On the Chinese side of the border, a four-story shopping mall offers Kazakhstani shoppers a stunning variety of duty-free goods—from iPhones to auto parts and children's clothes. Visitors can stay in a well-appointed hotel and enjoy solicitous service at a number of Chinese banks. It's a far different story on the Kazakhstani side of the free-trade zone, which both countries hail as indicative of burgeoning cooperation: Chinese tourists can buy some candy inside a metal shipping container. And that's about it.
The 528-hectare Khorgos International Center for Boundary Cooperation (ICBC) officially opened on a windswept patch of the Chinese-Kazakh border in December 2011. It was designed as a visa-free zone where citizens of the two countries could trade and enjoy local entertainment. But apart from some giant Kazakhstani customs facilities, and many miles of fencing, it appears that Beijing took the project a lot more seriously than Astana.
"The Chinese are ahead of us because their government has closer ties to their businesses," said Khorgos ICBC Vice President Sakengali Nurtazin.
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David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.