affairs, but it has become an integral part of the initiative known informally as the new Silk Road, a China-led effort to build a vast cephalopodic network of highways, railroads and overseas shipping routes, supported by hundreds of new plants, pipelines and company towns in dozens of countries.

Ultimately, the Belt and Road Initiative, or B.R.I., as the project is more formally known, will link China’s coastal factories and rising consumer class with Central, Southeast and South Asia; with the Gulf States and the Middle East; with Africa; and with Russia and all of Europe, all by way of a lattice of land and sea routes whose collective ambition boggles the mind.

Critics have described the B.R.I. as a new kind of colonialism or even part of a strategy of ‘‘debt-trap diplomacy,’’ seducing cash-poor countries with infrastructure projects that are unlikely to generate enough revenue to cover the interest on the loans that funded them. And the people along China’s border are especially susceptible to these developments and new policies. In recent years, the Chinese government has erected the most advanced police state in the world in Xinjiang, targeting the region’s Turkic Muslims, especially its Uighur ethnic group, who make up about half the region’s population. Will the B.R.I. benefit the people living in its path, or will it upend their way of life and leave them with little in return?

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  • The railway outside Altynkol station, near Khorgos.
    The Khorgos Gateway connects Kazakhstan to China by rail. Khorgos is the largest dry port in Central Asia and its owners hope it will soon become largest in the world.
    A remote frontier for both China and Kazakhstan, Khorgos is the planned central hub of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious globe-spanning revival of the ancient Silk Road.
    The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—formerly the “One Belt, One Road” project and often referred to simply as the New Silk Road—is the Chinese government’s plan to create the world’s first global transport supernetwork, linking its coastal factories by a lattice of land and sea routes with Central, Southeast, and South Asia, Africa, and Europe.

  • Nunur, a farmer who moonlights as a taxi driver, is an ethnic Kazakh who crossed the border from China with his parents in 1962, when he was eight years old. He worked as a tractor mechanic on a Soviet collective farm in the Tien Shen foothills until the fall of the Soviet Union. Afterward, he inherited his own fields, where he grows corn and sunflower. He is one of the many Kazakhs living in the remote border villages near the Pole of Inaccessibility, where traditional farming and pastoralism is giving way to a new economy based in international trade and commerce.

  • The Khorgos dry port.
    Khorgos Gateway is the largest logistics hub in Central Asia. Its investors hope it will soon be the largest dry port in the world.
    The port moved 100,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs (a standard shipping unit equivalent to 1,172 cubic feet) in 2017 and expects to move 500,000 by 2020.
    Khorgos is an instrument hub of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese government’s plan to create the world’s first global transport supernetwork.
    The Belt and Road Initiative, or B.R.I., as the project is more formally known, will link China’s coastal factories and rising consumer class with Central, Southeast and South Asia; with the Gulf States and the Middle East; with Africa; and with Russia and all of Europe, all by way of a lattice of land and sea routes whose collective ambition boggles the mind.

  • Near the city of Nurkent, aligned containers are being transformed into worker housing. Kaidush, a 69-year-old security guard, keeps watch.
    In the barely inhabited steppes of Asia, China is building an international shipping hub and free trade zone that will connect its coastal factories with the global economy. The area, near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility lies 1,550 miles from any sea or ocean on the planet and is home to some of the last surviving pastoral nomads in Central Asia.

  • Zharkent’s colorful central market. Containers are refashioned as stalls and warehouses for inexpensive goods.

  • The Nurkent settlements.
    The company town of Nurkent has been built from scratch over a few short years. It includes apartment blocks, a school, kindergarten, and shops to serve the railway workers, crane operators, customs officials and other staff needed to keep the dry port running. The town currently has around 3,500 residents, but there are plans to expand it to house more than 100,000.
    Thousands of people have moved to the once empty expanse of sand around Khorgos hoping to work at the new trade hub.
    Khorgos has spent most of its existence on the obscure periphery of international affairs, but it has become an integral part of the initiative known informally as the new Silk Road, a China-led effort to build a vast cephalopodic network of highways, railroads and overseas shipping routes, supported by hundreds of new plants, pipelines and company towns in dozens of countries.

  • The planned site of Nurkent 2, where a commemorative sculpture stands to celebrate the founding of the new, still unbuilt city. The site of the planned expansion is marked by a roundabout with a tiered silver gateway — the “2001” obelisk as imagined by the architect Frank Gehry.
    Thousands of people have moved to the once empty expanse of sand around Khorgos hoping to work at the new trade hub.
    Khorgos has spent most of its existence on the obscure periphery of international affairs, but it has become an integral part of the initiative known informally as the new Silk Road, a China-led effort to build a vast cephalopodic network of highways, railroads and overseas shipping routes, supported by hundreds of new plants, pipelines and company towns in dozens of countries.

  • Inside the International Center for Border Cooperation, a free trade zone established between China and Kazakhstan whose territory is bisected by the border. On a small plaza just over the Kazakh side of the border, tourist attractions include dance performances and a hooded falcon.
    The ICBC occupies a total area of 5.28 square km, with 3.43 sq km in China and 1.85 sq km in Kazakhstan. It's China's first unique economic zone "within the country, but out of the jurisdiction of its customs".
    The center opened in April 2012. The movement of personnel, vehicles and goods are unrestricted on its premises, and stores and visitors in the center are entitled to preferential policies, including taxation.
    Each day, according to the ICBC, around four thousand visitors from Kazakhstan and ten thousand from China enter a free-trade zone in Khorgos, hoping to buy duty-free goods. According to many visitors, smuggling and bribery is rampant in the zone, and at least one Kazakh citizen has been reportedly kidnapped by Chinese security forces while visiting the Chinese side of the zone.

  • Visitors leave the ICBC shopping area and return to the Kazakh territory full of goods. The goods purchased are mainly low-cost items, such as bedsheets and clothes. Visitors are nominally limited to 110 pounds of goods per month, but enforcement is lax, and many wholesalers hire local “carriers” to help them import many times that amount into Kazakhstan each day. Carrying is one of the most commonly available jobs for those living at the border, most of whom come from villages where traditional pastoralism is still practiced. It is part of the gray market economy that has emerged following Kazakhstan’s new border infrastructure projects
    Each day, around four thousand visitors from Kazakhstan enter a free-trade zone in Khorgos, hoping to buy duty-free goods.
    The main attractions for Kazakhs at the ICBC are four large windowless malls. The malls are honeycombed with shops where women of all ages and a few older men sell underwear, linens, and electronics beneath bright fluorescents.

  • Inside a shop on the Kazak side of the ICBC free trade zone. The visa-free border area is the result of an agreement between China and Kazakhstan that in 2012 established a special economic development zone covering three square miles and comprising territory from both countries.

  • Chinese side of the ICBC free trade zone.
    Here a portrait of Zhannur a young Kazakh girl working in a fur shop inside a four-story marketplace. Zhannur had worked at the border for six months. She’d got the job because she could speak Chinese, Russian, Uighur, and Kazakh.
    The fur coat in Kazakhstan is an object of significance, a formal gift bestowed most often before a wedding by one pair of in-laws onto the other. Chinese-made furs are cheaper than those found in Kazakhstan by several orders of magnitude.

  • 1st of August 2018, at the exit from the court Sayragul shows her joy and happiness after her guilty verdict. The judge has just granted the prosecution’s request that Sayragul not be deported back to Kazakhstan, and that she be permitted to serve out her sentence at her husband’s home in Kazakhstan.
    Sayragul is a Chinese national who gave rare public testimony about China’s secretive re-education camps in Xinjiang. On Friday, October 5, her asylum claim was rejected, and her status in Kazakhstan is now uncertain.
    Critics have described the B.R.I. as a new kind of colonialism or even part of a strategy of ‘‘debt-trap diplomacy,’’ seducing cash-poor countries with infrastructure projects that are unlikely to generate enough revenue to cover the interest on the loans that funded them. And the people along China’s border are especially susceptible to these developments and new policies. In recent years, the Chinese government has erected the most advanced police state in the world in Xinjiang, targeting the region’s Turkic Muslims, especially its Uighur ethnic group, who make up about half the region’s population.

  • The train to Almaty leaves Altynkol station, near the Kazakh-Chinese border.
    A five-car sleeper leaves Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, at 11 p.m. every other night bound for Altynkol, the old station at the eastern end of the line. The trip takes just over six hours. The route’s purpose is to create conditions for businessmen and tourists to making duty-free purchases and meet with Chinese partners.

  • A passenger on board the night train to Zharkent. A five-car sleeper leaves Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, at 11 p.m. every other night bound for Altynkol, the old station at the eastern end of the line. The trip takes just over six hours.
    The route’s purpose is to encourage tourists to visit the free-trade zone with China .

  • Deep in the Jungar Alatau, a range of the Tien Shen Mountains between Kazakhstan and China, in a summer pasture, or jailau, known locally as Sartau—yellow mountain. Most of the surviving herders in this part of Kazakhstan practice a form of semi-nomadism known as transhumance, alternating between winters in a village and summers in a high pasture, or Jailau, in the mountains.

  • At Sartau, in the Tien Shen mountains, the men of the jailau prepare for a game of kök büro, Kazakhstan’s national sport, in which horse-mounted players attempt to place a headless goat carcass into a goal.
    In the barely inhabited steppes of Asia, China is building an international shipping hub and free trade zone that will connect its coastal factories with the global economy. The area, near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility lies 1,550 miles from any sea or ocean on the planet and is home to some of the last surviving pastoral nomads in Central Asia.

  • In a “Jailau” known as Sartau, or Yellow Mountain in the Tien Shen Mountains, where men from Shelakel village and its surroundings gather after the butchering of a horse.

  • In a Jailau in the Tien Shen Mountains, preparing kurdak, a meal of diced horse meat and bread. The villagers live in yurts in the summer and drive their herds down to villages near Zharkent for the winter.
    In the barely inhabited steppes of Asia, China is building an international shipping hub and free trade zone that will connect its coastal factories with the global economy. The area, near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility lies 1,550 miles from any sea or ocean on the planet and is home to some of the last surviving pastoral nomads in Central Asia.

  • Rakhman (L) and Rinat (R) recline after lunch inside a neighbor’s yurt inside an alpine meadow where they graze their herds through the summer. A traditional yurt, called a qizi or qazari in Kazakh, is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.
    In the barely inhabited steppes of Asia, China is building an international shipping hub and free trade zone that will connect its coastal factories with the global economy. The area, near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility lies 1,550 miles from any sea or ocean on the planet and is home to some of the last surviving pastoral nomads in Central Asia.

  • Deep in the Jungar Alatau, a range of the Tien Shen Mountains between Kazakhstan and China, in a summer pasture, or jailau, known locally as Sartau—yellow mountain. Most of the surviving herders in this part of Kazakhstan practice a form of semi-nomadism known as transhumance, alternating between winters in a village and summers in a high pasture, or Jailau, in the mountains.


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