Monday, September 14


At the feet of Nagarjuna (creator of the Prajnaparamita sutra, carved here onto boulders by Vajrayana Dzhungars in the 16th-18th centuries), lies Las Vegas of the Steppe.

The Ili River flows into the man-made Kapachagay reservoir, and through the races of the hydro-electric turbines, on its way to Lake Balkhash. The area is home to 50 spanking casinos, and a gambling industry 'measured in the tens of billions of dollars'.

At the time of Kazakh independence in 1991, the per capita GDP was around $1500 and a regulatory-collapse, coupled with the dreary post-Soviet entertainment culture, spawned a home-brewed gaming scene in Almaty. Little bingo parlors and pinball parlors run by new mom-and-pop 'entrepreneurs' sprang up everywhere. Aleksander recounts seeing one in the spare kitchen of the kindergarten next door. By 2007, this homegrown industry had grown to 132 casinos, over 2,000 slot rooms, and 53 betting shops. With per-capita GDP crossing $10000,  the promise of larger-and-larger oil/gas revenues to come, the need to isolate the social costs of gambling, and the desire to bring this wild-east under control of the ruling elites, President Nazarbayev promulgated a new law that restricted gambling in Kazakhstan to two zones - around Kapchagay, and around Schuchinsk. Most of the mom-and-pop slot rooms migrated to Bishkek, went underground, or got converted to discos. The big Malaysia, Macau and Monaco-based gaming consortia moved in, as did the World Poker Tournament, developing the James Bond environment they think they can sell to Russian and Chinese high-rollers. It costs about USD 500 to enter some of these casinos (you get some amount of chips to play as part of admission), and the market seems to consist of young men from as far afield as Baku and Beijing. The 'size of the opportunity' is large enough for Kazakhstan to hold it first Gaming Congress recently, where, the agenda says the following were discussed:

the mechanism and specificity of online gambling; legislative regulation and taxation of gambling business in Kazakhstan; how to attract players to casinos: shows and entertainment programs as a lever for influencing; success stories and tricks of creating a successful casino from owners of the largest casinos in Kazakhstan; analysis of gambling zones in Kazakhstan: how to choose the most profitable area; modernization methods of lotteries to increase their popularity; approaches to attract investors to casinos ...

(At the hotel lobby in Almaty, where the gambling congressmen were beginning to congregate, someone asked me that billion dollar question - erm, what are bitcoins? )

Our friend Natalya works in one of these casinos as a hostess. Her new husband is employed as a driver by the gaming industry. Local opinion in Kapchagay is in grudging admiration of the boom, and soft jobs, that the gambling industry has brought. At the time of the 2007 announcement, apartment prices in Kapchagay went up overnight from $2000 to $10000, and longtime residents feared being priced out of their cinderblock houses by hordes of high-rollers. But the casinos have a huge appetite for service workers - cooks, maids, bouncers, cashiers, drivers to take customers around, bar-girls to sit on their laps.

From a story in the NYT:

But one of the chief selling points of a major gambling center on the Central Asian steppe is also among the chief sources of anxiety among residents: Chinese gamblers. The Chinese appetite for gambling may stoke investment fervor from Macau to Malaysia, but for many Kazakhs the idea of encouraging hundreds of thousands of Chinese visitors to cross the border 400 miles to the east raises the specter of an invasion.

“This town will be a lot like Hong Kong,” said Sayassat Yusenbaev, 28, a businessman having dinner at a Kapchagai restaurant with friends from his office.

Not so, said another man at the table, Sayassat Dyussembayev. “People in general are feeling negative about the Chinese, but they don’t need to worry: the Chinese will come in large groups and stick together in one casino, like a herd,” he said.

People in Kapchagai say they share the widely held belief in Kazakhstan that the Chinese are seeking to economically colonize their sparsely populated neighbor. “They already have taken over the markets around the border,” said Mr. Bakiev, the grocer. “They can buy everything here.”

The Ili river flows into the Kapchagay dam.

The 140 km long Kapchagay dam was completed in 1969; they began slowly filling the reservoir in 1970 over a period of 20 years. Like most 'large hydroelectric' projects, it was though the lake would provide an abundant source of power for Almaty, and irrigation for arid farming in the region. However, environmentalists have expressed deep concerns about its environmental impact upon Lake Balkhash. Between 1970 and 1985, the volume of Lake Balkhash declined by 39 cubic kms, dropping 2 meters in depth. Later, with a moratorium on further filling of the reservoir,  this situation improved somewhat; today, the volume of Balkhash increased a bit once more due to additional river discharge from China, although the water quality had been dramatically reduced and it has become increasingly saline at the Kapchagay side, which is twice as salty as the southwestern end. The 'beaches' around the reservoir attract hordes of summer weekenders from Almaty (a hour away without traffic), and the popular ones are vistas of empty beer bottles and trash. On the road out of Almaty rise billboard after billboard, each advertising a different Russian pop-tart and the Kapchagay casino she will be twerking in.

Below, a ride through Kapchagay and across the reservoir.

Wednesday, September 9


The road from Dzharkent to Bayseit is dotted with small Uyghur villages.  Chinese long-haulers rest under their trucks cheek-by-jowl with borzoi bitches; göşnan and şorpa smells vie with the aroma of apricot.

Uyghurs started to settle in today’s Kazakh territory in the 19th century after the Qing conquest of Dzhungaria.

The first Eastern Turkestan Republic (Uyghur: شەرقىي تۈركىستان ئىسلام جۇمھۇرىيىتى‎ Sharqi Türkistan Islam Jumhuriyiti) was a short-lived breakaway Islamic republic, founded in 1933, centered on Kashgar, primarily the product of an independence movement of the Uyghur population sensing an opportunity with a China preoccupied by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. With the sacking of Kashgar in 1934 by Hui warlords (nominally allied with the Kuomintang government in Nanjing), the first ETR collapsed. At this point, the USSR stepped into Xinjiang and effectively took over, ruling by proxy through an ethnic Chinese (i..e neither Uyghur, nor Kazakh, nor Chinese Muslim Hui/Dungan) warlord Sheng Shicai. With Soviet assistance, Sheng quelled Uyghur and Dungan uprisings, and expelled 20,000 Kazakhs out of Xinjiang to Qinghai (i.e. towards China), where they were massacred by their co-religionists the Hui.

The USSR sent a commission to Xinjiang to draw up a plan for the development of Xinjiang/Turkestan, led by Stalin's brother-in-law Alexander Svanidze, Deputy Chief of the Soviet State Bank. This resulted in a Soviet 5-year loan of 5,000,000 gold rubles to Sheng Shicai's regime. In 1940, Sheng Shicai concluded an agreement granting the USSR additional concessions in the province of Xinjiang for fifty years, including areas bordering India and Tibet. This placed the area under virtually complete control of the USSR, keeping it on maps as part of China in name only. Soviet advisors swarmed around Turkestan, developing plans to extract minerals from desert and mountain.

In 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and Stalin pivoted to the 'Western' front. Sheng took the opportunity to dump the USSR, and seek relations with the Kuomintang. With each Soviet defeat to the Nazis, Sheng expelled more Red Army military forces and technicians residing in Xinjiang. In August 1942 Sheng demanded that the Soviet Union withdrew all military forces and political officers from Xinjiang in 3 months, and, in a few days, met with Mme Chiang Kai-Shek, who flew to Urumqi with letter from Chiang Kai-Shek promising his forgiveness to Sheng for all his transgressions. Sheng was appointed the head of the Kuomintang branch in Xinjiang in 1943, and, to prove his zeal, arrested a number of Chinese communists and executed them. Among those killed was Mao Zemin, brother of Mao Zedong.

Many of the Turkic elites of the Ili region of Xinjiang had had close cultural, political and economic ties with Russia and then the Soviet Union over many generations. Refugees from the Sheng/Kuomintang alliance fled to the Soviet Union and sought Soviet assistance for Uyghur rebels fighting the Kuomintang. The result is called the Ili rebellion. At the end of the fighting, the rebels had set up a second East Turkestan Republic (1944-49.) The pro-Soviet Uyghur who became leader of Ili rebellion, Ehmetjan Qasimi (photo below), was Soviet-educated and described as "Stalin's man." It was declared:

The Turkestan Islam Government is organized: praise be to Allah for his manifold blessings! Allah be praised! The aid of Allah has given us the heroism to overthrow the government of the oppressor Chinese. But even if we have set ourselves free, can it be pleasing in the sight of our God if we only stand and watch while you, our brethren in religion ... still bear the bloody grievance of subjection to the black politics of the oppressor Government of the savage Chinese? Certainly our God would not be satisfied. We will not throw down our arms until we have made you free from the five bloody fingers of the Chinese oppressors' power, nor until the very roots of the Chinese oppressors' government have dried and died away from the face of the earth of East Turkestan, which we have inherited as our native land from our fathers and our grandfathers."

The Ili rebels engaged in retributive massacres of Han Chinese civilians, especially targeting people affiliated with the Kuomintang and Sheng Shicai. Sheng himself fled Xinjiang in 1944 (after unsuccessfully appealing to Stalin to be let to change sides again; 11 members of his family were killed in the endgame), and 50 trucks accompanied him, loaded with 'personal property earned in Xinjiang over 15 years', including 1,500 kg of gold  and  15,000 kg of silver - which he took with him to comfortable retirement in Taiwan.

At the conclusion of WW II, once the Japanese surrendered, Mao's PLA started slowly prevailing against the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War. When the PLA started to push into the Xinjiang frontier, Stalin saw the possibility of tremendous strategic advance - welcoming the Chinese communists into the orbit of the Soviets and making China a junior partner to Russia. To this end, the Ili rebellion could become a sacrificial pawn. There was a secret Stalin Mao pact. Mao telegraphed the leaders of the second Eastern Turkestan Republic, inviting them to attend the Inaugural Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference to be held in Beijing. They took the bait; on August 22 1949, the five top leaders of the Ili rebellion - Ehmetjan Qasimi ("Stalin's man"), Abdulkerim Abbas, Ishaq Beg Munonov, Luo Zhi and Delilhan Sugurbayev - boarded a Soviet plane in Almaty headed for China. Soon, cables said they had perished in a mysterious plane accident near Lake Baikal.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, former KGB generals revealed that  the five top ETR leaders had had their plane diverted to Moscow on Stalin's orders, where they had been imprisoned in the former Tsar's stables, personally interrogated by the head of MGB Colonel General Viktor Abakumov, and then executed.

With each geopolitical twist and turn, there had been Uyghur influxes into Kazakhstan - in 1934, in 1949, and again in 1962 (when the Sino/Soviet split was accompanied by an increase in oppression by the Chinese government over the Turkic minorities.)  As a result of many flows into the USSR, the Uyghurs, while never forgetting the dream of autonomy over East Turkestan, started to view Kazakhstan as something of a refuge and an adoptive homeland.

In the rest of Kazakhstan, the Soviet era had brought significant in-migration. The bigger Soviet labour camps were built here. Many minority groups (Koreans, Germans, Poles, Chechens, Ingush, Tatars) were deported to these camps during the 1930s and 1940s, under accusation of being traitors in the Great Terror wreaked by Stalin. Other Soviet citizens, mainly Slavs and Europeans, also fled to Kazakhstan from the European front to escape the advancing Nazis. Under Khrushchev, the Kazakh steppe became a destination for Russian homesteaders to conquer Virgin Lands. Kazakhs, as a result, were decimated - collectivization had disastrous effects on the nomads and destroyed a way of life that had been stable for millennia. By the 1990s the Kazakhs were no longer a majority in the Kazakh SSR.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new 'stans', the presence of minorities in Kazakhstan became problematic for the newly independent Kazakh elites. A solution has been found in ambiguity. The Kazakhs emphasized the common past - under Turko-Mongol clans, under the Tsars, and under the occupation of the Soviets. The political leadership guaranteed citizenship to all ex-Soviet residents, but at the same time supported discriminatory linguistic and demographic policies, and kept encouraging the promotion of ethnic Kazakh hegemony in the state sector. President Nazarbayev administration has kept a delicate balance between concessions granted to the 'national minorities' (mostly related to every nation being able to stay within its own folklore, though every citizen has to learn Kazakh) but kept tight control over economy and politics.

Uyghurs in Kazakhstan, then, live in limbo. They can open small businesses, study Uyghur after they study Kazakh, organize cultural events, keep beards  -  provided they do not organize politically, and accept tight State control over relations with their relatives in Xinjiang. A common suspicion of Islamic extremism lingers over them.

We wander around Bayseit, the village is festive on Saturday, the market day. At the local Uyghur school, a children's ensemble plays the dombra and the dutar. Traditional Uyghur music, however, as in Xinjiang, has been given a run for its money by Bollywood.

A traveler across the border in China writes:

Uyghur enthusiasm for Hindi film songs has moved from consumption to production. ‘Hebbeli’ is a popular bootlegging which skillfully juxtaposes Hindi film videos with Uyghur pop songs. We see a suave Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood megastar, fronting massed lines of scantily-clad chorus girls, lip-synching to the Uyghur with uncanny accuracy: ‘Khanimlar, ependiler, diqqet … mushundaq yashash kerek!’ (ladies and gentlemen, observe .... this is how to live!) Even in the heart of the Uyghur countryside you can hear local singers, accompanying themselves on the dutar long-necked lute, singing Uyghur-language cover versions of Bollywood classics. One major influence was the 1951 classic ‘Awāra’ by Raj Kapoor, a love story between the vagabond Raj and rich girl Rita.

This was one of the first films to be shown in the Uyghur region post-Cultural Revolution when its core theme of class-contradictions was deemed acceptable by the authorities. It was shown in villages across Xinjiang, projected onto sheets hung outdoors. But class struggle was not what audience took from this film. Instead it gave them their first taste of melodrama, romantic love and tragedy, and it filled an aching need for such things after the emotional wasteland of Cultural Revolution.

"It was the first film that I saw that wasn’t Chinese revolutionary propaganda”, says Aziz from Shahyar. “They showed it in our village, and we boys climbed up onto the courtyard wall to see it. We sang the title song ‘Awāra Hoo’ all the time”.

I am soon mobbed in Bayseit by young Uyghurs who ask me if I know Salman Khan. An enterprising quartet proceeds to snatch shashlik skewers and dance out a garba number lest I be a talent scout from India. The old woman selling fruit beckons me from across the street and presses some white apricot in my hands. One of the young men translates: "She is asking you to give her regards to Raj Kapoor and his family", and then, with a grin, "She also says 'Awalagu.'"

Tuesday, September 1

Charyn Canyon

As Imperial Russia expanded into the Siberian Far East, it encountered rival territorial claims from China In 1860, Russia imposed an agreement on China's waning Qing dynasty that roughly set up the current border.

In 1951, two years after the communist victory over nationalists in the Chinese civil war, Beijing signed an agreement with Moscow -- accepting China's existing border with the USSR, as well as armed Soviet control over the Amur and the Ussuri rivers.  The Cultural Revolution in China of the 1960s, essentially a power struggle between  Mao and the government bureaucracy, created great internal instability. Beijing declared its border with the USSR was the result of "unequal" treaties made a century earlier.  The Chinese nuclear detonation of 1964 brought angst to Kremlin. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 also increased Chinese suspicions of Moscow's intentions south of the Amur into Manchuria.

On March 2, 1969, a group of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops ambushed Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island. The Soviets suffered 59 dead, including a senior colonel, and 94 wounded.[citation needed] They retaliated on March 15 by bombarding Chinese troop concentrations on the Chinese bank of the Ussuri River and by storming Zhenbao Island. The Soviets sent four then-secret T-62 tanks to attack the Chinese patrols on the island from the other side of the river. One of the leading tanks was hit and the tank commander was killed. On March 16, 1969, the Soviets entered the island to collect their dead; the Chinese held their fire. On March 17, 1969, the Soviets tried to recover the disabled tank, but their effort was repelled by the Chinese artillery. On March 21, the Soviets sent a demolition team attempting to destroy the tank. The Chinese opened fire and thwarted the Soviets.[citation needed] With the help of divers of the Chinese navy, the PLA pulled the T-62 tank onshore.

In August, the PLA tried another provocation, this time near where we are, in Kazakhstan. A Chinese military patrol crossed into the Lake Zhalanashkol  region, about 3 miles into the Kazakh SSR. The USSR was better prepared this time. the Soviet soldiers crossed the border to attack. The Soviets eliminated the Chinese patrol, crossed over into the Chinese border zone and killed about 30 Chinese soldiers. They continued to hold the Terekty River, an intermittent stream which flows China to Kazakhstan, till the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1990s.

After the Terekty incident, the USSR prepared contingency plans for Chinese reprisals. It was believed Chinese tank brigades would come rolling into Kazakhstan to threaten the vulnerable underbelly of the USSR at Almaty. The Charyn canyon was the first natural obstacle across the steppe, running north south along the border - if this line were held, the tanks would have to force their way through the far-easier-to-defend Dzungharian Gate to the north. We pass the machine gun pillboxes on the Kazakh side of Charyn, dotting the landscape, about 100m apart, all along the gorge.

During this time,  US officials watched the ideological and political split between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China escalate into fighting on Sino-Soviet borders. Some U.S. officials wondered if the Soviet Union might launch attacks to take out Chinese nuclear weapons facilities.

The Sinologist Allen Whiting wrote to Henry Kissinger:

Between 1966 and 1969, Soviet military deployments doubled the number of ground force divisions near the Chinese border while bringing the units originally there from half to full strength. Soviet artillery, nuclear and conventional, is concentrated along China's northeast frontier with a firepower density estimated as comparable with that opposite NATO. Soviet 500-nautical mile nuclear missiles (SS-12) are deployed so as to threaten vital rail and industrial centers in Manchuria. During this period, existing Soviet airfields have been improved and additional bases constructed targetting China. Particularly salient for striking China's nuclear production facilities are ten new Russian airfields in Outer Mongolia.

Soviet military deployments and political behavior indicate an increasing probability of a Soviet attack on China, presumably aimed at destroying China's nuclear capability. A Sino-Soviet war raises the risk of nuclear weapons being used by one or both sides. A Soviet attack on China will increase the bitter hatred and siege mentality with which the Chinese are likely to view the world for the rest of this century.

We roll across the steppe towards  Charyn National Park, established in 2004 and located within the territory of the Uyghur and Kegen Districts of Almaty Province. The canyon stretches 150 kms along the Charyn River in the northern Tien Shan mountain range. In parts, it attains a depth of 300 m, and it has been called one of the ten most impressive canyons in the world.

The Charyn canyon is estimated to be 12 million years old - the multi-colored geology is the result of different stages of sediment deposition. Dark rocks at the bottom are volcanic lava rocks; the red cliffs are from debris flows. Downstream of Charyn there is a left-over stand from a prehistoric forest of Sogdian Ash. The Sogdian Ash is a rare, endangered species and the Charyn canyon is one of two places where it still grows in numbers. The river itself is turbulent in the canyon, flowing through some serious Class VI rapids.