One of the big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of China's Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive is Kaza­khstan. While Rus­sia and China tus­sle for in­flu­ence over a na­tion home to peo­ple who trace their an­ces­try to the Mon­gols, horse­meat is still on the menu.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY NICK WAL­TON

A jour­ney to colour­ful Kaza­khstan


It’s an as­sault on ev­ery one of the senses as the stall hold­ers of the cav­ernous Green Mar­ket of Al­maty, for­mer cap­i­tal of Kaza­khstan, bel­low prices and de­scrip­tions of their pro­duce, their cho­rus, which echoes off lime So­viet-era tiles, is punc­tu­ated only by the pound­ing of butch­ers’ blades.

The air is an aro­matic kalei­doscope, with light scents lin­ger­ing and pun­gent ones as­sault­ing the nose. Sun­light streaks through high, dust-en­crusted win­dows, bathing mounds of can­died nuts from Afghanistan, apri­cots and saf­fron from Per­sia, and Ye­meni per­sim­mons the size of soft­balls in mid-morn­ing sun­shine. Be­yond the rel­a­tively se­date fresh pro­duce coun­ters, steps past the sweet stores and cured meat mon­gers, the wet mar­ket sec­tion is a frenzy of ac­tiv­ity as butch­ers hag­gle over the price of fris­bee-sized horse steaks, lengths of home­made sausage, and boiled goat’s heads, a lo­cal del­i­cacy of­ten re­served for tra­di­tional wed­dings. It’s an an­cient scene in a city that seems per­ma­nently at­tached to its his­tory as be­ing on one of the many “silk roads” that con­nected an­cient Europe and Asia.

Trav­ellers have come to the an­cient trad­ing city of Al­maty for cen­turies. To­day, how­ever, Al­maty has com­pe­ti­tion in the form of Kaza­khstan’s im­petu­ous but un­mis­tak­ably am­bi­tious new cap­i­tal, As­tana. While Al­maty lies along an­cient trade routes near the bor­ders with Kyr­gyzs­tan and China (and within 200 kilo­me­tres of Kor­gos… ), Al­maty lies far to the north, in the Rus­sian-in­flu­enced part of Kaza­khstan. Taken to­gether, the two cities of­fer trav­ellers a chance to see the Kaza­khstan of the past and the fu­ture – and com­pet­ing vi­sions of that fu­ture.

A des­ti­na­tion long rel­e­gated to the list of un­pro­nounce­able “Stans” of the for­mer So­viet Union, sprawl­ing, land­locked Kaza­khstan has fi­nally come of age. Shrug­ging off its com­mu­nist-era per­sona (for the most part), em­brac­ing in­de­pen­dence, and cap­i­tal­is­ing on a new-found pros­per­ity thanks to ex­ten­sive oil de­posits, this an­cient way sta­tion on the Silk Road is herald­ing in an ex­cit­ing new epoch as the en­gine that will pro­pel Cen­tral Asia for­ward, fu­eled in part by China’s Belt & Road am­bi­tions.

Al­maty, the coun­try’s largest city and for­mer cap­i­tal, is a seven-hour di­rect flight from Hong Kong. Home to most of Kaza­khstan’s 18 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, Al­maty has wel­comed mer­chants and trav­ellers since the first Silk Road car­a­vans wound their way through the high alpine passes of the Zailiyskiy Alatau moun­tains on their jour­ney west from China. Al­maty

lies at the foothills of this range of snow-capped peaks, which now boast ski re­sorts pop­u­lar with Kaza­khstan’s emer­gent mid­dle class.

A visit to the Ze­ly­ony (Green Mar­ket), Al­maty’s cen­tral mar­ket, of­fers a glimpse into the real life of Al­maty’s res­i­dents. A mar­ket place has stood at this site – the heart of Kaza­khstan’s “Gar­den City” – for 400 years. Wreathed by birch-lined boule­vards and the old oak trees of neigh­bour­ing Pan­filov Park, the Green Mar­ket of­fers a touch of the Silk Road that was. The faces of the stall hold­ers – Korean, Uyghur, Tar­tar, Uzbek and Rus­sian – tell the sto­ries of Kaza­khstan’s her­itage as a melt­ing pot of cul­tures (some there by choice, oth­ers by ex­ile), while their wares trace a spi­der’s web of trade that reaches from the saf­fron fields of Per­sia to the date plan­ta­tions of Saudi Ara­bia and the rice pad­dies of east­ern China.

“The Green Mar­ket is Al­maty,” says Inzhu Aliyev, the youngest of a three-gen­er­a­tion dy­nasty that runs a horse­meat butch­ery at the cen­tre of the mar­ket. She works the stall with her mother and grand­mother – the three clad in im­mac­u­late white coats like dili­gent chemists – be­tween classes at nearby Narxoz Univer­sity. While we chat, I keep one eye out for so-called “fruit and nut po­lice”, the mar­ket’s se­cu­rity guards. These guards, a throw­back to So­viet times, and cam­era-shy and like to stop would-be In­sta­gram­mers in their tracks, much to the amuse­ment of lo­cals. “There is so much his­tory here, so many fam­i­lies that pass their stalls on to their chil­dren,” says Inzhu. “While the rest of Kaza­khstan

is chang­ing, it’s nice to have a place where time re­ally seems to stand still.”

De­spite be­ing the busi­ness cen­tre of Kaza­khstan, Al­maty seems to be in no hurry to face moder­nity. While there are gleam­ing tower blocks and lux­ury ho­tels crop­ping up in the city cen­tre, and lux­ury car deal­er­ships and gated com­mu­ni­ties on its pe­riph­eries, it’s not at the cost of the city’s iconic ar­chi­tec­ture, which in­cludes the Kaza­khstan Na­tional Science Mu­seum, the mosque-like Alma-ata Art Cen­tre, and the Iver­sky Seraphi­movskiy Nun­nery.

At the nearby bright yel­low Tsarist-era Zenkov Cathe­dral, which has sur­vived bliz­zards, fires and rev­o­lu­tions, stooped el­derly women (babushkas) and mil­len­ni­als in dis­tressed jeans pray be­fore a mag­nif­i­cent golden iconos­ta­sis painted by Niko­lai Kh­lu­dov, while an ortho­dox priest silently watches a foot­ball match on his iphone in one cor­ner. It’s a scene that’s lit­tle changed for a cen­tury. In Al­maty, her­itage is in vogue, and the present is in def­er­ence to what has been.

You’ll find tra­di­tions through­out leafy Al­maty, from the in­trigu­ing (and rather tor­tur­ous) bath houses, where birch leaves and buck­ets of cold wa­ter build char­ac­ter; and the tra­di­tional hunt­ing fal­conry aviaries in the foothills of the Zailiyskiy Alatau; to the au­then­tic lo­cal eater­ies where the na­tional dish, Besh­bar­mak, a com­bi­na­tion of boiled horse and mut­ton with noo­dles, is served with rev­er­ence and pride.

But ev­ery city has its ri­val and for an­cient Al­maty, it’s the sparkling new As­tana, a cap­i­tal city of oth­er­worldly ar­chi­tec­ture and 10-lane high­ways that has risen from the flat north­ern plains thanks to am­bi­tions of Kaza­khstan’s au­to­cratic pres­i­dent. In 2015, The Guardian dubbed it “the world’s strangest cap­i­tal”.

I trav­eled to As­tana with award-win­ning bou­tique air­line Air As­tana, the coun­try’s na­tional car­rier. Launched in 2001, the tiny air­line is help­ing de­liver Kaza­khstan to the world be­yond in a way no Kazakh air­line has done be­fore. There’s no govern­ment in­ter­fer­ence, no So­viet relics in the fleet, and no slug­gish bu­reau­cracy – Sky­trax has even awarded the car­rier the cov­eted four-star rat­ing, putting it on par with the world’s lead­ing brands.

It’s a fit­ting way to ar­rive in As­tana, a city that was, in part, con­cep­tu­al­ized on a nap­kin dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial flight – or so the leg­end goes. The brain­child of Kaza­khstan’s enig­matic and ar­dent leader Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev, As­tana is the an­tithe­sis of Al­maty; a for­mer Siberian Cos­sack gar­ri­son town, As­tana be­came cap­i­tal in 1998 and vis­i­tors will be hard pressed to find any­thing in the city older than two decades.

The first thing vis­i­tors to As­tana will no­tice is the ar­chi­tec­ture, which is strik­ing, un­apolo­getic and show­ing a slightly nou­veau riche sen­si­bil­ity. Set against

the re­gion’s ex­tremely flat steppes, As­tana shim­mers like a mi­rage, with grandiose mon­u­ments, new com­mer­cial tow­ers and lux­u­ri­ous apart­ment blocks, and is criss­crossed with wide, proud boule­vards planned by Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Kisho Kurokawa.

At the city cen­tre is the Khazret Sul­tan Mosque, the sec­ond-largest in Cen­tral Asia, which in turn is ringed by world-class arts in­sti­tu­tions that still have that new au­di­to­rium smell; there’s the Nor­man Foster-de­signed, pyra­mid-shaped Palace of Peace and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, where the Syria peace talks have been un­der­way since early 2017. There is the eye-catch­ing, yurt-shaped Khan Shatyr En­ter­tain­ment Cen­tre and the Kaza­khstan Cen­tral Con­cert Hall, de­signed by Man­fredi Ni­co­letti to re­sem­ble a tra­di­tional Kazakh in­stru­ment. Dom­i­nat­ing the sky­line is the Bayterek, a gilded ob­ser­va­tion tower themed on the mytho­log­i­cal Tree of Life, where vis­i­tors can place their hands in the golden im­print left by Pres­i­dent Nazarbayev and make a wish.

From the Bayterek, it’s easy to spy the city’s grow be­neath, from the new Ritz Carl­ton and St Regis ho­tel to the 500,000-square-me­tre US$1.6 bil­lion Abu Dhabi Plaza, home to chic apart­ments, craft beer bars, avant garde restau­rants, and lux­ury re­tail.

One of my favourite places in the cap­i­tal is a lit­tle older (by As­tana stan­dards). The Khan Shatyr En­ter­tain­ment Cen­ter, which was also de­signed by Nor­man Foster, is a cu­ri­ous mall with its own mono­rail and mem­bers-only in­door beach, which makes sense when you re­alise how far the real thing is from As­tana. But trav­ellers should also leave time to visit the im­pres­sive Na­tional Mu­seum of Kaza­khstan, which opened in 2014. A truly am­bi­tious project, the sprawl­ing mu­seum guides vis­i­tors through Kaza­khstan’s pre­and post-so­viet her­itage, fin­ish­ing with a model of As­tana, present and fu­ture, grow­ing from the floor in a fas­ci­nat­ing light and sound dis­play.

Just when you think things couldn’t get odder, a gi­ant golden ea­gle, with a wing­span of more than 30 me­tres, de­scends from the ceil­ing of the main atrium to a cho­rus of pa­tri­otic an­thems that could ri­val the vol­ume of the stall hold­ers of the Green Mar­ket. It’s tes­ta­ment to the spirit of the Kaza­khs, their for­ti­tude, their re­silience, and the bold new path the na­tion is map­ping for it­self, one which em­braces both the past and the fu­ture.

01 Leafy Al­maty is an an­cient trad­ing city. 02 Butch­ers and buy­ers hag­gle over steaks and meat at the Green Mar­ket. 03 Nuts, apri­cots, per­sim­mons and other fresh pro­duce from neigh­bour­ing states are also sold in an­other sec­tion of the Green Mar­ket.

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