URUMQI, China -- Valentina, an energetic and sociable Kazakh woman of around 50 years of age, is a former engineer and cartographer.
She recalls how, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, she lost her job at a geodesy and cartography firm and launched into a new career -- shuttle trading.
In 1992, Valentina borrowed money and left her husband and two-year-old son at home to travel abroad to buy clothes. Upon returning to Kazakhstan, she resold them in the many bazaars and improvised markets that were flourishing in Almaty.
She quickly found that the role of the shuttle trader was not without its hazards.
"I went to Poland -- first a plane to Moscow and then by bus to Warsaw," she said. "We were several people. I remember that late at night the bus dropped our group off near a stadium in Warsaw. We walked along the narrow sidewalk toward burly men. A couple of women who were cut off from the group were surrounded, forced to sit on the ground, and their money was stolen. Thank God I avoided that and I wasn’t robbed.”
These days Valentina is a veteran among the thousands of Kazakh women shuttle traders who crisscross Kazakhstan and neighboring countries in order to put food on the table.
Their valuable contributions are held in such high esteem that a project is currently under way in Kazakhstan to immortalize women shuttle traders by erecting a monument in their honor.
In order to see these modern-day heroines in action, RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Ainur Alimova boarded a bus in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi for the arduous trip to Almaty.
The 30-hour, one-way journey began at the bus station, where a man packed the bus’s luggage compartment with checkered bags and taped-up sacks filled with Chinese-made goods.
Women shuttle traders dressed in tracksuits and adorned with handbags and money purses gathered around the bus and got acquainted with one another.
These women come to China from across Kazakhstan -- Almaty and Taldyqorghan in the east, Qaragandy in the center, and Zhanaozen in the west -- with the aim of buying goods to sell at home in local markets.
Struggling To Survive
Some of them, such as Valentina, have been plying the shuttle trade since the trying economic times of the 1990s.
Valentina said the 1999 devaluation of the Kazakh currency, the tenge, swallowed up a significant part of her family’s savings.
But she continued undeterred, using the funds that remained to travel to Turkey. Eventually, Valentina expanded her reach to China, which welcomed the flocks of shuttle traders arriving from the former Soviet Union to buy textiles and shoes.
"I am not a wholesaler, I am a retailer," she said. "Before, everything was easier. We were choosing our goods in China, bringing them to Kazakhstan with Kamaz trucks. We ourselves only had a handbag. Now, it takes much longer for the trucks to arrive. That's why we prefer to bring our goods by bus, carrying all the sacks ourselves. I try to buy more expensive things to make the volume smaller and the profit bigger.”
Over the past two decades, the shuttle business has evolved. Some traders have set up their own transport and trade firms. They own several stores and oversee a network of traders, drivers, and security guards.
But many remain on the lower rung, struggling to survive in an increasingly competitive business.
As the bus wound its way toward Kazakhstan through a semidesert landscape, passengers opened up about their trade.
One woman estimated that she marks up the price of her goods by 30 to 60 percent to ensure a profit on sales in Almaty. Enough, she said, to cover "all costs and fees for crossing the border."
Those costs became clear when the bus arrived at the border crossing between China and Kazakhstan.
Lining Officials' Pockets
One of the passengers, Zukhra, collected 100 yuan ($16) from every trader. After the gathered money was handed over to the bus driver, Zukhra whispered that it would end up in the pockets of Chinese officials.
After the first round of financial formalities was completed, the bus pulled away and entered the Kazakh side of the border.
There, the merchandise was unloaded and weighed by customs officials.
Less than an hour later, the passengers’ faces showed signs of satisfaction.
The reason for this was that the customs fee was 600 tenges ($4) per kilogram, instead of the official 800 tenges ($5).
A smiling Maryam, a shuttle trader transporting 200 kilograms of goods, said the money was given to intermediaries in civilian clothes.
According to her, the 40,000 tenges ($260) she had just saved was a relief.
Maryam comes from Zhanaozen, where she usually sells her merchandise at the beginning of the month, "when locals receive their salaries."
Some of the money she brings in is used to pay a daily market fee and taxes. The rest is spent on food and essentials for her extended family, which includes her unemployed husband and two young children, father-in-law, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law.
Maryam laments the fact that she has to leave home for more than a week when she travels to China.
After the trip, she headed out the following morning to sell her merchandise, which left her feeling exhausted when she returned home.
Zukhra, 38, also has an unemployed husband and two children -- along with huge debts.
When her father died, Zukhra, as the oldest child, became the family breadwinner.
“Right after secondary school I went into trading," she said. "I went to the market because my mother could not feed her seven children. My father died of a heart attack.”
Zukhra owns a metal container at the Almaty market where she sells shoes.
She complains of abusive practices by market owners.
Four years ago, she had to pay out $20,000 when the market owners decided to make repairs at the bazaar.
Zukhra said she pays 43,000 tenges ($280) every month for rent and 8,000 tenges ($52) for electricity despite the fact that her shop only has two lamps.
Zukhra claimed she also has to repay 50,000 tenges ($326) every month for a bank loan in addition to separate loans from microcredit institutions and individuals.
She has put her house up as collateral for money she has borrowed and says many of her colleagues are in similar situations.
When asked about current plans in Qaragandy to collect private funds to erect a bronze monument to honor them, the women shuttle traders on the bus laughed. They said they need "real support”" more than a memorial.
As the night plunged into further darkness, the passengers fell asleep.
Close to midnight, the 800-kilometer journey began nearing its end as the bus entered the outskirts of Almaty and headed for a cluster of roadside bazaars.
Written by Antoine Blua, with contributions from Merhat Sharipzhanov and reporting by RFE/RL Kazkakh Service correspondent Ainur Alimova in Urumqi, China, and Almaty