Day 1: Almaty, Kazakhstan
Forget everything you've seen in Borat. The real Kazakhstan is no joke. Larger than all of western Europe, it has vast reserves of fossil fuels and huge deposits of uranium, chromium, lead and other elements, wealth which someday could empower the former Soviet satellite with the political clout to match its immense size. Kazakhstan is moving quickly toward a free market economy (not to be confused with a democracy, which it is not) and away from a past dominated by outsiders.
Though Almaty (City of the Apples) has given up much of its political importance, it's still full of power players-from both the east and the west-eager to cash in on the country's growth. Almaty lies close to the Chinese border, but the city grew large under the iron rule of its Russian overlords, and the drab architecture and monolithic sculptures of the Soviet era loom in contrast to the city's brightly lit casinos and Christmas decorations, whose shimmering colors pool on the wet streets.
The daylight view from my hotel room reveals a snow-tipped horizon-spurs of the mighty Tian Shan Mountains that would flank our drive for many miles, well over the border into China. First, though, we sampled Kazakhstan culture at a facility that keeps alive the old tradition of hunting with eagles and then had lunch at a Russian restaurant festooned with Communist-era artwork.
Day 2: Almaty to Yining, China, 283 miles
The city's free-for-all is left behind. Congestion is replaced by all manner of transport, from donkey carts to cheap Commie cars belching smoke. Lots of older Audis, not much other Western machinery. It's hard to gauge lane discipline; there are no lanes, painted or implied. Passing traffic is like entering a no-man's land strewn with mines and sudden crossfires. We're on the old trading route that used to connect the Far East with wealthy Europe, which craved silks and spices transported thousands of miles on the backs of camels. A long, dusty drive on a wrinkled dirt track takes us to the red sandstone cliffs of Sharyn Canyon. I marvel at the car's quiet comfort as we crawl slowly along the rutted road.
A short stop just shy of the border, meet and greet local dignitaries, and enjoy a local dance troupe that twirls brightly in front of the civic hall. We join in the tradition of dipping pieces of fresh-baked bread into tiny dishes of salt and listen to a local singer belt out a magnificently incoherent tune. Then we're off. Into China.
We've been warned of possible difficulties crossing the border. It was probably much the same early in the sixth century, when this border town of Korgas was an important outpost on the Silk Road. Today, it's clogged with trucks waiting to cross. Sure enough, the three American-spec E320s have slight discrepancies in their respective manifests. A couple hours of bureaucratic wrangling and we're all friends, enjoying a quiet chuckle over the little misunderstanding.
Day 3: Yining to Urumqi, 426 miles
The western reaches of China, geographically and economically far from the rich and powerful provinces along China's coast, are home to vast mineral deposits vital in sustaining the country's rush into the future. But China's 'Wild West' is also home to separatist movements claiming the support of such indigenous peoples as the Uighur, who are largely Muslim, speak a Turkic language and are ethnically different from the recently arrived Han Chinese majority. We are driving through what most maps call Xinjiang Province, but the Uighurs call it East Turkestan.