Written by Alessandro Rippa

For those who are accustomed to the experience of crossing land borders, particularly in the remote and mountainous regions of Central Asia, the idea that borders grow and spread into the territories they are meant to enclose is accepted knowledge. For instance, the Sino-Pakistani border at Khunjerab Pass expands to the 200-plus km that separate Sost, on the Pakistani side, from Tashkurgan on the Chinese side, the two border towns where immigration and custom facilities are placed. This distance, which is usually covered in a half day bus ride, represents a rather odd experience of been officially out of one country, but not quite in another one. A bureaucratic limbo, a paradox in a Westphalian world.

This is not, however, exceptional, at least not when it comes to Xinjiang’s borders with its Central Asian neighbours. In fact, together with the exponential growth in trade relations between China and Central Asia, the last decade has also seen the consolidation of this particular structure in most of the region’s border crossings. For instance, without moving too far away from the Khunjerab Pass and the Karakoram Highway, the China-Tajikistan border post at Kulma-Kalasu that opened in 2004, operates in the same way.

And yet, if there is a recognizable tendency toward the homogenization of China’s border facilities and procedures, each and every context maintains some unique characteristics. In this sense, more than China’s geo-political and economic impact in the region, what often remains off of the pictures provided by analysts and observers, are the reflections and experiences of local people dealing on a daily basis with those political changes, new infrastructure, and China’s rising importance.

In the case of China and Pakistan, the two border towns of Sost and Tashkurgan, together with the 200 kilometres that separate them, tell some interesting and insightful stories. The two towns are similar in many ways. Not only, as “border towns”, they both host immigration and custom facilities, but they also share the same Wakhi culture, have traditionally had similar economies and both experienced major changes after the institution of the China-Pakistan border and the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH). And yet, at the same time, they remain profoundly different.

Last year, as I was conducting research in this area, I met dozens of small-scale Pakistani traders travelling to Kashgar, Xinjiang, to purchase various kinds of goods. Most of them were individual shuttle traders, as Pakistani businessmen now tend to avoid the discomfort of the road and the small markets of Kashgar, rather going directly to China’s costal regions (Guangdong and Zhejiang in particular) to conduct their transactions. Here, on the other hand, for those who are not flying (PIA began to operate weekly Islamabad-Kashgar flights in August 2013), Tashkurgan represents a first, inevitable stop. In the small town at about 3000 meters above sea level, a few of those Pakistani have also opened shops and established small businesses, favouring from the constant flow of cross-border traders and Chinese tourists. Often they would sit in their shops, or in one of Tashkurgan’s few Uyghur restaurants, and share their views on business, politics and various social issues. During one of those occasions I was talking with Tariq, a trader from Sost who, with his brother, opened a small shop in Tashkurgan selling different Pakistani imports: marble objects, semi-precious stones, brass vases, Kashmiri shawls, and so on. Asked about the differences between Sost and Tahkurgan, Tariq answered with a joke. He asked me if I knew what “Tashkurgan” means, explaining that “Tash” means “stone”, and “Kurgan” means “to look like”, thus the meaning of Tashkurgan is “looking like a stone” (in fact “Tashkurgan” is usually translated as “Stone tower” or “Stone fortress”). Sost, on the other hand, he told me laughing it off with his peers, means nothing more than “lazy”. Tariq was playing with the Urdu word for lazy, sust, which sounds just like the name of the small border town. Yet what he meant through this joke, as I found out during further conversations, was to point out Tashkurgan’s economic strength and power, while highlighting Sost’s poor conditions, its lack of development and scarce investments by the Pakistani state.

As I have recently written China is investing heavily in Tashkurgan as a potential hub for cross-border trade. In recent years the city has expanded significantly in size, while new ambitious projects are meant to attract investors and tourists. On the other hand Sost’s difficulties are mirrored by the problems of its Dry Port, which has recently been at the centre of yet another scandal. As I wrote in a piece for The Diplomat, the Dry Port was closed for a few days following a brawl between the Pakistani chairman of the Dry Port and a Chinese official. Following the incident, the Pakistani blog Pamir Times ran another piece which showed the downsides – as opposite to the promised development – of the “China border trade”, a disenchanted view which is certainly shared by many in the region.

To the malfunctioning of the state-apparatus – or its absence altogether – in Sost, cross-border traders thus often oppose the development of Tashkurgan. This development is not seen only in economic terms, but more as a result of the Chinese government’s efforts and investments. Unlike Sost, in Tashkurgan (Chinese) state-power is perceived as total and all-encompassing, an opinion reflected by some well established rumours. During my fieldwork, for instance, I was often warned that in Sost there were a few ISI agents. In Tashkurgan, on the other hand, the most established narrative claimed that everybody was working for the Chinese government.

Tashkurgan then, with its well-equipped army, modern machineries at the immigration office, new buildings and development projects, reflects the power of the Chinese state. Rumours, moreover, highlight the (perceived) capillarity of this power, its strength and authority. At the other side of the border, on the other hand, state power – or its lack thereof – takes the shapes of conspiracy theories, ISI agents and spies, while the KKH itself and the presence of Chinese road workers symbolize the extent of China’s influence into Gilgit-Baltistan. In Pakistan then, for many cross-border traders at least, the asymmetry in power and resources between Sost and Tashkurgan has become a mirror for the Pakistani state’s failure to deliver its promises. Tashkurgan, on the other hand, is view as an image of what Sost could be, a successful story, a manifestation of China’s power. The two border towns thus embody two more general, radically distinct, images of the two states to which they belong, China and Pakistan. They represent, at the same time, a display of potentials and a cause for despair and recrimination.

Similarly, this asymmetry is reflected by the conditions of the road on the two sides of the borders, and by the attitude of those who often cross the border at Khunjerab Pass. Pakistani bus drivers, for instance, are very careful in following PLA officials’ orders while they travel on the Chinese section of the road, never stopping the bus and inviting the passengers to avoid taking pictures or videos. Once on the other side, in Pakistan, they seem to become more relaxed, stopping to chat with acquaintances along the road and even – as I personally witnessed – selling Chinese beer and baijiu to some of the military personnel in this remote mountain region.

The China-Pakistan border then, the two towns of Sost and Tashkurgan as well as the road that separates them, reflect some of the dynamics that seem to operate at the level of national politics and global economic flows. And yet, as I have attempted to show here, they are always embedded into a complex multiplicity of opinions, reflections and behaviours by those who live, travel and work across this border. What those stories show, then, is that neither the border or the people and goods that move across it should – or could – be taken for granted, and rather point to the need to study the borderlands from the bottom up, so to say, taking into account different opinions, protagonists, and histories.

Alessandro Rippa is a PhD candiate at the University of Aberdeen. He is a CPI Blog Emerging Scholar and tweets @AlessandroRippa