Turkmenistan has begun construction on a multibillion-dollar, cross-country highway project that the gas-rich, largely isolated Central Asian state hopes will help generate more regional trade.
The four-lane highway is projected to link Turkmenistan's capital of Ashgabat, the largest city in Central Asia, to Turkmenabat near the border with Uzbekistan.
The government newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported on January 25 that the artery, expected to cost $2.3 billion when completed, will stretch across some 600 kilometers of desert.
It is hoped the new highway will boost regional trade by linking with another planned artery linking the capital to the port of Turkmenbashi, on the Caspian Sea.
The son of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a deputy regional governor, was on hand for a ceremony to mark the launch of construction on January 25.
Serdar Berdymukhammedov called the highway an example of Turkmenistan's "great support to the private sector, which is developing rapidly in our country."
The road will be constructed by a little-known private company called Turkmen Awtoban, with a loan provided by the national bank.
Commentators says Ashgabat has been eager to invest in transit-related infrastructure in a bid to diversify the economy which is heavily reliant on hydrocarbon revenues.
Turkmen state television said the road construction was intended to build up cargo transit along key trade corridors leading to Europe and the Middle East.
Turkmenistan's manat currency lost a fifth of its value after the collapse of hydrocarbon prices in 2014, while Russian energy giant Gazprom's decision to cease purchasing Turkmen gas at the start of 2016 further hurt the economy.
The move left Turkmenistan even more reliant on demand from China, which last year imported 35 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas via the Central Asia-China pipeline.