Empty Silk Road in northern Afghanistan
Some days there is no train at all crossing the bridge to Uzbekistan, yawns a customs officer in Hairatan, formerly a teeming Silk Road border town whose decline is a barometer of economic depression in Afghanistan's north.
"The camel driver is at work; the caravan is being readied," proclaimed the mystic poet Rumi, born in Balkh province, where Hairatan is located and through which passes one of the routes of the ancient trade network. "He asks why we travellers are asleep."
Eight centuries later, sleep has won in Balkh, and Hairatan sees few travellers -- a situation attributed by local entrepreneurs and politicians to insecurity and the departure of foreign troops.
"Three years ago, you had to wait five or six days for a boat to become free and bring our goods across the river Amu Darya from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. There was a real bottleneck," recalls importer Mohammed Afzal Joya.
"Today there is no longer any boat," he laments in Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city near Hairatan.
"If two freight trains cross the bridge in a day, this is Peru!" adds the chief of the Hairatan rail yard, who does not wish to give his name.
Behind him, trucks marked with Cyrillic characters wait for a hypothetical load.
Hairatan, the only crossing between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, is an ominous bellwether of economic activity in northern Afghanistan.
It is here, and at four other entry points on the borders with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, that construction materials, flour and household products are exported from Central Asia to Afghanistan.
The Afghan economy is in bad shape, its labour market struggling to absorb a young and often unskilled workforce. According to the Labour Ministry, 22 percent of the workforce is unemployed, while 16 percent are in odd jobs.
This is in part because, apart from saffron, some cotton and grapes, war-torn Afghanistan does not produce much else.
And the little it does export is hit with "prohibitive taxes" levied by Central Asian countries, according to the vice president of the Balkh Chamber of Commerce, Mir Abdul Wahab Delsouz.
He accuses Afghanistan's neighbours of "keeping our goods in stations or ports" for fear of competition.
In the end, the overall picture is alarming. "Trade between Central Asia and Afghanistan fell by 60 percent (in 2015) compared to 2010," says Delsouz.
- 'They left' -
The bleak economic prospects have driven thousands of Afghans to make the perilous journey to Europe.
The depression is felt in a Mazar-i-Sharif market, where Hasibullah sells imported flour from Kazakhstan, via Uzbekistan and Hairatan.
"Customers no longer come as they did three or four years ago. People are out of work. They used to buy 50 kilogrammes at once, now it's more like four," he complains.
Entrepreneurs and political leaders agree that the end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan in late 2014 sounded the death knell for the local economy, which had experienced a rebirth with the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
According to Hajji Walid Akbarzada, a building materials importer, development aid has dried up with the departure of the military.
"Before, foreigners had many assistance programs and were building their facilities. But they left and there are no more projects," says the entrepreneur, who brought iron bars and metal products from Uzbekistan.
Turnover fell 70 percent in the last three years and he had to lay off 20 of his 26 employees.
"After 2014 and the NATO withdrawal, the economic situation of the Afghans went down, especially in Balkh," says Delsouz.
"Their incomes went down by 50 percent. The situation is especially dire for students. The government cannot absorb all of those who enter the job market and offer them jobs."
Added to this is insecurity. The 80 kilometre (50 mile) asphalt road leading from Hairatan to Mazar is safe, but the Taliban, who began their annual spring offensive last month, are clashing with Afghan forces throughout the country and especially in the east, where the Islamic State group is also trying to gain a foothold.
To believe Mohammed Eisa Amiri, a former warlord turned importer-exporter, the insecurity has shaken Uzbek merchants, even if it does not touch Hairatan.
"They no longer have confidence in us because of the Taliban and Daesh (Islamic State). They do not want to get involved in Afghanistan," he said.
"If the world continues to ignore Afghanistan, we will return to civil war, as in 1992," he warns, adding with an air of defiance: "I am ready to take up arms again if our region is threatened by the Taliban."