Tashkurgan is a small town of about 40,000 people (or over 60,000 population if it includes Chinese military personnel, tourists, and businessmen), situated in the south-eastern corner of the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The town represents the seat of the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. One of China’s remotest counties, placed in a barren high plateau at over three thousands meters above sea level, Tashkurgan has a long and rich history. Here were excavated artifacts produced by some of the earliest cultures of the region. It is believed by some that Tashkurgan – which means Stone Fortress (or Tower) – was in fact the stone tower mentioned by Ptolemy, where western and Chinese merchants performed their trade exchanges. Nevertheless, Tashkurgan’s role as a market town seems reinvigorated today by the presence of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the road connecting Kashgar to Islamabad that represents the backbone of the projected “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”. A legacy of the legendary Silk Road, the KKH was opened to civilian traffic in 1982 and has since brought immense changes to Tashkurgan, a once forgotten outpost of the PRC.
Tashkurgan is part of a large development project involving various remote places in the south of Xinjiang. Following the deadly Urumqi riots of 2009, long-term Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan was dismissed and substituted by Zhang Chunxian. He was the face of a new policy in Xinjiang that was finalized in the Xinjiang Work Conference held in Beijing in mid-May 2010. The new approach abandoned the “stability above all else” formula, and moved to one of “expedite development”, later rephrased as “leapfrog development”, with the aim of achieving “long term stability” in the region. In this regard the Xinjiang Work Conference arranged a “pairing assistance” model whereby 19 affluent provinces and municipalities were each required to support the development of respective areas of Xinjiang. This included granting 0.3% to 0.6% of their annual budget and providing human resources, technology and management to support their “sister cities” in Xinjiang. This scheme paired Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County with Shenzhen, China’s first and perhaps most successful Special Economic Zone. In this regard, as recently reported by Xinhua (here in Chinese with more details) and others, June 2014 marked the beginning of the construction of a Border Trade Zone in Tashkurgan. The Trade Zone, which will cost 100 million RMB and cover an area of about 6.6 hectares, is meant to accommodate areas for trade, commerce, tourism, as well as hotels and restaurants. With the objective of providing 300 jobs for locals, the Trade Zone will not only boost tourism and trade relations with nearby Tajikistan and Pakistan, but also represent an important source of income for the local community.
If Tashkurgan has become somewhat attractive for domestic investments, it also remains the target for tight security measures. The town of Tashkurgan serves as the port of entry for the Khunjerab Pass, the de facto China-Pakistan border, and in this sense maintains an important strategic function. The first time I visited Tashkurgan in 2009, I remember the loudspeakers placed along the main roads, broadcasting two hours of propaganda every evening about ethnic unity, the leading role of the CCP and revolutionary songs in Mandarin, a language that most local people could not understand. Now the speakers are gone, and the town has changed radically, yet the presence of the state remains strong and visible. Chinese flags are attached to every street light pole along the Karakoram Highway, while Tashkurgan’s small alleys are dotted with posters of PLA soldiers riding yaks along snowy paths. The town is also constantly patrolled by a group of heavily armed soldiers in a small electric car. Locals often told me that Tashkurgan county hosts an important number of military personnel, a presence which in recent years has brought a significant number of Han civilians to the area as new restaurants and other facilities opened. Probably due to its economic expansion, the port of entry for the Khunjerab Pass moved further south in 2009, into a newer and bigger building on the outskirts of the city. Beyond it, the KKH runs straight across the pebbly plateau, with only the red roofs of hundreds of small houses that make up a “socialist new village” visible in the distance.
The development of Tashkurgan, the opening of the Karakoram Highway to trans-border trade and the growing presence of soldiers in the area have brought important changes for the local population as well. Most people in Tashkurgan belong to the Tajik ethnic group, but in the nearby areas there are also various groups of Kyrgyz nomads. As in other parts of Xinjiang and, perhaps most famously Tibet, the CCP in recent years has relocated an important number of these rural inhabitants into “socialist new villages”. The objective of these is to “enhance” the economic and cultural development of these ethnic minorities. In Tashkurgan a new Socialist new village was built on the southern outskirts of town, yet at the time of my last visit in 2013 it remained empty.
It is still not entirely clear what this new era of development will bring to Tashkurgan. New roads and buildings remain largely empty, and the tourism business is not thriving as expected. Trade on the Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan has declined significantly since the Attabad landslide in 2010, and if anything, the highway remains only a Silk Road of potentials. Moreover, Tashkurgan remains a remote and isolated border town, albeit with a significant military presence. “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away” goes a well-known saying often referring to Xinjiang and other peripheral regions of China. For today’s Tashkurgan, Beijing is much closer than it was in imperial times, yet the mountains remain inevitably high, and this remote town remains an inaccessible place for most.
Alessandro Rippa is pursuing his PhD at the University of Aberdeen. He studies China’s western regions and is an expert on Uyghur issues. He is also the assistant editor of The South Asianist. He visited Xinjiang in 2009 for six months and again in 2011 for two months. More recently, he conducted a 11-month field work trip from 2012 to 2013 in both Pakistan and Xinjiang for his PhD, where he researched the Karakoram Highway, transnational trade, and the Uyghur community of Pakistan.