In Kashgar, on the western edge of the Peoples' Republic of China, the view is reminiscent of the Bible and the days when the ancient Silk Road began to take shape here in the 1st century B.C. Today, the government plans to use Kashgar as the starting point for a new, global trade route -- but at this point, there is still little evidence of it.
"Posh, Posh," the men shout on their horse-drawn carts, as they make their way to the meadow where drivers are selling camels. Potential buyers expertly reach into the animals' mouths to examine their health. The air is dusty and filed with the sounds of animals neighing, braying and bleating, as if the horses, donkeys and goats know that they won't stay tied up for long. Women, only a few of them wearing veils, walk through the chaos carrying sacks of apricots and raisins.
The Sunday market in Kashgar, one of the world's largest, attracts several thousand livestock owners and traders to the oasis city on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, near the high mountains of the Pamir and the Hindu Kush. It is a fascinating mix of ethnicities. Uighurs, wiry men with knives in their belts, are in the majority. There are Nomadic Kyrgyz wearing felt hats, and occasional light-skinned, green-eyed boys who look like descendants of Alexander the Great. The market is policed by the region's true rulers, the Han Chinese.
Here, people can still taste and feel the myth of the old Silk Road.
On the edge of the market, an artist captures the past on old silk paper. He paints images of the ancient caravans that struggled through deserts and across high mountains beyond the Jade Gate Pass, passing through the Kashgar oasis on their way to cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, Tehran and Baghdad, or transferring their precious goods, in a relay race of sorts, to other caravans that continued to the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire. The caravans introduced silk and jade, ceramics, paper and tea to the Western world, and brought garlic and castor oil to the Far East. The Silk Road was a meeting place of world cultures and a missionary route for religions, first for Buddhism and later for Islam. When Mongolian dominance collapsed in the 14th century, the trade routes petered out.
Massive New Project
Xi Jinping, 63, the president of China and general secretary of the Communist Party, wants to revive the myth and build a New Silk Road, in large parts along the old trade route. It would mark the return of a legend. For some time now, many of his speeches have included references to "yi dai yi lu," or "a belt, a road." It is a gigantic project, and China envisions about 60 countries being involved, or about half of humanity.
China wants to expand trade along the route and develop infrastructure. Beijing has earmarked $40 billion (36 billion euros) for the project, to be invested in building new roads, and in railroads, pipelines and ports from Lithuanian to the Horn of Africa, Sri Lanka to Israel, and Pakistan to Iran. Two railroad lines lead to Germany, one from Zhengzhou to Hamburg and the other from Chongqing to Duisburg.
In order to finance the massive project, the Peoples' Republic initiated the establishment of a financial institution: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). For years, Xi Jinping was displeased by the fact that Washington provided his country with little say in organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In June 2015, 57 countries signed the charter of the AIIB, against the will of the United States. They included France, Great Britain and Germany. Everyone wants to be involved when the Chinese are planning big things.
But what is Beijing trying to achieve with its Silk Road plan? Does the Chinese leadership want to promote economic development in nearby and faraway countries and "bring together" the world, as it insists in its government propaganda? Is it because Chinese companies need globalization to bolster their stuttering economy and create new export routes for surplus production of goods, as well as routes for importing oil? Or is the real goal to break the West's political dominance -- a plan, in a sense, to conquer the world?
Beijing has deployed officials to work on the major project in Kashgar, where it is developing a new economic corridor. The high mountain road to Pakistan is being expanded, and when it is finished it will lead across the Khunjerab Pass to Gwadar, a port the Chinese are building from scratch on the Arabian Sea. Feasibility studies for ambitious new railroad lines to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are stacked on the engineers' desks. And although the proposed lines present enormous technical challenges, everything seems possible since the Chinese built a railroad line to Tibet, at altitudes above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet).
It's clear that China's Communist Party is investing enormous amounts of money in its transit routes toward Central Asia and in new economic zones. The standard of living among Kashgar residents is rising, and tax-advantaged high-tech parks have created new jobs in the provincial capital of Ürümqi. The economy is growing at 9 percent in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, outpacing growth in many other parts of the country.
In return, Beijing expects gratitude and compliance -- mistakenly. For most Uighurs, there is something far more important than having a better choice of goods to buy: respect for their people and their religion, Islam. Instead, they often experience the opposite. Mosques are placed under video surveillance, Muslim men are no longer permitted to wear long beards, and Chinese officials force their children to break the fast during Ramadan.
Economic and political elites welcome the opportunities brought by Beijing's financial injections, but the local population in Xinjiang view the new Silk Road, and the domination by Han Chinese that comes with it, with considerable skepticism. This is a recurring pattern, with concerns becoming even greater immediately beyond China's borders.