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Kazakh-China Diary: Two roads

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12 October 2011 17:20

Konrad Muller is a former Australian diplomat and journalist. He and Anthony Bubalo are undertaking fieldwork for a new project examining Kazakh-China relations. Earlier posts in this series: post 1, post 2post 3, post 4, post 5, post 6.

As the two sides of the border-crossing had seemed to tell a tale, so did the roads down which we traveled from Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, to Urumqi in China.

Cracked, patched-up and corrugated, with mud, the odd pothole and languid dogs loitering, the road from Almaty to the border town of Zharkent was a place where a suburban four-wheel drive might actually have been sensible.  

  

We were hurtling along in a brave piece of Japanese machinery, driven by a gentleman called Baghdad from the town of Semeypalatinsk, whose preferred style of driving outside residential areas was cavalier. Indeed, we could only liken it to the Bedouin-crazed long-distance hire-taxis Anthony and I had each tasted on the Sinai Peninsula. What, we asked, is it about these nomads and former nomads when they get behind a wheel?

Generally, Baghdad liked to sit at a respectable 160kmh, including when he pulled out into the middle of the road, despite the oncoming trucks. And he would take the bumps as a free spirit should — sailing into the air and landing with a jolt which would cause him to turn to us and smile, as if to say 'You are okay, aren't you?' as he kept on sailing. 'The vehicle's obviously not his', Anthony observed.

But we were not complaining. After all, who needs Luna Park when you're on the Kazakh steppe? Baghdad seemed sharp-eyed and alert enough, and the shifting landscape was striking — deciduous trees and corn fields turning golden with autumn, replaced in time by the paws of the Tian Shan's foothills, tawny in the sun. Then we entered the Sharyn Canyon, a weird orange landscape, like something out of Mars, before finally we drove onto the edge of the steppe, all bronzed tussock on gravelly soil, flat and unchanging as the outback, a landscape fit for the nomad's patient eye and for the herd of Bactrian camel that we saw slowly moving.

Though we were enjoying ourselves, we wondered how this workaday road related to the grand plans to develop a West China to Western Europe highway (of which this strip forms a part), with intended trade and transit benefits. The date for finishing this US$6.6 billion project in Kazakhstan is 2012. We could only conclude the segment from Almaty to Khorgos had not been completed as yet.

The Chinese section of this transcontinental highway, we discovered driving from the border to Urumqi, had been completed, as indeed it was scheduled to be by 2010. Here the road via Yining (or Ghulja as the Kazakhs call it, a name that goes back to the Zunghars, a Mongol people exterminated by the Manchu in the eighteenth century) seemed almost like a Chinese paean to the freeways of America, that mid-twentieth century symbol of speed and power.

Exceedingly smooth, it was well-marked and apparently well-graded (although Anthony, whose father once worked on remote roads in Western Australia and had thereby been mentally inducted into the obscure art of bitumen, assured me, when drizzle began to fall, that the furrows of water collecting in the middle of the expressway — 'that should not be happening', he said — were a sign that perhaps the grading of this road was something less than perfect.)

As if to strike the correct contemporary note, our Chinese driver began to play some form of pulsing techno ('ROCK ROCK ROCK YOUR BODY YOU'VE GOT TO LICK IT LICK IT LICK IT IF YOU'RE GONNA KICK IT KICK IT KICK'), the musical equivalent of the Wrigley's spearmint chewing gum he masticated on throughout our journey to Urumqi.

But, again, we were not complaining, and again the landscape was memorable, as were the feats of engineering we witnessed, especially as our vehicle went from Yining into and through the western foothills of the Tian Shan. Here were fir trees sitting on teeth of jagged granite, then we were in the mountains with a dusting of snow, and suddenly out of nowhere a truly extraordinary suspension bridge materialised hanging in the clouds and curving perhaps three hundred metres above the valley floor. Massive stabilising metals pylons were rammed into the rock of the hillsides below. It seemed like modernity on the march. The new China.

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