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Heat, Dust and Pestilence

Ashkhabad - Heat, Dust and Pestilence
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

The reception began at nine, and we were all very punctual. Madame Kuropatkin makes a charming hostess, and quite won the hearts of the gentlemen by her grace of manner and sweet smile. The scene soon became a brilliant one as officer after officer came in, each covered with decorations.

J.T. Woolrych Perowne, of a party given by the Governor-General in Ashkhabad, 1898

Unrest and disturbances in the Transcaspian provinces have led to the gradual transformation of this area, especially Ashkhabad, into a major, unquestionably dangerous centre of revolutionary activity.

Memo from the Governor-General of Turkestan to the War Minister in St Petersburg, 1905

ASHKHABAD, WHICH MEANS in Arabic 'lovely settlement', is situated where the Kopet Dagh mountains meet the Kara Kum desert, thirty miles from the Iranian border. Four-fifths of Turkmenistan, of which Ashkhabad is the capital, is covered by the Kara Kum, or Black Sands, where temperatures of 78 degrees centigrade (172 degrees Fahrenheit) have been recorded, and the city has a reputation for heat and dust. However, the clever use of water enabled wheat, cotton, grapes and melons to be grown there even in antiquity. For the inhabitants had adopted a system of irrigation called kyariz, probably invented in ancient Persia, whereby a chain of wells is linked by underground canals, and melt-water from the mountains transported over long distances with the minimum of evaporation. The construction work was very skilled, and it has been estimated that one man would only complete two of these subterranean systems in his lifetime. Some are still in use today.

The strategic position of Ashkhabad at the western end of Central Asia, where caravan routes from Merv, Khiva, Bokhara and Samarkand converged before crossing the mountains into either Persia or Afghanistan, meant that it changed hands many times. Prosperous in times of stability, it was also regularly despoiled by invaders. At one time part of the empire of Alexander the Great, it later belonged to the Parthians, whose ruined city of Nissa can be visited nearby. After being a Persian-speaking city for hundreds of years, Ashkhabad became Turkic in the eleventh century when the Seljuks conquered much of Central Asia, as well as the area covered by present-day Anatolia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and parts of the Caucasus. But even this mighty empire fell eventually, and the beginning of the thirteenth century saw the arrival of a terrifying new invader, the most destructive and cruel the world had ever seen. Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes sacked all the rich and flourishing oases of the region, raping, pillaging and slaughtering as they went. By the time they had finished with Ashkhabad there was not a living creature left, and the city had disappeared into a rubble of earthen bricks.

When the Tsar of Russia ordered his troops to colonize Transcaspia in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, they found nothing in this vicinity but a ramshackle native village next to a large hillock. The Turcomans said their settlement was called 'Ashkhabad'. The soldiers built a fort on the mound in 1881 and then continued with their expansion into the desert and steppe, followed by military engineers who were laying a railway. It was not until the 1960s that Soviet archaeologists discovered that 'Fortress Hill', behind the Turkmenistan Hotel, was in fact the remains of an ancient city, going back at least 2,500 years.

The British watched with disquiet as the settlement of Ashkhabad was fortified by Russia. Their worries were not so much commercial as strategic, however, for Russia's rapid annexation of first Turkestan and now Transcaspia had brought the Tsar's huge empire a thousand miles closer to the jewel in Britain's imperial crown - India. The prodigious rate of Russia's expansion into Central Asia made some observers in London and Calcutta wonder whether India itself was not the Tsar's ultimate goal, and the construction of the new railway line through Ashkhabad from the Caspian seemed an ominous confirmation of this fear. For a glance at the map showed that it was heading straight for the Afghan frontier. Afghanistan had always been regarded as the key to India, the gateway through which every conqueror had passed, and Britain had done her best to keep it within her 'sphere of influence'. In this jittery atmosphere a sudden crisis erupted on the river Kushk in the wilds of northern Afghanistan in April 1885, when the British caught the Russians wresting a slice of the Pamirs from the Afghan army.

The Penjdeh Incident, when Britain and Russia very nearly came to blows after the Russian commander deliberately provoked the Afghans into a fight in order to justify snatching some more territory, caused a sensation around the world. Newspaper headlines were soon predicting: ENGLAND AND RUSSIA TO FIGHT, and IT IS WAR. In the event war was averted and a compromise arranged, but Russia was soon pressing on hastily with the building of the railway while Britain was preoccupied with a general election, and the first train steamed into Ashkhabad in December of the same year. Only eighteen months later the line had been completed all the way to Samarkand - an amazing technical feat, but also a political Jaif accompli. In London and Calcutta a host of commentators assailed the public with their often conflicting views on the nefariousness or otherwise of Russian intentions. One man who was determined to see for himself was the Honourable George Curzon, MP, the future Viceroy of India. With great persistence he managed to get a permit to travel the 900-mile length of the new military railway, and set out from London in September 1888. The 477-page book which resulted, in which he assessed the threat to India, contains a wealth of eyewitness information on Central Asia and remains a classic to this day.

Ashkhabad, Curzon found, was 'a large and flourishing place', although it was barely nine years old, with a railway station of European proportions. He was courteously received by the Gover-nor-General, General Komarov, and had 'an interesting conversation' with this gentleman who only three years before had brought their countries to the brink of war. For it was Komarov who at Penjdeh had goaded the Afghans into attacking his Cossacks. He struck Curzon as an unlikely figure for a Commander-in-Chief: bald, stout and bespectacled, his passions were archaeology and beetles, and he reminded the Englishman 'of a university professor dressed up in uniform'. Although politically opposed to Russia, Curzon always got on famously with individual Russians, whose 'frank and amiable manners' he found disarming. Indeed, he felt that Englishmen and Russians had a good deal in common: 'a unity of qualities that make for greatness, viz. self-reliance, pride, a desperate resolve, adventur-ousness, and a genius for discipline'.

Nonetheless, Curzon had no illusions over Ashkhabad's strategic significance nor over Komarov's role there. But although primarily a garrison town, Ashkhabad had begun to attract people from all over the Russian empire who hoped to make a better living in the New South:

Ashkhabad has a printing-press, a photographic establishment, and European shops and hotels. The houses are for the most part of one storey, and are freely bedaubed with white. A small fortified enceinte supplies a reminder of the days, not yet ten years gone by, when the Russians were strangers and suspects in the land. In the centre of the town is an obelisk erected in memory of the artillerymen who were killed in the siege and capture of Geok-Tepe, and at its base are planted the Afghan guns which were captured in the skirmish on the Kushk. The town is a purely Russian settlement, though the business quarter has attracted a large number of Armenians, Persians and Jews. City life is avoided by the Turcomans, who prefer the tented liberty of the steppe.

Curzon, Russia in Central Asia, 1889

However, the appointment - two years after Curzon's visit -of General Kuropatkin to succeed Komarov brought Ashkhabad's cosmopolitan days to a swift end. Kuropatkin, who as Skobelev's Chief-of-Staff had masterminded the defeat of the Turcomans at Geok-Tepe, was determined to keep Transcaspia 'Russian'. In an otherwise favourable profile of him in January 1898, after he had been promoted to War Minister, The Times said: 'One of his least commendable actions was to turn out all the Polish railway engineers, Persians, Armenians and other unorthodox Russian subjects engaged on the line, and introduce real Russians in their places.' If Kuropatkin believed that a Russian Ashkhabad would be more loyal to the Tsar than a cosmopolitan one, he was in for a rude shock, but this still lay in the future.

As Curzon had pointed out, Ashkhabad had no 'old town', the local population being nomadic, but by the 1890s it had two distinct districts. The smart end of town was around the fortress, in front of which a spacious esplanade had been laid out for military parades (later renamed Karl Marx Square). The broad streets were bordered by small canals and planted with plane trees, maples and cypresses. The Officers' Assembly Hall was surrounded by pleasant gardens and fountains, and a band played there on Sundays. The select Bicycle Club was the hub of civilian social life. Further north, however, the main east- west thoroughfare was the old caravan road, and here the air was choked with dust from the carts, camel-trains and droshkies, or horse-drawn cabs. Beyond this main road lay the impressive railway station, the centre of the commercial district. In 1898 an American businessman named John Bookwalter, who spent three months on an extensive fact-finding tour of Russia, described Ashkhabad as 'a beautiful town of considerable size'.

Like all new Russian towns in these regions, it has wide, well-paved streets, and beautiful avenues of trees, with a stream of running water on either side of the streets. Having an abundance of water, supplied by a stream descending from the adjacent mountains, most of which is used for irrigation, Ashkhabad has become the centre of a large and highly productive agricultural region. Fruits of all kinds grow here in the greatest profusion, grapes especially being of the most extraordinary size and quality. Besides all the cereals that grow and develop here, cotton is being grown in considerable quantities. The quality is fairly good and the yield very heavy.

Bookwalter, Siberia and Central Asia, 1899

An Englishman who travelled to Ashkhabad in considerable style at about the same time was Mr J.T. Woolrych Perowne, who arrived with his wife and twenty-three companions on the first Cook's Tour of Transcaspia. The Russians rose magnificently to the occasion: a telegram of welcome from the Governor-General of the province (the redoubtable Kuropatkin) was awaiting them in Krasnovodsk, together with a special train for their exclusive use, and two charming young officers to act as their guides. When the train arrived in Ashkhabad, via Geok-Tepe where the Turcomans had made their last stand, one of Kuropatkin's aides-de-camp was waiting on the platform, and the gentlemen of the party were whisked off in droshkies for an immediate audience with the Governor-General. 'As we tore through the streets, wide and planted with avenues of trees,' wrote Perowne later, 'I wondered what sort of a man we should find in General Kuropatkin. Fresh as we were from Geok-Tepe, we could not forget that we were about to call on Skobolev's Chief-of-Staff . . But Perowne, like Curzon before him, was won over by the innate friendliness of the Russian character. After a cordial exchange of courtesies, and an invitation to a reception in their honour that evening, the English party was taken on a conducted tour of Ashkhabad.

In his book Russian Hosts and English Guests in Central Asia Perowne describes the town and its surroundings:

Ashkhabad is situated on the level plain at the foot of the Kopet Dagh, which is distant about eight miles away. This range, running north-east and south-west, rises from eight to eleven thousand feet above the sea level and forms a most picturesque background to the town. Those of us who had been in India at once saw the resemblance of the place to an ordinary Indian cantonment . . . Quite a large European town has sprung up since the fall of Geok-Tepe.

After visiting the cathedral and various schools, they were taken outside the town to see the Botanical Gardens, a journey which gave them their first taste of the desert:

Our route lay over the wide plain, and four of our droshkies raced abreast over the hard even ground. On our left near us were the Steppes, a swelling of the ground before the mountains proper beyond rise sheer out of the plain. On our right stretched the limitless plain, dotted here and there with trees and kibitkas - a wonderful scene for those who now gazed upon it for the first time . . . We halted to examine an encampment of Tekkes, now serving as militia in the Russian army. We entered one of the kibitkas or tents; they are circular dome-roofed structures, with a hole in the top for the smoke. The walls are about six feet high, and the circumference about twenty yards. The walls are of lattice-work inside, covered with reed matting on the outside. The roof, supported by bent sticks, is covered with felt, which the Turcoman women make.

In the evening they attended a glittering reception chez the Kuropatkins, and then went on to a ball at the Bicycle Club, where several of the Englishmen became 'hopelessly entangled in the mysteries of a mazurka'. Perowne wisely remained a spectator. Next day a mock battle was staged for their entertainment outside the town, between Cossacks and Turcoman Militia. The piece de resistance was a double cavalry charge, when the Cossacks and Turcomans, their sabres flashing in the sunlight, galloped at full speed at each others' lines, passed through, wheeled and charged again. 'The effect of these double charges was most thrilling,' wrote Perowne. The Russians certainly made sure their guests had a memorable day. Luncheon, served in a large tent, was the occasion for considerable conviviality:

A royal repast was waiting for us, the courses were seemingly interminable, and included two sheep roasted whole close by in trenches. Nothing seemed to be too good for us, the officers in their courtesy waiting on us. Imagine an English Brigadier waiting on Russian tourists! General Kuropatkin proposed in a few words of French the health of our Queen, and the band played our National Anthem, which was received with loud cheers and drinking of our health. But when I proposed in few and halting phrases the health of the Tsar, the enthusiasm was immense, and all the crowd joined in the magnificently sonorous Russian hymn . . . An atmosphere of good fellowship rapidly spread between English and Russian.

Quite why the Russians took so much trouble over this group of wealthy but not very important travellers remains a mystery. Perhaps if you were condemned to living in a remote backwater like Ashkhabad, the arrival of twenty-five congenial foreigners was simply a good excuse for a few parties. At any rate, Perowne and his friends parted from the jolly Russians 'much impressed by the nature of our reception - for had we been minor Royalties, to say nothing of a political mission, the authorities could hardly have done more for us'.

A later visitor, Michael Shoemaker, provides a grim postscript to this era. Writing about Ashkhabad in his book The Heart of the Orient, he relates:

Around the place will forever hang the memory of that dreadful visitation of cholera, years since. Some of the scenes, though terrible, were romantic, and one could have been taken as the original of Poe's Mask of the Red Death. The pestilence was supposed to have passed on its way, after leaving its five thousand dead. General Kuropatkin, in very desperation at the gloom, concluded on the Emperor's birthday to give a banquet. Gay was the event, but before another sun had set, nearly every soul who had attended was dead. The cholera had returned, and each and all, from the highest guest to the most humble musician, had bowed before its awful presence. Six hundred soldiers perished with the pestilence.

There must have been many more victims in the dust and heat of down-town Ashkhabad, where life was very different from the glittering round of balls and banquets centred on the Governor-General's residence and the Club. Still, the townsfolk had by the turn of the century a cinema, two newspapers and a thriving commercial life. A number of workshops and small factories began to appear, and trade was much easier now there were roads and the railway. In 1904 a municipal coat-of-arms was drawn up for the town incorporating, appropriately enough, a camel caravan and a railway train. But Ashkhabad also had its share of the alienated who, throughout Russia, were forming covert republican - if not downright revolutionary - groups. By the time of the abortive revolution in St Petersburg in 1905, the revolutionary socialists had an underground organization in Ashkhabad which had succeeded in fomenting sufficient unrest in the area to cause the authorities serious concern.

The hard core of disaffection was to be found among the railway workers imported from central Russia after Kuropatkin's russification edict. This considerable body of men, whose unenviable task was the constant maintenance of remote railway tracks in the blistering desert, lived together as a tightly knit group. Their rough manners and appearance made them feared and shunned by the bourgeoisie and peasants alike, and not just in Central Asia. Chekhov describes in several of his stories how these 'ragged fellows' would come into the towns or villages on feast-days, drinking, swearing, stealing and harassing the women. In Ashkhabad, as elsewhere, they were fertile ground for propaganda. But this dangerous undercurrent, so soon to erupt, was not apparent to the casual visitor. The writer Stephen Graham, who passed through Ashkhabad in May 1914, had already spent many years in Russia learning the language and mixing with students, peasants and pilgrims, yet his description of the town on a summer night is purely lyrical:

We reached Ashkhabad, the first great city of Turkestan, about eleven o'clock at night, and its platform presented an extraordinary scene. The whole forty-five minutes of our stay it was crowded with all the peoples of Central Asia - Persians, Russians, Afghans, Tekkes, Bokharans, Khivites, Turcomans - and every one had in his hand, or on his dress, or in his turban roses. The whole long pavement was fragrant with rose odours. Gay Russian girls, all in white and in summer hats, were chattering to young officers, with whom they paraded up and down, and they had roses in their hands. Persian hawkers, with capacious baskets of pink and white roses, moved hither and thither; immense and magnificent Turcomans lounged against pillars or walked about . . . they too held roses in their fingers. I walked out into the umbrageous streets, where triple lines of densely foliaged trees cast shadow between you and the beautiful night sky; in depths of dark greenery lay the houses of the city, with grass growing on their far-projecting roofs, with verandahs on which the people sleep, even in May. But they were not asleep in Ashkhabad. I stopped under a poplar and listened to the sad music of the Persian pipes. In these warm, throbbing, yet melancholy strains the night of north Persia was vocal - the night of my May Day.

I returned to the station and bought a large bunch of pink and white roses and, as the second bell had rung, got back to my carriage, laid my plaid and my pillow, and as the train went out I slipped away from the wonderful city - to a happy dream.

Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 1916

Shortly after this the First World War broke out and Britain and Russia, no doubt to the bemusement of their soldiers, found themselves fighting on the same side. Ashkhabad was to take on an unexpected importance during the war, for Turkey joined in on Germany's side and proclaimed a Muslim Holy War against the Allies. German agents were soon stirring up trouble in Persia and Afghanistan - uncomfortably close to Transcaspia, where a European war was already unpopular with the local Muslims. If this were not enough, revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, and the Allies' eastern front began to waver as Russia's peasant-soldiers slipped back to their villages so as not to miss out on any land distribution. After the Bolshevik coup d'etat and the signature in Brest-Litovsk of a peace treaty with the enemy, the ragged remnants of the once proud army of the Tsar streamed home to European Russia, leaving the Allies with a colossal hole in their defences.

Chaos now reigned in the Caucasus and Central Asia, some parts of which were in the hands of the Bolsheviks, others in those of rival socialist groups, while yet others had set up anti-revolutionary governments which appeared to be still loyal to the Allies. Large numbers of Austro-Hungarian prisoners who had been interned in Central Asia were now abandoned by their Russian captors (see tashkent) and were free to re-form themselves into a fighting force. The Allies feared that they might join up with the Turks, who were now moving east towards the Caspian to fill the vacuum left by the departing Russians, and thus become a serious threat to India. All the towns along the Transcaspian railway had been taken over by the truculent navvies, who belonged to various revolutionary groupings. Ashkhabad was in the hands of the Social Revolutionary (SR) Party, although there were plenty of traditional (White) Russians around, keeping a low profile. To them, no doubt, one revolutionary seemed much like another, but in fact the Bolsheviks were gradually consolidating their power. Although they had been glad to make use of any assorted socialists and republicans in forcing through their coup, by 1918 they felt strong enough to start the systematic extermination of all rival factions.

Tashkent had a particularly ruthless Bolshevik government, who had no compunction in recruiting murderers and other criminals as their hit-men, and who forced large numbers of Austro-Hungarian ex-prisoners to join the Red Army. The Commissars of Tashkent decided to 'deal with' Ashkhabad in the summer of 1918, and dispatched there a Lettish ex-convict named Fralov, together with a bodyguard of one hundred armed Hungarians. On arrival he summarily shot a number of the railwaymen leading the town's SR government, and the others went into hiding as a reign of terror was unleashed. Fralov dispensed 'justice' all day and drank most of the night, often driving round Ashkhabad with a party of shrieking, drunken women, firing his revolver at random. His bodyguard, it seems, were no better and entered into all his excesses with the greatest enthusiasm. But in the end Fralov got his come-uppance. Becoming bored with killing the citizens of Ashkhabad, he travelled down the line to Kyzyl Arvat, incautiously taking his entire bodyguard with him, and leaving a hastily appointed Bolshevik government behind.

As it happened, a British intelligence officer disguised as a Persian trader was passing through Ashkhabad at that moment, on his way to Krasnovodsk. Captain Reginald Teague-Jones got off the train for a breath of fresh air and realized that something was afoot. He wrote in his diary: 'There seemed to be a certain amount of excitement going on in the town and we saw detachments of mounted men moving along the streets. One detachment appeared to be entraining for somewhere and we were told that they were en route to Kyzyl Arvat to impress the population there

As soon as Fralov arrived at Kyzyl Arvat he shot dead three of the railway workers' leaders, and his bodyguard shot indiscriminately into the angry crowd which gathered. A message was quickly passed up the line to Ashkhabad, where the incensed railwaymen marched on their new 'Soviet' and hanged nine Commissars forthwith. Proclaiming a new SR government, they then raided the military stores and distributed several thousand rifles to the populace (including the Turcomans), most of whom had never handled a gun before. Having cut the telegraph line to Kyzyl Arvat, they sent a train loaded with armed men and hidden machine guns down the line to the aid of their comrades. Arriving early in the morning of 12 July, they had the good fortune to find Fralov and his merry men lolling around the station, clearly suffering the after-effects of one of their drunken orgies. In steamed the innocent-looking train: minutes later there was not a single Bolshevik left alive. When word got round, the remaining Bolsheviks along the Transcaspian lway hastily surrendered, from Krasnovodsk to Merv, and th jails were filled to overflowing.

Captain Teague-Jones arrived back in Ashkhabad at this interesting moment, having accomplished a satisfactory piece of anti-German sabotage on the shores of the Caspian. (German agents had arranged for Transcaspia's entire cotton stocks to be diverted to their munitions industry, but the British agent had the ship unloaded and sent off empty.) Teague-Jones, fluent in Russian, German and Persian, adept at disguises and with nerves of steel, might have stepped from the pages of spy fiction, and anyone who wants to know more of his astonishing story should read his memoirs The Spy Who Disappeared. Based in Meshed, in Persia, where the British had hurriedly sent a small military mission when Russia left the war, he spent most of 1918 commuting along the Transcaspian - which he was quite prepared to blow up if necessary - and across the sea to Baku where General Dunsterville and a small British force were helping the populace to hold out against the Turks.

In Ashkhabad Teague-Jones now found himself being introduced to some 'very shady-looking individuals', who turned out to be the leading lights of the new SR government. Hearing that Teague-Jones belonged to the staff in Meshed - for he felt it was now safe to reveal his true identity - the comrades immediately asked if the British could send them some troops to help fend off the Tashkent Bolsheviks, who would be sure to send a revenge force against them. The young officer explained that the task of the Allies was to win the war, and that meant - in this part of the world - blocking any enemy advance into Transcaspia. If the comrades were to help in this, he hinted, the Allies might well help them in return in their struggle against the Bolsheviks. But it was agreed that they should apply formally to General Malleson in Meshed, and Teague-Jones moved on again to Krasnovodsk. What he did not disclose to the Russians was how very few men Malleson and Dunsterville had at their command, in this far-flung corner of the war zone. The Second Battle of the Marne was raging on the Western Front in July 1918, it must be remembered, and the death toll in Europe could already be reckoned in millions.

At Krasnovodsk Teague-Jones jumped on the ferry for Baku, for he desperately needed a map of the harbour and coastal defences. It would be bad enough if the enemy were to gain control of Baku's valuable oilfields, but the British would still do their best to stop them getting across to Transcaspia. On the ferry he met 'rather an attractive little Russian girl, Miss Valya Alexeeva', whose parents lived in Krasnovodsk and who was going to visit her uncle in Baku. Amid all the turmoil and danger, Teague-Jones found time to fall in love, and Valya was later to become his wife. However, having obtained his map, Teague-Jones had to dash back to Transcaspia, leaving Valya behind, for he had heard that the Tashkent Bolsheviks were already sending a revenge force along the railway.

The Ashkhabad government was terror-stricken, for its forces were very few, whereas Tashkent had a seemingly unending supply of well-trained Austro-Hungarians. The Turcoman tribes were an uncertain ally, for although they hated the Bolsheviks, they had been unsettled by Turkish propaganda stressing their common origins, and they were now inclined to hate all Europeans. Still, the Ashkhabad government was in no position to pick and choose, and money and rifles had been handed over to the Turcoman cavalry units. Malleson reluctantly sent a company of the 19th Punjabis along to help, guessing that he would come in for criticism whatever he did. Meanwhile the Transcaspian forces had been attacked by a much larger force of Bolsheviks, and were being steadily beaten back along the railway towards Ashkhabad. Stiffened by the arrival of the Indian machine-gunners and their British officers, they made a stand at a place called Dushakh. The action there was little more than a skirmish, but it was the first time British and Russian troops had actually exchanged fire in Central Asia. When the news got back to Tashkent it was regarded very seriously indeed.

Teague-Jones was wounded in the thigh at Dushakh, possibly by the trigger-happy Turcomans whose shooting from the rear was almost more of a hazard than that of the enemy in front. In Ashkhabad he was nursed back to health by a devoted - and very determined - White Russian girl, Lyubov Mikhailovna, who carried a Colt .32 in her handbag, and kept lists of suspected enemy spies in a notebook.

A formal agreement had by now been entered into by Malleson and the SR government of Ashkhabad, led by Comrade Funtikov, and Teague-Jones was appointed Political Representative. The general aims of the 'protocol' were the establishment of peace and order in Transcaspia and resistance to Turko-German plans to seize control. It was not an easy assignment for the young Englishman. Funtikov, a former engine driver, was illiterate and rarely sober, and the only member of his government who had any education at all was the 'Foreign Minister', a taciturn ex-schoolmaster called Zimin. In the middle of September Baku finally fell to the Turks, and Transcaspia was virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Food and fuel shortages became acute in Ashkhabad, adding to Teague-Jones's already difficult task, but at least there was one consolation. Valya Alexeeva, after a narrow escape from Baku, made her way to Ashkhabad to give her future husband -now hobbling about on crutches - some clerical assistance. How Valya and Lyubov hit it off together Teague-Jones does not disclose in his memoirs, but Valya was clearly a lot less intimidating than her gun-toting rival.

With the end of the First World War in November 1918 the British in Transcaspia began to plan an orderly withdrawal. This was depressing news for the SR government, and for the Turcoman tribes, who knew that they would never be able to hold off the Bolsheviks without British help. After the Armistice, General Malleson came to Ashkhabad on a visit and, to Teague-Jones's joy, brought with him some jolly young staff officers. Although he admitted that to anyone with a sense of humour, the Ashkhabad Mission was 'one big joke', his isolation and constant difficulties had of late been getting Teague-Jones down. Now, with the arrival of 'these cheery lads', his load was lightened and he could once again see the funny side of things.

One of the staff officers, Captain Ellis, later wrote a book, The Transcaspian Episode, in which he recalled the electric atmosphere in Ashkhabad in those days. He was particularly struck by the defiant 'eat, drink and be merry' attitude of the middle classes, whose lives, prosperity and prospects were now in ruins:

Restaurants and cafes were full, and a number of establishments of the cafe chantant type did a roaring business. Ashkhabad possessed no theatre, but several cinemas continued to show old films, many of them American slap-stick comedies and French bedroom farces of the old Max Linder type. Many officials spent long hours in cafes engaged in interminable discussion over glasses of tea or a bottle of cheap Caucasian wine. Russian hospitality needs no special occasion to express itself, being limited solely by means. In Ashkhabad at this time there was no end to private parties; dinners, teas or simply informal gatherings to drink and gossip.

It was difficult to make out what the native community thought of the situation. According to Ellis they spent most of their time wandering about the bazaars on the outskirts of the town, or sipping green tea in the chai-khatias. Although superficially there was nothing abnormal about day-to-day life in Ashkhabad, he noted that 'the atmosphere of the town was tense', and that the various different communities eyed each other with suspicion, if not dislike.

Teague-Jones missed the cheerful presence of Ellis and his companions when they returned to Meshed - 'in ample time to be back home for Christmas and New Year', as he tartly noted -but his own lonely days were drawing to a close. When he left Ashkhabad in the spring of 1919, he was given a rousing send-off by the government and by representatives of the town, the railway workers and even the Turcomans, in appreciation of his untiring efforts to help them. Within a year Ashkhabad was re-captured by the Bolsheviks, and Funtikov, Zimin and the rest were shot.

The Bolsheviks decided to rename the town Poltoratsk, after the Chief Commissar appointed by Fralov who had been hanged by the SR railwaymen when they seized control. But this was a sensitive area, for anyone associated with Fralov was linked in the people's memory with the reign of terror he had perpetrated, and they found it hard to look upon Poltoratsky as a martyr. At all events, in 1927 the town reverted to its ancient name of Ashkhabad. Gradually the proud nomadic Turcomans were collectivized, and their traditional crafts turned into industries. Rugs had been woven by their women since time immemorial, without any need for formalized patterns, for the tribal motifs were simply passed down from mother to daughter. Marco Polo had admired them in the thirteenth century, and they were evidently exported to Europe by the sixteenth for they appear in Italian Renaissance paintings. Now the Communists did away with the traditional mobile looms, along with the tents of their owners, and the Ashkhabad Carpet Factory was set up instead. There used to be a Turcoman saying: Unroll your carpet and I shall see what is written in your heart. Now the women workers were encouraged to draw up politically correct designs in advance. Lenin's face became a particular favourite.

The fur we know as 'astrakhan' - named after the town from which it was traditionally marketed - comes from the karakul sheep of Turkmenistan. The Turcoman word means 'black rose', and every tribesman used to wear a tall black sheepskin hat, or papakha, winter and summer alike. Soviet technology enabled the new Ashkhabad fur industry to produce astrakhan in every shade of grey and brown as well as black. Cotton had always been grown in irrigated areas around the city, and in 1898 Mr Woolrych Perowne had noticed experiments at the Botanical Gardens on various strains of the plant. Now this, too, became a major industry, for the Soviet Union was determined to become self-sufficient in cotton. The first textile factory was begun in 1926, but this - like so much else in Ashkhabad - was destroyed by a severe earthquake which rocked the city in October 1948. The splendid colonnaded station collapsed, along with schools, hospitals, theatres, shops and all the municipal buildings. Over 100,000 people are believed to have perished in what is still known locally as 'The Catastrophe'. By a bitter irony, the architect of one of the few buildings which did not collapse had by then been liquidated by Stalin on the pretext that he was a bad builder.

The construction of the Kara Kum Canal in the early 1960s, diverting water westwards from the Amu-darya - to the progressive detriment of the Aral Sea - solved Ashkhabad's water problems and gave the town an even more verdant appearance, as well as enabling more cotton to be grown. After reservoirs had been built either side of the town, the citizens were introduced to the novel pastimes of bathing and boating in the middle of the Kara Kum desert. But for the Turcoman - still wearing his papakha in the blazing heat of summer - the main recreation is, as ever, to sit inscrutably in one of Ashkhabad's chai-khatias sipping a glass of pale green tea.