The India-Central Asia Car Rally that proposes to cover 3,000 km of the most-challenging terrain in the world began its journey on Thursday in Astana, the Kazakh capital with the release of a clutch of colourful hydrogen balloons at the Bayterkek Square.

Organised by India-Central Asia Foundation, a Delhi-based think-tank and blessed by the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the rally hopes to traverse part of the ancient silk route. The next stop is Karganda, Laxmi Mittal’s steel city in the heart of Kazakhstan. Over the next week, the rally will pass through Lake Balqash, the uranium mining town and make a detour to Kazakh-China border at Taldyqorgan and then reach the former capital Almaty. From Almaty, the rally will enter Kyrgyzstan. It will pass through Bishkek, Osh and the Ferghana Valley. The route will also go through Andijon, Babar’s birthplace, then to Kokand and Tashkent. The final leg of the journey will go through Tashkent, Samarqand, Bukhara, Khiva and end at Ugrench. The entire distance will be covered over the next three weeks.

The all-Indian rally which comprises 15 participants, a motley group of academics, foreign affairs experts and scientists, is led by K. Santhanam, well-known nuclear scientist. The objective of the expedition is to promote people-to-people contacts in this region which currently occupies a peripheral space in India’s foreign policy.

Despite being in India’s extended neighbourhood — Astana is only 2,500 km from Delhi, almost the same distance as it is from Moscow — this resource-rich region has remained outside the policy radar primarily because of the perceived obstacles in connecting this mountainous terrain.

That was quite evident as our plane flew over a never-ending mountain ranges — the Himalayas, Karakorams, Pamirs, Tien Shan and Altau, all barren and formidable. Yet, in days of yore, steady streams of caravans threaded their way through this very region, carrying fine Chinese silks, precious stones and other cargo almost all the way up to Turkey and beyond. It took them several months or even years to traverse this distance.

But modern modes of conveyance have shrunk the distances to a considerable extent. New transport corridors can be built tunnelling through these mountains, a task made easy by giant machinery and advanced technology. Gas and oil pipelines and electric cables can bring the energy potential of the region to markets to the south. Currently, China is the major beneficiary of the energy potential of the region, having built oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan to its western-most province of Xinjiang. It would be in the interest of these countries to diversify their markets just as it would be in India’s interest to diversify its supply sources.

At a reception hosted by Ashok Sharma, India’s Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Shiv Khemka of Sun Group which has mining rights to one of the largest gold mines in the region in Altau province, waxed eloquent on the huge mineral potential of Kazakhstan, not just hydrocarbons or gold, but uranium, molybdenum, tantalum and all those less familiar elements so essential to our IT driven age today. Arcelor Mittal and the Sun Group have a significant presence in the country.

Astana is a brand-new capital city, built with new money pouring out of mother earth in the form of black gold and other minerals. It is very evident in its gleaming high rises aping Shanghai or Chicago. The city celebrated its fifteenth birthday on July 6 this year, with the dedication of another flashy monument by its President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Spanking new, colourful like a life-size Legoland, Astana has sprung in the midst of an endless steppe, mirage like in its unreality. Mr. Nazarbayev’s decision to build a new capital in the north was prompted also by strategic considerations to ensure that a Russian-majority northern region, one that holds the majority of the country’s mineral wealth does not get snatched by a powerful neighbour, one that used to be a former ruler as well.

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