The Silk Road — A Romantic Deception?

What can Central Asian countries do to reform after years of neglect?

November 24, 2005

What can Central Asian countries do to reform after years of neglect?

In a way, the images conjured up by the name Silk Road are a romantic deception. Way back in the 2nd century BC, Chinese chronicles do mention a price of 40 bolts of silk for every "blood-sweating, heavenly horse" bought from Central Asia's Ferghana Valley.

The Romans, too, may have exchanged gold for Chinese silk, but possibly did it by sea. Overland east-west trade and travel rarely prospered through the lands that came to be dominated by Turkic peoples.

Distances were too great, slave-snatching brigands too prevalent and rival khanates waged too much war against each other.

Camel caravans did carry merchandise along the interconnecting trade routes of Central Asia and Turkey — but itineraries tended to be a regular shuttle between ports, inland cities and oasis towns.

The name Silk Road itself was dreamed up by German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in the late 19th century — and gradually grew into an orientalist vision of camels plodding ever-westwards for thousands of miles laden down with Chinese silks.

The geographical idea of the Silk Road nonetheless does describe something that is now flickering to life. The end of the Soviet Union has seen an uptick of east-west trade, and some of the many interwoven trade routes of Central Asia are exceedingly old.

They range from the roads snaking into the mountains above the Turkish port of Trabzon to Afghanistan's Khyber Pass to the legendary Jade Gate in the Great Wall of China.

Lavish European and U.S. backing has burnished and connected some of these historical trade routes as a new Silk Road is a useful ideological tool to promote with an "East-West Transportation Corridor" that is opening up Central Asian markets and oil wells to foreign capital.

One new rail line now stretches eastward from Kazakhstan to China, another westward from Turkmenistan to northeastern Iran. Central Asian airports are shaking off their Soviet decrepitude with connections around the compass.

New energy pipelines run — or are planned — in many directions. Millions of tons of Caspian oil began to be shipped each year across the Caucasus, avoiding both Iran and Russia — by barge across the Caspian Sea, by pipeline to a rail terminal and then by rail car to the Black Sea port of Batum.

Western companies have plans for a fiber-optic cable to Shanghai from Germany's Frankfurt-am-Main. But even as a new Silk Road, it's as well to remember that it has never been a single highway and that there isn't anything silken about it.

In fact, if Central Asian states really hope for prosperity through trade, they first have to beat the long odds. These include the self-defeating, pocket-filling mismanagement of Turkmenistan, the self-righteously corrupt bureaucracy of Uzbekistan, the arrogant kleptocracy of Kazakhstan or the demands for money that have become the dominant mentality throughout Azerbaijan.

They have collectively prevented the new Silk Road from acting as a through-route for trade — it almost only serves to supply local Central Asian markets.

Standing in angry frustration at some border points sometimes made me feel the states barely deserved to be called proper countries. It also shook my faith in the idea that the Turkic world could one day band together meaningfully against shared rivals like Russia, Iran and China.

Perhaps Uzbekistan's intentions had been good when it built the Alat border post with Turkmenistan in the mid-1990s. The grandiose design even included a ceramic wall portrait of a Bactrian camel — the ship of the Central Asian desert.

Like everyone else, Turkic leaders loved the Silk Road mythology — and no Central Asian capital was complete without its Silk Road Boulevard. In Uzbekistan, one of the only local Internet servers even went by the name of silk.com.

But the reality was that, within a few years, cracks and gap-toothed holes had opened up in the blue tiles covering the artificial domes of the Alat border post roof. Times change, and these days the pillaging at places like modern Alat means that commercial traffic is just a trickle of a few dozen vehicles each day.

Turkish truck drivers grumbled that they had to spend up to $1,000 on under-the-table expenses to get a 20-ton cargo of biscuits from one end of the new Silk Road to the other.

Kazakhstan talks airily of sponsoring the construction of a $5 billion high-speed rail connection to cut the China-Europe transport time in half — but the route involves the same, foot-dragging suspects Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey.

To send a container by rail from the Chinese port city of Shanghai through Central Asia to Hamburg in Germany still costs double and takes twice as long transporting it by sea. Cheaper, easier sea routes were the main reason, after all, that there wasn't really any old Silk Road.