Silk Road Revival

Plans to build a road along an ancient trading route may boost the country’s economic prospects.

Silk Road Revival

Plans to build a road along an ancient trading route may boost the country’s economic prospects.

Winding along a river valley 7,000 metres high in the far reaches of the Hindukush mountain range, a romantically named trail could be Afghanistan's route to a new age of prosperity.

For centuries, traders carried goods from China to Afghanistan and then on to Central Asia and Europe along a route that became known as the Silk Road, after one of the major commodities that was exported from China.

Now the people of Badakhshan province, where the old route crosses into Afghanistan, are hopeful that Beijing will want to help build a road suitable for vehicles to increase their export trade.

Only the initial stretch of the trail, up to the village of Wakhan in Wakham district in the far north of the province, is passable by motor vehicle. This takes a good two days. Then there’s a one-week trek by donkey or horse to Pamir on the Chinese border.

According to Fazal Ahmad Amaj, chairman for roads in the provincial capital Faizabad, the construction of a road between Wakhan and Pamir is in the United Nations' three-year plan.

The governor of Badakhshan, Sayed Mohammad Amin Tariq, believes a new road to China will bring some relief to residents stranded in the furthest flung parts of the province. "If the government of China builds this road the people of these areas will communicate easily. Now it takes many days to reach Faizabad from Wakhan and Pamir. And if this road is built these people will get most of the comforts of life," he said.

The governor also pointed out that with a new bridge connecting the Eshkashim district with Tajikistan and the imminent opening of a road to Pakistan, the World Food Programme will be able to bring wheat into this remote area of Afghanistan more easily.

Bakhshi, who works in the provincial roads department, said they had asked successive governments for help in building a highway. "Technically it is not difficult as far as Khundo, in the centre of Wakhan, because the area is flat but from there to Pamir it is difficult. We have 21 workers, one loader and one bulldozer. If help isn’t provided, we will start the work ourselves."

Four districts of Badakhshan province - Barak, Wardoj, Eshkashem and Wakhan - would be connected to the centre, Faizabad. Other roads to Pakistan through Zebak district and to Tajikistan through Eshkashem district would also join up.

Khwaja Abdul Rauf has a wholesale shop in Faizabad but has to go to Mazar-e-Sharif - 400 km in the opposite direction - every time he wants to bring in Chinese goods.

"If this road is built, I will go to China and bring goods directly in from there. Chinese goods are cheaper than Iranian and Pakistani goods and with this prices will even come down," he said.

Another wholesaler Ahmad Zahir agrees that imported products will become cheaper, “We bring tea and other Chinese goods from Mazar-e-Sharif to Badakhshan, which costs a lot, because Chinese goods are first imported to Peshawar and from Peshawar they are taken to Kabul and then to Mazar-e-Sharif. "

Back in Kabul Dr Mohammad Yaqoob, a senior official at the public affairs ministry, told IWPR that the government officials and Chinese experts have already surveyed the Faizabad to Wakhan road.

The Chinese, though, appear reluctant to say much about the project. "The road between Faizabad and China is important, but we don't have any plans for it at the moment," Lu Changjin, economic and commercial counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Kabul told IWPR. "In the future, it may be built if it doesn't present too many technical problems.”

Meanwhile, in Faizabad, there’s all sorts of speculation as to why America and China might be interested in the road being built. "The United States wants to make a military base in the high areas of Badakhshan in order to have a position to watch over China, Russia and Afghanistan," said one resident. "If China built this road it would mean that they want to stop the Americans building a base nearby."

Danish Kerokhel is a reporter for IWPR

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