As a major part of the “New Silk Road” envisioned by China as part of their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the border zone of Khorgos is one of the few places in Kazakhstan to break through to international headlines. Stories of a massive infrastructure project in the middle of the desert have brought mostly reporters, consultants and researchers to this once-remote customs post, but there is some appeal for the average traveler.
Zharkent, the biggest town on the Kazakh side of the border, is a historic Uighur settlement with some impressive architecture, while the international shopping zone along the border, the International Center for Border Cooperation (ICBC), offers a way to eat Chinese noodles and get a taste of a Chinese boomtown without actually needing a Chinese visa or setting foot in Xinjiang.
Planning a trip to Khorgos can be confusing, as the name can refer to many different places depending on who you talk to. Have a look at our map of the Khorgos area to orient yourself.
The original Khorgos (spelled Qorǵas in Kazakh) is a small Kazakh village that lent its name to the adjacent border post, set up during the Soviet period. The settlement, with less than a thousand souls, is located in a restricted border zone and off-limits to anybody but local residents.
On the Chinese side of the border is a boomtown with a rapidly growing population of 100 000, one day expected to reach 1 million. Soviet maps show that before boom times there was once a small town here called Gongchen or Nikanchi, but the city has since adopted the name Huerguosi, the Mandarin interpretation of “Khorgos.”
When locals on either side of the border talk of Khorgos, they’re most often referring to the International Center for Border Cooperation (ICBC), a special duty-free and visa-free shopping zone set up in the no-man’s-land between the 2 countries. Kazakhs call it by its Russian initials, MTsPS, prounced as one word like “EmTsePess.”
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Kazakhstan has plans to capitalize on the activity in the Khorgos area by building a major new city, presumably also called Khorgos. The inaugural neighborhood, called Nurkent, is a sleepy development of one- and two-story homes near the Khorgos Gateway center that houses the families of railroad workers and border guards.
Nurkent-2, the envisioned expansion, is now a patch of grass with a mystical metal monument on it. The guard there reports that they are waiting for the president to cut the ribbon before construction begins.
Nur Zholy Control Point
Crossing from Kazakhstan into China proper, or vice versa, cannot be done at the ICBC, but only at the nearby border post. Until November 2018, crossings took place at the post north of the ICBC that’s known as the staraya granitsa (“old border”) or kolyuchka (“burr”), apparently in reference either to the knotty crossing through no-man’s-land or the ubiquitous barbed wire.
Border traffic is now directed to a brand-new crossing known as the Nur Zholy (“Bright Road”) Control Point, located south of the ICBC. Find out all the details on crossing the border.
This widely-publicized logistics hub on the Kazakh side is known as the “dry-port” – just as shipping containers at maritime ports must be transfered from ships to land, here containers must be lifted by giant yellow cranes from one set of train tracks to another.
Differences in the width of the rails, or gauge, used by Kazakh and Chinese trains means that cargo cannot just roll right through Khorgos, and must pass through this center near the border.
Altynkol Railway Station
Many traders come to the ICBC by way of the so-called Almaty-Khorgos train, but the nearest railway station to the border is actually called Altynkol. As of now, there is no onward passenger travel into China – this is the end of the line.
The nearest major settlement on the Kazakh side of the border is Zharkent, with a population a little over 33 000. Buses and taxi drivers coming from Almaty will often pass through Zharkent, and the only hotels on the Kazakh side of Khorgos are located here.
The Chinese influence is clear here, not at the bazaar, where you will see no Chinese traders, but rather at the mosque, which looks more like a pagoda instead. Lit by Chinese lanterns, the minbar looks more like the Emperor’s throne than a preacher’s pulpit. Other elements, like the mihrab, the domes or the imposing gate, betray Central Asian influences, while the windows add a Russian touch.
The wooden building can hold up to 1000 worshippers and was constructed without a single nail. It currently still serves as a museum.
2 very similar hotels, Satti and Orbulaq, have been offering good value for money to travelers on the way to or from China for a number of years now. It’s simple Central Asian hospitality, with garish wallpapers and simple egg-and-kasha breakfasts, but they are both kept very clean, hosts are friendly, prices are low and the wifi works. There are no hostels in Zharkent for anyone looking to stay under 10$, though.
Hotel Zhety Kazyna has yet to prove itself but it seems to offer a service similar to the other 2.
If you intend to cross the border traveling between Almaty and Urumqi, see the Kazakhstan border crossings article for a full rundown of your options. If you are planning to go to Zharkent or the ICBC, daily buses leave from Almaty’s bus station – ask them for the latest timetables.