Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 11:50 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 11:50 | SYDNEY

Kazakh-China Diary: Hip-hop, punching bags, and a wooden cathedral


Anthony Bubalo

26 September 2011 16:05

I am in Almaty with Konrad Muller, where we are beginning a three-week journey examining Kazakhstan's relations with China. This is part of a new project looking at how key states in West Asia perceive their rapidly expanding economic ties to China. Initially, we are focusing on Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan. The results will be published in two monographs next year.

Like Australia, both countries have prospered from China's appetite for resources. But with these economic opportunities come dilemmas and even anxieties. Our focus is not so much on China in the West Asian world as on the different responses of West Asia to contemporary China.

To understand Kazakh-China relations we thought we would start at an obvious place, a market, this one called Barakholka, on the outskirts of Almaty. Spread over several vast adjoining curved tin-roofed lots, this wholesale and retail market would not be unfamiliar to people who visit Paddy's in Sydney — just much bigger. After hours of wandering, we still hadn't stumbled onto an end to the place. 

Likewise, there seemed no end to the types of goods, mostly made in China, that could be found: Karaoke machines, cheap orange plastic mouse traps, carelessly stacked boxes and boxes of mobile phones, 'Hugo Boss'-labelled leather jackets (urged upon us by secretive men with the goods for some reason concealed in plastic bags), fake mink coats, silicon bra inserts, shirts, socks, jocks, electric clocks and punching bags. (Konrad pictured left, seen interviewing a shamelessly dressed mannequin, wearing black lace knickers, with the Kyrgyz owner of a boxing goods store translating).

We were not able to talk to many of the locals, however, because neither Konrad nor I speak Kazakh, Russian, Uighur, Dungan, Kyrgyz, Turkish, Uzbek, Ukrainian or the other seemingly innumerable languages other than English spoken at the market, although I did get some distance happily grunting a bit of Croatian. But it did not take many words or much amateur mime to hear the complaints about the quality of Chinese goods. We asked one shop owner about the goods he was selling:

'Is this shirt from China?'


'And where is this shirt from?'


'Is it cotton?'

'Maybe 30 per cent polyester.'

'And this shirt from China is 100 per cent polyester?'

'Maybe 200 per cent polyester.' 

An English speaking local later told us that these reservations did not stop the locals in multitudes (and no doubt others from outside Almaty) from swarming through Barakholka on weekends to buy the same goods that were more heavily marked up in Almaty's high street shops.

The day's demonstration of China's mercantile skills ended with a visit to a Russian orthodox cathedral (left), built in 1907, entirely of wood, including the pegs holding it together. Then we walked into an 'urban culture' festival (below) attended by hundreds of young locals thronging multiple stages offering BMX riding displays, rap dancing and hip-hop, all sponsored by Snickers.

Even as Kazakh-China ties expand, it seems strong competition remains for the souls, the minds and wallets of the locals. We will post more later in the week.