Located on the edge of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, at one of the farthest points in China from the sea, stands a city that began to embrace its great economic takeoff just 10 years ago. The city is not a fictitious place from a fairytale, but a real city, located along the Belt and Road, has a vision to create a land and sea corridor that allows commercial, cultural, and idea exchanges, as it once did when it was part of the ancient Silk Road.
At the China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center, motor vehicles drive into China from Kazakhstan.
A Border City’s Economic Takeoff
The name of this city is Horgos. A county-level city of Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture, it sits right on the border with Kazakhstan. Although it is a small place of tens of thousands of people, especially when compared to some of China’s megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing, which all boast tens of millions of permanent inhabitants, its importance cannot be overlooked. Over the past decade, Horgos has literally risen out of the grassland to become a logistics and trade center and one of the largest land terminals for cargo transportation in Eurasia. For this purpose, a series of projects have been launched, with new buildings, roads, companies, and other types of infrastructure erected to support the land port.
As a result, people have been arriving in Horgos in successive waves. They have not only come from other parts of Xinjiang, but also from all over China. In addition, Horgos is a place that has seen the blending and integration of various ethnic groups, including Uygur, Mongolian, Kazak, Hui, and Han, which has given the city a particular stamp.
The Horgos railway station started the China-Europe freight train service in March 2016. Since then, the number of trains passing through the cargo terminal has been increasing. During the most critical moment of the COVID-19 pandemic, it directly contributed to the transportation of material and medical supplies from China to the West. Meanwhile, a passenger train route was launched in June 2017, connecting China and Kazakhstan, the second between the two countries.
As a result, in 2020 nearly 5,000 freight trains left China passing through the Horgos railway terminal, bringing the volume of goods up to more than 3.68 million tons. Meanwhile, during the first quarter of 2021, 1,493 trains passed through the terminal, with a cargo volume of 2.004 million tons, which represents a year-on-year increase of 76.9 percent and 103.9 percent respectively.
The international railway network of which Horgos is a part covers a total of 28 countries and almost 11,000 kilometers of railways. The scope of this project is enormous both in terms of its logistics and the potential for economic and cultural cooperation between the countries it involves.
Xu Dujun, deputy director of the Horgos railway terminal, is optimistic about the future, noting that the last five years have seen an exponential increase in the volume of transported freight. “In 2020, the cargo volume increased 7.5 times compared to 2016, and RMB 200 million was invested by China State Railway Group (China Railway) to improve the Horgos crossing,” Xu explained. This is not an easy task, especially if you take into account an added difficulty. Namely, the standards of rails on the Kazak and Chinese sides are not the same. The Chinese railway line uses the standard 1,435-millimeter gauge for the track used in Western Europe, while the other side of the border in Kazakhstan, since it used to be part of the Soviet Union, uses the 1,524-millimeter gauge. Therefore, the crossing of the trains from China into Kazakhstan involves transferring each of the containers – containing tons of goods – to the other rail. Even though this monumental task is aided by cranes, according to Xu, it still takes 90 minutes to complete.
In addition to freight transport, a daily passenger train service was put into operation in June 2017 traveling between Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, and Nur-Sultan, formerly known as Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Since then, the train routes have not stopped, showing the strong development momentum of bilateral exchanges.
A model of the Horgos Railway Port.
A Network of Infrastructure and Services
Despite its importance, the land cargo terminal is not the only milestone that has marked the economic development of Horgos and the surrounding area. In this sense, it is worth highlighting the preponderant role which the local economic development zone and the China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center have played.
The economic development zone has a total of 73 square kilometers, and has become the home to a range of companies that have made use of the special policies and mechanisms granted by the government, in addition to their competitive advantages. An example of this is the Jinyi International Trade Group Co., Ltd., a company dedicated to the processing and export of food products in China, Russia, and five Central Asian countries. To carry out their work, the company employs more than 200 people permanently and has more than 6,667 hectares of farmland. Because of the company’s commitment to the local economy, it was awarded the honorary title of “Outstanding Company in Ili Prefecture” and was added to the list of thousands of companies that have helped thousands of villages.
On the other hand, the China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center, which was approved in 2006 after the signing of an agreement between the two countries in 2005, and opened as a destination for cross-border trading and shopping, houses 35 companies, in addition to providing logistical support, exhibition spaces, and financial services, as well as offering lectures and talks on international trade. This is the first center of its kind set up between Kazakhstan and China, further deepening the bond between the two countries.
According to Xu Xinming, deputy director of the management committee of the economic development zone, in addition to further consolidating its role as a major railway transportation hub, Horgos has progressively transformed its “port economy” thanks to its strategic location, where the East meets the West. “Now we are also working on the construction of a civil airport, so we can continue in the future to build Horgos into an important gateway between Europe and Asia,” he said.
The Horgos Railway Port is an important hub for cargo transportation between China and Europe.
A Dream Comes True
With his great vision and pragmatism, late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched China’s reform and opening-up drive more than 40 years ago, a move which has enabled China to be a prominent player in the international arena and propelled its sustainable economic growth like never before. Of course, this grand journey has been accompanied by the effort and work of hundreds of millions of people, under the wise leadership of the CPC.
In order to continue improving the well-being of its citizens and achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, a series of projects have been carried out that aim at this great task. In Chinese President Xi Jinping’s address which he presented at the grand gathering marking the centenary of the CPC at Tian’anmen Square on July 1, 2021, he said, “Through continued efforts of the whole Party and the entire nation, we have realized the first centenary goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects. This means that we have brought about a historic resolution to the problem of absolute poverty in China, and we are now marching in confident strides toward the second centenary goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects.”
Horgos is undoubtedly part of that dream, standing in a place where once before there were mainly desert lands, but now connects the country with many countries of the world, looking far into the future.