Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Railroad in Turkestan

On the 24th of January, 1881, Edward O'Donovan, a daring traveller who had journeyed far through the wastes and wilds of Turkestan, found himself on a mountain summit not far removed from the northern boundary of Persia, from which his startled eyes beheld a spectacle of fearful import. Below him the desert stretched in a broad level far away to the distant horizon. Near the foot of the range rose a great fortress, within which at that moment a frightful struggle was taking place. Bringing his field-glass to bear upon the scene, the traveller saw a host of terror-stricken fugitives streaming across the plain, and hot upon their steps a throng of merciless pursuers, who slaughtered them in multitudes as they fled. Even from where he stood the white face of the desert seemed changing to a crimson hue.

What the astounded traveller beheld was the death-struggle of the desert Turkomans, the hand of retribution smiting those savage brigands who for centuries had carried death and misery wherever they rode. These were the Tekke Turkomans, the tribes who haunted the Persian frontier, and whose annual raids swept hundreds of captives from that peaceful land to spend the remainder of their days in the most woeful form of slavery. For a month previous General Skobeleff, the most daring and merciless of the Russian leaders, had besieged them in their great fort of Geop Tepe, an earthwork nearly three miles in circuit, and containing within its ample walls a desert nation, more than forty thousand in all, men, women, and children.

On that day, fatal to the Turkoman power, Skobeleff had taken the fort by storm, dealing death wherever he moved, until not a man was left alive within its walls except some hundreds of fettered Persian slaves. Through its gateways a trembling multitude had fled, and upon these miserable fugitives the Russian had let loose his soldiers horse, foot, and artillery, with the savage order to hunt them to the death and give no quarter.

Only too well was the brutal order obeyed. Not men alone, but women and children as well, fell victims to the sword, and only when night put an end to the pursuit did that terrible massacre cease. By that time eight thousand persons, of both sexes and all ages, lay stretched in death upon the plain. Within the fort thousands more had fallen, the women and children here being spared. Skobeleff's report said that twenty thousand in all had been slain.

Such was the frightful scene which lay before O'Donovan's eyes when he reached the mountain top, on his way to the Russian camp, a spectacle of horrible carnage which only a man of the most savage instincts could have ordered. "Bloody Eyes" the Turkomans named Skobeleff, and the title fairly indicated his ruthless lust for blood. It was his theory of war to strike hard when he struck at all, and to make each battle a lesson that would not soon be forgotten. The Turkoman nomads have been taught their lesson well. They have given no trouble since that day of slaughter and revenge.

Such was one of the weapons with which the Russians conquered the desert,—the sword. It was succeeded by another,—the iron rail. It is now some twenty years since the idea of a railroad from the Caspian Sea eastward was first advanced. In 1880 a narrow-gauge road was begun to aid Skobeleff, but that daring and impetuous chief had made his march and finished his work before the rails had crept far on their way. Soon it was determined to change the narrow-gauge for a broad-gauge road, and General Annenkoff, a skilful engineer, was placed in charge in 1885, with orders to push it forward with all speed.

It was a new and bold project which the Russians had in view. Never before had a railroad been built across so bleak a plain, a treeless and waterless expanse, stretching for hundreds of miles in a dead level, over which the winds drove at will the shifting sands, constantly threatening to bury any work which man ventured to lay upon the desert's broad breast. West of Bokhara and south of Khiva stretched the great desert of Kara-Kum, touching the Caspian Sea on the west, the Amu-Daria River on the east, the home of the wandering Turkomans, the born foes of the settled races, but from whom all thought of disputing the Russian rule had for the time been driven by Skobeleff's death-dealing blade.

The total length of the road thus ordered to be built—extending from the shores of the Caspian Sea, the outpost of European Russia, to the far-away city of Samarcand, the ancient capital of Timur the Tartar, and the very stronghold of Asiatic barbarism—was little short of a thousand miles, of which several hundred were bleak and barren desert. Two immense steppes, waterless, and scorching hot in summer, lay on the route, while it traversed the oases of Kizil-Arvat, Merv, Charjui, and Bokhara. In the northern section of the last lay the famous city of Samarcand, the eastern terminus of the road. The western terminus was at Usun-ada, on the Caspian, and opposite the petroleum region of Baku, perhaps the richest oil-yielding district in the world. General Annenkoff had special difficulties to over-come in the building of this road, of a kind never met -with by railroad engineers before. Chief among these were the lack of water and the instability of the roadway, the wind at times manifesting an awkward disposition to blow out the foundation from under the ties, at other times to bury the whole road under acres of flying sand.

These difficulties were got rid of in various ways. Fresh water, made by boiling the salt water of the Caspian and condensing the steam, was carried in vats or tuns over the road to the working parties. At a later date water was conveyed in pipes from the mountains to fill cisterns at the stations, whence it was carried in canals or underground conduits along the line, every well and spring on the route being utilized.

To overcome the shifting of the sand, near the Caspian it was thoroughly soaked with salt water, and at other places was covered with a layer of clay. But there are long distances where no such means could be employed, at least two hundred miles of utter wilderness, where the surface resembles a billowy sea, the sand being raised in loose hillocks and swept from the troughs between, flying in such clouds before every wind that an incessant battle with nature is necessary to keep the road from burial. To prevent this, tamarisk, wild oats, and desert shrubs are planted along the line, and in particular that strange plant of the wilderness, the saxaoul, whose branches are scraggly and scant, but whose sturdy roots sink deep into the sand, seeking moisture in the depths. Fascines of the branches of this plant were laid along the track and covered with sand, and in places palisades were built, of which only the tops are now visible.

Yet despite all these efforts the sands creep insidiously on, and in certain localities workmen have to be kept employed, shovelling it back as it comes, and fighting without cessation against the forces of the desert and the winds. In the building of the road, and in this battling with the sands, Turkomans have been largely employed, having given up brigandage for honest labor, in which they have proved the most efficient of the various workmen engaged upon the road.

Aside from the peculiar difficulties above outlined, the Transcaspian Railway was remarkably favored by nature. For nearly the whole distance the country is as flat as a billiard-table, and the road so straight that at times it runs for twenty or thirty miles without the shadow of a curve. In the entire distance there is not a tunnel, and only some small cuttings have been made through hills of sand. Of bridges, other than mere culverts, there are but three in the whole length of the road, the only large one being that over the Amu-Daria. This is a hastily built, rickety affair of timber, put up only as a make-shift, and at the mercy of the stream if a serious rise should take place.

The whole road, indeed, was hastily made, with a single track, the rails simply spiked down, and the work done at the rate of from a mile to a mile and a half a day. Before the Bokharans fairly realized what was afoot, the iron horse was careering over their level plains, and the shrill scream of the locomotive whistle was startling the saints in their graves.

Over such a road no great speed can be attained. Thirty miles an hour is the maximum, and from ten to twenty miles the average speed, while the stops at stations are exasperatingly long to travellers from the impatient West. To the Asiatics they are of no concern, time being with them not worth a moment's thought.

In the operation of this road petroleum waste is used as fuel, the refining works at Baku yielding an inexhaustible supply. The carriages are of mixed classes, some being two stories in height, each story of different class. There are very few first-class carriages on the road. As for the stations, some of them are miles from the road, that of Bokhara being ten miles away. This method was adopted to avoid exciting the prejudices of the Asiatics, who at first were not in favor of the road, regarding it as a device of Shaitan, the spirit of evil. Yet the "fire-cart," as they call it, is proving very convenient, and they have no objection to let this fiery Satan haul their grain and cotton to market and carry themselves across the waterless plains. The camel is being thrown out of business by this shrill-voiced prince of evil. The road is being extended over the oases, and will in the end bring all Turkestan under its control.

It almost takes away one's breath to think of railway stations and time-tables in connection with the old-time abiding-place of the terrible Tartar, and of the iron horse careering across the empire of barbarism, rushing into the metropolis of superstition, and waking with the scream of the steam whistle the silent centuries of the Orient. Nothing of greater promise than this planting of the railroad in Central Asia has been performed of recent years. The soul of the desert is to be civilized despite himself, and to be taught the arts and ideas of the West by the irresistible logic of steel and steam.

But this enterprise is a minor one compared with that which Russia has recently completed, that of a railway extending across the whole width of Siberia, being, with its branches, more than five thousand miles long—much the longest railway in the world. Work on this was begun in 1890, and it is now completed to Vladivostok, the chief Russian port on the Pacific, a traveller being able to ride from St. Petersburg to the shores of the Pacific Ocean without change of cars. A branch of this road runs southward through Manchuria to Port Arthur, but as a result of the war with Japan this has been transferred to China, Manchuria being wrested from the controlling grasp of Russia. It is a single-track road, but it is proposed to double-track it throughout its entire length, thus greatly increasing its availability as a channel of transport alike in war and peace.

All this is of the deepest significance. The railroad in Asia has come to stay; and with its coming the barbarism of the past is nearing its end. The sleeping giant of Orientalism is stirring uneasily in its bed, its drowsy senses stirred by the shrill alarum of the locomotive whistle. New ideas and new habits must follow in .the track of the iron horse. The West is forcing itself into the East, with all its restless activity. In the time to come this whole broad continent is destined to be covered with railroads as with a vast spider-web; new industries will be established, machinery introduced, and the great region of the steppes, famous in the past only as the starting-point of conquering migrations, must in the end become an active centre of industry, the home of peace and prosperity, a new-found abiding-place of civilization and human progress.