By Raffaello Pantucci
The red arrow and circle indicate the Irkeshtam border pass. Picture from here.
In what can only be described as a cosmic coincidence or evidence of some deeper significant trend that I can only guess at, on either sides of the Irkeshtam Pass between China and Kyrgyzstan we found Japanese backpackers. The surprising part was that our visits to each side of the border took place some five months apart from each other. Ardent Japanese travellers aside, there were few other obvious similarities on the two sides of the border. In fact, what differences there were seemed to be weighted in favour of the Kyrgyz side, where the road was in better shape than its Chinese counterpart.
Leaving one morning from Osh with a driver a local Chinese teacher had helped us source, our trip to Irkeshtam on the Kyrgyz side was a relatively painless one. The road was for the most part tarmacked and aside from a bumpy part in the mountains, in good condition. Funded in part by the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the Chinese government, the China Bridge and Road Corporation (CBRC) had built most of the road (often as subcontractor to the international projects) – a Chinese state owned enterprise whose management office we came across as we zoomed along on the Kyrgyz side. Wandering into the compound we found a few Chinese engineers who said that the project was due to finish in spring 2012. They worked from April to October of each year when weather conditions were bearable. An hour or so down the road, we came across their colleagues, Chinese men huddled in in heavy green military coats directing large trucks of granite as they worked to asphalt the road.
As with many borders in the region, there is a gap between the actual border and where they check passports before you get to the line of demarcation. On the Kyrgyz side, a small camouflage painted mobile home sat by the side of the road with a simple metal barrier across the road itself. The young Kyrgyz guard manning the barrier waved vigorously at us as we tried to take pictures, though he seemed a lot less threatening once we noticed that his AK-47 did not have ammunition clip.
The border itself was a dusty parking lot with giant shipping trucks with Customs (海关) emblazoned on the sides edging around each other. A lone donkey wandered through the chaos as various truckers and other loafers used facilities, shopped at the mini-mud buildings selling food, cigarettes and other provisions or had meals at the rudimentary restaurants. One Uighur-Chinese driver (who had in fact helped ferry hapless Japanese backpacker Takeshi through the pass) told us eagerly that he was on his way to Uzbekistan with a truckload of ‘stuff’ – when asked to specify he said various electronica and low-end Chinese products. He was more interested to hear about Shanghai and the business prospects there.
In contrast, the Chinese side of the border was visibly policed with more solid structures at the actual border post – a big white tiled building and men in warm uniforms guiding the truck traffic. Present in early spring (we did the trip to Kyrgyz side in October, the Chinese side in April), there was still snow on the ground and written into it in the mountain above the post was the phrase 中国民爱 (roughly translated as China loves its people). Unlike the dusty Kyrgyz side, the Chinese side was a small village of concrete buildings with a police station, Sinopec office, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. On the road before the encampment was an odd building with a giant football on top of it. Behind it was a walled area with cameras on top that our driver informed us was some sort of military installation.
While the border itself was relatively developed, there was a dramatic contrast in the state of the roads up to it on the Chinese side. Whilst likely done by the same company as that on the Kyrgyz side, the road on the Chinese side was a potholed mess and for a substantial period we were drudging through dirt and knee-deep snow. Our driver steadily became more exasperated, chain-smoking his way through two packs of cigarettes as we battled on and his carefully cleaned car turned into a mud coloured mess with a broken bumper. Ploughing through a blizzard we saw large trucks abandoned by the side of the road, battered by the treacherous road conditions. We had been warned the ride would be difficult, though given the excellent state of the Karakoram Highway and most infrastructure in China, we figured this could not be that bad. We were wrong: it was a bumpy ride from almost the moment we left Kashgar.
The reason for this rather surprising inversion in road quality is that the road to the border on the Chinese side is in the process of being re-built, due to be finished by 2013. Something visible along the way as we saw teams digging holes and moving large pieces of concrete around to support the road. A city is being built along the way at a previously minute village called Ulugqat that currently serves as an entertainment spot for the customs officers and workers on the road and at the border – but is mostly a muddy mess with giant construction going on everywhere. The customs post before the border ‘dead-zone’ on the Chinese side was a more substantial creation, with a small soldiers’ cabin across the road from a much larger official customs building with Chinese flags and logos all over it. In contrast to their Kyrgyz counterparts, these soldiers had ammunition clips in their guns as well as new uniforms that contrasted our increasingly bedraggled appearance.
Unlike its northern counterpart the Torugut Pass, Irshketam is open most of the year. One of the key crossing points for China into Central Asia, it provides a route for Chinese products to get to Kyrgyz markets as well as travel up into Russia, across into Uzbekistan and beyond both to Europe and Iran. Much of the material brought across the border ends up in Kyrgyzstan’s crowded Osh or Kara-Suu bazaars, an arrangement in danger of being destroyed if the Kyrgyz elect to join Putin’s Eurasian Union and a subsequent tariff barrier is erected between the Kyrgyz and Chinese economies. When we put this to officials in Kyrgyzstan they told us it was potentially devastating. Chinese we asked seemed less concerned. Partially because the market loss would be negligible in terms of China’s overall trade volumes, but also since they believe that the entire Eurasian Union project is unlikely to amount to much. As a Chinese academic put it to us, the Eurasian Union will clash with Kyrgyzstan’s WTO membership and the expectation is that the Kyrgyz would rather be part of the global economy than be a pawn in Russia’s expansionist agenda. This outlook was supported by evidence on the ground where China is clearly making investments in turning this road into a major artery for its Central Asian trade.
Another ribbon in the latticework that is the New Eurasian Landbridge.