A thousand years after the Silk Road began disappearing into the wind-blown steppe, the people of Kazakhstan are awaiting a modern, paved, high-speed version carrying 21st-century jewels such as jobs, indoor plumbing and connections to the global economy.
The new Silk Road is an ambitious $7-billion project to connect China with Western Europe along a 1,700-mile highway through Kazakhstan. Just as the ancient caravans transformed the world, bearing ideas and cultures along with their perfumes and spices, Kazakhstan is counting on the modern equivalent to stimulate economic growth that would have repercussions the world over, including in the United States.
“It's not just pavement going from point A to B,” said Juan Miranda, director general of the Asian Development Bank's Central and West Asia Department. “It's a Silk Road, leading to the creation of an economic corridor and stability, and I hope the road will benefit far more than Kazakhstan.”
The job of laying pavement on shifting sands in the middle of an empty landscape is a monumental task, one that would have made even the mighty Genghis Khan flinch.
But various international organizations have taken on manageable chunks, with the World Bank financing more than 625 miles, from Shymkent in the south to the northern border with Russia, lending $2.12 billion for the project. The ADB, the Islamic Development Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and other institutions are working on segments elsewhere in Kazakhstan. Completion of the Kazakh work — planned for 2013 — will mean completion of the entire highway.
It will include existing or newly upgraded roads in China and Russia, which is already linked to Western Europe. Although there were many branches of the Silk Road in ancient times, this road follows the northern route, which passed through Kazakhstan.
Travel 300 miles of that route, from Kyzylorda — a pleasant southern city of about 200,000 — northward to the bereft town of Aralsk near the still-evaporating Aral Sea, and what is euphemistically called a highway fades from patches of blacktop to bone-jarring, hit-your-head-on-the-car-roof dirt and gravel. Only a camel could love it, and they do, with grazing herds visible along the long, flat horizon. Instead of conveniences, there is only the opposite: Finding a
toilet means searching for an inconspicuous spot behind a sandy ridge.
The twisting, threatening route — the road to perdition, Miranda says, laughing - passes in sight of Baikonur, the Russian-leased space center where rockets thunder into the heavens and, on the surrounding landscape of Earth, solitary horsemen trot through tumbleweed as if to the rhythms of the nomadic past. “This road across the country will go through regions where half the population lives,” said Abelgazy Kussainov, who, until recently was Kazakhstan's transportation minister.
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