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The View From My Window: Aktau, Kazakhstan

I came into Aktau to visit the emerging port / SEZ area, but found a place that was incredibly interesting for many reasons.

Aktau isn’t bad. It’s a city of 150,000 or so on the Caspian Sea — pretty much the only sign of development for hundreds of kilometers of coastline. This is where the deserts of Central Asia meet the sea. It’s all water if you look one way and all sand if you look the other. In this way it reminds me of the coastal stretches of the Atacama in China.

“This place is the desert. Nothing grows here,” the guy who showed me around Aktau port told me. “If you go out of town you will see camels.”

“Camels?”

“Yes, camels. They’re just walking around out there. I imagine they belong to somebody but they’re just walking around in the desert.”

“Camels are something normal for us,” a guy from Aktobe later told me.

It’s the real Silk Road out here.

***

I do this thing in airports that I’ve recently realized that I really enjoy. It’s basic, everybody does it, but I’ve kind of ritualized it. I don’t even really notice it until I’m in a situation where I can’t do it. Then I kind of mildly long for it. I just walk through the terminal from end to end slowly, just thinking about what I did in the place I’m leaving — solidifying the memories, constructing the lines of narrative, perhaps.

This morning in Aktau I can’t do that because I’m here with a friend — or, more accurately, some guy I met one morning while eating breakfast at the Victoria Hotel on the seaside. He works for a company that makes parts for drilling oil wells. He lives and works in Aktobe, but was in Aktau to service a well that his company provided a motor for.

“I was born on an oil field,” he said. “We all are here.”

His father is from Azerbaijan. His mother is from Russia. They met on an oil field. Hid brothers work in oil. He studied oil in university. Everything about this guy’s life revolved around oil.

“Why did you want to work in oil?” I asked him.

My question seemed to strike him as something strange, as though nobody has ever asked him that before.

“Well,” he began, “for one I find it interesting. It pays well. I also get to travel.”

Not bad.

I remember riding into Aktau from the airport in a taxi with a couple of lawyers who worked for Maersk — quelling things like labor disputes. I asked them why they wanted to become lawyers, and they just laughed at me.

“We don’t choose our jobs in Kazakhstan! Our parents choose for us.”

Both of their parents decided that they would be lawyers, so that’s what they did. One of them said that she wanted to be a doctor when she was young but her parents rejected it on the very accurate grounds that doctors in Kazakhstan don’t make any money. You will be a lawyer, they said, and that’s what she became.

***

The oil man that I met during breakfast the day before gave me a ride to the airport, he bought me a coffee, and he bought me breakfast. There’s no way to turn this down.

Hospitality is a funny thing. It’s a social set up where the giver is also the receiver, the receiver is also the giver. What is often misunderstood by Westerners is that in order to be a good guest you need to allow the host to provide for you — to buy your drinks, your food, etc. It’s what they want to do. To decline or to try to repay them in kind is an insult. You repay them by saying thank you — or when they come to your country you provide them with hospitality. We have to remember that they don’t only provide you with hospitality to help you but because it (apparently) makes them feel good, it bolsters their status locally, it’s what they’ve been taught that they should do. It is as much for them as it is for you.

“It was a real pleasure for me because of our hospitality. We should do that for foreigners.”

There are hospitality cultures, like in the Middle East or the Turkic countries, and there are non-hospitality cultures, like in the USA. For us, groveling over and spending money on some stranger from somewhere else is an expense and a chore. We don’t receive the full value from doing this because we don’t understand how hospitality really works or what it even is. Culturally, we’re  buffoons.

***

I came to Aktau to visit the port and corresponding SEZ for a story on Forbes and for inclusion in my upcoming book on the New Silk Road. The significance of this place is that it is the gateway for the emerging southern corridor of the Silk Road Economic Belt. This route is of particular interest because it completely bypasses Russia — and, therefore, Russia’s reactionary sanctions. Many of the products that the EU would otherwise ship to China overland is stifled by this major trade barrier, but going through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan via Aktau opens up an entirely new frontier.

I was given what I came for in Aktau. I won’t mention the names of the people that I met there here, but they opened the place up for me.

***

I’m getting ready to board a flight to Astana. Tomorrow I go on Kazakh TV and get interviewed by the Astana Times. Talking about the New Silk Road. The next two days I will do a couple of projects around the city — something on Expo 2017.

I like Astana. However, I understand that it has no good reason for it to exist. But there is something about this that I like.

“Imagine if the capital was moved to Aktau rather than Astana,” my main source at the port kept saying.

It’s an interesting proposition. Aktau is a city on a beautiful coastline that is completely undeveloped for hundreds of kilometers in either direction. It’s a short ride over the sea to Baku or Iran. Turkmenbashi is just down the line in Turkmenistan. There are natural beaches, flat land, and an overwhelming amount of available space. It really could have been a major cosmopolitan center vitalizing the Caspian in the heart of Eurasia.

Filed under: Kazakhstan, Travel Diary

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3545 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • becida March 1, 2017, 10:02 am

    That was a good read!

    My parents telling me what I was going to do with my life? Or me not letting my kids find their own path? That never crossed my mind.
    I’d never given thought to a hospitality based culture…of course I’ve never really traveled out of the US yet either.

    I am an American who’s never traveled… learn something new everyday!!
    Thank you.

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    • VagabondJourney March 2, 2017, 1:20 pm

      Yeah, that’s really interesting. Where this is normal in most parts of the world, here kids just seem to go along with it with so little resistance as to be remarkable. But really, who is probably going to make the better career decisions? Parents who have been there and done it or 18 year old kids? It seems as if parents had more input into and control of the direction of their kids in the USA they’d probably end up being better off.

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