The AGS Bowman Expedition to Kazakhstan: Final Report

The AGS Bowman Expedition to Kazakhstan: Final Report


Leon Yacher

University of Southern Connecticut



           The Republic of Kazakhstan gained its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Resultant from one of the most significant events of the 20th Century was the birth of this country initially destined to face an unknown future. The first few years were filled with insecurity and nervousness because of a variety of conditions, including economic and political instability. As this former Soviet Republic’s boundaries became international borders for the first time in the history of the Kazakh people, the country was to face a unique future. As a result, Kazakhstan was to embrace for a possible tenuous period of internal unsteadiness. In addition, the development of a foreign policy was to determine its future relationship with not only its new neighbors, but also with areas of the world previously deemed adversarial or not considered at all. The significance of these conditions is not to be underestimated because these could play an important role of what was to happen in subsequent years.

At the time of independence, the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (KSSR) was led by Nursultan Nazarbayev. He remained in power in the newly formed country becoming its first President. In a few years time, Nazarbayev was to consolidate his power and eventually his control base grew through manipulation to the point that, currently, he is to be considered President for life. It was and continuous to be fortuitous that Nazarbayev was to inherit a country rich with many natural resources, particularly oil. Each has provided significant income that benefited himself, his immediate trusted associates, and many family members. The country as a whole has also benefited, but to a lesser extent.

As he consolidated his power, Nazarbayev gave genesis to a number of major projects designed to change not only how the Kazakh people viewed their own country, but also how the international community was to perceive it. The most audacious project that Nazarbayev initiated was the move of the capital to a new site. The building of Astana as a ‘Forward City’ clearly provides a clear message of change, one that breaks with the past. A view of Astana’s cityscape provides a hint of what may be planned for the country’s futuristic aspirations.

Other initiatives have placed Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan in the forefront of regional events. The President has negotiated with all of the neighboring country’s leaders. Of major note is the accomplishment of various potentially beneficial treaties with the Peoples Republic of China, the former traditional challenger during Soviet times. Even today, China represents a major competitive force for Kazakhstan. Trade, however, with the neighbor to the east has consistently increased in recent years with many Chinese citizens migrating to the country with cheap products. Kazakh citizens cross the shared land-border with China in search of consumer products not found in Kazakhstan. During Soviet times these international borders were not passable. In fact, these borders were militarized and access to them was severely limited. Today, as a result of major policy changes, particularly from the Kazakh side, the borders are easily accessible and trade, though full of bureaucratic layers and delays, are not only travelable but accessible to any foreign citizen.

Transportation and Other Issues

Kazakhstan inherited from the Soviet Union a relatively sophisticated transportation network. However, upon independence the chaotic conditions faced by the new country created a series of conditions that affected the country negatively.

At the beginning, the government followed a policy of continuity though seeking change. It was clear early in the existence of the country that Nazarbayev was to continue reforms that were introduced by Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev during the years preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before reforms could be introduced, however, he faced a number of problems that needed to be addressed first. For example, money flow was curtailed putting stress into the economic wellbeing of the country. As a result social conditions deteriorated in Kazakhstan. The remnants of these years can be seen as one examines, for example, the health statistics showing the decline of longevity of the Kazakh citizenry.

Another issue of importance and particularly as it relates to this report is the deterioration of the transportation infrastructure mostly as a result of neglect. The transportation structure was disregarded for a number of years, and the result is that the quality of the various transport conditions reached a level of increasing putrefaction. Transport conditions suffered along side of other levels of Kazakh social structures. Inasmuch as every level of transport suffered in the immediate term, it was the rail system and road systems that suffered a number of setbacks. Air travel was affected, as well.

This report will concentrate on issues as these relate to rail and road circumstances, with a short discussion on water conditions. It should be remembered that the Republic of Kazakhstan is a landlocked country and its water transport is limited to the Caspian Sea only. The geographic area that was covered for this project extends solely along the southern part of the country. The members of the group responsible for this research project traveled extensively from Korgos, a border town that Kazakhstan shares with China to the east, to the port of Aktau on the west. Travel took place by automobile and by air. The researchers also visited border areas that Kazakhstan shares with the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Train travel did not take place.

Road and Rail Transportation

The road and rail transportation inherited by Kazakhstan from the Soviet Union can be categorized as very good. The Soviet Union developed a sophisticated network of rail and road transport as part of their goal to unify the country and more importantly to maximize the movement of military hardware for their internal defense. Wide-length boulevards were built in cities, as well. These sizeable roads were not designed to facilitate travel for the average Soviet citizen, however. Only a few privileged people could gain access to automobiles. Permits to use a car (private ownership was not allowed) was given to the Communist Party members in good standing who were particularly responsible for governmental activities. High ranking military personnel and those deemed as heroes (including athletes) enjoyed privileges not accessible to the majority of people, as well.

Most Soviets as a result, relied on public mass transit vehicles for movement. Cities of over a million people were allowed to develop a Metro system. Travel between cities or between regions was possible by railroad or by air travel. Internal migration was limited. Soviet citizens could travel with permission from the state after a number of interviews, where the applicant had to show purpose of travel. The exception occurred when the state ordered such movement. Permanent migration to another part of the country was largely restricted to those that the state permitted.

After the Soviet collapse, distaste for the Soviet system became evident quickly. New leaders, Nazarbayev was among them, made it a policy to be anti-Soviet in their rhetoric and action. In the case of Kazakhstan, strong feelings and actions taken against the Soviet state began years earlier. It is not surprising, consequently, that the direction taken by the President and the country as a whole was to defy the status quo. Symbolically then, the creation of a new Capital City represented the icon that was to embody the changes that were to be introduced in the future.

Over the years as the country was planning its future, conditions previously taken for granted were no longer certain. For example, the accustomed handling of all affairs by Moscow had been redefined shockingly fast by Kazakhs. No longer would Kazakhs have to obtain answers and direction from Moscow. With the new reality, major transformation had to be accepted by circumstances. As mentioned earlier, in the years that followed independence the quality of transportation declined significantly. For example, it became common for snow and ice removal to not take place after any kind of major or minor winter storm event. As low temperatures lingered in a region, ice conditions would damage roads. Repairs or resurfacing of these roads was a nonevent. These kinds of conditions affected the railroads, as well. Often, train conductors were forced to slow down the speed of the train in order to prevent derailments or major accidents.

The Present Situation

As the twentieth year of independence approaches in 2011, much has changed in Kazakhstan. Transport conditions are no exception. And, particularly during the past five years, the country’s leadership has recognized the importance of a good quality transport network. As Nazarbayev signed trade treaties with a number of countries, he has recognized the importance of a number of key issues that had to be addressed and modified in order to have Kazakhstan join the international trade community.

The President has introduced a number of changes that have created positive conditions for the country to develop economically. The relatively new airline, Air Astana, replaced the ever present Soviet era Aeroflot airlines as the country’s main air passenger transport line. The fleet of Air Astana is among the youngest in the world using both Boeing and Airbus equipment. Most Soviet era Tupolev and Ilyushin aircraft were retired and can be seen in the tarmac of a number of airports throughout the country. Officially, by 2010 all aircraft, including helicopters made during the Soviet era will be fully banned. Astana air flies domestically to a number of cities with daily schedules to most. At the international level, Air Astana flies to several European countries as well as countries in East Asia and the Middle East. To some destinations, daily flights have been scheduled. The quality of service and dependability of Air Astana rivals that of any major European or North American airline.


Railroad activity has been brought back to the efficiency that was known during Soviet times. Foreign technology was brought from Europe to upgrade the equipment and repair faulty utilities. Depots have been rebuilt and new train stations have replaced old ones. Even secondary cities like Shimkent have benefited from such improvements. Please consult the over 3,000 photos that have been sent in order to better appreciate the changes. During the trip we visited several train stations, but were permitted total freedom to photograph only in Shimkent. In the city of Taraz the reception that we were given can be categorized only as very strongly resistant to any request that we made. In the city of Almaty the response was cool and limited in cooperation. Some photos were allowed, but not without struggle and suspicion.

In rural areas the rail stations were not in total disrepair; however, it is noticeable that the investment to improve them had not yet fully materialized and reached these sites. As relevant photographs taken throughout the regions visited affirms that the conditions of the rails and the ties vary from place to place with a large percentage lacking attention. In the United States wooden ties are found, but in Kazakhstan (like other former Soviet Republics), the use of concrete ties is not uncommon. The concrete tie plays a stabilizing factor holding rails. So, while we noticed a large number of wooden ties in disrepair, the concrete ties were in very good condition. We did see crews perusing rail lines on occasion. Where as in the larger cities the equipment used to complete repairs appeared to be relatively modern, in the rural areas crews appeared to use the old traditional methods of repair.

The closer one reaches a major city or a junction, the greater the attention given to the quality of the rail system. It appears that any activity related to repairing the rails takes place from the higher order cities to the lower (vertical) and then from the center of a city to the periphery (horizontal). Train schedules are published and easily seen by passengers. The schedules are found in the train stations. Some newspapers publish the train schedule on the day of publication. Weekly schedules appear in non-daily newspapers. The train frequency is dependable and service has improved considerably in the major train stations. Customer service, too, has been enhanced, though not consistently throughout the country. Safety measures have been implemented and are continually revised. In at least one train station, measures to combat a potential terrorist attack have been introduced and place on poster size sheets at the entrance of the building.

Roads and road conditions

Road conditions, as is the case for the railroad lines, vary from place to place. In the city of Almaty the road infrastructure has been upgraded in a variety of ways. First, new highways are being built to facilitate flow within and outside the city. One major example is the construction of a new road that will lead to the airport. At present to reach the airport secondary and back roads are used. Traffic can be heavy causing time delays. The new road that is being constructed is located in a part of the city that otherwise had severe access problems. Drivers heading to the airport would have to traverse the center of the city. The new highway will bypass the city center altogether. The road constructed is a three lane highway in each direction. The road will also improve accessibility to major new housing developments and major shopping malls. The number of exits being added has increased since the original plan was published. This highway appears to take into consideration the increasing number of automobiles in the city. In 2003, for example, in Almaty the number of cars was modest. Most were Soviet era Ladas (small vehicle). The dominant form of transport in the city was the marshroutka (a van that would carry up to 12-14 people at a given time). These vehicles crisscrossed the city on irregular schedules. However, the number of marshroutkas was large enough that frequency was not a major problem for riders. Even at night, these vehicles satisfied demand. Other forms of transport included the electric trolley and buses. Today, in 2009, the marshroutka in Almaty is gone. On occasion one may be seen in the peripheral part of the city. The trolley and the bus continue to function, but these are in such disrepair that their future is tenuous at best. Whereas the Lada dominated the road-scape of Almaty, today the Lada is more of a curiosity, satisfying the western tourist search for Soviet era evidence. Replacing the Lada are the larger-size European Mercedes Bens, BMW’s, and Audi’s. Increasing in significance is the arrival of the Toyota Camry. Autos from the United States are glaringly missing on the roads of Kazakhstan. The number of vehicles on the road has exploded creating traffic jams that easily rival those found any large city in the world. Private autos have replaced the marshroutka as a way for non-drivers to travel within the city. For the driver of a private auto this is a form to earn income easily. The shortage of taxis combined with relatively poor service has created an underground taxi service.

Almaty is in the midst of constructing a Metro. The first line is to be completed and be functional in a short time. All predictions as to the opening of the Metro have been missed and no firm date given can be considered reliable.

A second and very important change of the road system in Almaty has been taking place in recent years. This includes the construction of bridges bypassing and relieving traffic pressures in major junctions. In areas where it was usual to be stuck in a traffic jam from anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, the newly constructed bridge or dip has facilitated flow to virtually no delays.

Kazakh drivers are not known for respecting traffic lights. Thus the building of a bridge reduces the driver’s propensity to go through a red light and creating and blocking the oncoming traffic. The number of the bridges built in the Almaty area continues to grow. Most of these bridges have been constructed first in the main arteries connecting Almaty to other significant cities. The main road that connects Almaty to the capital city of Bishkek in the Kyrgyz Republic is an excellent example of how these constructions have improved flow. Leaving Almaty to Bishkek during the rush hour guaranteed a slow moving 2-3 hour time frame. Today, the same trip can be consistently accomplished in about one hour. Besides the building of bridges, roads have been widened and resurfaced.

In other cities in the southern part of Kazakhstan, the same kind of projects are being completed and/or planned. In Shimkent, for example, road resurfacing and widening has taken place during the past two years. I visited Shimkent in 2006 and 2008 and can confirm these activities. The same applies for Taraz and other towns.

The main highways connecting Almaty to other cities like Shimkent and Taraz, too, have been upgraded. However, there are still areas that are in disrepair and neglect. In the rural areas, too, bridges are decaying and are increasingly becoming more and more fragile. The photos taken show a wide variety of conditions. Please refer to these from the various parts of the country that were visited. This theme is found throughout without fail.

Of particular note, however, are the road conditions leading to international borders. Except for the few border crossings along the main highways, most crossing areas are poorly kept. Many include non-surfaced roads. These dirt roads are full of potholes and access is limited. This we experienced in most crossing between Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In the later example, the only road that leads to Turkmenistan from Aktau, is a poorly asphalted road that ends about 45 kilometers from the border. To the border the road is a poorly kept dirt road. A 16-wheel truck may travel at 5-10 kilometers an hour to make this 45 km trip. We met a truck driver from Turkey who was making the trip from Istanbul to Aktau who informed us of the difficulties of travel in the Central Asian region. Added to the difficulty is the bureaucratic complexities of border crossing. The border crossing between Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic at Korday is of very good quality. However, bureaucracy causes delays. Photographs were taken on both sides of the border in order to gain a fuller exposure and understanding of the area (for the Kyrgyz side please look at the photos in folder KZKG12).

Along the highways traveled in Kazakhstan one feature that has been changing is the increasing presence of signs. Not many years ago one could expect to see signs welcoming you to a town or city. Signs upon departure were also found. Today, what can be seen are signs that provide distances and direction to various parts of the city and between cities. Along the highway connecting Almaty to Bishkek (and some points west) signs are now found in the Kazakh language and in English. The increasing amount of international trade may be the main reason for this. In 2003 I did not notice one vehicle that was not Kazakh or Kyrgyz on this road. Elsewhere in Kazakhstan, foreign vehicles were very rare, if at all present. Today, one can see regularly vehicles from other parts of the region and also from Europe. Many trucks displaying the TIR (international transit) sign with license plates from the Euro-zone are widespread. We saw these vehicles not only along the highway from Almaty to the Kyrgyz Republic, but also along the border with Uzbekistan and as mentioned earlier, with Turkmenistan, as well. Along the Chinese border on the Kazakh side, Russian-licensed trucks were frequent. Russia and China do not have direct economic ties (treaties) allowing for the direct exchange and flow of goods between them. Kazakhstan acts as a broker between China and Russia.

Water Transport

Though Kazakhstan is a landlocked state, it does have a water transport structure. This is located in the western part of the country along the Caspian Sea. A ferry connects the city of Aktau with Baku, the capital city of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Also, medium sized-ships travel into Russia along the Volga River. The main channel of the delta formed by the Volga is used to move goods to/from Russia. According to officials that we interviewed, the amount of trade is modest, but the potential for growth is significant. The Kazakh government is also building a new port facility south of the city of Aktau. The port is designed to support the larger site to the north of the city. Part of the purpose of building this port may be to transfer not only commodities but also to send petroleum products east to China. A sizeable project is being constructed. Pipelines are being laid along some of the major highways to send gas to China from Turkmenistan. Kazakh oil and gas is also included in this plan. The Chinese have successfully negotiated with both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to buy substantial amounts of gas and oil.

Final Comments

Much of what has been described in this final report is a summary of the photos that were already delivered. Please note that there were a number of photos that I did not include in this report. Most of those photos speak for themselves. For example, I took photos of maps that were hanging on office walls. Maps showing the geographic distribution of the railroad network of Kazakhstan are but one example of many. Unfortunately, and I apologize for this, some of the photos are either poorly composed or somewhat blurry. I did not have much time to take these photos and not always was permission given for me to take the pictures.

Border photos, too, often lacked good composition. The same applies to many other pictures. People in Kazakhstan remain wary of foreigners and their activities. We were detained and questioned on a number of occasions. In fact, in the city of Taraz members of the KGB were questioning any one in contact with us. Our drivers were interrogated on at least two different instances.

In summary, the accomplishments of this research group are to be considered successful. The data collected and analyzed exceeds the initial requirements expected from the project’s goals. I would like to thank my colleagues for their efforts and professionalism. It was a pleasure working with them.

Should there be any further questions or concerns, I would be more than happy to address them upon request.

Respectfully submitted,


Leon Yacher