Happiness Doesn't Come at a High Price (I)
This past July, I travelled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Although they aren't known today as popular tourist destinations, centuries ago these two neighbouring countries used to be major trading hubs along the Silk Road, and now they are set to play an important part in China's Belt and Road Initiative. I was curious to find out how they're doing in terms of development these days.
I didn't have a lot of knowledge about Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan before the trip. Given the region's geographical and geological features, I assumed that it was underdeveloped, but much to my amazement, it turned out to be an oasis in the desert with plenty of resources— apart from seafood, the people get to eat everything from fruits and vegetables to beef and lamb. The government of Kazakhstan has used profits from crude oil exports to rebuild its capital, while Uzbekistan is home to a large Chevron plant, with new cars everywhere.
One of the biggest infrastructure projects involved in the Belt and Road Initiative is the international highway linking western Europe and western China. It starts in the city of Lianyun in Jiangsu province, goes through Kazakhstan and ends in St. Petersburg in Russia, where it's connected to the European road network. The Chinese section of the international highway, measuring 3,425 kilometres, was completed in November 2017. The Kazakhstani section is 2,787 kilometres and almost finished. The Russian section, measuring 2,233 kilometres, is expected to open in 2020.
Once the construction of the entire project is completed, it will facilitate the Belt and Road Initiative in connecting the entirety of Europe. Having travelled through 170 kilometres of the six-lane highway, I can attest that road conditions are exceptionally good and our ride was comfortably smooth.
The majority of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan's population work in agriculture, and the average monthly income per capita is between a humble US$300 to $400. There has also been a water shortage problem that can be traced to the Soviet era. Back then, the region was the key cotton producer for the Soviet Union, and the Soviet government artificially changed river courses in order to accommodate the local cotton growing. This has caused the continuous shrinking of the Aral Sea, which is likely to completely dry up by next year. To alleviate this water shortage, local governments have ordered farmers in the region to start replacing cotton farms with fruit farms. This new policy has double the advantages: fruit cultivation uses less water, while exports of fresh fruits yield more profits.
I, of course, did some research on local housing prices as well. My guide in Kazakhstan told me the hottest properties in the city centre are selling at an average of HK$1,500 per square foot, while in the countryside, HK$200,000 can get you a two-bedroom unit. Obviously, with an average monthly income of HK$3,000 per person, private housing still isn't that cheap for most people.
Local governments are therefore offering low-interest mortgage loans to low-income citizens. One of the key goals of the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was that everyone in the nation would have a place to live. His achievements can be felt today: throughout my time in Kazakhstan, I didn't see any homeless people. Despite being economically underdeveloped, Kazakhstan is a happy home for its people, who have housing security and an abundance of resources.