The arrow-straight, multilane roads stretch on and on. The city is green, the sky blue, the mountains close. You can see them from almost everywhere: the white crowns worn all year long by Pik Talgar that rises 4,900 metres. The mood is lively and loud, the cafés and restaurants are packed; the cuisine on offer is as polyglot as the unremitting soundtrack of international pop. The nightlife is reputed to count among the most exciting in Central Asia. Welcome to Almaty. Some 1.7 million inhabitants make it the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Kazakhstan.

The gem
The republic is young, as is its populace; in contrast to many European nations, the majority is under 30. People marry at an early age, the family is the universal safety net, the grandmother the patriarch. More than 70% of Kazakhs follow the Islamic faith and celebrate its official holidays, yet live secular everyday lives. The children are full of beans, charming and curious; girls and boys laugh and crow as they play their hearts out in the parks and spacious squares; skateboards are as at home here as BMX bikes and skaters. The clothes worn by the children, teens and twens are brands like H&M and Zara: the kids want to be as hip, chic and cool as their peers all over the world. Young women clad in the traditional, vividly hued wraps and scarves are rare; veiling is an even rarer sight.

This backdrop of easy-going life includes numerous street musicians: an accordion player with a lopsided mouth but a mellifluous voice, a shy guitarist at the tube station, a saxophone player in black sports gear. Everyone gives them something, even if it’s the tiniest of coins.

Almaty is Kazakhstan’s mecca for media and trade fairs. The first few underground stations have been completed, the stock exchange is up and running, the country’s oldest circus is as popular as ever. In the “Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen”, where a colossal monument and an eternal flame memorialize the fallen heroes of the Great Patriotic War, the colourful wooden Ascension Cathedral gleams in the sunlight.

An array of musicians add colour to the city's streets
Grandmothers call the tune at the stalls in the Green Market too

Unfortunately, the air is rather heavy: the diesel is different to the fuel used in Europe, and many of the cars that once careered around – and retired in – the West have gained a new lease on life here. Some of the rattletrap lorries are so loud and so old that one might suspect they were screwed together by Khrushchev, if not Stalin. But when the air gets too close, people head out to the local Yssykköl Lake to enjoy the sun and a swim, or go hiking in the nearby mountains.

“This city is Kazakhstan’s gem”, says Timur Akhmetkaziyev, Managing Director of GW in Almaty. He is proud of his hometown’s role. Many of the thousands of young Kazakhs that the city sends off to universities around the world – to Germany, the US and Canada, to Japan, Russia and elsewhere – have found good jobs upon returning and are helping shape the liberal mindset: in Almaty, people know how to enjoy life. The desired affiliation and identification with a western world is mirrored in the advertising as well: the faces and family motifs with the strongest selling potential are strictly European.

Notwithstanding the pervasive global vibe, local life centres around the “Green Market”, Almaty’s main bazaar that stocks everything under the sun. The meat hall sells beef, mutton and horsemeat; other halls and stalls offer fruit, vegetables, spices, silver jewellery, and all manner of arts and crafts. Here you will find purveyors of undergarments from the top international brands; here is where you buy dishwashing liquid, dolls, dresses, aprons, scarves, pots and pans … and your son’s very first suit. The bazaar is not quite as magical as the ones conjured up in Arabian Nights, but the air is fragrant with the promise of the wide, wild world – and it too is on hand. Russians comprise a strong minority, flanked by other peoples and nationalities: Uyghur, Mongolian, German, Tartar, Bashkir, Ingush and many more. The mosque and the Russian Orthodox church, the synagogue and the Catholic cathedral all house congregations that have long co-existed in peace.

The country is probing its cultural legacy, seeking a great unifier for this first-time-ever independent nation that was not founded until 1991. Its journey of self-discovery is traced in the Kasteev Museum, named after Abilkhan Kasteev (1904-1973), a highly decorated painter in the former Soviet People’s Republic of Kazakhstan. It is packed with artifacts like carpets, shawls, jewellery and leather goods; chock-full of old paintings extolling the freedom of outdoor life, complete with yurts, steppes, equestrians, skies and strong winds. Not to forget the triumph of reason, i.e. the industrialization wrought by the Russians. The artwork on display here celebrates both the Russian and Industrial Revolutions, the kolkhoz and the collective. A young Kazakh member of Komsomol, the Communist Youth Party Organisation, beams in humble gratitude upon being tutored by his Soviet commissar. The many artistic renderings of “Social Realism” still hanging in the Kasteev testify to an age in which the world was explained in simple, unforgiving terms: “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification” (Lenin). What these pictures don’t show: the Bolsheviks may have brought the railway, roads and industry. Yet between 1928 and 1933, they also mandated collective farming and forced the nomads to live in settlements. Countless people were dispossessed, deported and persuaded to emigrate. Some 1.3 million starved to death in those years. The wariness is still palpable: not all the Kazakhs trust their northern neighbour.

Contemporary art is all but absent at the Kasteev. In this temple devoted to technical artistic skill, symbols, rituals and traditions, time seems to stand still – while the future outside poses no questions about the past.

Next to me on the bus is Darin, who finally asks in English where I’m from. The wiry 12-year-old tells me about the school he so happily attends. His father is patently pleased with the boy’s English and his courage in piping up. Darin asks matter-of-factly: “Do you like Kazakhstan?” His smile tells me there is only one answer. Everyone seems proud of everything that has been built and accomplished in recent years, making life freer and easier.

The bazaar sells absolutely everything
In the bazaar the old folk foster traditions, on the streets the young embrace the future

The new
On the way from the airport to the city centre: initial glimpses of a city that colourfully and casually mixes past and present: Astana.

There are halls devoted to ice-skating and bicycle racing, pressed close to the ground like two giant, glittering armadillos. The evolving EXPO grounds are dominated by the spherical Kazakhstani pavilion, the Nur-Astana Mosque, the brand-new classically-styled opera house, and the “Triumph of Astana” christened after the “Triumph Palace” in Moscow and just as gingerbreaded as its archetype.

Astana is the product of a proclamation and of perseverance. When it was declared the capital in 1997, it had barely 300,000 inhabitants, and most of what distinguishes Astana today had yet to be built. In the interim nearly 900,000 have found work here, in a cityscape gilded with all manner of such new buildings sandwiched between post-Stalinist ostentation, capitalist glass-and-steel aloofness, and exuberantly ornamental extravagance. Yet still, indisputably more cheerful and diversified than the boxy battlements that pass for modern architecture in the west.

Astana is a green city; there are many fountains, squares, parks. People stroll along the tree- and flower-lined boulevards. An ice-cream van is parked every few metres: here everyone is a gourmet when it comes to judging the best.

The EXPO grounds are under construction on Sundays, too: everything has to be finished to welcome the world in summer 2017. Kazakhstan plans to tap this opportunity to take centre stage before a global audience and attract international investors. Five million visitors are expected to attend.

In less than five years, based on plans developed by the architectural firm of Smith+Gill from Chicago, an impressive Expo City will have materialised. Its conceptualisation was driven exclusively by sustainability. The EXPO theme “Future Energy: Action for Global Sustainability” is all about ensuring safe and sustainable access to energy in the developing countries, and transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

The fact that Astana was chosen to host the EXPO demonstrates how far Kazakhstan and its policymakers have come – not by positioning themselves among the world’s leaders, but by playing the role of moderator and partner, capable of leveraging interests and opportunities. The Americans are mining mineral resources, the EU is the largest trade partner, Kazakhstan cooperates with Russia in the Eurasian Economic Union. China now controls around one third of the country’s natural resources and is buying into the agricultural business of this country that measures 2.7 million square kilometres, making it the world’s ninth largest state.

In light of all this, one of the pet projects pursued by President Nursultan Nazarbayev (christened “Leader of the Nation” by parliament), who has been governing since the proclamation of the independent Republic of Kazakhstan, is the renaissance of the Silk Road.

The belt, the road
Traversed centuries before Christ, the world’s oldest trade route has become a major global project of our age. Silk was a highly coveted commodity back then, a badge of power and prosperity. Semiramis, Cleopatra and other female rulers lusted after its lustre; at his games, Caeser used it to canopy the arenas of Rome as a sign of his boundless capabilities.

Yet it was not only about silk and it was not only one road. The Silk Road, or rather the network of routes to which the catch-all refers, connected far-flung regions of the known world, serving until well into the 14th century not only as the conduit for ceramics, paper, tea and other myriad goods, but also as a channel along which arts and sciences, inventions and technology, diseases and religions could spread between Europe and Asia. Its travellers were traders, preachers, thinkers. In fact, the first Chinese circus took this route to Rome during the age of Christ.

The journey was endless and arduous: thousands of kilometres on horses, on one- and two-humped camels – or on foot. Once you reached the Tarim Basin and the Taklamakan Desert, you were surrounded by the world’s loftiest mountain ranges: to the north, the Tianshan; to the west Pamir; Karakorum in the southwest and Kunlun in the south. Only a few narrow paths led through the mountains that, with their plunging gorges and towering peaks rising 5,000 metres and more, number among the world’s most insurmountable. And all these toilsome ventures were undertaken in constant fear of attacks, plagued by unrelenting anxiety about the fate of one’s goods – and life.

When, in 1497/98, Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India that both reduced the risk of being ambushed and saved traders the Arabian customs duties, the Silk Road ultimately lost its significance – until the end of the 19th century, when Sven Hedin and others began to launch major expeditions to explore the ancient routes.

Today the People’s Republic of China is driving the revitalization of a European-Asian road network into new dimensions. China’s president Xi Jinping said in 2015, “Together we need to create a regional order that is a better fit for Asia and the rest of the world”, emphasising China’s intention of playing a more influential international role. The renaissance of the Silk Road is the logical consequence of China’s economic and geopolitical interests. It also dovetails with the inner-Chinese “Go-west strategy” (see Atlas 2) designed to push the economic development of the Middle Kingdom’s western reaches.

China has already poured more than 40 billion USD into a fund for the project “yi dai yi lu“ – “One Belt, One Road”, as the new Silk Road initiative is called. To complement this, China has founded the “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” with nearly 60 participating nations, among them Austria and Germany.

The plan foresees a route through central Asia and a northern course along the existing Trans-Siberian Railway, as well as a southern branch that is to link India, Laos and Myanmar. This new Silk Road will create unprecedented links between Asia, Eurasia, the Middle East and Europe.The proposed transport routes extend some 140,000 (!) kilometres: three and a half times the length of the equator.

A road-and-rail mix with new junctions is to evolve, with its economic fruits benefitting entire regions. Kashgar in China, Khorgos in Kazakhstan and Gwadar in Pakistan are but a few. And China, the world’s major seapower in the 15th century, aims to supplement this initiative with a “maritime Silk Road”, a network of ocean routes, ports and naval bases.

Poor, rich, beautiful
At 7 a.m. sharp Vladimir knocks on the door: a Russian Kazakh who speaks as little English as yours truly does Russian, and a journey of few words and many gestures begins. We are heading for Khorgos, a trip of some 380 kilometres.

Out in the countryside, we glimpse the other face of Kazakhstan: underdeveloped, unemployed, impoverished. We drive through villages with only one asphalt road – ours, the main thoroughfare – and pass rumbling, donkey-drawn carts; children, women and the elderly sit in the shade and sell whatever grows on their land: melons, apples, potatoes. This is where the old crouch and stare, the people who never had anything, side by side with the young who will never get much of anything. The scepticism is writ large on their faces: what will this foreigner bring? There is a yawning social and cultural gap between city and country, urban and rural. A quarter century of independence and a market economy are simply not enough to close it.

We traverse the Altyn-Emel National Park, one of 16 such national reserves. It measures 4,600 square meters, i.e. five times the size of Berlin and a dozen times the size of Vienna. This stretch of land is home to the Siberian ibex, the Persian gazelle and Central Asian argali. This is where Przewalski’s horse was resettled, along with the Bukhara deer. Signs warn of wild horses crossing the road. And the Kazakhstan cow loves to dawdle just around corners; several times Vladimir saves us from collisions by slamming on the brakes. “Kazakhstan!”, he curses, commenting yet again on anything he finds unexpected. And that is in no short supply.

Few roads lead through the rural expanses in which men guard their horses, cows and sheep, the dead find their rest, and children with donkey-drawn carts transport vegetables
Road through the Altyn-Emel National Park – to Khorgos where the dry port has already opened

Altyn-Emel offers a wonderful sampling of the ecological and geological diversity in this huge, virtually uninhabited land. It is rich in resources like crude oil and natural gas, gold, manganese, rare mineral ores and much more; there are the White and the Red Mountains, steppes, river-bank forests. A narrow asphalt road threads through this region, in which you rarely encounter another human being, notwithstanding the occasional car or an overloaded lorry every 15 minutes or so. We pass necropoles with listing monuments; the hills and mountains are spelled by plains and never-ending amber waves of grain. A shepherd boy drives his herd on horseback, the haystacks piled on the fields could be sleeping bison, the scent of dried chocolate rises from the steppe …

Rocks, hills, mountains exhibit changing formations and manifestations – some are sharp-featured like old, distinctive faces; others are pleasant, with plump cheeks. Those heaps of boulders could be the beard-stubbled visages*/phizogs of ancient titans … And when the clouds rain down their contents on the mountaintops and their whitewater mist clings to the cliffs, when the sun dons its flaming opera gown of an evening and cloaks the land anew in dramatically romantic hues, one suddenly has a new appreciation of the pictures hanging in the Kargeev [ALT: "Kasteev"] , telling as they do of the boundless freedom that reigns here in this incomparable naturescape.

What a country! What a landscape! Kazakhstan has 4,000 lakes; steppes and desert cover some 44% of the land mass; the perpetually snow-capped summits rise to staggering heights of 7,000 metres … as though evolution had here created a template for the world – and found it blessed and beautiful.

New network, new hubs
Finally the vista opens on Khorgos, the new economic zone shared with China at their common border. Covering nearly 6,000 hectares, roughly the size of Salzburg, it is freely accessible to both countries – and offers a wide-ranging catalog of tax breaks to the companies that settle here and create jobs.

We meet up with Togzhan Mussirova and Daniyar Mussirov. They both work in the communication department of JSC Management Company, which is in charge of the “Khorgos-East Gate. Both are around 30 and were born in Almaty; they met in London, fell in love and are now married. They are excited to be part of this project, deeply committed to its aims and confident of its success. A central transit hub within the new Silk Road network is evolving here, an economic zone which, within the space of a few years, will generate 50,000 jobs – in warehouse management, manufacturing, logistics and IT. As one of the country's pivotal infrastructure projects, “Khorgos-East Gate” will power the entire region.

Togzhan and Daniyar are happy to show us the progress to date. The dry port is already in operation, the hub where containers are lifted off the trains coming from China and loaded directly onto Kazakh European trains and vice-versa; the switch is necessitated by the different track gauges. The dry port can already move more than 500,000 TEU containers a year; in the long-term, it will be able to handle more than a million annually. The areas devoted to warehousing and final production are also finished and ready to hand over to the companies that will use them, as is the long stretch of motorway between China, Khorgos and Almaty that merely needs to be connected at this point. A residential area housing some 110,000 people is also planned.

“He who drives his horse too hard will need to walk in the end” is a Kazahkstan proverb. But the country intends to maintain the pace of its economic growth – with the goal of catching up with the “First World” nations. And in this race, yi dai yi lu plays a major and promising role.

Rainer Groothuis, born in 1959 in Emden/East Friesland, is Managing Partner at the communications agency Groothuis.

Containers have to be reloaded because of the different track gauges – the gantry cranes in Khorgos
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