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A Lawless Frontier; the Night Train to Astrakhan

When Genghis Khan ruled from Beijing to modern-day Ukraine 750 years ago, it was said that a little girl could carry a pot of gold from one end of his realm to the other without meeting trouble. He was a ruthless marauder, but he believed in law and order.

Times have changed. Here, near the ancient Mongol capital of Sarai, long erased by the wind, the weakness of government is plain to see.

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As we wait on a dusty landing for a ferry across still another branch of the Volga River, a young, blond Russian in a black leather jacket pulls a semiautomatic black pistol out of his belt and begins jabbing it angrily in the chests of the Kazaks collecting fares. The Russian, it seems, is affiliated with a competing ferry a couple hundred yards away. He is angry that no business is coming his way.

On the other side, we stop at the forlorn Kazak border post. The border guard makes a halfhearted attempt to fine us because we have stopped the car in the wrong place in the unmarked dirt. We laugh. He walks away. A BMW from the Caucasus region rolls by without stopping. The guard blows his whistle angrily, and futilely, from behind his office window.

The faces of the Kazaks resemble their Mongol ancestors. They speak a language left by Turkish tribes centuries before that. Their summer lifestyle, living in wool-felt yurts on bright felt carpets, has changed little for at least 2,000 years.

Along the road to Atyrau, strange, walled cities appear with intricate tawny skylines of domes, minarets, and gabled roofs. On approach, however, they never reach life size. These are miniature structures of Muslim cemeteries, far more frequent than the humble, low, dusty villages of mud blocks occupied by the living.

Much of the city of Atyrau has the look of an industrial graveyard. Piles of rusting cranes and cars, long stripped and abandoned, lie among crumbled slabs of concrete.

This is one of the few regions of Kazakstan where pensions are paid on time, something locals credit to Chevron and its timely payment of taxes. Most other large enterprises here have done a fast fade.

One man who seems to know everyone - people honk and wave in every block as he drives his mid-sized Ford through town - owes his vast, cheerful network to the local narco-mafia, he says. He sells drugs and smuggles caviar as far away as Moscow.

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There is one Western-standard hotel here, in a new compound of temporary buildings by the Ural River. It's a place for an air-conditioned meal and a long-distance phone call. But we take the night train for Astrakhan, Russia. The windows are stuck shut in our steamy cabin, but the mosquitoes swarm in anyway. The seats/beds are heavily duct-taped, the rolled up mattresses tattered and stained. The crumbs of many meals prepared by the extended family who occupied the cabin last stick to the floor. But we sleep soundly and wake in Astrakhan, the lush Volga delta town and the southernmost bastion of Slavic, Orthodox Russia.

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