Chinese pop music blares from loudspeakers, mixing with the cries of Chinese traders at this busy local market. Welcome to China? No, we are in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty, at the Ya Lian bazaar.
Since it opened in 1997, the Ya Lian has become one of the city's largest marketplaces, attracting thousands of shoppers to its stalls offering everything from household appliances to clothes and consumer electronics.
It is a scene repeated at hundreds of Chinese markets across Central Asia. Initially, the traders were locals bringing in scarce goods to sell from just across the border. But in recent years, they have been replaced by an influx of Chinese tradesmen who have set up more permanent shops and become a fixture of Central Asian urban life.
This street activity is just one sign of China's growing presence in the region. But at higher levels, Chinese officials and business leaders have been criss-crossing the region, signing cooperation agreements and contracts that aim to expand Beijing's foothold.
China's interest in countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan is motivated to a large extent by its need for energy. China's economy is booming, but its domestic oil and mining industries cannot keep pace with demand.
Chinese officials have fanned out across the globe -- including Central Asia -- in search of suppliers.
"Chinese oil companies are almost everywhere in the world. They're dispatching teams of oil experts to negotiate oil projects, especially upstream projects in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and North America."
Those efforts are beginning to bear fruit. In May this year, after seven years of negotiation, China and Kazakhstan agreed to build a 1,000-kilometer pipeline from Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region to China's northwestern Xinjiang region by 2005.
The pipeline will be a key link in a 3,000-kilometer project that aims to join China to the Caspian Sea. China has also offered to help Uzbekistan develop its small oil fields in the Ferghana Valley.
Chinese investment is also going into other energy resources, such as hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with scores of additional plans up for discussion.
But Niklas Swanstrom, executive director of the Program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies at Sweden's Uppsala University, says while the quest for natural resources shapes China's policies in Central Asia, it is not the whole picture.
China is rapidly emerging as a world power. In a decade or two, it may directly challenge the supremacy of the United States, Japan and Europe. But before this happens, Beijing's leaders are trying to create a zone of friendly and stable countries around China's borders that will give them political support as well as economic leverage in the future.
This has led Beijing to set up trade missions in every Central Asian country, invest in local enterprises, donate money to aid projects and give a high profile to new bodies like the Shanghai Cooperation Council that now groups the region's countries:
They want to secure the borders, they want to make sure that Central Asia is a stable region [because] if Central Asia runs into military conflicts, it is likely to spread over to Xinjiang.
"The Chinese do want natural resources, they do want oil and gas because China is in desperate need of these as its economy grows," Swanstrom told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from Beijing, where he is a guest lecturer at the People's University. "But it goes deeper than that."
"They want to secure the borders, they want to make sure that Central Asia is a stable region. Because if Central Asia runs into military conflicts, it is likely to spread over to Xinjiang, China's westernmost province. And that would be a problem for the Chinese government," he said.
Stability in Central Asia also means stability for China, Swanstrom added. "It's also in the Chinese interest to develop these markets, to create the infrastructure in Central Asia."
On the security front, Beijing has found eager partners among Central Asia's authoritarian leaders who share its worries about Islamic militancy.
It has to do with the Russian domestic weakness, to a certain extent and that gives the Chinese and many other actors -- among them of course the United States and Europe -- an opportunity to move in. But the Americans and Europeans have not taken that opportunity to the same extent that the Chinese have.
"There is a meeting of the minds between China's leaders on the one hand and the leaders of the post-Soviet Central Asian states on the other," John Garver, international affairs expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States told RFE/RL in a recent interview.
"And cooperation in this area takes the form of intelligence exchanges, police cooperation, training of police, training of military forces, and the design of military operations targeting terrorist activities," Garver said.
Omurbek Tekebayev, leader of Kyrgyzstan's opposition Atameken Socialist Party, adds that China's cause was helped by the U.S. "war on terror" following the Sept. 11th attacks.
"After 9/11, the United States broke the old stereotype, sending its troops to Central Asia and the Transcaucasus. When the U.S. strengthened its position, China began to also show that it was interested in Central Asia," he said.
He said Chinese officials told a recent meeting of regional leaders in Tashkent that it would invest about U.S.$4,000 million in Central Asian countries. Chinese leaders also spoke openly about their intention to pay the full cost of a U.S.$1,500 million highway from China to Central Asia, via Kyrgyzstan, he said.
Niklas Swanstrom says Russia's sometimes tenuous grip over the region has paved the way for outsiders, including the Americans, to come in. But the Chinese -- because of their comprehensive regional economic and security interests -- have been the most effective.
Not everyone in Central Asia is happy about China's interest in the region. There is a latent fear, especially in the countries bordering China, that Beijing is hungry for land. And if that is the case, even a small migration of Chinese to the region would swamp local populations.
They have realized over the years that it's not good to have one dominant power in the region.
Although it is vast in territory, Kazakhstan's population of some 14 million people represents just over one percent of China's 1.3 billion people.
Suspicions of creeping colonialism are dismissed out-of-hand by Beijing officials. But Murat Auezov, a former Kazakh ambassador to China, says China's low-key foreign policy masks a deep-running expansionist tradition.
"I know Chinese culture. We should not believe anything the Chinese politicians say," Auezov told RFE/RL. "As a historian, I'm telling you that 19th-century China, 20th-century China and 21st-century China are three different Chinas. But what unites them is a desire to expand their territories."
Swanstrom is more optimistic. For now, Russia continues to enjoy a decisive cultural and economic advantage in Central Asia. But he argues breaking this monopoly could serve the Central Asians well: "It doesn't necessarily have to be a zero-sum game, but from the Central Asian states, there's also interest in decreasing the Russian influence and to have Chinese influence -- maybe even Indian influence and American influence and European influence."
"They have realized over the years that it's not good to have one dominant power in the region...They are very conscious about the fact that neither the Russians nor the Chinese would be the perfect actor to dominate the region," he said.