ALMATY Jan 9 (Reuters) - The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is providing a $196.5 million loan to Kazakhstan to reconstruct and upgrade a stretch of a vital ancient road linking Europe and China, the bank said on Wednesday.
Kazakhstan, the world's largest landlocked country five times the size of France but populated by just 17 million, is Central Asia's biggest economy.
It sorely needs modern transport infrastructure to sustain its fast oil-fuelled growth.
The 62-km (39-mile) part of the road to be modernised between the southern Kazakh town of Shymkent and the border with Uzbekistan has a "symbolic and regional meaning", the EBRD said in a statement.
"For the last three thousand years merchants from Europe to China travelled through Kazakhstan along the Silk Road. Today, the country aims to modernise the same routes to improve trade and regional integration," it quoted Thomas Maier, EBRD managing director for infrastructure, as saying.
The project is part of the upgrading of the Western Europe - Western China international transport corridor linking Europe with China. Once completed, this road will become the shortest road transport link from the Central Asian countries to Europe, the EBRD said.
The whole corridor project is being financed by several international financial institutions which also include the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank.
Since the beginning of operations in Kazakhstan, the EBRD has invested $5.9 billion in 158 projects in the country, the bank said. (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov)