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The Transcaspian railway

The Transcaspian railway
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

Is this railway the mere obligatory thread of connection by which Russia desires to hold together, and to place in easy inter-communication, her loosely scattered and heterogeneous possessions in Asia; or is it part of a great design that dreams of a wider dominion and aspires to a more splendid goal? Is it an evidence of concentration, possibly even of contraction, or is it a symbol of aggrandizement and an omen of advance?

George Curzon, Russia in Central Asia, 1889

CURZON SUMMED UP, in those words, the uneasy feelings of many Englishmen towards the Transcaspian desert railway, which was planned, built and run by the Russian Ministry of War. The railways of Britain, it must be remembered, were constructed and run by private companies, and the idea of a railway belonging to the government - let alone the Ministry of War -was a cause of grave suspicion in England. Both countries were super-powers by reason of their huge empires, but while Britain's rich possessions such as India were far from home, Russia's were contiguous. First Siberia had been colonized, then the Caucasus had been conquered, Kazakhstan and Turkestan had been quietly absorbed, and now Transcaspia was going the same way. With Central Asia in Russia's pocket, what was to stop her gobbling up Afghanistan, perhaps with the connivance of Persia, and finally relieving England of the jewel in her imperial crown, India itself?

Russia had built a fort at Krasnovodsk as early as 1869, but work on the railway did not begin until 1881. Its object was purely strategic: to carry military supplies across the waterless desert to the Akhal oasis, where Russia was struggling to subdue the Tekke Turcomans. In 1879 General Lomakin had lost 8,(XX) of his 12,000 baggage camels in the Kara Kum desert, and had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the ferocious Turcomans. In the event his successor, General Skobelev, managed to destroy their resistance by his merciless conquest of the Tekke fortress at Geok-Tepe in January 1881, but he had only 350 camels left at the end of the campaign out of his original 12,500. Clearly, some sort of railway was called for if the region were to remain under Russian control.

At first a kind of tramway was envisaged, then an ultra-light railway running on narrow twenty-inch-gauge track. The wagons, it was suggested, could be drawn by horses, for fuel was a daunting problem in this treeless waste. Luckily for Russia, the Comptroller of the Army Transport Department at that time was General Mikhail Annenkov, an energetic and experienced man who had been in charge of transport arrangements in the Russo-Turkish War in 1877. He soon discarded the light railway and set about making plans for a proper system based on the broad five-foot gauge which was usual in Russia, and using locomotives which could run on naphtha. This by-product of crude oil refining was in plentiful supply at Baku, just across the Caspian in Russian Transcaucasia. His engineers would simply have to build plenty of storage tanks along the new line. Annenkov also knew that 100 miles of steel rails were lying around unused, ever since the Congress of Berlin had in 1878 put paid to Russia's plans to colonize the Balkans. He was off to a good start.

The railway which was destined to stretch for 1,000 miles across Central Asia, ultimately linking it with both Russia proper and Siberia, had modest beginnings. The 145 miles to Kyzyl Arvat, at the western end of the Akhal oasis, were completed in December 1881, using a newly recruited railway battalion of 1,500 skilled men. They lived on a special train, which moved forward with the line itself, comprising larder, kitchen, dining-room, ambulance, smithy and telegraph office, as well as sleeping accommodation in two-storeyed dormitory wagons. Another train brought up supplies from base twice a day, including water, for the nearest source of potable water was 110 miles from the Caspian at the tiny oasis of Kazanjik. Every single piece of timber, iron or steel had to be brought from central Russia, usually down the Volga and across the Caspian. Stone for the station buildings had to be quarried in the Persian mountains, but the necessary sun-baked bricks were often removed from old ruins in the vicinity.

The bit now firmly between his teeth, Annenkov began lobbying in St Petersburg for an extension to his line. He went so far as to publish a brochure enthusiastically advocating a line to Herat, in Afghanistan, and even suggesting a junction with the Indian railway system at Quetta. His reasons, admittedly, were commercial, but this was of little comfort to the British who in 1878 had been threatened with a Russian invasion of India from Tashkent during the Russo-Turkish War. A fort had by now been built at Ashkhabad, and Russian officers were making covert reconnaissances of Merv. Anxious British enquiries as to Russian intentions were brushed aside. Officially, there were no plans to extend the railway, or to annex any more of Transcaspia, and certainly none to attack India. Not everyone was reassured.

But for about three years Kyzyl Arvat remained the end of the line, for the railway had its opponents, even within Russia. From Tashkent it was ridiculed by Governor-General Cherniaev, who feared that Transcaspia might eclipse his own province of Turkestan in strategic importance. In St Petersburg many people felt that a new Russian province consisting mainly of sand would simply be a drain on the economy. As it was, Russia had crippling debts to repay to both Germany and France. The new Tsar, in any case, had other matters on his mind. His father had been assassinated in 1881, and he was determined not to suffer the same fate. New repressive legislation was being drawn up to subdue the discontent, sedition and outright terrorism now rife in Russia. However the Penjdeh Incident in April 1885, when Russia annexed a slice of northern Afghanistan and war with Britain seemed inevitable, offered Annenkov his chance. Alexander III gave permission for the railway to be extended towards the Afghan border, and the engineers got swiftly to work. Kyzyl Arvat became the Crewe of the Transcaspian, with foundries, forges and fitting shops filled with gleaming - mostly German - machinery. The first train steamed into Ashkhabad (136 miles from Kyzyl Arvat) on 11 December in the same year, and the line then ran parallel to the Persian frontier as far as Dushak, its most southerly point, before striking north-east to the Merv oasis. Merv, the former 'Queen of the World', had been surreptitiously annexed by Russia in February 1884, leading to anxiety in the British 'Forward School' (the hawks) and quips about Mervous-ness by the proponents of 'Masterly Inactivity' (the doves).

Annenkov had a bungalow built for himself at Merv - he already had one at Kyzyl Arvat - so there was no doubt where the railway was going next. Merv indeed saw its first train in July 1886, but as Curzon said, 'Merv could no more be a halting place than Ashkhabad', and the same year the line proceeded a further 150 miles to Charjui and the Oxus. There were now 650 miles of railway track, and a second railway battalion was recruited from the army. At this point a French engineer travelling in the Caucasus managed, through a lucky introduction, to obtain permission to travel on the new military railway as far as Merv. Edgar Boulangier soon discovered, however, that many people were highly sceptical about the railway's very existence. Even in Russia it was evidently suspected that it was actually just a piece of window-dressing, a sort of Potemkin village on rails, intended to scare off the English. After a comfortless journey to Merv, where he was nonetheless charmed and impressed by General Annenkov, Boulangier returned to the Caucasus and the eager questions of his friends:

Nobody, as I have said, wanted to believe in the Transcaspian. The Russians themselves whom I had the honour to see before leaving the Caucasus, and these were by no means the first, always spoke of it with extreme circumspection. When I returned to Tiflis, I was interrogated at length, and I must say, I had to devote considerable eloquence in order to prove that this railway, regarded as impossible, was not made out of cardboard. If the Russians themselves did not believe, right up to the last minute, in the tour deforce carried out in Central Asia, just imagine what foreign powers would have thought, and how the news that a railway had been opened in Merv, in a reputedly inaccessible Turcoman oasis, would have hit Europe like a thunderbolt!

Boulangier, Voyage a Merv, 1888

In 1888 George Curzon, then a young Member of Parliament, made a long trip to Russian Central Asia, gathering information as he went. There were now 900 miles of railway, terminating at Samarkand. The line was entirely single-track, except at stations, which often incorporated sidings and turning-triangles. The rails used were from nineteen to twenty-two feet long, and 2,000 wooden sleepers were laid per mile. The rails were simply spiked to the sleepers, without chairs or bolts. Native labour was employed for some of the manual work, Turcomans, Persians and Bokharans being used on different sections. Of these the Turcomans were the most highly regarded, for Russia's erstwhile enemies seemed to like the novel idea of regular work and good wages. According to Curzon the Persians were the least popular for, although physically strong, they were considered lazy and cowardly. Because the railway crossed the featureless Kara Kum desert, the engineers could often lay the track in a dead straight and level line. There was no need for tunnels, only the shallowest of cuttings were required, and there were very few rivers to be bridged. The main problem was the sand:

Of the 650 miles which are covered by the railway between the Caspian and the Amu-darya, 200 at least are through a howling wilderness. The sand, of the most brilliant yellow hue, is piled in loose hillocks and mobile dunes, and is swept hither and thither by powerful winds. It has all the appearance of a sea of troubled waves, billow succeeding billow in melancholy succession, with the sand driving like spray from their summits, and great smooth-swept troughs lying between, on which the winds leave the imprints of their fingers in wavy indentations, just like an ebb-tide on the sea-shore.

Curzon, Russia in Central Asia, 1889

Annenkov used various methods to consolidate the sand. Near the Caspian the permanent way was soaked with sea-water or covered with a layer of clay. In the more desolate regions, fences were built next to the line and the sand-hills planted with tamarisk, wild oats and a long-rooted local shrub called saxaoul (Haloxylon ammodendron). Nurseries for desert shrubs were even set up in the Persian mountains. But after a sandstorm there was nothing for it but to send out relief parties with spades and shovels. An even worse hazard, though less frequent, was the flash flood. After the melting of the snows in spring, a sudden torrent could pour down from the Kopet Dagh mountains, tearing up the rails and temporarily turning the desert into a lake. One of these floods occurred at a most inopportune moment. In May 1888, when the Transcaspian railway was officially inaugurated, Annenkov's big moment was marred - and the opening ceremony delayed several hours - when the line was flooded east of Kyzyl Arvat.

By the time the railway battalions reached the Amu-darya, or Oxus, they had developed into highly expert teams who prided themselves on laying at least a mile of track a day, if not a mile and a half. Even Curzon, who was by no means pro-Russian, had to admit that the Transcaspian was probably laid in the shortest time and at the least expense of any railway in the world. However, when the Tsar gave permission in February 1887 for the line to be extended to Samarkand, the engineers were presented with their biggest problem to date: how to bridge the Amu-darya. Only two other rivers had crossed the path of the railway so far - the Tejend and the Murghab - and it had been relatively easy to span these with wooden structures on piles. For neither was very wide, and the banks were high enough to ensure that the bridges were well above the highest water level.

But the width of the Amu-darya varied from half a mile to five miles according to the season, with four different stream-beds at Charjui, separated by three islands. At first a steam ferry was considered, worked by cable, but in the end a wooden bridge in four sections was decided upon. It took seven months to build, under the supervision of a Polish engineer named Bielinsky, and measured 2,000 yards in all. It rested on 3,300 piles, driven very close together into the stream-bed, and appeared to be startlingly high. But although the rails were thirty feet above the water in the dry season, they were only five feet clear of the highest flood level. All the wood required for this mammoth undertaking had to be brought from central Russia. Curzon called the bridge 'an inelegant structure', but remarked that the engineers looked on it fondly with 'parental pride'. Trains had to crawl across at low speed - it took Curzon fifteen minutes - and passengers were not allowed to smoke, for fear of the whole structure being burnt to the ground. There were also six fire stations with pumps and hoses set up at intervals along the bridge.

The Russians regarded the Amu-darya as a potential trade route to Afghanistan, so a central section of the railway bridge was designed to swing open to allow steamboats through. Unfortunately someone got his sums wrong, and just before the opening ceremony it was discovered that the special boat laid on to take VIPs on a little excursion up-river was an inch or two too wide. The boat had been brought from St Petersburg in pieces and put together on the spot, but for some reason the spot chosen to assemble it was downstream of the bridge. As no one dared tell the Governor-General of Turkestan and his fellow-bigwigs of this debacle, there was nothing for it but to chop a bit of the bridge down. It must have broken the engineers' hearts, but they proceeded to cut a different section of the bridge in two, pulling up two batteries of piles. The guests thus got their excursion, but the bridge very nearly collapsed and it took many weeks to repair it again. Bielinsky's creation survived, however, for nearly twenty years, when it was replaced by a steel lattice-girder structure laid over thirty-foot-high granite piers.

Someone who travelled over both bridges was Catherine Macartney, wife of the British Consul in Kashgar. Her first journey was as a young bride in the autumn of 1898, her second in 1902 when she and her husband travelled back for their first home leave:

On coming nearer, we saw a rickety wooden bridge ahead of us, and wondered whether we were expected to trust ourselves and the train to it. Evidently we were, for the train stopped, and the guard got out. Then we started on to the bridge at a slow crawl, with the guard walking ahead waving a red flag, and looking to see how much more had fallen away since the last train crossed. What the red flag could do to help us, I have never quite understood, for we did not need to be told that there was danger.

Slowly we went on with the whole structure swaying, and creaking, as though it was strained to its utmost limit of endurance. In places great beams had gone and we looked down the holes to the chocolate-coloured river rushing beneath us.

It took us over half an hour to reach solid ground on the other side, and until we felt we could breathe freely again. Still, in spite of its unsafe appearance, the bridge was used for some time after we crossed it, without accident. Four years later, when we travelled home, we found that a fine iron bridge had been built for the railway, though the old wooden one, or some of it at least, was standing to remind us of an anxious half-hour.

Lady Macartney, An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan, 1931

Curzon had found travel on the Transcaspian railway excruciatingly slow. His journey from the Caspian to Samarkand averaged twelve miles per hour. Admittedly, as there had been no restaurant car on his train, this had included leisurely stops for refreshments en route. But he reckoned that the shifting substructure would always restrict top speeds to about 30m.p.h., and much less if trains were heavily laden. (He seems to have been right, for the writer Stephen Graham reported an average speed of only 17m.p.h. as late as 1914. 'Russia,' he commented philosophically, 'is not excited about loss of time.') By the time of Catherine Macartney's first journey there were daily trains from Krasnovodsk, which in 1896 had become the western terminus. The railway had originally started lower down the Caspian coast, first at Mikhailovsk and then at the island of Uzun Ada, but the water there was shallow and sometimes froze in winter, making it difficult for the Caspian steamers to dock.

No one had a good word to say about Krasnovodsk, and it can still be truly said that its only building of any distinction is the railway station. Mr J.T. Woolrych Perowne, who began a Cook's Tour of Transcaspia there in 1898, has left us this description:

Krasnovodsk lies in an amphitheatre of picturesque hills, evidently of volcanic origin and absolutely bare. The town itself is a mere collection of mean little one-storeyed, flat-roofed houses . . . here as elsewhere all along the line the railway station is the architectural feature of the place.

Francis Skrine, of the Indian Civil Service, agreed:

The Government offices, substantially built of a warm brown freestone, surround a central square, where a patch of grass and a few scraggy trees strive in vain to relieve the desolation which recalls the surroundings of Aden to the Eastern traveller . . . But the chief ornament of Krasnovodsk is, strange to say, the railway terminus. Unlike those which disgrace so many English towns, it is a highly successful effort to blend the ornamental with the useful.

Stephen Graham, writing of his journey in 1914, was even more dismissive:

Krasnovodsk is one of the hottest, most desert, and miserable places in the world. The mountains are dead; there is no water in them. Rain scarcely ever falls, and the earth is only sand and salt.

Little seems to have changed by 1935 when another writer, Ethel Mannin, passed through on her way to Samarkand. 'Krasnovodsk by daylight revealed itself as a desolate dust-heap of a town,' she wrote, adding:

As a town, Krasnovodsk scarcely exists. Outside the station there is a square planted with dusty tamarisks, but the place appears to be used more as a public latrine than as a public garden. In the streets behind there are a few small cafes and eating-houses, very dirty and full of flies, and a few equally squalid shops.

In defence of this much-maligned little town, I must say that in March 1991 when I was there, it actually rained a bit, and its inhabitants were the kindest and most helpful of any I came across in the Soviet Union. The central square is now a garden of remembrance to the soldiers who fell in the Second World War.

As the terminus of the Transcaspian railway, Krasnovodsk was naturally entitled to a rather splendid station, made of stone and embellished with crenellations, but many of the smaller halts along the line were, in Curzon's words, simply 'dingy wooden shanties half buried in the sand'. The French explorer Gabriel Bonvalot once remarked that he would be 'sorry to accept the post of station-master at the well of Uch-Haji, even with the salary of a prime minister'. The middle-sized stations, however, were generally made of brick. Annenkov had conducted some interesting experiments on temperatures inside structures made of kiln-baked bricks and those made of bricks dried in the sun. The latter proved far superior in terms of insulation, and were 10-12 degrees centigrade cooler in the height of summer. This led Annenkov to use sun-dried bricks for his station buildings whenever possible, though to the detriment of any old ruins in the vicinity.

There were in all four classes of station, and a fully equipped one like Ashkhabad would comprise a guest-house, telegraph office, station-master's house and staff accommodation as well as the actual station buildings. The single-storey structures were made either of stone or of bricks plastered over with lime and finished with stone copings and mouldings, with flat roofs smeared with asphalt from the Baku oil-wells. The practical but harmonious standard design was provided by a German engineer named Urlaub. The bigger stations had excellent buffets before the Bolshevik Revolution, and at the smallest the local entrepreneurs would provide tea, melons and grapes for next to nothing. Ella Christie, a Scotswoman travelling to Khiva in 1913, reported having 'quite a good meal of roast meat and stewed dried apricots' at Krasnovodsk station, while Stephen Graham a year later noticed that whenever a patch of irrigated land was to be seen, people would begin to appear at the stations:

Many women stood at the stations with hot, just-boiled eggs, with roast chickens, milk or koumiss in bottles, even with pats of butter, with samovars. And there were native boys with baskets heaped full of lepeshki (cakes of bread). Each station was provided with a long barrier, and the women, in lines of twenty or thirty, stood behind their wares and cried to the passengers. The many steaming samovars were a welcome sight, and at the charge of a halfpenny I made myself tea at one of them.

Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 1916

Even in July 1918, at the height of the civil war in Central Asia, a British intelligence officer obtained some 'excellent soup' at the small station of Kaahka, near the Persian border. Captain Reginald Teague-Jones was amused when the daily train from Tashkent came panting and hissing into the station with crowds of people of both sexes clinging to the roofs of the carriages. 'Next moment,' he wrote in his diary, 'the buffet was raided.' He continued:

Never have I seen such a sight. It might well have been a scene from one of the London musical comedies. There were Russian peasants in red shirts, Armenians and Persians, Cossacks and Red soldiers, Sart traders and Bokhariotes, Turkmans in their gigantic papakhas, while among the crowd were a number of pretty young girls and women in the latest Paris summer fashions. All this medley came crushing into the buffet and clamoured for glasses of tea, hunks of black bread and platters of soup. Somehow or other they all seemed to get served and Asiatic and European, Mongol and Muscovite, sat down literally cheek by jowl, and satisfied their hunger.

Teague-Jones, The Spy Who Disappeared, 1990

By 1935, when Ethel Mannin was travelling on the Transcaspian, station buffets were reserved for Red Army or Communist Party officials, and food became a serious problem for humbler passengers. Supplies on the train began to run out on her second day from Krasnovodsk, and she was grateful for the few scraps obtainable from (now illicit) private enterprise. The crowds at the stations are noticeably poorer in her descriptions than those encountered by earlier travellers:

On every station there are the same tatterdemalion crowds with dressing-gown-like coats, some of them so patched or in such shreds that it is difficult to determine their original colouring, and verminous-looking sheepskin or fur hats. Many of the men wear turbans. They are on the whole a wild, dirty, cheerful, poverty-stricken looking lot, these Turkistan crowds . . .

These station crowds remind me of the railway stations in remote villages in the west of Ireland, where the villagers troop down to the station to see the train come in, for something to do, and because the train is an event in the day - almost the only event of social consequence. Here, too, are crowds of people who are obviously not travellers, but who have merely come to wave to the train and enjoy the spectacle of strange faces crowded at its windows. At every station and halt, peasant women and children run alongside the train, holding up jugs of sour milk, plates of hard-looking little scones, yellow-fleshed roast chickens.

Mannin, South to Samarkand, 1936

And yet when Annenkov and his successors first built the railways of Central Asia, they had been regarded with fear and suspicion by the native population. The Emir of Bokhara, for instance, had insisted on the railway bypassing his capital. As Curzon wrote in his book:

It was regarded as foreign, subversive, anti-national, and even Satanic. Shaitan's Arba, or the Devil's Wagon, was what they called it. Accordingly it was stipulated that the line should as far as possible avoid the cultivated land, and should pass at a distance of ten miles from the native city . . . Now, however, the Bokhariots are victims to much the same regrets as the wealthy English landowners who, when the railway was first introduced in this country, opposed at any cost its passage through their property. Already when the first working train steamed into Bokhara with rolling stock and material for the continuation of the line, the natives crowded down to see it, and half in fear, half in surprise, jumped into the empty wagons. Presently apprehension gave way to ecstasy.

The first engines were foreign-built, some American and some German. John Bookwalter, an American who spent three months in Russia in 1898 assessing its potential for US exports, noted with satisfaction that the locomotive pulling his train out of Krasnovodsk had been made in Philadelphia. (Later they were manufactured at the Kolomna Works in Moscow, 0-6-0 for freight and 2-4-0 for passenger trains. Today all engines are diesels.) Bookwalter was greatly excited by the new railways spanning Siberia and Central Asia, and looked forward to the day when enterprising Americans would sell their goods at the great annual fair at Nizhny-Novgorod. Alas, his long-term forecasts were overturned by the revolution and the invention of the aeroplane and there is no longer a trade-fair at Nizhny. Re-named Gorky, it was for long a closed city used for the internal exile of political dissidents such as the late Dr Andrei Sakharov. But Bookwalter left some excellent photographs and descriptions of the Transcaspian at the turn of the century:

There are trains leaving daily for the East on the Transcaspian railway, but as they are mixed freight and passenger trains, designed to carry soldiers, emigrants, merchandise, and material for new railways under construction farther on, they offer no facilities or comforts for the traveller. There is, however, a train that leaves here [Krasnovodsk] three times a week, consisting wholly of second, third and fourth class passenger cars, for the purpose of accommodating the better class of travel, which is rapidly on the increase. This train, usually composed of twelve or fifteen cars, presents a neat and pleasing appearance, all the cars being painted snow white, even to the locomotive. They are plain in the interior, with uncovered seats, and but little comfort. Those who design travelling at night are obliged to provide themselves, before starting, with bedding, linen, towels, etc.

Bookwalter, Siberia and Central Asia, 1899

Mr Bookwalter was an optimist and saw the best in everything, but others were less polite. Francis Skrine, with a very English fastidiousness, described the trains thus:

The trains which leave Krasnovodsk for the heart of Central Asia are made up of second and third class carriages on the corridor system. They are warmed in the abominable fashion peculiar to Russia, by air heated in a roaring stove, and their lavatories are on the most primitive model. The stuffy compartments contain narrow wooden benches; and the upper berths, which let down at night, form very indifferent beds. In one of these little purgatories the traveller bound for Samarkand ensconces himself at 4.30 p.m., after a substantial meal at the railway buffet.

Skrine and Ross, The Heart of Asia, 1899

One English traveller who managed to avoid all this discomfort was Mr J.T. Woolrych Perowne, for on his Cook's Tour his group had a special train to themselves. There was no first class on the Transcaspian, so General Annenkov's personal train was taken out of mothballs and put at their disposal. (His Energy, as Annenkov was affectionately known, had died a couple of years before.) There were three ordinary first-class carriages, three saloon coaches, a kitchen car, dining-car, baggage car, servants' car, hospital car and finally an observation car at the rear. Mr and Mrs Perowne had one of the saloon coaches:

For the information of those who do not know Russian railways, I must say that the gauge is much wider than ours, and that therefore the carriages are more roomy. Nearly one-third of the saloon is taken up with a sitting-room, upholstered in morocco. Leading from this is a two-foot passage at the side, in which is a door opening into the bedroom. This is a cabin six foot by seven and contains a bed, a large writing table with drawers, a mirror, and a ship's washing arrangement - a very snug little room, though we found the bed somewhat narrow.

Perowne, Russian Hosts and English Guests in Central Asia, 1898

There was even a bathroom with hot and cold water, and electric bells for summoning one's servants. 'Some of us, especially the ladies of the party,' confessed Perowne, 'had been anticipating all sorts of hardships and inconveniences, and we were all not only relieved but delighted when we saw how relatively comfortable we were to be.'

Two charming Russian officers accompanied the group on their tour of Transcaspia, and they whiled away the journey in discussion of such congenial topics as the servant problem. Unlike the Indians of the British empire, Turcomans did not make ideal servants, it appeared. If not treated with the utmost tact, confided the Russians, they were quite likely to storm out in the middle of a dinner party leaving the hostess to fend for herself. And life was difficult enough for the Russian ladies, in all conscience, what with the lack of fresh meat and vegetables . . . The English party sympathized with their new friends, and stoically endured the wearisome diet of sturgeon and caviar.

But despite this solitary tourist excursion, the Transcaspian was still firmly in military hands, and no foreigner could travel on it without the express permission of the Minister of War in St Petersburg. John Bookwalter had noted that 'all the officials of the train, the engineer, the fireman, and even the workmen on the track, are drawn from the army'. (Once the Transcaspian was fully integrated into the other Central Asian railway system in Turkestan, however, its running and maintenance were handed over to civilians.) In 1895 the line had been extended from Samarkand to Tashkent, and a few years later it went on further to Andijan. But more worrying to the British was the construction in 1897 of a branch line up the Murghab valley, from Merv to the small town of Kushka on the Afghan frontier. Curzon had noticed that whenever the Russian illustrated papers published pictures of the Transcaspian railway at various stages of its construction, they were invariably headed 'On the Road to India'! In the event, the southern branch line was never extended across the frontier, and it was not until 1992, after the break-up of the Soviet empire, that work began on a branch line from Shatlik, west of Merv, to Tehran.

Meanwhile other Russian engineers had started work in 1891 on the great Trans-Siberian line, destined one day to be the longest railway in the world. Russia had come relatively late to railway building and was now making up for lost time. Another line struck south-east across the steppe from Orenburg, past the Aral Sea, alongside the course of the Syr-darya river to Turkestan. This Trans-Aral line, which had to cross the Kyzyl Kum desert, was prone to the same disasters as the Transcaspian line in the Kara Kum. An important government official from St Petersburg, who travelled to Turkestan in 1908 to investigate a corruption scandal (see tashkent), found part of the railway line to Tashkent had been washed away by a flash flood:

The Syr-darya, which we first saw as a silvery streak in the distance, had just then played a nasty trick on the engineers who, against the persistent advice of the natives, had laid the railway line at a distance varying from eight to twenty kilometres from its course. Like all other rivers in Turkestan, the Syr-darya is apt to change its course with very little notice. Large quantities of rubble and loose stones are brought down from the glaciers every year, and gradually a solid dam is built up which forces the water out of the original channel and sets the river meandering over the sands, sometimes miles from its original course.

Some distance from the Russian township of Perovsk the embankment along the Syr-darya had been partly washed away and we were delayed while a tiresome operation of trolleys and boats was mounted to get us over to the other side, where we were met by a train sent out to take us to the end of our journey. A chocolate-coloured tide of muddy water filled with swirling debris spread over a scene of utter desolation, watched derisively by the native Kirghiz mounted on their shaggy little ponies.

Count Pahlen, Mission to Turkestan, 1964

The Trans-Aral was not a military railway, but the construction and maintenance workers were a tightly knit group, organized on quasi-military lines, and shunned by the rest of the population. They had their own barracks and their own arms, for the nomads encountered along the more desolate stretches of track were not always friendly. This was the region where, not long before, slave raiders had snatched their victims and sold them in the markets of Bokhara and Khiva. Most of the railwaymen had been recruited in central Russia and brought with them anti-establishment grievances and a ragbag of the new socialist ideas. This was to be an important factor at the time of the Bolshevik take-over, and the power of the railway workers was certainly instrumental in sealing the fate of Russian Central Asia.

The Trans-Aral and Transcaspian railways, which met at Tashkent, were in due course extended eastwards to Vierney (now Alma Ata), and later linked to the Trans-Siberian network via the 'Turk-Sib' line to Novosibirsk which was completed in 1930. Russian Central Asia, for so long the back-of-beyond, was now within easy reach of Moscow. But how much long-term benefit the railway brought to the native inhabitants is debatable. For the Tsarists it was undoubtedly an instrument of colonization, and for their Communist successors it enabled the centralized authorities to remove local resources on a gigantic scale. But as a feat of engineering the Transcaspian, the greatest of the Central Asian railways, must remain an enduring monument to the vision, energy and devotion of General Annenkov and his indefatigable railway battalions.