Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajikistan: The High Road to China

A tortuous mountain road opens up potential for new trading connections between China and Tajikistan and the wider region.
By Shirin Azizmamadova
Bouncing and rattling along, the small minibus is no more than a speck in a breathtaking landscape as it makes the difficult ascent to the Murgab Pass. Inside, the passengers are packed in cramped uncomfortable conditions. At 5,000 metres above sea level, the air is thin and the risk of altitude sickness means only a committed traveller will make the trip.

Although this is a remote, desolate spot, these travellers are not here for adventure but to transport clothes, crockery and food from China to market in Tajikistan. The consignments may be modest, but these “shuttle traders” – so called because they travel to and fro to earn a living - are pioneers opening up a route which for the first time in the modern era offers Tajikistan a direct outlet to markets abroad.

The road east begins in Khorog, the main town in Badakhshan, a huge, sparsely-populated mountain province of eastern Tajikistan, and ends in the city of Kashgar in western China.

Along the way, it snakes over the high plateau of the Pamirs, where only a few hardy shrubs dot a barren landscape at an elevation of three to five kilometres, from which mountains rise up to peaks permanently covered in snow. The nearest human habitation is a long way away.

The journey takes about 20 hours, on roads which on the Tajik side of the border have not been repaired since Soviet times. To save money, Tajik traders pay 40 US dollars to travel in dilapidated minibuses.

The trade route opened up when the Kulma/Karasu border checkpoint started operating in May 2004, and despite the arduous travel involved, is already having a major effect on the way of life in Badakhshan.

Some of the imported goods are offloaded in Khorog. In good weather, the road trip from Khorog to the Tajik capital Dushanbe takes 24 hours, and winter snowfalls can cut the region off almost entirely, so the new availability of Chinese goods imported via the Kulma crossing makes a big difference. These items are much cheaper than those brought in from Dushanbe or along the road north which leads to Kyrgyzstan.

“We really need this road,” said trader Muzafar Muborakshoev. “The road from Khorog to Dushanbe is closed in winter…, and the area [Badakhshan] is literally cut off from the centre of the country for several months.”

“I bring home electrical appliances from China. Even a year ago, there were few Badakhshan residents who could afford to buy a television or other appliances, but now many people are buying satellite antennas,” said Bulbulsho Akobirshoev, a local man who regularly goes on buying trips to Kashgar. “In Dushanbe, they cost at least 200 dollars including installation. But you can buy them from us at 80 dollars a time. You can see the difference. Many of my acquaintances in Dushanbe are now ordering appliances from us.”

Badakhshan’s traders may make a living by selling locally, but with a total population of 200,000 people on low incomes and scattered across a huge inaccessible area, the region is not much of a market for the Chinese.

“Because of the small population, the Chinese are not very keen to open businesses in the Pamirs,” said Chinese trader Wang Chewang, who comes from the town of Oksu near the border with Kyrgyzstan.

“I’ve been in Khorog for six months now,” said Wang. “I brought over a vanload of goods - crockery and bedclothes - but I haven’t sold them all yet. There are few people and lots of goods. And not a lot of purchasing power.”

Wang goes by the Russian nickname Misha in Khorog, where he rents an apartment and hires local traders to sell his goods, paying them a good local wage of 20-30 somoni (about 10 dollars) a day.

But Wang has had enough. “I hope to go home in a month’s time,” he admitted. “And I don’t know whether I’ll be coming back to Tajikistan. I have constant problems with the police. All my documents are in order, but they ask for bribes.”

Local police told IWPR they were unaware of cases where money had been extorted from Chinese traders.

The fresh influx of Chinese imports has had a significant effect on the economy of Tajikistan as a whole. Trade between the two countries has shot up from 69 million dollars in 2004 to 90 million in January-November this year.

Chinese officials predict that trade via the Kulma border crossing will shoot up in the next five year, with an estimated 50,000 people passing through it annually by the end of that period.

One group that has benefited from the border opening are those with relatives on the other side of the frontier, who have had no contact with each other for the last 80 years. There are an estimated 40,000 Tajiks living inside China.

Others, though, voice concerns that the market is being flooded with low-quality goods, and there are also fears of an influx of Chinese people, based partly on xenophobia and partly on worries about Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions.

“They are treading on our toes by selling goods more cheaply than the Tajiks, and we are losing out,” complained Khorog trader Firuz. “We will soon lose our businesses altogether.”

An independent analyst who did not want to be identified suggested to IWPR that the trade onslaught was the thin end of the wedge, and that in reality China harboured a desire for territorial expansion.

The real significance of the road, however, is not so much the implications for Tajikistan as a Chinese trading partner, but the opportunities it will give this small state to become a major conduit in a new network linking in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the other Central Asian republics and the wider region.

“The market in Tajikistan is very limited. Purchasing power is low and it is a small country. Local people don’t have jobs, so any expansion is out of the question,” said Wu Hongbin, the Chinese ambassador in Dushanbe. “The road itself is another matter. Tajikistan could in future become a transit country via which Chinese goods are transported to markets in Central Asia and Russia.”

Bahodur Abdullaev, a diplomat with the Tajik foreign ministry, added, “Our Afghan friends have been very much looking forward to the opening of this road. They trade actively with China, but until now they’ve had to transport goods via China’s southern ports to Iran and Pakistan and from there bring them into the country. Now they have the ability to transport goods directly into Afghanistan via Tajikistan.”

Afghanistan itself shares a short border with China, wedged between Tajik Badakhshan and Pakistan, but the route is all but impassable.

For Tajikistan, opening a new window on the outside world will offer a chance to break its almost total dependence on Uzbekistan as a trade route. In the Nineties, when the Chinese border was sealed and Afghanistan to the south was too unstable for any traffic other than arms and narcotics, Tajikistan could only trade with more northerly countries via Uzbekistan. However, the often tense political relationship between the two countries meant that the Uzbek leadership could obstruct travel and trade, and at times impose a de facto blockade on their weaker neighbour. It also earned transit fees from the key Tajik exports – aluminium and cotton.

That stranglehold could be broken with the creation of a network that leads east through Badakhshan and south via a more stable Afghanistan. Ports in Iran and Pakistan, China and India suddenly begin to look a lot closer.

That is some way off, and for the moment the road to China will be used mainly by small-time traders, who remain reliant on the tenuous link staying open as long as the extreme weather conditions of the Pamir mountains permit.

“An enormous number of people depend on the deliveries of Chinese products, and thousands of shuttle traders have an interest in a stable relationship between the Central Asian countries and China,” said political analyst Rashid Abdullo. “Even when China closes its borders for several days because of certain holidays, and the deliveries of goods to Central Asian countries stop, there are fluctuations in currency exchange rates.”

Because of the harsh conditions, Chinese and Tajik officials have agreed that the Kulma border crossing can stay open for just 15 days out of every month.

“As I understand it, the Tajiks don’t have the capacity to keep their checkpoint open permanently. The climatic conditions are very difficult,” said trader Muborakshoev. “For us, a standstill of 15 days is a complete catastrophe. Most of us work on advance credit, after all. After the highway is closed, petrol and vehicle hire prices go up.”

He concluded, “It’s important for us that this road should always remain open.”

Shirin Azizmamadova is the pseudonym of an independent journalist in Dushanbe.

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