Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 14:03 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 14:03 | SYDNEY

Kazakh-China Diary: Drifting in a world of lost connections

11 October 2011 14:58

Konrad Muller is a former Australian diplomat and journalist. He and Anthony Bubalo are undertaking fieldwork for a new project examining Kazakh-China relations. Earlier posts in this series: post 1, post 2post 3, post 4, post 5.

'Why do you want to do the border crossing?' the Sinologist from the Kazakh think tank had inquired sceptically.

'To see the terrain — to grasp the physical connections', I had answered virtuously.

'Between Almaty and Urumqi, I would take the plane', he had then advised.

'No, we would like to go overland, and if necessary even take the train.'

This last remark caused him to brush away my words with a disgusted, disbelieving hand; he had earlier told us the train took twenty-five hours on a good day.

More than once this exchange entered my mind as we did the border-crossing by road through Khorgos into China.

It was a Saturday, the time was around nine and in theory the border was open. We had traveled by rattletrap Lada up to the first perimeter wall, and had then found a ride as extras on a bus, which had ferried us through a restricted area and so on to the border zone's second perimeter wall. From here we could now see the Kazakh Immigration and Customs Terminal.

The difficulty was, we were separated from that terminal by wire fencing and a heavy metal gate manned by unsmiling uniformed gentlemen, and the sole means through was via the narrow door of a small gatehouse, outside of which a crowd of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, measuring in the hundreds, not a few of them with green metal trolleys (for the low-end cross border trade), was converging and massing and pressing in periodic waves. It appeared that only a dribble, if any, were being let through that door.

Initially, this image struck us as an administrative absurdity; in fact, it was the perfect introduction to the border crossing.

After a short time, we decided to step to one side and to watch and wait. As the bodies pulsed, I noticed the splayed white fingers of those at the head of the throng supporting themselves against the door frame, so as not to lose their footing. An English-speaking Kazakh engineer, who had attached himself to us out of pity or concern, remarked, 'We must be careful with our health', and tapped himself on the chest and smiled patiently.

This went on for a couple of hours.

Batches of travelers with their trolleys began spilling slowly through that doorway. Claiming incapacity, we began to petition the guards to let us through the gate instead, along with the elderly and the children. 'Konrad is not strong', Anthony said charitably. Their replies, in Russian, seemed monosyllabic and negative. Then, at around midday, they relented, and, shepherded by our Kazakh engineer, we joined the human stream flowing into the departure hall.

Well, we had been warned. And, after all, as Anthony reminded me, queuing there, this was the first day the border had opened after the week-long Chinese national day holiday. In short, it was not a good day (in fact, probably the worst day) for a crossing.

Our passage out of Kazakhstan was not yet over, however. After exiting Kazakh Customs we entered another yard. And here we discovered that the only way to reach the Chinese border was to scavenge a second lift, this time on a long-distance sleeper bus (walking was barred and there was no shuttle service).

This, too, went on for a couple of hours. We shared pistachios and superb dried apricots from Samarkand, jokes and bread. 'No more bread for me,' said our Kazakh friend. 'I eat meat, not much bread. I think the Kazakhs are number two in the world for meat.' He paused, then said, 'Number one are wolves.'

At some point during the foregoing, I recalled remarks made to us by a development official in Almaty. Speaking about the well-documented delays and inefficiencies affecting the cross-border trade with China (where trucks can be stranded for days), he said the greatest problem was not corruption (with which Khorgos has been associated) but rather poor infrastructure, although there was now the intention to modernise the Customs Terminal. Presumably, the Chinese ambition to develop Korgas (as their side of the border is called) into a special economic zone — indeed, into 'the biggest transshipment station in Asia' — for trade and transit into Central Asia and beyond, will only enhance the pressure for change.

Eventually, at around three o'clock, we forced our way into the stewing belly of a bus, which an hour later rumbled off in the warm sun toward the Chinese border. The crossing from the Kazakh side had taken seven-and-a-half hours. China received us with well-supervised efficiency. Here were fewer perimeter walls and the journey from the arrival hall to the exit was happily done on foot. After forty-five minutes we were in Xinjiang. Anthony staggered off to find Panadol.
(No photos are included in this post because none were taken in the border zone.)