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Railroads Asia - The Transcaspian Road

( Originally Published 1927 )

SOUTH of Siberia the Russian Empire had, in the nineteenth century, penetrated into Central Asia, and desired to link up various points in that turbulent region with strategical railroads. One of the projects was to build from Uzun-Ada to the oasis of Kizil Arvat, a distance of 145 miles. The chief difficulties here were the sandy, shifting nature of the country and the complete lack of water along the route. The railroad was built, of the 5-foot gauge standard in Russia, and became one of the links in the Transcaspian system.

This system starts at Krasnovodsk, on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, and runs for twenty-five miles to Uzun-Ada. This stretch and its continuation to the Oxus is through the celebrated Kara Kum or Black Sand Desert, a level expanse broken occasionally by oases, where a river or well furnishes water in the sandy waste. From the Oxus to Bokhara the railroad traverses fairly fertile country for 72 miles; then crosses more desert, and reaches Samarkand, located in an oasis. At Chernayevo, 1057 miles from the Caspian Sea, one branch of the road runs north to Tashkend, an important post in Central Asia, and another east to Kokand, Margelan, and Andijan through the luxuriant cotton fields of the Zarafshan Valley.

In building this road natives made the embankments and cuttings, Russians spiked down the rails. Lack of water was the chief obstacle ; there was no fresh water in the first 110 miles from the Caspian Sea and the sea water was distilled and sent forward along the line in vats carried on trucks. For part of the way the sand, piled in loose dunes and blown about by the strong winds, was as troublesome as the snow in northern regions. Near the Caspian Sea the water was poured on the sand to solidify it, and clay was spread to form a blanket. In other places tamarisks and wild oats were planted on the sand hills to keep the sand from blowing, and the engineers built wooden fences on top of the dunes as snow-sheds are used in the north. The builders were fortunate in the matter of fuel; there was little coal or wood, but there are some of the richest oil-fields in the world in the territory between the Black and the Caspian Seas. Tank steamers carried the oil to Krasnovodsk; and the locomotives of the Transcaspian road were furnished with a special oil-burning apparatus.

The railroad was constructed to Kizil Arvat in 1881, and there the work halted. There was unrest on the Afghan frontier, however, in 1885, and the Russian government decided to push on into Turkestan and use the railroad for military as well as commercial purposes. In 1886 the rails were laid to the Oxus, across which in former centuries have passed Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Here the engineers drove piles into the mud of the river, 3000 yards wide, built trestles and surmounted them with rails over which ran the locomotives and trains, to the astonishment of the Asiatic spectators.

The Russians avoided Bokhara, not wishing to give offence to its Ameer and fanatical citizens by constructing a railroad to that city. They made a wide loop about that centre, and afterwards joined it to the main road by a branch line.

Samarkand, the ancient capital of Central Asia, saw the first railroad train arrive within its territory in May, 1888. There the railway system marked time for several years, until Russia expanded its military plans and carried the track on to Tashkend, the most populous city in Asiatic Russia. From Tashkend a railroad has been constructed 1000 miles across a barren and sparsely settled region to Oren-burg on the Trans-Siberian route. Thus central Asia has been joined to Europe and cities that were isolated for centuries linked together by the Transcaspian Railroad.

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