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No Stops In Kyrgyzstan For China-Uzbekistan Railway Line

  • Bruce Pannier

"We don't need a railroad that goes through the territory of Kyrgyzstan without making even one stop," Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has said.

The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway project looks to be lurching forward again as China presses ahead with its One Belt, One Road trade-connectivity initiative.

It will undoubtedly be a topic on September 6, when Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev visits Kyrgyzstan for talks with President Almazbek Atambaev.

The rail line could be a boost for Kyrgyzstan's and Uzbekistan's trade with China.

But President Atambaev has mentioned at least one problem he sees with the proposed railway -- it doesn't have stops in Kyrgyzstan.

The proposed line is an ambitious project. Though only some 450 to 500 kilometers long, the route must travel through the mountains of western China and Kyrgyzstan, sometimes at altitudes of 2,000 to 3,500 meters, and requires construction of nearly 50 tunnels and more than 90 bridges.

The line would start in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region, and run through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan's eastern town of Pap, in Uzbekistan's section of the Ferghana Valley.

It is a project that dates back to the mid-1990s and, as plans sat idle, the cost estimate of the project has risen. In October 2011, then-Kyrgyz Minister of Transport and Communications Erkin Isakov put the cost at some $2.5 billion to $3 billion.

Current estimates are twice that. China expects to have a cost figure for the project before the end of this year.

At a July 24 press conference, Atambaev said trains would enter Kyrgyzstan at Torugart (the Torugart Pass) and "go straight on to Jalal-Abad" in Kyrgyzstan, which is near the border with Uzbekistan.

"We don't need a railroad that goes through the territory of Kyrgyzstan without making even one stop," Atambaev said.

Jalal-Abad, Atambaev commented, did not have adequate transportation links to move cargo from the proposed train station around Kyrgyzstan.

"Therefore we proposed our own route to China,"Atambaev continued. "A little bit longer, but it would go from the At-Bashi district and from there through Kazarman and head south."

Atambaev's proposal would be a significant deviation from the plan.

The railway would enter Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass, which is currently one of only two crossing points between Kyrgyzstan and China.

Beijing seems to prefer the original route, which cuts southwest as straight as possible toward Uzbekistan.

Atambaev's suggested course would take the line north over an additional mountain range, the At-Bashi range, to the town of At-Bashi (population less than 11,000), then head west along the Naryn River to Kazarman (population about 10,000), before turning south toward Jalal-Abad and Uzbekistan.

At-Bashi and Kazarman are somewhat isolated communities. The mountain roads leading to the towns are in poor shape and often shut for short periods by avalanches.

Having trains stop in At-Bashi and Kazarman would breathe new life into the two towns.

Atambaev mentioned that trains could load and unload cargo, though he did not specify what that cargo could be.

All the same, "a little bit longer" is an understatement and Atambaev noted that "our variant is $1.5 billion more expensive, but it is economically advantageous."

But not in the short term for Kyrgyzstan, making it a curious comment from an outgoing president considering his country's foreign debt is some $4.1 billion, more than one-third of which is owed to China.

That stands to increase significantly as Chinese banks undoubtedly will be loaning Kyrgyzstan large amounts of money for the railway project with or without Atambaev's extension.

And remember, Kyrgyzstan's budget for 2017 foresees revenues of some $2 billion and expenditures of some $2.33 billion.

Uzbek Oil

Uzbek President Mirziyoev has already done much to repair his country's poor relationship with Kyrgyzstan since he came to power about a year ago but Atambaev might have difficulty convincing Mirziyoev of the need for the railway's detour in Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbek authorities do not talk about the railway line to China anywhere near as often as Kyrgyz officials do.

The railway would end in Pap, Uzbekistan, which is also the terminus of a recently opened railway line heading west, out of the Ferghana Valley, to the city of Angren, some 85 kilometers from Tashkent.

Chinese companies helped build the Angren-Pap line and Chinese loans helped pay the $1.9 billion cost. The CKU- railway would create a link almost from Uzbekistan's capital to western China.

As is true with most, if not nearly all, of China's projects in Central Asia, China quickly gains something -- in this case access to Mingbulak and the oil field there.

Mingbulak is best known for being the site of possibly the worst inland oil spill in history. An explosion at a well in early March 1992 led to some 285,000 tons of oil being spilled, which helped fuel a fire that burned over an area of more than 60 hectares for some two months.

The site was abandoned until the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) signed a deal in October 2008 to reopen and develop the field, but work was suspended again in 2015 due to the low price of oil on world markets.

President Mirziyoev visited Mingbulak in early July, just after work resumed and drilling started on exploration well M15.

The CNPC believes there is more than 30 million tons of oil there and when production peaks, output should be some 4,000 barrels per day. The contract runs until 2035.

Not a huge amount, especially for China's needs, but it is less than 500 kilometers from China's border. But as it stands now, the only way to transport it is by road.

Pap is in Uzbekistan's Namangan Province, the same province where Mingbulak is located.

Uzbekistan also needs oil. The country currently has deals to import oil from Kazakhstan. Russia, and Turkmenistan to alleviate, at times, severe shortages of gasoline at filling stations.

Another domestic source of oil would be welcome and there is refinery in the city of Ferghana, not far from Namangan Province.

Kyrgyz Hopes

Atambaev's argument for a longer route through Kyrgyzstan that includes stops in remote communities would seem to serve the interests of Kyrgyzstan better than the proposed, more direct route across his country.

And Kyrgyzstan is already part of the proposed Line D of the gas-pipeline network running from Turkmenistan to China but Kyrgyzstan won't receive any gas from that pipeline, only transit fees, so Atambaev's desire to see Kyrgyzstan get something out of these megaprojects with China is understandable.

But funding for the rail line is an issue and unfortunately, Atambaev's route is not in the interests of either Uzbekistan or China.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service Director Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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