Tatarstan, a crossroads of civilizations, religions, nations and cultures, lies on a geographical cornerstone between Europe and Asia.
Heart of the Golden Road in the last millennium, it is now the landmark and centre stage of the new Silk Way. If the Silk Way Rally, one of the world’s top road races and the ultimate training ground for the Dakar rally, has chosen to start in Kazan, it is because Tatarstan symbolises the essence of a journey between two continents, the melting pot of everything that lives around. Tatarstan has also been a key territory for a new monumental civil engineering project: a new international land corridor between Western Europe and Western China. The 21st century Silk Road is under construction. Tatar Prime Minister Roustam Minnikhanov is well aware of the importance of the Corridor and, as one of the top Truck drivers in the World, has lobbied intensively for the rally to start in Kazan; “Tatarstan is a republic which produces cars. We have always supported all initiatives that are associated with motor vehicle production and automobile racing. This racing definitely gives a major boost for the investment attractiveness of Tatarstan, it helps to develop its auto industry and to improve contacts between our brotherly countries”. Inhabited by a majority of Tatars, mainly Muslims, in this Russian republic a third of the population is ethnic Russian, attending Orthodox churches, often built meters away from Mosques. The ethnic mix is huge. Over the centuries, Tatarstan has been invaded and absorbed by empires or dominant political centers like Great Bulgaria, the Khazars, Volga Bulgaria, Kipchaks, Mongols, the Golden Horde or the Khanate of Kazan. This mixture is visible in people’s faces and behaviour. Tolerance is a major maxim in Tatarstan. For locals, tourists and road professionals, it’s an open door to new journeys and destinations. “The road is OK, but there are, of course, some bad parts. We wish to improve it. If our roads were better, we could maybe even drive all the way to China,” says one truck driver. In Tatarstan, some roads are being widened from 2 to 4 lanes along with the bridge over the Kama River. Some other sections are being built from scratch. The transport route joining Saint-Petersburg – Kazan – Orenburg – Aktobe – Almaty and Korgas is historical. It has connected the Volga region with the states of Central Asia since the Middle Ages. It needed serious work to meet the modern safety, comfort and mobility requirements. The Chinese side is almost finished and Kazhakstan has requested international funding and European help to improve its connections to China and Tatarstan. Avtostrada is the public-private partnership in charge of the Russian side of this corridor. Euronews spoke to its Deputy Director General, Nail Shaikhutdinov; “Our part of the road begins from the bridge crossing of the river Kama – the greatest Russian river. There is an interchange behind us. The Baltika-West China transport corridor, of course, begins in Russia, and then it crosses Kazakhstan and China. In total, it connects three countries. It’s clear. Where the road is, there is movement and there is life. It is an axiom.” Life is already burgeoning in the areas crossed by the corridor, inspiring people to start new journeys, and companies to open new trade routes. The Corridor is also the connection to other north-south routes in neighbouring countries. “Economically, there will be probably more cargoes passing along this route. Socially, it will be more comfortable and an easier drive for the population. I very much welcome and support this project,” says another road user. Russia is building or widening 3000km of highways. The whole route from one end to the other will be over 10000 km long. The whole project should be over in 2015, at least on the Russian side. All other major road works in Central Asia to connect this corridor to their main networks have been scheduled, opening a vast choice of routes like the ones Marco Polo took, which formed the ancient and well-known Silk road. For the local population, often mixed and spread across vasts expanses, the road is a key element to improving their lives. The improvements certainly seem to be welcome if these two driver’s opinions are typical; “Before I travelled through Naberezhnye Chelny. The distance is the same. But that road is very busy. Here I’m just resting. It took 4-4,5 hours, and now – only 3-3,5 hours.” “This bridge helps a lot. We have suffered without it before. There was a river crossing. The second line has to be opened. Maybe we will have it for the Student Olympics in 2013.” 2013 is the scheduled date for the new Silk Way to open in Tatarstan. It is also the year chosen to hold the Universiade, the University Olympics that will boost Kazan as the Sports capital of Russia. The republic, already a rallying landmark is an oil-rich region. Tatarstan’s future as an oil, sport, and commercial crossroads seems assured. The future looks bright for this growing melting pot of east and the west, Europe and Asia.