In the first part of a week-long series revealing the effects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative on cities around the world, Jon Watts journeys from the steppes of Central Asia to the Black Sea and into Europe, as Beijing’s grand plan radically remakes the lives of people in its path
The Silk Road setting feels timeless: an expanse of desert scrub below the Tianshan Mountains, where weather-beaten farmers herd flocks of sheep much as their ancestors might have done in Marco Polo’s day.
Rising up surreally in their midst, however, are the new landmarks of a modern development: the gleaming yellow gantries of the world’s biggest dry port and the shopping mall towers of a duty-free zone the size of a city.
Welcome to Khorgos, China’s new land gateway to the mineral-rich resources of Central Asia and the consumer-rich markets of Europe. Further from the sea than almost anywhere on Earth, it is both the middle of nowhere and the centre of Beijing’s plans for a new world order.
China is opening new commercial routes across Eurasia. The construction of a new network of Silk Roads – as well as railways, pipelines, ports and ferry routes – is part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.