By Stephen M. Bland
Beyond a low balustrade, the Hotel Turkistan looks out over the corrugated roofs of Almaty’s turquoise painted Zelyony Bazaar, almost pretty beneath serried, thistle-grey clouds. At a quarter to six in the morning, stallholders begin to arrive, pausing at a canteen for a quick breakfast of horsemeat sausage. Propelling himself upon sticks, an amputee beggar leaves a trail of polyurethane padding spilling from his polymer wrapped stumps. Settling on a position he hopes will prove advantageous, he places his tin mug upon the ground.
With its oblique pyramids of dried fruit and hall of butchers in blood-smeared aprons, Zelyony is fast becoming Almaty’s largest bazaar, in part because its chief rival, Barakholka keeps going up in flames. Hugely profitable and completely unregulated, at its peak 180,000 people worked in the Barakholka complex, but a power struggle in the grey area between the government and organised crime has seen traders fall on hard times.
With seven fires having struck in the space of fourteen months between 2013 – 2014, witnesses told STV’s Territory Accidents that when a blaze broke out in November 2013, security guards waited over an hour before calling the emergency services. Costing billions of tenge in damage, eight weeks earlier another incident caused pillars of smoke visible throughout the city, helicopters assisting 1,518 firefighters to extinguish the conflagration. Blamed on a range of causes from ‘incautious welding’ to an ‘unattended candle,’ the single episode officially adjudged the result of arson was ruled to have been an inside job. ‘During the fire outsiders [were] not there,’ according to the Tengri News network.
At Barakholka, beyond the rubble-strewn periphery, rows of blackened sheds and shipping containers lead to a warren of metal pitches. At the entrance to a building resembling an aircraft hangar, two competing DJ’s pumping out tunes sat with CD mixers balanced upon pairs of speakers. From pageant dresses and knitted woollen bobble slippers to gleaming meat cleavers and paintings of horses, if you want it, chances are it’s there.
Inside, a woman sat sandwiched between the display racks of her stall.
‘Nobody here,’ she grumbled, waving her hands whilst half-heartedly trying to sell me a pair of knock-off Chinese sunglasses. ‘Nobody knows Barakholka open. Everybody thinks we all burned.’
The government long having planned to demolish the bazaar and replace it with a gentrified mall with an appearance somewhere between a spaceport and a humongous white snail, those whose livelihoods depend upon Barakholka smell a conspiracy in the blazes. Vendors would be welcome to return once the new structure is completed, the authorities have assured them, but only at vastly inflated rents.
As Barakholka struggles for survival, meanwhile, in December 2011 a 5.3 square kilometre free trade zone officially opened in the barrens of Khorgos on the border with China. A bone-crunching five hours from Almaty – the nearest Kazakh city of note – it was designed as a visa and tax-free arena where citizens of the two countries could shop and enjoy a variety of entertainments. On the Chinese side, there are five malls where one can buy the latest tech and stay in a choice of upmarket hotels, though traders complain there are very few visitors.
With plans for a Disneyland-style theme park having stalled, on the Kazakh side a limited selection of candy and tinned goods are offered from a sprinkling of repurposed shipping containers. A line of barbed wire fences lay beneath a rubber seal ready to spring into action. Corruption hasn’t helped matters; the Kazakh Head of Customs at Khorgos was arrested in 2011 for his part in a massive smuggling ring. A few days later, the sacking of the country’s Customs Chief for his alleged complicity was announced via Twitter. Neither man has been heard from since.
By 2020, the Khorgos free trade zone is set to become the largest dry port on Earth, with facilities for up to four million tonnes of goods a year to be transferred between Chinese and Kazakh trains, which run on different gauges. Despite official enthusiasm for the project on the Chinese side, however, according to the Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation trade organisation, the zone remains one of China’s slowest border crossings, meaning that many traders still prefer to use sea ports such as Tianjin, some 4,000 kilometres away.
Taking advantage of lucrative tax breaks, according to official figures, 2,411 companies were registered on the Chinese side of the zone in 2016, whilst celebrities flocked to set up production companies. With no obligation to conduct business from Khorgos, or even within Xinjiang, however, the zone operates as little more than a tax haven, offering little in the way of benefits to the region.