A blank spot on the New Silk Road

The transcontinental country is not only the world’s largest land-locked nation; it also lies equidistant from all its oceans, i.e. smack-dab in the middle. This geography is making it an increasingly important hub for international trade within the initiative “Belt and Road.”

Sometimes the trains from China run late. Then the workers at Khorgas Gateway Dry Port on the Kazakh-Chinese border wait impatiently until a distant signal sounds and a train announces its arrival with loud blasts of its horn. On the final stretch, the wagons with their dozens of containers slowly roll over the rails until they come to a stop at one of the buffers bearing a Chinese flag.

Three huge gantry cranes straddle the parallel sets of tracks in the Dry Port. Painted a striking yellow that glows against the blue sky here in the far eastern corner of Kazakhstan, they have evolved into an easily recognizable hallmark for Khorgas, one of the key transshipment hubs between east and west. Some of the tracks are 1,435 millimeters wide – for the trains hailing from China; the others, whose buffers wear the Kazakh flag, measure 1,524 millimeters and head from here westwards, deeper into the country. Due to the divergent track widths, the containers are transferred from the Chinese to the Kazakh trains in Khorgas to continue their journey towards Europe. A part of the Soviet Union until 1991, Kazakhstan has the same track width as Russia and most of the other former Soviet Republics; China’s tracks have the same measurements as Europe’s.

Khorgas is one of two border posts between Kazakhstan and China. Goods are transshipped here that originate in Lianyungang or Chengdu; they are headed for the Caspian Sea and ultimately the German port of Hamburg. Some 200 kilometers to the northeast, at the Dostyk/Alashankou border crossing, goods stemming from Zhengzou, Shenzhen and Chengdu are processed which will then be transported through Kazakhstan, Russia and Poland on the northern route to Germany and Europe.

In recent years, Kazakhstan has become a main transit country on the New Silk Road – that tremendous infrastructure project launched in 2013 by China. Inspired by the historic medieval Silk Road, a transport corridor is to cross the Eurasian continent to link Asia with Europe. The time needed to transport goods from China to Europe was thus considerably reduced: from 45 days on the sea route around India to a mere 16 days overland.

This sparked major expansions in the highway and rail networks in Kazakhstan. Yet no matter which means of transport is deployed, journeys here are normally protracted. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world. It extends from the Chinese border more than 3,000 kilometers to the Caspian Sea. A trip from Khorgas to Aktau, the country’s most important port on its western coast, takes two and a half days if the connections are good and traverses several time zones. On the way lies a fascinating panoramic country bridging the orient and occident – and one that is often perceived by Europeans as a blank spot on the map.

The presidential palace in Nur-Sultan is framed by golden cones.

Trains coming from Khorgas travel the Turkestan-Siberia Railway, called Turksib. Since its completion in 1931, it has connected Russia to the Central Asian republics. Stretching some 2,350 kilometers, Turksib runs from the Russian Novosibirsk to Arys near Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan. It links the still important mining centers of Semei (formerly Semipalatinsk) and Oskemen (formerly Ust-Kamenogorsk) in the northeastern corner with the rest of Kazakhstan. Not located on the Turksib line, but rather 700 kilometers westward, embedded in endless steppes, lies the country’s capital, Nur-Sultan. The city’s name has often been changed, always for political reasons, to mark a new chapter in Kazakh history. Until 1991 it was called Tselinograd, which then changed to Akmolinsk to mark the country’s independence. And when the city was crowned the new Kazakh capital, it was rechristened Astana. Since 2019, this urban center with over a million inhabitants has gone by the name Nur Sultan in honor of its longtime president, Nursultan Nasarbajew, who resigned that year.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, the Kazakh capital did not suddenly materialize in the last 30 years. In reality, only half of it comprises the brand new, ultra-modern district on the southern bank of the Ishim River. Among others, the British architect Sir Norman Foster left his mark here, designing the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, for instance; here you will find the presidential palace, the Baiterek observation tower, and the grounds of Expo 2017, which today is home to the country’s financial center. The view on the Ishim’s northern bank still recalls a small, gray provincial town in the infinite steppes, struggling to withstand the icy snowstorms and unbearable heat.

For many Kasakhs, however, the former capital remains the cultural heart of the country: Almaty, formery Alma-Ata, situated some 1,200 kilometers south of Nur-Sultan. The train journey between Almaty and Nur-Sultan takes nearly an entire day – or, if you’re riding the fast Talgo trains, “only” some 12 hours. Upon arriving (usually in the morning), one feels dwarfed by the Tien-Shan mountain ranges that rise to heights up to 5,000 meters. The city and its two million inhabitants are located at their foot. Almaty exudes Mediterranean flair; it is known for being modern yet still green, with a temperate climate of hot, dry summers and moderately cold winters.

Theater clubs, an opera house, dozens of parks and hundreds of restaurants offer residents and guests alike an atmosphere unique to a modern country that melds western and eastern lifestyles. Some 120 different ethnic groups live side by side with the Kazakhs: Russians, Ukrainians, Turks, Koreans, Uyghurs, Germans, and many other nationalities. In this multi-ethnic country, mosques, churches and synagogues co-exist in harmony, just as do the streetfood stands at the Green Bazaar that serve and sell everything under the sun. Manti, piroshki and samsa – steamed, fried or clay-oven-baked, filled dumplings; spicy Korean salads. Entire half-carcasses of steer and horses hang from the ceiling; plov, an opulent rice dish made with meat, carrots, chick peas and barberries, is dished up from huge cast-iron pans on open fires.

The Kazakhs, who today make up some two-thirds of the population, were originally a nomadic people. And although the country’s industrialization forced them to surrender their lifestyle, its traces can still be found above all in rural regions. Yurts, the felt tents of the nomads, stand between brick houses; in the summer months, wild riding games are held. A highway and a rail line lead from Almaty to form a key east-west corridor- which is also part of the New Silk Road heading towards the Caspian Sea.

Riding the rails in Kazakhstan is a very different experience; sometimes people literally make themselves at home for their multi-day journeys. Shortly after departure, they slip into jogging pants and slippers, getting as comfy as possible in the double-decker cots. Each wagon has two conductors that spell one another and regularly check the large boiler at one end of the wagon to ensure that hot water is always available for tea. The train crosses the endless steppes for hours. Regardless of the season, one sees mounted herdsmen leisurely driving their sheep and cattle to the nearest village. Herds of horses graze at the foot of the mountain ranges that extend for hundreds of kilometers. The journey passes Turkestan with its mausoleum housing the remains of the medieval scholar Khoja Ahmed Yasawi from the time of Timur; its blue dome recalls tales from the Arabian Nights. At the Russian spaceport Baikonur Cosmodrome, one might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the launching pads from which rockets holding passengers and freight are catapulted into space.

Shortly before reaching the train’s destination – the coastal city of Aktau – the steppe metamorphoses into a desert: camels take the place of the horses, standing next to the highways and rail lines. Here the measured rise and fall of the oil pumps bear witness to Kazakhstan’s rich mineral resources. The country has huge reserves of crude oil, natural gas, copper, coal, uranium and much more. Aktau, some 3,000 kilometers from Khorgas, marks the end of the Kazakh segment of the New Silk Road. Many of the goods arriving here are transferred from rail to ships, and transported onward via the Caspian Sea, the South Caucasus and the Black Sea, and further to Europe. But that is another story.

When Chinese goods arrive on the Chinese-gauge railway line in Khorgas, they need to be reloaded onto Russian-gauge trains.
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