Travel

On the roof of the world

Print edition : December 27, 2013

The first leg of the expedition was through Kazakhstan. Almost the entire journey closely followed the fabled Silk Route.

A road in Astana. The Kazakh capital is built with all the lavishness that oil wealth can afford.

At the entrance of the Dungan Mosque in Zharkent. Dungans are Muslims of Chinese origin.

A church in Zharkent.

A road through the wilderness of Kazakhstan. The country has vast stretches of steppes unfit for human habitation.

A view from the top of Kok-Tobe Hill, the highest point in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city and old capital.

Mountain ranges in Xinjiang, China, as seen from the Kazakh border.

A herd of sheep opposite a casino on the outskirts of Almaty.

Kazakh women. Kazakhs consider themselves Eurasian, emphasising their proximity to Europe, particulalry Russia.

Students dance to Bollywood numbers at Al Farabhi National University in Almaty.

Members of the expedition at the friendship memorial on the Kazakh-China border.

Office of the ArcelorMittal steel plant in Temirtau.

At the border check post in Khorgos on the Kazakh-China border.

Construction in full swing at Khorgos on the Chinese side.

A worker welding an oil pipe on the banks of Lake Balkash.

Donkey carts share road space with automobiles in Kazakhstan.

A casino in Khabshiga, the Las Vegas of Kazakhstan.

Men in Taldykorgan. People here look less Kazakh and more Asian.

LANDLOCKED Central Asia, rugged, remote and relatively inaccessible, has straddled the Silk Route between Asia and Europe for several centuries. The region is home to some of the loftiest mountain ranges on our planet—Hindukush, Karakoram, Altai, Tien Shan, Alai, Pamir—fierce deserts, Kizylkum and Karakum, and the vast and featureless steppes where nary a blade of grass grows. Yet, it has allured traders, treasure-hunters and adventure-seekers alike. Merv, Sogdiana and Turkestan bristled with challenge and danger but yet reverberated with the sounds made by the hooves of camels and horses drawing caravans bearing precious silks, tea, glittering gems and other cargo headed for markets as far as Venice and beyond. In the last millennium, geography and history conspired to give this region a shared destiny from which the constituent nations have disentangled themselves after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

What does the roof of the world look like today, 20 years after the countries of Central Asia gained the opportunity to determine their own individual destinies? The legitimacy of today’s political division of Central Asia is but a product of Joseph Stalin’s whimsy. As such, the national boundaries are based on no rationale, neither ethnicity nor culture. Yet, Stalin’s impulsive demarcation of the political boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet republics has now produced nation states that are unequally endowed with natural and mineral resources. How do these countries cope with this quirk of destiny?

A road journey

India-Central Asia Foundation (ICAF), a research organisation based in Delhi, decided to find out first hand the forces transforming this region in the 21st century by undertaking a road journey through three countries of Central Asia. A hand-picked team of 15 delegates comprising scholars, policy analysts, economists and linguists set out on a historical journey through these countries under the stewardship of K. Santhanam, well-known nuclear scientist and the President of ICAF. The endeavour, blessed and supported by India’s External Affairs Ministry, also drew upon the enormous goodwill enjoyed by India in these regions for reasons historical and contemporary. The team hired local vehicles and drivers in each country, which greatly helped in navigating this relatively less-charted region. All along the route, host governments and institutions generously shared their perspectives on issues of common interest to India and the region.

Over a period of three weeks in September-October this year, the expedition traversed more than 5,000 kilometres. It began in Astana, the Kazakh capital, and terminated in Urgench in Uzbekistan. The Kazakh leg of the journey took us from Astana through Karaganda and Temirtau, the latter better known as Lakshmi Mittal’s steel city; along Lake Balkhash to the Kazakh uranium mining town of the same name; through Taldykorgan and Zharkent to Khorgos, the border town that straddles both Kazakhstan and China where the team was allowed to make a brief, unscheduled, foray into Chinese territory. Finally, the delegation spent a day in Almaty, meeting with officials of institutions, universities and think tanks before crossing over into the Kyrgyz Republic. The Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Ashok Kumar Sharma, accompanied the ICAF delegation for most of its journey through the country.

The Kyrgyz leg took us to Bishkek, the capital, and thence to Osh through some stunning mountain ranges before ending in the Kyrgyz part of the Ferghana Valley. The Uzbek leg of the expedition covered the Uzbek part of the valley; passed through Andijon, the birthplace of Babur, the first Mughal ruler, and Kokand, the last Khanate in Ferghana; and reached Tashkent, the capital. From Tashkent, the expedition drove into the historic towns of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva through the Kyzilkum desert before terminating in Urgench. The route took us through some spectacular mountain ranges, stark deserts, fertile valleys, modern cities, isolated villages and ancient towns. Almost the entire journey closely followed the fabled Silk Route in Central Asia, now transformed into a seamless state-of-the-art highway catering to every comfort of the modern traveller. Apart from structured meetings with policymakers, think tanks and officials, the journey was enlivened by impromptu interactions with people along the entire route.

Astana, the new capital

Astana, the starting point of the expedition, is in many ways a stark contrast to what came after. The city shivers in sub-zero temperatures in the month of September while the rest of Central Asia basks in celebratory summer weather. Astana is the spanking new capital of Kazakhstan, built with all the lavishness that only oil wealth can afford; it has none of the charm of old cities like Almaty or Bishkek or the grace of historical towns like Bukhara or Khiva. The town rises like a giant plastic Legoland in the middle of a bereft steppes otherwise incapable of supporting human habitation. Entirely an artificial construct, Astana’s gleaming skyscrapers, festooned with glittering fairy lights, seem all the more unreal because of the absence of people on its streets. Its broad and neatly laid-out avenues, glitzy plazas and snazzy shopping malls look more like a gargantuan film set minus its actors than a living city. Oil wealth can certainly build new capitals—Nigeria built Abuja and Myanmar Nay Pyi Taw —but it takes people to put life and soul into these cities. Astana, established only in 1997, has some way to go before it catches up, if at all, with the liveliness of the country’s earlier capital Almaty.

Our next stop is Temirtau, where ArcelorMittal has a huge steel plant. Mittal’s company produces three million tonnes of steel, most of which goes to build the skyscrapers in Astana, 220 km away. After the dazzling perfection of Astana, Temirtau is comfortingly Indian. The hotel we stay in is owned by Mittal and serves Indian food alongside Kazakh and Russian fare. Mittal also runs a power plant that burns coal from its own mines not far away. His company supplies water, electricity and steam to the city, and runs the town’s tram services. Mittal also runs hospitals and schools. ArcelorMittal and its subsidiaries provide employment to around 35,000 people in Temirtau, of which persons of Indian origin are just a handful—at the top. Incidentally, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan, began his career as a worker in a steel plant in Temirtau.

The next day, we drive to Balkhash, the uranium mining town located on the banks of Lake Balkhash, 390 km from Temirtau. Kazakhstan is one of the largest uranium producers in the world and much of it is mined at Balkhash. Sprawled over an area of 16,000 square kilometres and watered by as many as seven rivers flowing through three countries, Lake Balkhash is one of the largest lakes in Asia. Unlike the glamorous, if smaller, Lake Issykul across the border in Kyrgyz Republic, Lake Balkhash has long ceased to be the watering hole of the region. Once a thriving spa town known for its salubrious climes and therapeutic treatments, Balkhash now wears a deserted look, its beach shacks crumbling and its cottages abandoned and in disrepair. The lake is said to be sinking rapidly, thanks to dams being built by China across the border. We alight briefly to check out the beach, but the wind is so fierce that we retreat hastily to the warmth of our vehicles.

Taldykorgan, 700 km from Balkhash, is a lovely town where gleaming automobiles and donkey carts share road space with perfect equanimity. The drive through a featureless steppes is unremarkable and takes all of 12 hours. En route we cross Khabshiga, the Las Vegas of Kazakhstan, with dozens of fancy casinos and luxury hotels rearing out of the desert like an apparition. Even as you wonder who will take the trouble of travelling to this remote desert just to gamble, a long line of BMWs and Lexuses come into view. Their drivers honk impatiently even as shepherds on horsebacks unhurriedly herd their huge flocks clogging the highway for as far as the eye can see. The whole setting is surreal.

As we get closer to Taldykorgan, the steppes give way to orchards of melons, citrus fruits and grapes. People’s faces seem less Kazakh and more Asian. We are told that this region has many Uighurs from across the border in Xinjiang (China). Vendors, mostly women in colourful dresses, squat on the roadside beside bucketfuls of apples and grapes while juicy ripe watermelons stacked on the roadside stretch like a green-and-yellow parapet wall. On the horizon, we see a procession of camels. Camel carts have replaced donkey carts in these parts. There is a hint of a mountain range at a distance and soon their snow crowns become visible in the setting sun. It has been a long drive without a lunch stop and the team has had to do with dry fruits and packaged snacks. Now we top it up with some of the sweetest watermelons we have ever tasted.

Kazakhstan, with a landmass that is only marginally smaller than that of India, has a population of just 17 million, less than our metropolises and equal to the population we add every year in India. Although mineral-rich, this country has vast stretches of steppes unfit for human habitation. The mountain ranges that criss-cross the terrain also add to the country’s isolation. Yet, of all the Central Asian Republics, Kazakhstan is perhaps closest to Russia in terms of ethnicity and climate. In fact, Bulat Sultanov, Director General of the Kazakh Institute of Strategic Studies in Almaty, told ICAF delegates that Kazakhs considered themselves Eurasians, emphasising their proximity to Europe and Russia. Wedged between two powerful neighbours, it has to balance deftly to be able to survive. Kazakhstan has chosen to throw in its lot with Russia even as it appeases China to the extent possible. The country’s oil and gas, concentrated on the Caspian, goes mostly to Russia, thanks to the extensive pipeline systems built during the Soviet period. Recently, China built the Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline to carry oil from central Kazakhstan to Xinjiang from where the West-East Pipeline systems will ferry hydrocarbons to China’s markets in the south and the east. But Kazakhstan is predominantly dependent on Russia for its hydrocarbon export market. History and geography have ineluctably tied Kazakhstan to Russia.

Kazakhstan may be rich in hydrocarbons, but try filling petrol in your car and you are turned away from half a dozen pumps before you find any. Kazakhstan does produce crude oil, but has no refineries to crack it. It is dependent on China for its supply of petroleum products.

Khorgos, the border town

The highlight of the journey through Kazakhstan is the visit to Khorgos, the border town that straddles Kazakhstan and China. The site is a beehive of activity with construction cranes crowding the horizon. A steady stream of Kazakhs queue up at the immigration booth, waiting to cross into China and bring back manufactured goods for marketing back home in Almaty and other towns. The ICAF rally was received at the border with much warmth by Kazakh officials. Although the delegates did not have a visa to enter China, the team was whisked around in a bus across the customs check post into China’s Xinjiang region to showcase the development planned for the city.

Marat Zhanuzakov, head of Investment and International Cooperation of International Cross-Border Cooperation (ICBC), a company tasked with attracting $2 billion in investments for the border project, explained to the ICAF delegates about the plan for the development of Khorgos on both sides of the border. On the anvil are commercial complexes, casinos, hotels, hospitals, malls, theatres, sports stadia and so on that will sprawl over more than 500 hectares and straddle both the countries. Kazakh and Chinese nationals can visit each other without a visa and can stay up to 30 days on the other side of the border for conducting trade and commerce.

There is also a proposal to build a gas pipeline from the Caspian to Xinjiang through this border. Kazakhstan is anxious to balance its excessive dependence on Russian outlets by connecting to China even if that means several thousand kilometres to the border. There is already a rail track linking Kazakhstan with China, but there is a proposal to introduce a fast train service that will cover the distance between towns in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang with Almaty in just six hours. The entire infrastructure and connectivity is expected to be completed by 2018.

On the Chinese side, there seems to be hectic activity. Already quite a few hotels and commercial complexes have come up. A ribbon of a road, smooth as silk, leads up to Turfan and beyond. We meet quite a few shoppers from Almaty picking up everything from mobile phones to tyres and silk scarves in the sole mall which has just been opened. I meet Aliyev, who is buying huge bundles of mobile phones to sell back in Almaty. He says there is great demand for Chinese goods in Almaty and it is well worth his while to travel a thousand kilometres to shop at Khorgos. Some of our delegation members also took advantage of this opportunity to shop for unique goods piled up in the mall.

The cross-border arrangement is likely to be an unequal bargain since Kazakhs can never match the Chinese when it comes to manufactured goods, a fact that is readily conceded by Marat. Wages in Kazakhstan are much higher than those in China. However, he hopes Kazakhstan can attract tourists from the Xinjiang region to balance the engagement. Also, on the Kazakh side, the population of Khorgos and adjoining Zharkent is equally divided between Kazakhs and Uighurs. When asked about the concerns of opening borders with a radicalised region of China, namely Xinjiang with its restive Uighur population, Marat says he believes Kazakhstan can maintain full control over the border and take pre-emptive action to nip in the bud any undesirable influences from across the border.

From Khorgos, the expedition moves to the lovely town of Almaty, surrounded by mountains wearing summer and spring colours on their slopes. Tree-lined, leafy and relaxed, Almaty is a welcome change from Astana. En route, we cross the Altyn-Emel National Park where there are said to be singing sand dunes.

In Almaty, we have meetings with students and faculty of Al Farabhi National University. It happens to be Hindi Diwas, September 14, the day Hindi was adopted as India’s official language in 1949, and we are treated to a cultural programme in which students sway to the latest Bollywood ditties. Two young students deliver a welcome speech in chaste Hindi. Like elsewhere in the world, India is identified with Bollywood. We visit other institutions, including the Kazakh Institute of Strategic Studies, where its redoubtable Director General, Bulat Sultanov, puts us wise to the Eurasian and Russian focus of Kazakh foreign policy.

We also take time off to ride in the cable car up to the lovely hilltops to enjoy the spectacular views of Almaty town. Almaty is a beautiful town surrounded by snow-covered mountain ranges. We are loath to leave it, but this is our last day in Kazakhstan. Our next leg will take us to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyz Republic, just a couple of hours’ drive from Almaty.

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