On the Road to Samarkand

Posted by Siriana Nair
December 20, 2012
Uzbek Women Pick Cotton

Samarkand, Bukhara, Kabul, Aktau, Dushanbe, Kashgar…the road signs we pass just before leaving the tree-lined streets of Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital city, remind us that we're following the well-worn trails of the ancient Silk Road. At the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Central Asia was once a global center for the exchange of goods, ideas, and people. Today, the region is among the least economically connected areas in the world. I'm visiting Uzbekistan to explore how the United States can help promote what Secretary Clinton has envisioned as a "New Silk Road," restoring transit, trade, commercial, and people-to-people linkages between Central and South Asia, with Afghanistan at its heart.

The idea behind the New Silk Road vision is to use economic engagement to complement gains on the security and political transitions in Afghanistan. By connecting the Afghan economy to more established markets in the region, Afghanistan will become less reliant on international assistance and will be better able to achieve economic growth, prosperity, and long-term stability. Stronger economic ties will benefit Afghanistan's neighbors too, open new markets for U.S. businesses, and help lift millions of people out of poverty.

We head to Navoi, a city of more than 100,000 people in southwest Uzbekistan, to visit a cargo transit and shipment facility. Driving there from the capital of Tashkent takes about seven hours, through miles of freshly harvested cotton fields, and mountains of picked cotton, covered and waiting for transport. This year, with strong encouragement from the United States, the government officially prohibited children under the age of fifteen to pick cotton. However, without the elimination of the system of setting quotas and paying farmers artificially low prices for the cotton they grow, the compelled participation of older children and adults will likely continue. The drive along the empty cotton fields is punctuated only by the occasional deserted fuel station. Luckily, we bought fuel in Tashkent before departing, aware that in winter, gas shortages and long lines at the pump are common.

At lunchtime, we stop just outside of Samarkand, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. The city was established in 700 BC, and we settle into our table with a view of the blue-domed tomb of Tamarlane's wife, rising above the ancient city walls. History is everywhere.

The local restaurant we enter is full of men in fur hats and women wearing colorful headscarves. Many of the men and women have plated their teeth in gold as a display of wealth, and all are in the midst of a joyous "meeting party" in which the extended families of betrothed young people meet for the first time. Both families drink gallons of vodka and dance to a mix of Tupac, Gwen Stefani, and traditional songs, while a videographer records everything for posterity, including me. The atmosphere is rich, and matches the delicious homemade bread, roasted lamb, and potatoes. I'm glad I have a seat at the table.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two part series of entries by Siriana Nair, who recently traveled to Uzbekistan.

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