Frontline: The Silk Route, Uzbekistan: Sordid side of men on the road to history

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TUGLUQ IS not a happy man. He is sitting on his bulldozer in filthy overalls with an oil-stained cap limply stuck to his greasy hair. His huge hands - as filthy as the rest of him - hang inert over his knees. Even his lank, blond moustache looks listless and bored. Around him lie bits of bulldozer engine. Sheep droppings appear to be stuck to the congealed oil on most of them. Rebuilding one of the most romantic roads in the history of the world has its less romantic side.

Tugluq Ahmedullaev and his colleagues, a number of whom are standing, lying or sitting around the broken bulldozer waiting for a spare part to be brought to them, are working on the Silk Route. Last year the foreign minister of their country, the Democratic Republic of Uzbekistan, signed an agreement with a dozen or so other foreign ministers to restore the Silk Route to its former glory - this time as a three-lane motorway.

For countries such as Iran and Turkey - the westernmost of those involved in the project - there is little work to do. Both countries' road systems need little improvement. But for Uzbekistan the demands are enormous. And these demands are primarily made on men such as Tugluq and his unhappy mates stuck in the foothills of the giant Pamir mountain range with a broken-down bulldozer. Unsurprisingly, much of the road that once linked Han- dynasty China with Roman Europe is, 500 years since the last caravan passed along it, in a state of disrepair.

When I ask Tugluq whether he likes his job I get a stream of Uzbek epithets. My Uzbek friend and translator laughs. The road workers are not overjoyed at the moment, he says.

The reasons are many and varied. The workers have a brief argument over which is the biggest problem, the weather, the hours or the pay. The weather seems to win. "In the summer it is 40 degrees centigrade up here, in the winter it's 20 below," says Tugluq. He points to the open cab on the back of the bulldozer and shakes his head miserably. "Rain, snow, blizzards, gales - we are out in it all," he says.

They are out in it for a long time too. The crew works from 7am until it gets dark, around 8pm. There are no holidays and no overtime. The weekly pay varies from 2,000 to 3,000 som - the currency the former Soviet state used to replace the rouble. This is enough to buy about 10 kilograms of poor-quality rice in the market or two beers at Aladdin's - one of the flash nightclubs that have sprung up in Tashkent, the capital, 100 miles away.

All the workers say they have big families to feed and all shout that they have not been paid for two months. The Uzbek epithets stream forth. Once the profanities have been edited my Uzbek friend translates. "It was much better under the Soviets," Tugluq is saying. "Then you knew where you stood. At least we got paid and had proper accommodation and didn't have to worry all the time."

It may be little consolation to Tugluq but he might be even worse off. One stretch of the projected route for the road will run across the shifting deserts of Turkmenistan, where some of the highest temperatures on Earth have been recorded. Another, it is hoped, will run through Tajikistan, where the government actually governs only about half of the state, leaving the rest to squabbling armed gangs. The crew could even be working on the last section of the route - now nearing completion - which climbs high into the Tien Shan, or Celestial, mountains after crossing the endless, open steppes of Kazakhstan. On the steppes in the summer the only real threat is from very big swarms of very small insects. But in the winter the Siberian wind turns the region into a vicious, Arctic tundra.

Tugluq and his colleagues all come from the town of Angren, just visible from the cab of their bulldozer. It is a filthy mining town where pollution and dust hide snow-topped mountains and rolling green, grassy hills. There is little of the romance of the Silk Route here.

But looking the other way some of the mythology seems justified. A herd of shaggy, fat-tailed karakul sheep are driven past by shepherds on horseback, thick-bladed knives in their belts, and lean, rangy dogs snapping around them. Though they are not actually headed to the cities of Samarkand and Bokhara - 300 and 500 miles away respectively - they are at least headed in their general direction. High above, a bird of prey wheels and glides on the thermals, watching for rodents among the tussocky grass. A hundred metres away a group of women, dressed in traditional brightly patterned baggy long shirts and trousers, are trying to flag down traffic to sell the drivers jars of local honey and small, salty balls of dried yoghurt called kurd.

As we talk, Tugluq is told that the spare part he needs is on its way. Nothing will raise his gloom though. Hasn't he heard of the historical heritage of the road that he's rebuilding? "The silk what?" he asks. "No mate, there is no silk round here."

Jason Burke