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05/19/2023

A miracle in the heart of Asia: Horgos!

A miracle in the heart of Asia: Horgos!

Can there be a port at the farthest distance from the sea?

I went to the Horgos Free Trade Economic Zone, known as the world’s largest ‘dry port’, which is crossed by both road and rail and will soon have air service. I have seen it, I am writing about it!

At the pole of inaccessibility in Eurasia

The Horgos Free Trade Economic Zone (FEZ), a joint creation of both countries on the China-Kazakhstan border, lies at the foot of what is known as the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility. The Pole of Inaccessibility is a geographical term. It refers to the geographical region on a continent farthest from the seas. (1)

This is the ingenuity of the Asian Century: Eurasia’s Pole of Inaccessibility is now the crossroads of transcontinental transportation and manufacturing. 

Horgos FEZ, in the north of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on the China-Kazakhstan border, is at the very heart of Asia. And it serves as the heart of trade not only to Asia but also to three continents, including Europe and Africa. Asia and Europe’s products pass Horgos by road and rail to reach their destinations. Products arriving by sea are also transported by land and rail to the ends of Asia via Horgos. 

Many of the China-Europe rail lines pass through here. Cargo containers that arrive at Horgos FEZ in 5 days by rail from the port city of Lianyungang in eastern China can reach the city of Duisburg in northwestern Germany in 10 days. This connection route, which is 3 times faster than sea transportation and half the cost of air transportation, offers an alternative to investors in terms of time and cost.

Horgos is also the crossroads of the Western Europe-Western China Highway from the Yellow Sea to the Baltic. Goods purchased from Horgos FEZ can be freely shipped to CIS countries without any additional customs inspection or tax. 

Herodotus’ legend comes true!

Horgos is a historical gateway. It has long been called the Dzungarian Gate (or Altai Pass). It is the only pass through the 4,800-kilometer mountain wall stretching from Manchuria to Afghanistan. It is a convenient natural gateway for riders on horseback between the western Eurasian steppes and the lands further east. It has also been noted for its fierce and almost constant winds.

In his “Histories”, Herodotus quotes travelers’ reports of a country in the northeast where men with the bodies of lions and the wings of eagles guarded the gold and the North Wind came out of a mountain cave. Hyperborea, a term meaning beyond the point where Boreas, the god of the North Wind, breathed his breath, is the name of a mythical land in Greek Mythology beyond the North Wind, where the sun never fails to shine, the trees are always full of fruit and the meadows are always green. Some scholars argue that there is a connection between the Dzungarian Gate and the home of Boreas, the creator of the North Wind in Greek mythology. Because this gate is at the foot of the Altai Mountains, named after the Golden Mountain. (2) Horgos have replaced the house of Boreas!

Breaking new ground in international cooperation

The Horgos FEZ is intended to be a game-changing catalyst for international cooperation and trade. 

Officially called the International Center for Border Cooperation (ICBC), the five-square-kilometer Free Economic Zone is located in the middle of the Saryesik-Atyrau desert, 670 kilometers west of Urumqi and 380 kilometers east of Almaty.

Horgos, in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, means “the place where camel caravans pass” in Mongolian and “the place where wealth accumulates” in Kazakh. 

The new city of Horgos on the Chinese side, is like an oasis in the desert. On the Kazakh side, the developing Horgos-East Gate Special Economic Zone is recovering rapidly after the pandemic.

Horgos FEZ is a successful implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive economic cooperation-trade network of interconnected land and sea ports, special economic zones, new cities, and free trade zones in which 134 countries in Eurasia, Africa, and South America are actively participating. 

Horgos is positioned as a gateway for international trade linking east and west and a bridgehead for the opening of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to the west. It is the world’s first cross-border international free economic zone and China’s first special economic zone “inside the country but outside the jurisdiction of customs”. 

Moreover, with the facilities provided by the Chinese central government and the strong interest of the Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Horgos Local Government offers very attractive investment incentives for setting up manufacturing facilities. The incentives offered by both China and Kazakhstan for Horgos FEZ to become a production base deserve the attention of investors. 

The bright path of Kazakhstan

When it first opened in December 2011, the Khorgos FEZ was heralded as a cornerstone of China-Kazakhstan bilateral relations and a prime example of Kazakhstan’s broader “Nurly Jol” plan to diversify its economy beyond energy exports.

Presented in promotional materials as “a huge new city of the future where two civilizations intersect,” Horgos FEZ is envisioned as a multicultural economic crossroads where Central Asian Turks, Russians, and Chinese can come together to buy each other’s goods, eat each other’s cuisine and consume each other’s entertainment and culture. 

A new city is being built on the Kazakhstan side of the Horgos FEZ. Nurkent is expected to be home to 100,000 people. The first zone is 90% complete. It was announced that the entire development and construction of Nurkent City Phase One will be completed in September 2023. It is planned to be fully completed by 2035. Nurkent is seen as a vehicle to help resettle workers at the Khorgos-East Gate, the largest transportation and logistics hub in the Belt and Road Initiative. These workers will be retrained as a permanent source of labor for the Horgos FEZ, which is already a major trade hub between Kazakhstan and China and is developing into a favored manufacturing zone. (3)

Huge work in short time

The Chinese side of Horgos consists of five giant four-story wholesale markets. They are located side by side in blocks, with wide sidewalks and roads between them. No personal vehicles are allowed within the area, and public golf carts and vans transport customers from the shopping complex to the shopping complex. New wholesale markets continue to be added, while unfinished construction projects take up much of the land.

Like Chinese wholesale markets, the inside of the malls is made up of hundreds of small shops and booths rented by individual vendors. Most of the buildings, floors, and corridors are organized by product type. Vendors call out to you as you walk through aisles filled with huge waist-high piles of goods.

But it is important to remember that this is not just a new free trade zone, but an entirely new economy being created. ICBC is just one part of a multi-pronged development initiative to build an entirely new trade, manufacturing, and logistics zone where none existed before. The adjacent Horgos special economic zone is estimated to attract 30,000 workers and their families, while the city of Horgos is being built for 200,000 people. Such large-scale development anywhere takes decades, not just years. China did it in 10 years.

TUCEM opens Turkish brands the doors to China from Horgos

At the invitation of Mr. Ma Fuming, President of Horgos International Chamber of Commerce, we as the Turkish-Chinese Business Matching Center (TUCEM) delegation Mr, Serdar Kulu, Director of TUCEM Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and as the chairman I, spent four full days in Horgos between April 26-30. Mr. Rutkay Çakırkaya, the owner of Balizza, one of Turkey’s leading women’s clothing brands, joined us coming from through Kazakhstan. We were received by Mr. Hao Jianmin, the CPC Secretary of Horgos. The Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui, and Han officials of the Horgos Local Government mobilized with sincere interest to provide the best service. 

Here is our good news: On August 12-14, we are organizing a special exhibition and fashion show with Turkish clothing brands in Horgos International Free Economic Zone. Hao Jianmin, Secretary of Horgos CPC, has committed to bringing a delegation of 1000 buyers, including all major garment buyers from the eastern region of China. Turkey is organizing the first international event of Horgos FEZ in a magnificent venue built in the shape of a Chinese Palace. We will continue to report good news from Horgos! 

Footnotes:

1. The Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility is determined by looking for the farthest point of the continent from the ocean. There is debate about the exact location of the Gulf of Ob in northern Russia, depending on whether it should be considered “part of the ocean”. If the Gulf of Ob is considered part of the ocean, the latitude/longitude of the farthest point is 45.28°N 88.14°E, the location of Horgos.

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dzungarian_Gate

3. https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2023/03/14/kazakhstans-developing-nurkent-border-city-with-china/

Adnan Akfırat

Adnan Akfirat is former representative to China and Member of International Relations Bureau of the Patriotic Party of Türkiye; Chairman of Turkish-Chinese Business Development and Friendship Association (Turk-Cin Is Der); visitor researcher of Shanghai University Turkish Studies Center and Shihezi University Silk Road Research Center. Mr. Akfirat has been living in Shanghai since 2011.

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