Just east of Termez, on the second most fortified border in the world, is the ironically named “Friendship Bridge” which has linked the two countries of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan since 1982. Built during the peak of the Soviet-Afghan War, it is the only crossing on the Afghan-Uzbek border. This spot was chosen specially due to the enduring stability of the banks on the Amu Darya (Oxus) River at this location, which was also noticed by the ancient Bactrian empire who recognized the crossing’s strategic importance. A sunken 4th century fortress on the Uzbek side was known to Soviet archeologists who were forced to rush to excavate the site in the months just before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. What wasn’t crushed by Red Army tanks in 1979 was destroyed during construction of bridge in 1982.
The area of modern Termez has been known for thousands of years as an ideal place to cross the Oxus. As the river winds its way through Central Asia, it is prone to shifts its channel within the floodplain. Therefore, any point which maintains stability would have obvious strategic importance. Termez gets its name from a combination of languages that refer to this point on the Oxus as “a place of transition” (tara-maiθa – old Iranian), and “on the river bank” (taramato – Sanskrit).
The stable crossing point gave rise to a city, which was conquered by Alexander the Great in the year 329 BC. The Greeks built fortifications along the right bank of the Oxus and named the city Demetrius as it would continue to be known during the days of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The area around Termez continued to be important as the crossing point for travelers along the Great Silk Road for centuries as the meeting point for the ancient World’s great civilizations. The city thrived as a center of Buddhism, and then as a center of Islam until the 12th century when it was totally destroyed by Genghis Khan.
Amir Timur also recognized the stability of the banks of the river near Termez and set up the first known crossing of the Oxus by way of pontoons. This enabled him to tax traffic crossing the river, and provided a much needed period of economic growth and prosperity to a city that was still struggling from the destruction of the Mongol invasion. The city continued to be an important crossing point on the river, but by the 19th century not much was left. A military base and river port were built by Imperial Russia in 1893, and during Soviet Times the town grew into a regional administrative center and important border outpost.
The need for a permanent crossing of the Amu Darya at Termez was realized in 1979 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On December 24th, a massive airlift of soldiers and equipment was flown into Kabul to support a Marxist coup and bolster a strong mujahidin anti-communist resistance. With the war quickly turning into a quagmire, the USSR need a way to quickly cross the river for sending reinforcements and supplies, and for receiving redeploying forces. At 816 meters long, the bridge constructed by Soviet engineers connected Termez, to the city of Hairatan on the Afghani side of the border with a two lane road and single-track rail, with multi-span steel trusses.
Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan on the 15th of February, 1989. When the Taliban attacked Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997, the bridge was closed due to concerns about Afghan instability spreading across the border into Uzbekistan. Aid supplies were forced to revert to barges for crossing the river at this strategic location, the same method used for thousands of years at this strategic crossing point of the mighty Oxus. The bridge was finally reopened in the winter of 2001/2002 to expedite distribution of humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, and has since become a key logistical supply route for NATO forces. The rail link between Uzbekistan and Mazar-i-Sharif was completed in 2011, and today the crossing is open to regular freight traffic.
The bridge is not open to visitors, and photography of the border zone is strictly forbidden. The closest checkpoint is 2km from the bridge itself, so the best view is from the main road between Termez and and the border checkpoint. Driving back toward the city the bridge with its characteristic white painted steel trusses can be seen in the distance over your left shoulder, but don’t even think about stopping to admire the view.
The storage tanks and apartment buildings of Hairatan are easily spotted on the other side of the river with sand dunes rising in the background. Absorb the view, make a mental note of the contrast between the fertile Surxondaryo oasis of Uzbekistan, and the unforgiving harsh desert landscape of Afghanistan’s Balkh province. Even 2,500 years later, it remains obvious why the Greco-Bactrians thought the right bank of the Oxus was worth protecting.