At the confluence of East and West stands a city at the mouth of the Ural River, which cleaves the Eurasian landmass into two continents. Atyrau was the first Russian settlement in modern-day Kazakhstan; it was a fort constantly imperiled by steppe nomads and marauding Cossacks. Yet there is almost nothing here for the modern traveler: no compelling historic sites, no exceptional landscapes, no quirky cultural traditions. Even the nearby Caspian Sea fails to provide respite brackish marsh stretches for miles, the ideal breeding ground for the mosquitoes that swarm even during daylight. Touring the outskirts of the city, where Ibn Battuta once traded his horses for camels in the Golden Horde oasis of Saraichik, my eyes crave anything to break up the monotony of salt-stained scrubland. But the ruins of Saraichik offer only a few lumps of mud brick and a human skull sitting on the Ural riverbank.
Desolate as this place may be, flights to Atyrau are invariably full. Swatting away clouds of mosquitoes at baggage claim with me are muscled Filipinos, sunburned Houston executives, unflappable Indians and scented Russians wearing fine shoes and watches. Atyrau may feel like the barren epicenter of Eurasia, but it is also the booming oil capital of a young, resource-rich nation. Because of the influx of oil money, rooms at the uninspired top hotel in town, with its thin walls and bountiful adult-TV programming, rent at Tokyo or London prices. New-model MercedesBenz and Land Cruisers purr amid the clattering Ladas and Skodas. A gated community of cream-colored California-style villas each with a patch of lawn, a Weber grill and an American-made trash can provides refuge for expat oil barons unimpressed with Atyrau's Soviet architecture. Although the Caspian is famous for its caviar, gastronomic civilization has arrived in another form: a TGI Friday's and a Baskin-Robbins.
Such are the totems of a new Central Asia. Islam as a political force once dominated this vast, forbidding land. But when Ibn Battuta (and Marco Polo before him) coursed through, no single imperium ruled. Eventually the Russians prevailed. By the 1920s, the godless Soviet Union had gobbled up Central Asia. Moscow's influence persisted even after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., with the landlocked region dependent on Russian trade ties. The U.S. has since tried to undercut Russia by pouring money into the energy sector of Kazakhstan, the biggest and richest of the Central Asian republics. Relations between the U.S. and Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev have even taken on an opportunistic, Cold War style friendliness, despite the strongman's indifference to Washington's lectures about democratic virtues.
Enter Beijing. Where oil gushes in the developing world, the Chinese have a habit of appearing. Eager to fuel its voracious economic engine, Beijing has scoured the globe for untapped oil reserves and mineral deposits. Kazakhstan happens to be the world's largest uranium producer, and recent oil-field discoveries in the country's west are among the planet's biggest in more than two decades. The Middle Kingdom's power only increased after the 2009 financial crisis left Western firms temporarily less equipped to compete with the cash-rich Chinese. In that year alone, Beijing lavished $10 billion in financing on Kazakhstan, helping build roads, railways and telecommunications networks.
This spring, China Petroleum and Chemical Corp., or Sinopec, began work on a $1 billion expansion of the Atyrau oil refinery. Chinese firms now control roughly one-quarter of Kazakhstan's oil production. Some of it flows to China via a pipeline that gives Beijing a crucial alternative to the Strait of Malacca choke point through which most of its oil imports must pass. The pipeline, which is expected to carry 20 million tons of oil a year by 2013, stretches from western Kazakhstan and tunnels through the Tian Shan Mountains to Xinjiang, the fractious, Muslim-majority autonomous region in northwestern China.
A giant uranium deal and acquisition of a major natural gas field have also given China Inc. a bigger stake in Kazakhstan, a country the size of Western Europe. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Kazakhstan in June, he took with him $2.5 billion in investment and currency deals. This year, Kazakhstan's trade with China will likely surpass its trade with Russia; Hu has predicted trade levels will double within four years to $40 billion. "The whole of Kazakhstan has a population that's smaller than one of our big cities," says Liu Wei, a Sinopec employee in Atyrau, referring to the Central Asian nation's 16 million people. "But it has so many natural resources. What's the problem if we want to buy them and help make Kazakhstan rich?"
But money is just part of the equation. China is leveraging its growing clout in neighboring Kazakhstan to put pressure on the tens of thousands of ethnic Uighurs who over the decades have fled across the border from Xinjiang to escape persecution by the Chinese. Central Asia's latest Great Game thus has it all: intense competition among three big powers, high stakes for natural resources and communal strife. But there is little question about who is now ahead in the game. Says Nurlan Keikin, the managing director for capital construction and reconstruction at the Atyrau refinery: "We all know the future is China's."
The Chinese Connection
Since President Nazarbayev turned an outpost on a windswept steppe into Kazakhstan's new capital in 1997, Astana has grown with an astonishing architectural exuberance. The Finance Ministry is shaped like a giant dollar sign. On one block I pass a Korean-style edifice, a Swedish beer hall and a collection of yurts, the traditional tents used by Kazakhs. There is a Nazarbayev University. And reinforcing China's place in the city is the Beijing Palace a Chinese-roofed hotel tower, complete with a revolving restaurant that would look perfectly at home on the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
Beijing's influence on Kazakhstan is still not as pervasive as Moscow's. After the long years of Russian domination, one-third of Kazakhstan's population is ethnically Russian. Many Kazakhs speak Russian to each other, despite Kazakh language instruction in school. Nevertheless, it is the incursion of China, the populous behemoth to the east, that is raising nationalist hackles, not the specter of Russia. In May, Kazakhstan's biggest opposition party sponsored a hundreds-strong demonstration against China. Protesters were riled by rumors that Kazakhstan might lease land to Chinese farmers; posters at the rally depicted a Kazakh yoked to a plow helmed by a Chinese mandarin.
Throughout my travels in Kazakhstan I hear tales of an invading Chinese horde. Some local NGOs estimate that half a million Chinese have descended on this sparsely populated land. I see no evidence of such numbers, and the Kazakh Ministry of Labor and Social Protection has set quotas limiting the number of foreign workers in Kazakhstan. But a 2009 U.S. embassy cable from Astana released by WikiLeaks reported, "Once Chinese companies sign a contract, they 'close the circle,' bring in their own personnel and equipment often illegally and control the project tightly, under close supervision from Beijing. A Chinese Embassy official ... acknowledged that Chinese companies sometimes violate Kazakhstan's immigration and customs laws."
So where are all those Chinese? I finally find one group living in a concrete box atop the roof of the Golden Dragon restaurant and hotel in downtown Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city. Chef Yang isn't here for the adventure. "I'm in Kazakhstan for one reason only money," he says. From his spartan barracks, which he shares with several other Chinese, I can see the snowcapped Tian Shan Mountains, the celestial peaks straddling the borders of China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Does he find them pretty, I ask? He shrugs. "When I'm up here I'm too tired to look at them," he says, buttoning up his chef's whites. "I have to go to work now."
The Uighur Question
Others have weightier things on their minds. In a tidy residential part of Almaty, I catch sight of a flag on a car dashboard: a Muslim crescent and star on a sky-blue background. It is the flag of East Turkestan, the short-lived, self-proclaimed republic (1933 34 and 1944 49, by history's most generous estimation) of the Uighur people who are spread across what is now the Xinjiang autonomous region. Today, the Uighurs are losing out, even outside their ancient homeland. No longer able to gain licenses from the government, Uighur activists in Kazakhstan cannot publicly convene to discuss political issues. That East Turkestan flag I saw? Displaying one can result in police harassment. "My family and I escaped China in 1962 after a massacre in my hometown," says Usanzhan Hassan, 68, a Uighur who was born in Xinjiang and now lives in Almaty. "I never thought the Chinese would become powerful enough to control us even outside of their territory."
The Chinese campaign against Uighurs has intensified since 2009, when riots in Xinjiang between Uighurs, China's Han majority and jittery security forces resulted in the deaths of some 200 people. Since then, China has used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security group that also includes Central Asian nations and Russia, to garner international support for what human-rights groups call systematic ethnic repression. In May, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan held SCO-sponsored military drills with China aimed at combatting what Beijing dubs "East Turkestan terrorist forces." Though China claims the existence of major Uighur terrorist groups, foreign academics doubt their reach and size. "China is trying to convince the world that we are all terrorists," says Abdureshit Turdiev, a Uighur community leader in Almaty. "But all most of us want is dignity and freedom to practice our traditions."
In June the SCO held its 10th-anniversary summit in Kazakhstan. Shortly before the SCO meeting, Uighurs with Kazakh citizenship were prevented from leaving the country to attend a Uighur conference in Washington. (The same thing happened in Kyrgyzstan.) Then Ershidin Israil, a Uighur who escaped to Kazakhstan from China in 2009 and was initially granted U.N. refugee status to resettle in Sweden, was deported back to the People's Republic, a pattern of forced Uighur repatriation that has been repeated across Central Asia. Ershidin was officially charged in June with terrorism; the U.N. revoked his refugee status earlier in the year. But his relatives in Kazakhstan say he is no radical. The Washington-based nonprofit media group Radio Free Asia believes the 38-year-old is being punished for talking to it, particularly about the security crackdown following the 2009 riots. "We have no word where Ershidin is now," says his sister-in-law Asiye Kerimova. "But I am sure we will never see him again."
Back in Atyrau, a dusty Chinese flag flutters on the side of a broad Soviet-era avenue. Yet even though Kazakhstan is pumping ever more oil, the number of foreign flags flying in the country's oil capital is falling. In May, Royal Dutch Shell shut its offices in Atyrau, putting on hold its development of the offshore Kashagan field, the world's biggest such oil discovery in more than 20 years. The following month a Norwegian company also pulled out of Kashagan. Western companies are wrangling over costs with the Kazakh government, which appears keen for the state to control greater percentages of the country's oil wealth. Kazakh Oil and Gas Minister Sauat Mynbayev has cast doubt on the plan of a Western consortium of firms from the U.S., Russia, Britain and Italy to develop another major oil-and-gas field called Karachaganak.
Other potential partners are waiting in the wings. A U.S. embassy cable from Astana in January 2010 disseminated by WikiLeaks described a former Kazakh oil-company vice president confiding that Chinese and Russian interests "'continue to circle like vultures,' hoping that the Kashagan and Karachaganak consortia will implode, and then they can pick up the pieces." Makhambet Khakimov, head of local environmental NGO Caspian Nature, speculates on why the Chinese bid for the refinery refurbishment was $2 billion lower than the competing foreign tenders. "What will lose out? Our ecology. Our workforce," he says. "If there are so many countries interested in our oil, we should play them against each other to get the best deal for the Kazakh people, not make them victims." A Great Game may turn on rival foreign powers, but its outcome depends also on the cunning of local players. Kazakhstan's tale of international intrigue has only just begun.