A Visa-Free Zone Welcomes Your Wallet. But Maybe Not Your Beard.

A Visa-Free Zone Welcomes Your Wallet. But Maybe Not Your Beard.

The atmosphere is more bizarre than menacing, and none of the people questioned on either side of the border expressed any worries about safety. Shao Yuqun, a Chinese construction worker laboring in the snow, said he was far more anxious about frostbite than Islamist terrorism. Like many Han Chinese living in Xinjiang but originally from the other side of the country, he said he had migrated west because he could earn more than at home.

The border-straddling zone, known as the International Center for Boundary Cooperation and located just a few miles from a new Kazakh railway hub for freight trains from China, was meant to become an island of trade-driven prosperity that would showcase Kazakh-Chinese cooperation and help enrich both countries’ impoverished border areas.

Instead, it has become a study in the wide economic gulf that has opened up between a booming China, which used to look up to the Soviet Union as its “big brother,” and struggling former Soviet lands.

Compared with most other former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan is faring reasonably well, its economy driven by a highly educated population and large reserves of oil and other natural resources. Ruled by Nursultan A. Nazarbayev for its 26 years of independence, the country has avoided the violent strife that has cursed other former Soviet lands in Central Asia. It is deeply corrupt and hardly a thriving democracy, but it is far less intrusively authoritarian than China.

Main current links in “Eurasian

land bridge” from China to Europe

Kazakhstan, which takes pride in its ability, unlike Russia, to deliver results, has big plans for its side of the economic development zone with China, including a racetrack, a local version of Disneyland to be called Happyland, luxury hotels and dozens of entertainment, shopping and conference centers. It also has plans for an airport.

So far, however, these exist only in miniature form on a big tabletop model that Mr. Ivanov shows off to visitors. “Everything is ready to go,” he said in an interview, noting that Kazakhstan’s futuristic new capital city, Astana, had its beginnings just over two decades ago as no more than an architect’s model.

The Chinese side, meanwhile, is already studded with real buildings, including four big shopping malls flashing neon signs and full of stalls papered with pleas for business in mangled Russian. It had a head start, in that the Chinese portion of the joint zone is connected to an existing city and thus did not need much extra work to get electricity, water and other basic services.

The Kazakh side, in contrast, had to be built from scratch, and it shows: The place is a barren, snow-covered wasteland with only a single duty-free shop and a few barely started building sites. Its main attraction for Chinese visitors is a stretch Cadillac limousine offering tours of the desolate landscape.

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