No Big Macs on the Steppe

The Golden Arches - you don't see these in Almaty

It slipped my notice until an Austrian friend of mine pointed it out to me: there are no McDonald’s franchises in Almaty. Of course, now that I know this, the lack of Golden Arches is a conspicuous void in the urban cityscape. After all, I grew up in Hong Kong, the city with the largest number of McDonald’s stores per capita (or per square kilometer, I can’t remember) of any city in the world. Heightening my new sense that something is missing, there is a KFC in the center of town. This means that, unlike elsewhere in the region, McDonald’s absence is not the result of state policies unfriendly to foreign corporations or fast food. So why can I not get a Big Mac?

The popular explanation for this is that McDonald’s buys beef from regional beef producers and the quality of beef is so poor that even McD’s will not deign to serve it to their customers. However, this does not make a great deal of sense for at least two reasons: 1, there are McDonald’s franchises all over China, and I’d be hard pressed to believe that Kazakh beef, which has to meet halal requirements, is of lower quality than Chinese beef; and 2, people, including me, frequently eat meat-filled samsa (самса) from street vendors making very small marginal profit on each unit sold, and therefore unlikely to be demanding anything more than the lowest quality safe beef. If people eat that, there is no reason for McD’s to withhold their delicious products.

My Austrian friend, a logistics student, had a better explanation: McDonald’s stores import ingredients daily, and Kazakhstan’s logistics infrastructure is unable to reliably supply daily shipments of perishables in the necessary quantities to make a franchise profitable.

That Kazakhstan’s logistics infrastructure lags behind the level of its general development was confirmed for me by a professor of logistics at Kazakh National University. According to this older, kindly gentleman, there are only two major logistics hubs in Kazakhstan, one near Almaty in the southwest and one close to Astana in the center-north. These two hubs sit at the intersections of some of the major trans-national roads and railways that connect Kazakhstan to China, Russia and Uzbekistan, but these are (according to what I learned) insufficiently large and technically advanced to accommodate both the volume appropriate to the major economy to which Kazakhstan aspires and to cover the huge expanse of Kazakhstan’s territory: it is five times larger than France.

A shot of the Kazakh steppe not far from Almaty

The other challenges to efficient logistics infrastructure are the deterioration of road and rail-links and the orientation of the major transportation routes. The first relates to Kazakhstan’s demographic geography. As the attached map illustrates, the major population centers form a ring along Kazakhstan’s borders and Caspian coast and the center is relatively unpopulated. Indeed, the middle of Kazakhstan is a vast expanse of desert and semi-desert, brutally hot in the summer, freezing in the winter and assailed each winter by Siberian and Mongolian winds. The ground, having once been a seabed when the Caspian and Aral seas were much larger than they are today, is also unsuited to road construction. Transportation infrastructure must traverse this inhospitable expanse because the size of the country precludes going around it. Therefore, the few major roads and railways that connect south to north are expensive to maintain.

But it is very interesting to note that the Soviets did build and maintain good infrastructure in this region. In fact, it was said that Kazakhstan had the best roads in the USSR (outside of Moscow and Petersburg, one assumes). This was because the Soviets need to transport a lot of goods (wheat, oil, cotton) out and people through the region: first during WWII, when many people were exiled or internally displaced to Kazakhstan from the European border, then during the 1960s conflicts with China and finally to fuel the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Moscow moved tanks and troops across Kazakhstan, which requires very robust infrastructure.

However, these roads and railways have by now deteriorated somewhat and, moreover, they were overwhelming oriented north-south. Russian conquest and engagement in Central Asia has always been oriented “vertically,” not least because this is how the Russians conquered and spread through the region. Historically, however, movement across the Kazakh steppe has been overwhelmingly east-west or “horizontal,” Genghis Khan and the Silk Road being the two major examples. But Genghis Khan did not leave roads, and so it was left to the Russians to introduce modern infrastructure insofar as they did – especially in the form of oil-pipelines. Therefore, if one conceives of Kazakhstan’s roads, railways and pipelines as the threads of a carpet, the country had only warp threads and horizontal movement across the country was difficult. This continues to hamper the country.

Interestingly, China’s engagement in Kazakhstan is providing the necessary weft. The Chinese have built oil and gas pipelines across (east-west) the country and are discussing major new road and rail links to connect Beijing to Moscow and Europe beyond. This is the infrastructure that is natural to the landscape and analogous to most historical migration in Central Asia, but has yet to be fully realized. This is a much less-studied aspect of China’s role in Kazakhstan, but it is obviously of major importance not only to Kazakhs but also, potentially, to foreign businesses wanting to access the Central Asian market of 60 million people, but requiring the necessary infrastructure. Maybe soon I’ll be able to order super-sized fries Almaty.

  1. sdp said:

    so, there are no big macs in almaty because the soviets only built north-south roads? that’s totally wacky, and very malcolm gladwell.

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