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To The Edge Of The Earth For Love ... And Bubble Tea
A Silk Road story on the Kazakh / China border.
I met Sergei in the dark confectionery bar of the movie theater in Zharkent — a single screen outlet that shows re-runs of new releases past which has become the de facto beacon of modernity in the dusty border town. This is where the town’s youth gather, munching popcorn and sipping sodas; a little piece of the outside world in a place that’s the proverbial middle of nowhere. Zharkent sits near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, the farthest point on earth from an ocean.
The Khorgos border with China is 30 kilometers to the east, while Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural capital, sits 300 kilometers to the west. While 30,000 people live in Zharkent — sizable for Kazakhstan — the place comes off as more of a little-village-that-could rather than anything approaching urban. The streets here are narrow and dusty; only the main thoroughfares are paved, and even these are chewed up and potholed, requiring drivers have to navigate in snake-like curves. The houses tend to be small, single story, cinder block affairs. Some are conglomerations of welded together shipping containers caked in mud. In the winter, dark coal-fired smoke rises from a thousand chimneys. While being located at the epicenter of Kazakhstan’s modernization scheme, Zharkent still has the feel of being on the edge of the earth.
Zharkent is an old Silk Road town, and the legacy of those ancient trade routes still live on here — the town’s main street is called the “Silk Road,” the people are mostly Uyghur. Once a trans-continental trade hub, Zharkent descended into irrelevance during the Soviet era, when the nearby border to China was firmly closed shut. But the new development projects that are emerging on the now open Chinese border are reviving the town’s ancient role as a trading post, and the outside world has begun flowing into Zharkent once again.
Like in the past, the people here are traders. They are buying trucks to ship incoming goods, they do runs to the duty free zone on the Chinese border or to the new city of Horgos on the other side. Some even venture to Urumqi to buy merchandise that they can bring back to Kazakhstan and resell for a bit of profit.
In this landscape, Sergei was unmistakable. He was tall, around 25 years old, and had flowing, long black hair that gave him the look of the Kazakh movie stars in the posters that surrounded us in the cinema. He strode in, sat down in front of me, and called for coffees. Originally born in Uzbekistan, Sergei and his family took part in a government program for ethnic Kazakhs to return to Kazakhstan when he was a teenager.
In 1991, the same year that Kazakhstan became an independent nation, a decree was issued to the Kazakh diaspora: come home, we will pay for it. It was one part nation-building exercise, one part pragmatism, as the new state sorely needed to bolster its depleted population. In the 1930s, under Stalin, upwards of a million Kazakhs fled the chaos, scattering to China, Afghanistan, Iran, and other parts of Central Asia. Another wave of outward migration happened after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with ethnic Russians, Chechens, Poles, and other groups returning to their native homelands. Called Oralman — Returnees — over a million ethnic Kazakhs have taken participated in the program, and now make up 5.5% of the country’s population.
Sergei’s family settled in Almaty, where he finished high school. When the time for him to decide where to go to university, he went the way that many young Central Asians are going these days: he went to China.
Landing in Chongqing, an established Belt and Road hub in the center of the country, Sergei began studying Mandarin. Within a couple of years he obtained fluency. He also obtained something else: a fiance. He hooked up with a Chinese classmate and endeavored to start a life in China with her. However, love isn’t grounds for a visa extension, and her parents weren’t on board with her marrying a foreigner — especially one from the other side of Xinjiang who lacked wealth and prospects. So after graduating Sergei found himself with little other option than to return to Kazakhstan.
Washing up in Almaty, Sergei had the singular objective of getting back to Chongqing by any means necessary. Rather than going into mining and working as a cog in a state firm — the iron rice bowl of Kazakhstan — he cobbled together a very different scheme while wallowing in his star-crossed exile.
“My dream is to go to Chongqing,” he told me. “I have a girl there and I want to move there. So I was like, ‘what can I do to be in Chongqing?’ And I said, ‘maybe I should open my own business.’”
He decided that bubble tea would be his ticket. This sugary, tapioca drink has become such a trend in Asia that it could almost be used as a gauge to measure economic development: how many bubble tea outlets per block — a “bubble tea index” of sorts. But in the heavily congested service sector of Almaty, Sergei found himself without any economic handholds. The competition was stiff and the barriers to entry were high. He couldn’t find a way in and had to re-strategized.
Sergei told me that he kept hearing about this area on Kazakhstan’s eastern frontier called Khorgos that would soon have this new city called Nurkent. The Kazakh media was full of talk about the dry port, the special economic zone, all the companies that would move in, and all the new jobs that would be created.
The new city of Nurkent.
Under its "Nurly Zhol,” (the Bright Road) initiative, Kazakhstan had been attempting to diversify its economy away from being dependent on export commodities. Beginning in November 2014, it outlined a $9 billion plan to revive Kazakhstan’s transportation network and seeding growth in the manufacturing and technology sectors. While there has been talk of such diversification endeavors in Kazakhstan before, Nurly Zhol was kicked into gear as a stimulus plan to help offset the damage of plunging oil prices, which were ravaging the economy. In 2014, oil made up 70% of Kazakhstan’s exports, and, as the price per barrel fell from over $100 to less than $40 over the next two years, the impact resonated through the country. The currency ended up being devalued multiple times, dropping from 170 tenge to the dollar in 2009 to 340 in 2016 ( to 427 today), as savings evaporated and the price of food sky rocketed. A new way was needed.
The Nurly Zhol initiative essentially aimed to restore Kazakhstan’s historic claim of being a Silk Road transit hub, and it blended in smoothly with China’s Belt and Road initiative. Major transport-oriented projects were started in Khorgos in the east and Aktau in the west, new logistics hubs were built at other strategic junctions, and roads and railways were repaired and built anew throughout the country.
The new city of Nurkent.
Sergei imagined that the service sector out at Khorgos wouldn’t yet have that many players, and if he could get in early enough … well, you never know. ‘What other business owner is going to move into a city before it’s even built?’ he reasoned. He knew it would be a crap shoot, but he rode out there anyway to give it a go.
There are two ways of envisioning Nurkent. The first is the present reality: a dormitory town across the highway from a dry port in the middle of nowhere. The second is Kazakhstan’s city of the future, a place that will be packed with hundreds of thousands of people, big companies, and big opportunities right on the doorstep of China.
The latter part of this statement was not lost on Sergei: moving out to Khorgos would put him a little closer to Chongqing.
“I was thinking, maybe I should first open in Nurkent and then I will move to the Chinese side.”
Lacking the funds and connections to just show up in Nurkent and start his venture on day one, he knew he needed to first find a way in. So he took a job with a Chinese mining company who hired him to oversee their customs clearances at the border. He hung out for a while, learned the ropes, then quit.
“I realized that I can do it all myself, so I'm like ‘Why should I give the biggest part of my income to somebody else?’” he queried with a sly smile.
“The biggest problem is crossing the border,” Sergei continued. “So companies are ready to spend a lot of money to just get trucks across the border fast. Customs inspectors sometimes have a lot of stipulations, so sometimes they can stop a truck and usually it goes slowly. So my work is just to communicate with the customs officer and provide all of the documents.”
Basically, inefficiencies in Kazakhstan’s customs process had created a business for Sergei, as knowing the people involved and the way things were done was enough to get his clients’ goods through unimpeded.
But this wasn’t why Sergei moved out to the fringes of the earth. Each day he would go out to the border and peer off across the endless desert of western China in the direction of Chongqing and remember what he was there for: bubble tea. After making the necessary connections, Sergei was able to get approval to open a snack shop in Nurkent. His parents came over from Almaty to help him get started, and he now serves snacks to the workers of Khorgos and their families, as a fledgling new city got one of its first businesses.