by Xinhua writers Ren Jun, Zhang Jiye, Guan Qiaoqiao
ZHARKENT, Kazakhstan/HORGOS, China, Nov. 5 (Xinhua) -- "As we Kazakh people say, where there is bread, there is a song," said Meruert Sultanaeva in her house in a Kazakh village near Zharkent city, after finishing all-day work as a baker at the China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center.
About 25 km east from the village sits Horgos, a fast-rising border city in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where the border cooperation center opened in 2012 as a portal for China's opening-up to the west as well as a model of economic cooperation within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The center is the first cross-border free-trade zone in the world.
Sultanaeva, 40, has worked at the bakery since last year. Every morning, she leaves her home at seven o'clock, hails a taxi, passes the border control, and arrives at the bakery at around 8:30.
Then she mixes the Kazakh flour and water, stirs it together in a machine, kneads the dough into a silky ball, puts it in an oven and finally packages it. Every day, the master baker makes over 100 loaves of bread, which are sold mostly to Chinese visitors at 5 yuan, or 0.7 U.S. dollars, each.
"Baking bread is not easy. It requires great responsibility. You have to mix everything in the right proportion. We bake bread with all our hearts, we are trying to get every customer satisfied. So far there have been no complaints. When we see their joy, we cannot be more happier," she said.
Sultanaeva said flour is key to bread-making. "Kazakh flour is among the best in the world, that makes our bread full of the aroma of wheat," she said proudly.
Buying original Kazakh bread has been in the to-do list for many Chinese foodies visiting the center. "Look! The bread is big and round. It's just-cooked and still warm. The Kazakh flour is of good quality, that makes bread very healthy," said Zhang Yuhong, a visitor from Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang.
The bustling business and trade hub is something out of expectation for many. In the first seven months of 2019, the 5.6-sq-km center received over 3.3 million visitors, more than 30 times the number in 2012.
"I have never seen the cooperation center, which grows up out of nothing, getting more flourishing than it is now," said Sultanaeva. "A decade ago, there were only some booths selling a few Chinese, Kazakh and Russian goods. But now it becomes a colossal area where trade never stops."
With visa-free access for up to 30 days and special tax and customs benefits, the center is packed with shoppers looking for discount deals on duty-free goods from China, the Eurasian Economic Union countries and even those from West Europe.
Shoppers from Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries usually look for such Chinese goods as textiles, fur coats, toys, and other small commodities, while Kazakh sweets, Russian honey and vodka, Georgian and Armenian wine, and French cosmetics are popular with Chinese visitors.
For local residents in Zharkent, benefits have been immediate and real. Centuries ago, Zharkent sat on the windswept route for traders on horseback. With the revival of the Silk Road, local residents have more jobs, incomes and opportunities other than just raising livestock and growing corns for a living.
"After being a housewife for 20 years, I had never dreamt of having a well-paid job as a baker," said Sultanaeva, a mother of two sons and a daughter and now a new grandmother.
"Bread always makes people feel affluent. Next year when the visiting peak season comes, the bakery will expand business, with more types of Kazakh bread introduced," she said.
"Many young people in this village work in the cooperation center as salesperson or shop manager. Previously they had to seek jobs in Almaty or Nur-Sultan. Now jobs are at doorsteps," she said.
Outside of Sultanaeva's house, the westering sun is casting golden light on the village with a population of several dozens.
"The village has not changed for years, but we believe better life is coming," the Kazakh auntie said.