Kazakhstan's gold medalist "Zulfiya Chinshanlo" training in July 2011.
When photographer Ikuru Kuwajima and I visited Kazakhstan's Olympic weightlifting training camp in July 2011, it was difficult to get much out of Zulfiya Chinshanlo, the 19-year-old weightlifter who on July 29 brought Kazakhstan its second gold at the London games.
Neither Chinshanlo, nor her friend Maiya Maneza, could manage more than a few fragments of Russian. And they spoke no Kazakh.
"They’re Dungans [...] from Bishkek," said Kazakhstan's trainer Alexey Ni, as they stood shyly together in one corner of the gym, giggling like the teenage girls that they still are, despite their bulging muscles. "They’re very hard-working. There are only a few Dungan people, not so many."
The Dungans, a Chinese people speaking a language related to Mandarin, are Muslim converts who fled to Central Asia in the 19th Century.
For Kazakhstan to include two of them on its Olympic team demonstrated exemplary inclusiveness.
Only Ni’s story is now being challenged.
According to a report in China's state-run Xinhua news agency (and picked up by CNN) Chinshanlo was in fact born and raised in Yongzhou, Hunan Province under the Chinese name Zhao Changling, and transferred to Kazakhstan legally in 2008.
According to Xinhua, a Kazakh journalist in London also claimed Dungan descent for Chinshanlo. But officials from the Hunan Province Sports Bureau insist that she is in fact Chinese.
The afternoon training session for Kazakhstan’s Olympic weightlifting team is noisy business. Every few seconds, it seems, one of the team lets a 100-kilogram barbell drop to the floor and the room rings with a shuddering clang.
When the 60-million-euro super-yacht Galkynysh swept into Turkmenistan’s run-down port of Turkmenbashi, ending a journey that had taken it from Italy, through the Black Sea and the Volga-Don Canal, it was a national event.
A customs union is still several months away from taking effect, but Russia already seems to be exerting influence over Kazakhstan’s trade. Concerned that its own market will become flooded with smuggled Chinese goods, Moscow is pressuring Astana to tighten controls at the Kazakhstani-Chinese border before July 1, when Russia is due to remove its checkpoints along its frontier with Kazakhstan.
What better way to celebrate President’s Nursultan Nazarbayev’s recent election victory than with a necklace from Alsara, the new jewelry line designed by his youngest daughter?
Yours for a very reasonable $100,000.
Kazakhs based in London’s West End -- or even just visiting -- can now pop into the local branch of Damiani, the upmarket Italian jewelers, and choose from six designs by Aliya Nazarbayeva.
"We just received the pieces on Friday,” a salesman at the Old Bond Street branch told EurasiaNet.org. “It's exclusive to London at the moment. So far we’ve only had six pieces come in, but it’s a big collection of about 20 pieces. It starts at £15,000 [$25,000] and, depending on the stones you want, it goes up to £65,000 [$100,000].”
The “Alsara” line, named by fusing Aliya’s name with that of her mother, Sara, is already advertised on billboards in Almaty and Astana.
Nazarbayeva, smiling diffidently, looks out against what looks like the sumptuous interior of an Italian palazzo.
"Aliya and Damiani present to Kazakhstan ... Alsara,” reads the strapline.
Soon, the jewelry will go on sale in Almaty, at the Dostyk Hotel, and in Astana, at the Rixos President, where rooms range from $400 to $1450 per night.
Nazarbayeva, 32, is not the first of Central Asia’s presidential daughters to launch her own jewelry line. Last year, Islam Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, teamed up with Chopard, the Swiss jewelers, to launch “Guli”, named, they said, after the Uzbek president’s pet name for her.
Its spare Soviet-era grounds lack the gothic spires of Britain’s Eton College or the Romanesque facades of the great Paris lycées. But the graduates of Fizmat, a math and physics academy in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, probably wield more influence in their native land than do graduates from any single elite school in the West in their respective countries.
A line of 150 trucks waits to enter Kazakhstan. It takes so long to clear customs here that each rig usually only makes two round trips a month. And yet, contrary to appearances, documentary discrepancies suggest the checkpoint is a smuggler’s paradise.
Welcome to Khorgos, soon to become Russia’s new trade border with China.