Today, the northern road out of Tajikistan's booming capital winds comfortably through a wheat-brown valley into the rocky gorge of Varsob. The road is not new, yet potholes are freshly plastered, roadside signs announcing a mammoth cement factory promise a bright future, and drivers in a small bazaar hawk long-distance rides to Khojand and the Fergana Valley, 160 kilometers and currently 10 hours north.
Only 10 kilometers from Dushanbe, the pavement ends and chalky clouds of sepia-colored dust blind drivers navigating the shifting lanes of a chaotic free-for-all. It looks like a war zone. Yet this is where China's work on a reliable road corridor direct into the heart of Central Asia begins.
The road construction, one of Tajikistan's major infrastructure development projects, makes up part of the roughly $720 million in Chinese investment in the country, according to the Chinese news service Xinhua. China presented much of the money to the Tajik government in the form of long-term, low-interest loans.
But commerce, rather than charity, drives this assistance program.
Since the opening of a pass between Tajikistan and China in 2004, trade between the two countries has steadily increased. Tajikistan's economy is growing at eight percent per year says Central Asia pundit Ahmed Rashid and the capital is experiencing a building boom. Attracting resources from Central Asia and opening local markets to Chinese goods, the Chinese construction projects are part of a broad network the Chinese government and other countries are building to expand industry and commerce in the region.
Said the China Daily in June: "Chinese investment is needed in its western neighbors today, just as the Silk Road sustained regional trading posts here with Chinese goods and money over [the] centuries."
According to project employees, the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation has employed some 10,000 Chinese workers to reconstruct the road north, and add on modern drainage systems, avalanche-protection tunnels and bridges. All oversight and equipment appears to be of Chinese origin.
Last year, the company began a three-mile tunnel in the Sughd Mountains, in a northwestern region along the border with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Workers estimate that altogether there are some 30,000 Chinese nationals working on various infrastructure projects in Tajikistan.
Chinese road laborers make approximately $10 a day and live in uncomfortable conditions alongside the construction sites. At one place, the site of a one-kilometer avalanche shelter, workers said that their wages are determined by the speed of their work and do not necessarily earn them more than they would make home in China. They were disappointed.
"It hasn't been as good this year as it would have been in China," one worker told EurasiaNet. Workers go home for three months in the winter, when bad weather halts construction, said a foreman, Leo, from eastern China. The project is expected to be completed by 2008, he added.
Meanwhile, workers are responsible for providing for their own food and living expenses in Tajikistan. Nai and Lilu, two workers from China's Sichuan Province building an avalanche shelter three hours from Dushanbe, buy cell phone cards to call home and subsist on a diet of rice and vegetables brought into their remote site once a week. They are not happy with the lifestyle.
Other workers, relaxing at a holiday lake outside of Dushanbe, exclaimed how lucky they were to be posted close to the capital.
"We come to the lake [to bathe] because only our bosses have showers," said Nai, speaking through a Chinese-speaking interpreter.
The road north is just part of the changes afoot. With an American-sponsored bridge between Afghanistan and Tajikistan slated to open later this summer, for the first time truckers will be able to transport goods from the subcontinent, through Tajikistan, to markets in China; all this while bypassing an Uzbekistan hostile to Tajik development.
The hope is that similar projects in neighboring countries will recreate a Silk Road of transportation and commerce linking China and Central Asia with Europe. Such an ambitious project will take time, but both China and the Central Asian economies are clearly banking on its completion and success.
David Trilling is a freelance photojournalist working in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.