Refurbishment of the Silk Road in Azerbaijan

By Axel  Reiserer

Refurbishing the Silk Road in Azerbaijan

The EBRD is funding the refurbishment of the Silk Road in Azerbaijan. The new road will be not only safer, faster and less congested; it will also accelerate international trade flows between Asia and Europe.

In more poetic times it was known as Azerbaijan’s section of the Silk Road. The 501 kilometres of road stretching from the capital Baku to the border with Georgia are part of the wider link that connects Asia with Europe. Explorers, traders, adventurers and, every so often, armies travelled the road whose beginnings can be traced back to China in the second century BC.

Marco Polo, the great Italian explorer, wrote of his journeys along the Silk Road: “When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason – falling asleep or anything else – he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travellers have got lost and died because of this.”

This was some 800 years ago. In our more sober modern times the road became known as “the intestine of Azerbaijan”: a seemingly endless stretch of asphalt in increasing degrees of decomposition, hastily built, poorly maintained and cracking under the strain of heavy Soviet trucks and extreme weather conditions. Not far outside Baku the road takes a turn to the West and for seemingly endless miles runs straight through a desert. Marco Polo’s words come to mind: “Whatever you do, never stray from the path.”

Refurbishment for the modern age

The refurbishment of the Silk Road in Azerbaijan is one of the country’s strategic projects. It will allow the country to intensify its links to international trade flows between Asia and Europe. One already encounters trucks from Turkey, Germany and Sweden on the route. The new road will also make domestic traffic easier and faster, important since car ownership and traffic levels are increasing rapidly.

Better conditions – and a severe crackdown on speeding – will also make driving much safer and more comfortable. In fact, it has become so good that some are almost disappointed: “It is somewhat boring. In the old days the road was so bad that you used to bang your head permanently. Now you can sleep in the car, everything is so quiet and smooth. All the adventure has gone,” says Vugar Aliyev.

EBRD funds and monitors the project

But he has only himself to “blame”: Mr Aliyev works as an engineer with the international consultancy Scott Wilson which has been helping the local construction company Azerinsaat with its part of the 75 kilometre leg between Hajigabul (outside Baku) to Kyurdamir in central Azerbaijan. He may, however, also “blame” the EBRD. The Bank is financing the construction of this section with a US$ 41 million loan. “If it were not for the EBRD, this project would never have happened,” Mr Aliyev believes. “The Bank provided more than the finance. It has also worked closely with local experts and we have all benefited from this open exchange of knowledge.

Finally, the EBRD has monitored the project very closely, from the beginning to the very end. Now that’s what I call cooperation.” The contract was tendered by Azerbaijan’s road authorities. The Italian construction company Todini won the contract for 30 kilometres with the balance of the work undertaken by Azerinsaat. Constructing or refurbishing a road may seem a pretty straightforward job: ground works, insulation, asphalt. In addition, the stretch between Baku and Kyurdamir involves widening the road as well as junctions, roundabouts and four bridges. In reality, however, it is a more complex task.

Elchin Ibrahimov explains: “We have had consultancy meetings with all local people living along the 75 kilometres we constructed. We agreed with their suggestions and requests as much as possible.” Mr Ibrahimov was working as a public relations manager to accompany the construction project. The task was not to impose the new road on the population, but to make people feel part of the project. “This has meant one additional bus stop here, one additional junction there.” It seems to have worked, thinks Mr Ibrahimov: “Now everybody is happy.”

Huge cuts in travel time

The main reason for this is no doubt the huge travel improvements. The journey time from Baku to Kyurdamir has been cut from two hours to less than one hour and a half. Kyurdamir, though not known as the most enticing place in the country, is an important stopover between the Azerbaijan which inds around the Caspian Sea and the Azerbaijan which is hewed into the Caucasian mountains. Melons and chicken are the two most important agricultural products of the region. Traders used to line the old road, offering up their delicacies, and they are already starting to re-occupy their old places. “We have widened the hard shoulders to improve safety”, says Mr Aliyev. “But this is a market economy and we won’t shut the people away.”

Travellers are well advised to accept the offer. After all, the best chickens in the world come from this region and they are what makes famous chicken tabaka so delicious. For the unitiated, chicken tabaka is flattened chicken, so flat that it looks like it’s been run over by a truck. But it is absolutely delicious. Now that travellers can save time on a new road they will be able to double their pleasure by spending more time on a special meal.