National Geographic

The New Silk Road Is Made Of Iron

Alex Webb has a rather distinct beat. "For thirty-some years as a photographer," he is quoted by Magnum Photos, "I have been intrigued by borders, places where cultures come together, sometimes easily, sometimes roughly." His most recent story in National Geographic magazine fits right into that description. "The New Silk Road" holds a lens over the Southern Caucasus in Eastern Europe — a buffer zone between Europe and Asia — and a railroad that will reshape its fate.

  • A concrete statue stands above Kars, Turkey, part of a monument of goodwill toward nearby Armenia that may never be completed. The tenuous relationship between Turkey and Armenia has made railroad construction a delicate matter.
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    A concrete statue stands above Kars, Turkey, part of a monument of goodwill toward nearby Armenia that may never be completed. The tenuous relationship between Turkey and Armenia has made railroad construction a delicate matter.
    Alex Webb/National Geographic
  • A promenade along the Caspian Sea attracts residents of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Increased oil production has enriched the nation; there are hopes that the new railroad will spur exports.
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    A promenade along the Caspian Sea attracts residents of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Increased oil production has enriched the nation; there are hopes that the new railroad will spur exports.
    Alex Webb/National Geographic
  • Rusting oil pumps and obsolete equipment from the Soviet era pollute the horizon outside of Baku. Azerbaijan is still in its infancy as an independent nation, having received independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
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    Rusting oil pumps and obsolete equipment from the Soviet era pollute the horizon outside of Baku. Azerbaijan is still in its infancy as an independent nation, having received independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
    Alex Webb/National Geographic
  • When Armenia and Azerbaijan fought for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in the early 1990s, many Azerbaijanis fled their homes and left their cars. Their license plates, seen as trophies of victory, now line roadside walls.
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    When Armenia and Azerbaijan fought for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in the early 1990s, many Azerbaijanis fled their homes and left their cars. Their license plates, seen as trophies of victory, now line roadside walls.
    Alex Webb/National Geographic
  • An Azerbaijani refugee huddles in his Baku home beneath a picture of his late wife. When ethnic Armenians won control of the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, nearly 800,000 Azerbaijanis fled. Allied with Turkey, Azerbaijan has also made efforts to exclude the Christian Armenia.
    Hide caption
    An Azerbaijani refugee huddles in his Baku home beneath a picture of his late wife. When ethnic Armenians won control of the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, nearly 800,000 Azerbaijanis fled. Allied with Turkey, Azerbaijan has also made efforts to exclude the Christian Armenia.
    Alex Webb/National Geographic
  • Georgians make the morning commute from the capital, Tbilisi, to jobs in nearby Rustavi in the existing railway's faded cars. In Georgia, work is scarce. A new railroad could change that.
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    Georgians make the morning commute from the capital, Tbilisi, to jobs in nearby Rustavi in the existing railway's faded cars. In Georgia, work is scarce. A new railroad could change that.
    Alex Webb/National Geographic

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The Southern Caucasus is a strip of land between the Black and Caspian Seas; in a strategic position below Russia, east of Turkey and north of Iran. It is Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia — and for centuries has been a hotbed of political strife. But now, more than ever, its location is key economically. Geographically, it connects the oil-rich Caspian Sea region with Turkey and beyond to Europe. But transportation has traditionally been thwarted by inhospitable mountains and border closures.

It's hard to say how the railroad will affect, say, the poor people of Georgia who are clamoring for railroad work — or the country of Armenia, which has been intentionally excluded from construction plans. Without a doubt, it will throw a new wrench in the region's incredibly complex history of diplomacy. But change is under way in this border region. The railroad should be completed by 2012. See more of Webb's photos on ngm.com or on Magnum's site.

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