Public interest in learning Chinese is on the rise in Uzbekistan, where many new language schools and courses have been launched to meet growing demand.
Central Asia's first Confucius Institute -- dedicated to promoting Chinese language and culture worldwide -- was established in Tashkent in 2005.
"We never had more than 100 students in our first five years here," said a local official at the institute who declined to give her name. "However, in the past two years the number of enrollment applications has risen three- to fourfold."
The official said more than 350 students have enrolled for the current semester with many businessmen, young professionals, and university students among them.
As the institute prepares to open a second Uzbek branch, many local universities and schools are adding Chinese to their curriculum.
In Tashkent alone at least three major universities -- the School of Oriental Studies, the School of World Economy and Diplomacy, and the World Languages University -- offer extensive classes on Chinese language and culture.
Kumush Rajabiy, 24, moved to the Uzbek capital from the western Kharezm Province to study Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies. She spent a year in Beijing to improve her accent and broaden her knowledge of the language with native speakers.
Like the majority of her fellow students, Rajabiy believes fluency in Chinese will open a world of opportunities for her.
"It is important for my future," Rajabiy says. "There is growing cooperation with China and it is widening our options."
Jobs are scarce and unemployment is widespread in Uzbekistan, where more than one-third of the workforce has left in search of jobs abroad.
Against such a gloomy backdrop, China offers much-desired opportunities for income and career advancement.
China's official Xinhua news agency quotes the Chinese consul to Tashkent, Wang Kaixuan, as saying that more than 410 Chinese companies have been registered in Uzbekistan.
China's Expanding Footprint
China's footprint is evident across the business spectrum, including the energy and agriculture sectors, telecommincations, the textile industry, and construction.
China ranks as Uzbekistan's largest foreign investor (accounting for just over 35 percent of foreign direct investment), and it is the Central Asian country's second-largest trade partner, with trade expected to reach nearly $4 billion this year.
And cooperation is growing. On September 9, a $15 billion package of bilateral trade agreements involving Uzbekistan's lucrative oil, gas, and uranium sectors was signed by Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Tashkent.
China is also investing in education projects. Beijing provides 120 scholarships a year for Uzbek students to study at Chinese universities. Earlier this year, China's Shanghai University opened a research and exchange center in Uzbekistan.
A recent report by EUCAM
, an EU-funded organization that monitors the implementation of the bloc's strategy for Central Asia, predicted that by 2030 members of Central Asia's upper class will be more likely to communicate among themselves in English and Chinese than in Russian.
Erkin Umarbekov, a Chinese-language instructor at the World Languages University, says the interest in Chinese in Uzbekistan "could already be compared to English and other European languages, such as French."
"Knowing Chinese is good especially if you are looking for job. There are many Chinese and joint [Chinese-Uzbek] companies who are looking for people who can speak the language."
Umarbekov adds that he has many private students who visit him twice a week to learn Chinese.
"Parents bring their children to private lessons because they see it as an investment in their futures," he says.
Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Khurmat Babajanov