Tehran: More image problems

​Iran has an image problem, that’s no understatement. In both Europe and East-Asia I got worried looks when I shared my plans to visit the Islamic Republic. Even in Central Asia, a region with many problems of its own, people held their breaths whenever I mentioned Iran. Upon arrival in Tehran’s Ayatollah Khomeini Airport I received my Visa in a mere 10 minutes and an official greeted my with a warm ‘Welcome to Iran”, a phrase I would hear many times. But by far the most popular one was “Iran people good, Iran government bad”. The unparalleled kindness and generosity I enjoyed during my one month stay in Iran, starkly contrasts with the aggressive tone of Iranian leaders in our media. 

Iranian women observing a peacock in Shahr park

While the rest of the world seems to have forgotten that a people and a government are not one and the same, the Iranians definitely haven’t. On no occasion was I blamed for the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy and have condemned millions to structural unemployment without an end in sight. Never did anyone scorn me for the years of Western intervention in Iranian politics that ultimately lead to theocratic regime of today. They knew full well that I have had no say in any of this, yet when we in the West hear about Iran we shiver and picture AK wielding fanatics. 

The ancestors of the Iranians, the ancient Persians, also don’t enjoy a good image in the West. As the adversaries of the freedom loving and noble Greeks they surly must have been an Empire of pure barbaric evil! The 2006 movie, 300, where oiled up Spartans fight hordes faceless and depraved Persians, comes to mind. Forgotten in all of this is that the Spartans were such excellent fighters because they lived in one of the most brutal slave societies in documented history. One wherein an elite of highly trained warriors had to be permanently under arms to suppress the slave population. Very little freedom loving to be found there. 

The Persians on the other hand ruled an empire from Central Asia to the Balkans and Egypt. For respecting local customs and religions of conquered peoples, Cyrus the Great, the founder of the first Persian empire, was seen as a liberator rather than a conqueror. Cyrus is also famous for freeing the Jews from Babylon. A deed that earned him the title of Messiah. By making the empire work for the common people the Persians were able to consolidate their power in newly conquered territories. Moreover, the cities and art of the Persians often dwarfed Greek accomplishments and in fact had considerable influence on them. When Alexander the Great had conquered Persia his friends and generals complained that their leader was to eager to adopt Persian culture.

One of the many murals adorning Tehran’s buildings

But the image problem of modern day Iran has little to do with the animosity between Greeks and Persians of 2300 years ago. It can be squarely blamed on the radical strand of Islam that the regime adheres to. Women must cover up and aren’t even allowed to sing (might provoke the guys, god forbid!). Dancing in public is forbidden. So are alcohol, parties, playing cards, etc. But in my experience most Iranians are fun loving people and quite sophisticated in circumnavigating these rules. More than often I was presented with homemade beer, wine or even spirit. In parts of Tehran I spotted girls walking around, carefree, with their hijabs down on their shoulders, revealing their hair. 

This divide between the strict laws, draconic punishments and the liberal mindset of some Iranians creates wonderful contradictions. Like a woman with torn jeans and a ton of make up but neatly covered up with hijab. Or smartly dressed businessmen hiding in the shrubs of a park during Ramadan to hastily eat a sandwich. Young guys wearing T-shirts of Western rock bands, a diabolic genre that obviously needed to be banned. With many Iranian men clearly having a weakness for fashionable clothes and able to grow impressive beards Tehran is furthermore fertile ground for the unrelenting expansion of hipsterdom. Our media and their government in no way do justice to the diversity that exists in the streets of Tehran. 

Leaving Uzbekistan 

​After Muynak I caught the train to Aktau on the Caspian coast in Kazakhstan. I left Uzbekistan with conflicting feelings. In a way there are two Uzbekistans. The first one that of a repressive regime with sterile touristic cities and chaotic ‘public’ transport. Multiple times I saw corrupt policemen demanding bribes from taxi drivers, who in turn set absurdly high fares for foreigners and care little for their passengers. It is also an Uzbekistan where locals risk serious fines and imprisonment for simply inviting a foreigner into their homes. 

But sometimes the hospitality and generosity of Uzbeks would simmer through all this draconian authoritarianism. Showing me that other Uzbekistan where I was handed fresh apricots by smiling farmers, chatted with heartwarmingly kind Uzbeks on the night train to Termez, and was invited over for lunch by museum staff in Nukus.

After an exhausting 24 hour train ride through the desert I reached Aktau, a city that is a product of the same modernistic Soviet hubris that led to the disastrous outcome at the Aral sea. Uranium from a nearby mine was used to power desalination plants (and to make nuclear weapons). It turned the otherwise arid coast in to a habitable area and allowed for the  growth of Aktau. Besides this successful enterprise, Kazakhstan also seems to have a more sensible stance on the Aral sea area. By constructing dams it has succeeded in partly replenishing the Northern Aral sea. Substantial fish populations have returned and now allow for a partial revival of the fishing industry in Aralsk.

Tenements in Aktau

In Aktau the Soviet legacy is still tangible but the old Soviet tenements nowadays conceal nicely outfitted apartments and the broad streets are full of brand new SUVs. It is apparent that success, here in Aktau, is something that needs to be shown. Expensive watches, luxury clothing and a classy foreign car are the hallmarks of a self-made man. The economic growth in recent years has allowed for this conspicuous consumption but with 59% of its economy directly related to fossil fuels Kazakhstan’s base for prosperity is very narrow. With the decline of oil prices, especially since the Ukraine crisis started in 2014, the Kazakh economy has been struggling. Eventually leading to a 22% devaluation of the Kazakh currency, the Tenge, in 2015. Resulting in a serious chunk out of the savings of many ordinairy Kazakhs. 

I left Aktau by plane for Iran. In doing so I passed through Shevshenko Airport, named after the exiled painter who was a witness to the exploration and gradual conquest of Central-Asia by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It was a small but brand new (or recently fully refurbished) airport but the local ground crew knew surprisingly little of visa policies. This led to a very slow and confused check-in. This goes to show that next to hard infrastructure, like highways, railroads and airports, there is also a need for soft infrastructure such a properly trained personnel. Waiting in the dark departure hall I looked at our airplane being prepared and quietly hoped that the technicians were more professional.  

The Aral Sea 

​When Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were subdued by the Russian Empire, Central Asia’s transformation from the center of the world to an utterly remote backwater, was complete. So remote that a Muscovite artist, Igor Savitsky, obsessed with collecting art forbidden by the Soviet regime, was able to stow away his collection in Nukus, a city in northern Uzbekistan. Today the town still feels very remote and next to the museum and a small bazaar it has little to offer to a traveller.

But only 5 km from the center of Nukus the Amu Darya river flows. This river was once crossed by the armies of Alexander, the Arabs and the Mongols. In Termez I had already seen the Amu Darya, where it was a truly mighty stream. When I reached its banks outside of Nukus I was shocked. Except for a small stream the giant riverbed was entirely dry. An abandoned ship lay on the western bank. A few men were fishing in the remains of the river. 

Dry riverbed of the Amu Darya

The sight of the dried out Amu Darya prepared me for what I would see in Muynak, a town situated where once the shores of the Aral sea had been. Now all that remains is desert. The drying out of the Aral sea was no accident, it was the result of Soviet hubris. Believing that the Aral sea was a ‘mistake of nature’, causing water to evaporate without serving any purpose, that had to be corrected, the Soviets established a vast monoculture of cotton along the banks of the Amu Darya in Uzbekistan. Intensive and wasteful irrigation practices subsequently caused the river and eventually the Aral Sea to shrink. 

The independence of Uzbekistan did not bring any change. President Karimov simply continued the course set by the Soviets. During my journey through Uzbekistan I saw countless leaky faucets and opulent but useless gardens being lavishly watered. The south of the country literally sucks the north dry. To make matters worse, the government has encouraged drilling for oil in the Aral Sea basin. 

Meanwhile the old fishing towns of the Aral sea in Uzbekistan continue to suffer. Muynak, together with Aralsk in kazakhstan, used to have a major fishing industry. Now it is a sad and dusty place. The local climate pushed to extremes by the disappearance of the sea. Viciously hot when I visited it in late may and according to the locals extremely cold in winter. It is a man-made disaster zone. Currently only 10% of the surface area of the Aral sea remains. Where the sea retreated it was replaced by barren desert. The old fishing industry gone, just like the the sea.

Aral sea monument in Muynak

Muynak has a monument dedicated to the memory of the Aral sea. I decided to have a look. What I found was a big concrete slab on top of a cliff, pointing to where the sea had once been. In the shade of the monument sat an old man. I greeted him and as he started talking to me I noticed he was toothless. With an aggressive tone he enquired if Belgium was capitalist or socialist. For this poor man the Cold War had apparently never ended. I hurriedly made something up about Belgium being a socialist country, which couldn’t be further from the truth, but it calmed him down. I used our temporary détente to head down to the rusting trawlers that lay where once the shores of the Aral sea had been.     

I had seen many photo’s of these and other ships, rusting memories of a maritime past. I couldn’t resist to take pictures of this powerful apocalyptic scene myself. Most ships were vandalized with inscriptions. I saw declarations of undying love next to hastily drawn penises, such classics. Later when I made my way back up to the monument I noticed a boy playing between the old wrecks. Playing in the mess he had inherited from his ancestors. Later I asked a teenager what his opinion was on the Aral sea and its demise. He told me he had never seen the sea, so he didn’t really know. The last time water reached Muynak was in the 80’s. A few more decades and the sea will turn from memory in to distant history.

Khiva: walls, horses and hormones

​Besides Bukhara and Samarkand, Uzbekistan holds one more significant historical city: Khiva. In 1717, when Russia made its first attempt to break into Central Asia it was via Khiva. Driven by the desire to counter the naval trade routes of its European rivals, Russia sought an overland route east, through Central Asia, to get its fair share of the Indian riches. Upon arrival in Khiva the Russian expedition of 1717 the local Khan asked the Russians to separate their troops in to smaller units and to stay in the villages surrounding the city. The Russians respected the request, spread out and were subsequently slaughtered by the soldiers of the Khan. A few survivors were allowed to return to their Russia to tell the tale. After this debacle Russia focused its expansionist ambitions on the Caucasus. 

City walls of Khiva

But in the 19th century Russia was back and Khiva fell under her control in 1873. Cossacks violently suppressed the local population. “In Asia, the harder you hit them the longer they stay quiet”, one Russian general allegedly declared. Despite all this Khiva is probably the best preserved of all the Uzbek historic cities. Its old walls still standing proud with families living within the old city. 
Outside the walls though, large swaths of housing have recently been cleared and are currently vacant. Only the hotels were allowed to remain, resulting in a few isolated buildings standing amputated in a field of rubble. A local told me that the people who used to live here had been relocated a few kilometers away from the city center. He wasn’t eager to give me any more details but with Uzbekistan being a rather authoritarian state struggling with serious corruption, I can’t imagine this ‘relocation’ to have been a happy affair.     

Vacant land outside the walls of old Khiva

It seems that also here in Khiva authorities aim to neatly separate the historic/touristic center from the actual living city. Turning it into a sterile place like Samarkand or Bukhara. But by now this hardly came as a surprise to me. Tourism and the government’s policies have had a negative impact on the historic cities of Uzbekistan. As a traveler I experienced locals mostly regarding me as a walking wallet. Everyone was trying to cash in on the increasing flow of tourists that is drawn in by the allure of the mythical Silk Road cities. I can’t help but feel that tourism is causing the past, and a mythical past at that, to hold the present hostage in these cities. 

The ancient cities of Uzbekistan had offered me little authenticity. But on my very last day at Khiva I got lucky. Apparently it was the first day of summer recess and high school graduates flooded the streets of the historic center. Smartly dressed girls and boys walking triumphantly through the town, there to see and, especially, to be seen. Some guys even brought their horse along. The ladies love horses! Loud music was blasting from the speakers of improvised DJ booths. There were a ton of hormones in the air. 

Looking good!!

But there was something cruel about this spectacle. People in Uzbekistan marry very young. At 28 many Uzbeks were often visibly shocked to hear I was an unmarried and childless man. They wondered if there was something wrong with me or if I was one of those unhinged playboys incapable of settling down with a nice girl. In the latter case I always got an abundance of high fives and dirty grins. But chances were high that most of the teenagers I saw frolicking around in the streets of Khiva that day, would be married by next year. Maybe some of them already were.

Bukhara: Spies, Merchants and Tourists

As Samarkand fell into decline after the 15th century, Bukhara, 250 kilometers to the west, arose as a new seat of power and center of culture and science. But the decline in wealth and power was not limited to Samarkand. Especially from the 17th century onwards the whole of Central-Asia was rapidly turning into a backwater. Anthony Jenkins, an English merchant who visited Bukhara in 1558 to investigate trading prospects still encountered considerable international trade but one that was dominated by textiles and clearly losing out to maritime trade routes:

There is yeerly great resort of Merchants to this city of Boghar, which travaile in great caravans from countries thereabout adjoining, as India, Persia, Balkh, Russia and in times past from Cathay (China) […] The Indians bring fine wines which the Tartars doe roll about their heads, and all other kinds of whites which serve for apparell made from cotton wool and crasko (coarse linen), but gold silver and precious stones and spices they bring none. I enquirred and percieved that all such trade passeth to the ocean sea, and the vaines where all such things are gotten, are in the subjection of the Portingals. 

souvenir stalls in Bukhara

Jenkins notes the absence of the Chinese, who by that time had already turned decidedly to the seas and did not control any territory in Central Asia. The Portuguese dominated the Indian Ocean in the 1558 but would be dethroned swiftly in the first years of the 17th century by the English and Dutch trading companies who would withdraw even more trade form the overland routes. So also for Bukhara there, sadly, was no escaping the consequences of global shifts in power and trade.

By the 19th century the Emirate of Bukhara was a kingdom in a region under pressure from foreign powers. The Russians advanced from the north and the British aimed to create a buffer between the expanding Russian Empire and British India. An early British attempt to sway the Emir of Bukhara in their favor resulted in the execution of two British officers, Colonel Stoddart and his unsuccessful rescuer Captian Conolly, in June 1842 on charges of espionage. 

Ark of Buhara, where Conolly and Stoddart were excecuted

Eventually the city fell under Russian control in 1868, turning the Emir into a Russian puppet. The Russians quickly connected the city to their Trans-Capsian railway and Russian goods flooded the region. Russia had a hard time competing with European and American industrial goods on the global market, control over Central Asia meant a new reliable export market for Russian products. As a result the Russian expansion was primarily driven by commercial interests. 

Today not Russian but Chinese clothing, electronics and textiles dominate the bazaars of Central-Asia. One Belt One road, the Chinese New Silk Road initiative, specifically aims to secure and expand Chinese exports. So just like the Russians before them the Chinese are driven by commercial interest to reestablish a presence in Central Asia after centuries of absence. The major difference is that the One Belt One Road plan has no military dimension. Russia still remains the most significant military player in the region. Another stark difference is that the Chinese government emphasizes its desire to reach a ‘win-win’ for its partners. The growing Russian economic and military clout in Central-Asia resulted in the colonialization of the region, not exactly a ‘win-win’.

Today once more Bukhara is crawling with Europeans. This time their ambitions not imperialistic but touristic. Even though Bukhara lacks the mass tourism of Samarkand it is an equally cleaned up place and once more in the old madrassas souvenir shops have replaced scholars. Taxi drivers and ‘tour guides’ stand on street corners and the city’s squares, hunting tourists and their precious dollars. The glory days of Bukhara are but a distant past. After centuries of absence the Chinese might be back but in Bukhara there is little sign of a Central Asian renaissance. If there is a New Silk Road arising in Uzbekistan then I am looking in the wrong place.

Samarkand: A splendid tourist trap

If it is said that a paradise is to be seen in this world, then the paradise of this world is Samarkand

Ata-Malik Juvaini,  13th century Persian historian

Samarkand has received countless similar descriptions from historians, poets and foreign visitors. All telling of a place of splendor and wonder. So naturally I arrived in the city with high expectations. It was after all the legendary Samarkand!

Samarkand’s history starts in the 5th century BCE, with it being the center of Sogdiana and home of the Sogdians, an Iranian people that would later play an important role in the Silk Road trade. The city later became a satrapy of the Persian Empire and was already prosperous and influential when Alexander the Great captured the city in 329 BCE.

By the 7th century Sogdiana had become a Chinese vassal and Samarkand a major node on the Silk Road. Xuanzhang, a Chinese monk, visited the city in 629 CE and was impressed by the merchandise form faraway countries being traded in the there. Also the craftsmanship of Samarkand’s artisans stunned Xuanzhang. It is from this era that the Afrasiab painting, depicting scenes from Persia on the western side and China on the eastern side. In the middle the King of Samarkand is shown, recieving gifts from emmisaries comming from as far as Korea. The paintings indicate that the Sogdians were well aware of their central role in the trans-continental trade. 

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Envoys bearing gifts pictured in the Afrasiab painting

In 710 the religiously diverse city fell to the Arabs, causing Islam to gradually become the dominant religion by the 10th century. Their goal in conquering Samarkand was not to win souls for Islam but to control the flow of wealth along the Silk Road. In early Islam only Arabs were considered real Muslims. Non-Arab converts were called Mawali and seen as second-rate Muslims. 

In the 13th century the Mongols conquered Samarkand and enslaved much of its population. Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveler who’s journeys from Africa to the Middel East, the Indian Ocean and China eclipse the achievements of the Polos, visited the city in …, not long after the Mongol invasion. He described it as the “one of the largest and most beautiful cities” but also noted that “most of Samarkand had been turned into a shambles.”

But Samarkand veerded back and reached its peak in the 14th and the 15th centuries during the rule of the Timurids, a Turco-Mongol dynasty originating from Shahrisabz, just south of Samarkand. Timur the Lame and his descendants built huge madrassas, turning the city into a center of religious and scientific scholarship. An observatory built in the hills surrounding by Ulug Beg, Timurs grandson, was used to calculate the tilt of the earth. Which is today still considered the most exact measurement.

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Ulug Beg Madrassa built in the 15th century

My train from Termez arrived at 5 a.m. in Samarkand. As the sun was rising over the city I walked past the Registan, an ensemble of three madrassas built between the 15th and 17th centuries that used to be the heart of the post-Mongol city. The faint morning light shone on the brown and blue tiles, a few early birds were jogging in the spacious parks around the Madrassas. From the Registan a neatly paved street, lined with souvenir shops and cafés, ran southward to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Afrasiab.

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Street connecting the Registan and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque

There was something sterile about all of it. The Registan and other monuments had all been heavily restored. The chambers of the Registan that used to house scholars were now repurposed as souvenir shops. There was supposed to be a museum in the Ulug Beg Madrassa, it was hard to find between all the trinkets. The streets leading to residential areas behind the shops and monuments were gated. Through small doors in the gates could I see what life in modern day Samarkand was like. The old Samarkand had been cleaned up and put on display in a bubble neatly separated from the rest of the city.

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Gate separating touristic and residential areas

Expecting an eternal city I encountered an open air museum in a provincial town of 300,000. My visit was consequently an underwhelming experience. It was interesting to get a feel of the place though, seeing the old madrassas and the site where the 7th century Afrasiab paintings were discovered. But what had once made this city great, was now lost. With its ruins restored to their former glory, the city itself appears ruined by tourism. Profiting from its past without creating anything novel. The aggressiveness of deceitful taxi drivers didn’t help either.

I wondered why had I been so eager to come here. After its golden age in the 14th and 15th century Samarkand declined rapidly. Political power shifted to Bukhara, 250 kilometers west of Samarkand, and trade gradually moved to the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. The city’s population was estimated to be 150,000 inhabitants in 1369 by Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo, the Spanish ambassador to the court of Timur. By 1900 Samarkand’s population was reduced to a mere 50,000 and the great Madrassas and Mausoleums of Samarkand lay in ruins.

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Bibi-Khanym Mosque in 1910. Painting by Richard-Karl Karlovitch Zommer

Coincidentally the romantic and orientalist movements in Europe got all enamored with the ruins of the East. In their eyes Samarkand was the stuff dreams. Poets, writers and painters all contributed to styling Samarkand as a legendary city of the Silk Road. They described and portrayed a world either long gone or one that had never existed to begin with. In doing so they weaved another chapter in the mystification of the Silk Road.

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Get your authentic Silk Road experience right here!

Nonetheless, the huge body of historical accounts describing Samarkand as a great and remarkable city, indicate that there must have been something unique about this place. Moreover Samarkand’s historical relevance as a city connecting east and west cannot be denied. Sadly it is the layer of romanticism, smeared on the cities image after its heydays, that seems to guide tourism in the city. Next to pure profiteering of course, but I couldn’t expect anything less from the descendants of the crafty Sogdian merchants.

Termez: Where global ambitions meet

Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan’s western neighbor, was the next destination on my journey to the West. Now a bit forgotten in Central Asia, at one point in history it used to be the very center of the world. Great cities like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were the capitals of great empires and kingdoms that drew in artists and scholars from afar. My time in this country was short, just 15 days, so I had to prioritize. I decided to skip the Fergana valley, famous in antiquity as the source of blood sweating heavenly horses, and Tashkent, the grandiose capital of Uzbekistan which, with its 2 million inhabitants, is also the most populous city of Central Asia

My first port of call was Termez, on the banks of the mighty Amu Darya river. I entered the city in the early morning by train from Tashkent. While disembarking it felt like arriving in a coastal city in southern France. The sun was shining brightly on the white and blue tiles of the station, women wore colorful dresses and the air smelled of pine trees. It surely didn’t feel like the Afghan border was just 10 kilometers to the south.

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Termez had been an important center of trade between India and China from at least the 1st century BCE. During the Kushan Empire Buddhists settled here and founded several large monasteries. The ruins and caves of the ancient monasteries now lie in the borderlands between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Sadly, most of them are inaccessible and heavily vandalized.

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When I visited an accessible site a sandstorm was raging. Unfazed by the whirling sands a man came running to me, a local official, unshaven, on slippers and still hastily putting on his coat. He asked me for some money for registration or cigarettes, it was very all very vague. I played the dumb foreigner routine and said random and confused things in shabby Russian until his sense of shame kicked in and he gave up on his attempt at bribery. I had been told stories about crooked Uzbek officials. It had not been fairy tales.

From the monasteries of Termez Buddhism spread further eastward to China. The Buddhist art developed here might very well have inspired the artisans of Dunhuang, in China, to create the magnificent Mogao caves. In the 7th century the city came under Muslim control. In the 12th, for refusing to surrender to the Mongols, Genghis Khan razed the city to the ground. Shortly after the devastation a new city sprang up further south. During Timurid times a castle was erected here.

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While exploring the ruins of the Timurid castle I was guided by a young Uzbek historian who was researching the site’s history. Even though he spoke little English he tried hard to explain his findings to me. Local residents who saw me passing by, handed me fresh apricots from their garden. Seldom had I tasted such sweet and watery apricots. In Kyrgyzstan I had already heard of the legendary generosity and hospitality of the Uzbek people. These had not been fairy tales either.

Nowadays Termez has a highly strategic position as it borders unruly Afghanistan. The instability of Afghanistan is a major threat to the development of the New Silk Road. Narcotics produced in Afghanistan flow into Central Asia on their way to Europe. Besides spreading addiction and corruption this Great Heroine Route has also strengthened criminal and extremist organizations in Central Asia.

The US Modern Silk Road initiative, which was launched in 2011, specifically aims at stabilizing Afghanistan by integrating it into the wider region. The final goal is to turn the country into a veritable roundabout of the Trans-Eurasian trade network. Trade would create opportunities and reduce the impetus for violence, thus simultaneously establishing a durable peace in Afghanistan and a new transcontinental trade route.

As NATO ceased combat operations in 2014 it withdrew its forces. Pakistan had proven to be an unreliable and unsafe route so an alternative through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia to Europe was set up. This Northern Distribution Network, as it came to be known, ran through Termez. It was hoped it would lay the foundation for the future north-south route connecting India, Central-Asia and Russia.

And it might just have. In June 2015 Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif announced the construction of a railroad from Termez to Pakistan’s deep-sea port Gwandar, a port that features heavily in China’s One Belt One Road initiative. With its strong focus on Afghanistan the American plan intentionally omits archenemy Iran. The more recent Chinese 1B1R initiative, on the other hand, regards Iran as an important partner.

Even if the recent warming up of Western-Iranian relations will cause a change in the US Central Asia strategy, the limited scope of the US Modern Silk Road initiative still heavily contrasts the global vision of the Chinese 1B1R. Through major investments China aims to greatly enhance both land based and seaborne transport infrastructure on the Eurasian and African continents. In doing so it intends to secure and expand its exports. It is a demonstration of China’s ambition to be a global power.

In a way this reminds me of the German Weltpolitik of the early 20th century, which was an open declaration of global ambitions by the then German Empire to cut out its very own ‘place in the sun’. But whereas the German Weltpolitik focused on military might, China’s 1B1R has more benign trade in mind. Speaking of Germans, the personnel NATO had stationed in Termez was mainly German. In the streets people often asked me “Germania? Germania?”. In a small shop a women informed me that a Snickers would cost me “drei tausend” Uzbek Som. It’s not a place under the sun but having you language spoken on the banks of the Amu Darya is no small feat.