China's new Silk Road could leave the old one in the dust

Commuters waiting to travel through the newly built tunnel in northern Pakistan, which took more than three years to build.
Commuters waiting to travel through the newly built tunnel in northern Pakistan, which took more than three years to build.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SOST (Pakistan) • A glossy highway and hundreds of lorries transporting Chinese workers by the thousands: The new Silk Road is under construction in northern Pakistan, but locals living on the border have yet to be convinced that they will receive more from it than just dust.

The town of Sost is a gateway to millions in customs duties, with its rickety stalls of corrugated iron engraved in Chinese and Urdu, its cross-border secret agents and its dusty petrol station's abrupt service. It is the first stop along a new US$46 billion (S$65.5 billion) "economic corridor" designed by China in Pakistan.

Drivers from China arrive through the Khunjerab Pass, the world's highest paved border crossing at 4,600m above sea level, and unload their goods encircled by the magnificent Karakoram mountains, swirled with snow.

From there, Pakistani colleagues pick up the goods and transport them the length of the country - currently to Karachi, some 2,000km away on the Arabian Sea, but in the future to Gwadar, where Beijing has been given management of the port in a grand project which allows China greater access to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

But, until recently, the highway was cut off just south of Sost, blocked for five years by a landslide that dammed the Hunza River and created the 10km-long lake of Attabad, with its ice-blue glacier water.

Unable to drive around the mountain, China simply tunnelled through it, sending thousands of workers in a titanic effort that took more than three years and cost at least US$275 million.

"With the tunnel, we hope business will take off and tourists will flock here," said Mr Amjad Ali, a trader who sells clothing in the Sost bazaar, where the new Chinese highway has replaced the old Silk Road - a tortuous dirt track used for centuries by trade caravans.

But such optimism is tempered by fear that the trucks will simply drive on by, leaving Sost to receive, as Mr Ali put it, "nothing but dust". Others fear land grabs by wealthy Chinese and Pakistanis.

Local activist Ali Qurban fears losing his beloved region in Islamabad's grand dance with Beijing. A land of peaks and glaciers, Gilgit-Baltistan, the name of the mountainous part of northern Pakistan, was long a collection of small kingdoms before being attached to Pakistan in the 1970s. It does not have provincial status and its inhabitants do not have the right to vote in national elections, hence the feeling of alienation from Islamabad.

But for the head of local government, Mr Hafiz Hafeez ur-Rehman, the project is a "game-changer" for a region that should be the "prime beneficiary" as it is located on the threshold of China. The government plans to build commercial areas and invest in hydroelectric dam projects along the future super-highway to the south, he told Agence France-Presse.

Other, more shadowy political and security factors also contribute to the sense of alienation in Gilgit; such as Beijing and Islamabad's apparent efforts to clamp down on the restive regions that surround the corridor, such as China's crackdown on Muslim Uighurs in the neighbouring region of Xinjiang.

Beijing said extremists from the minority are in hiding in Pakistan - a claim that has been supported by local security sources.

The government and the military have "paralysed the people here", said Mr Qurban, adding they are suppressed "as Uighurs are suppressed by the Chinese government in Xinjiang".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'China's new Silk Road could leave the old one in the dust'. Print Edition | Subscribe