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Railroads - 1880-1899 Transcaspian Railway / Central Asian Railway

Transcaspian and Orenburg-Tashkent RailwaysWhile the empires and colonies of the coasts of Asia had been accessible to travelers for many years, the heart of the huge continent had been quite as difficult to visit as the interior of Africa. Few strangers in China journey into the remoter provinces of the Empire; the railways of India halt at the Khyber Pass; even the railway across Siberia traverses territories that are typically Russian. Yet there is a great region in the midst of Asia which has been penetrated by a railway, not to savage camps and jungle tribes, but to the seat of ancient civilizations, across the Oxus River to the tomb of Tamerlane, to historic cities where intellectual and commercial peoples dwell.

Prince Hilkoff laid two great railways in Asia — the Trans-Siberian and the Central Asiatic line. Russia's railway advance across Asia has been made not on one line, but on two. One of these was the object of constant attention in the press and elsewhere, while the other was kept in virtual obscurity, to be discussed hardly at all, if, indeed, generally known. The first ws the Siberian Railway, and the second is the Transcaspian Railway or Central Asiatic line. At the end of the 19th century it was the English who were interested chiefly in the Transcaspian Railway of the Russians, on account of the relation it has to their own northern frontier in India. Lord Curzon, Henry Norman, George Dobson and a few other English travelers had been over the line as far as Samarkand and wrote about it; half a dozen Americans traversed it in whole or in part, one or two with literary purposes, and several French writers had done likewise. Except for these, the Russians kept the railway for their own use.

The Central Asian, formerly called Transcaspian, was thought out by Skobeleff, but General Annenkoff actually bridged the black sand ( Kara-Kum). The line ran from Krasnovodsk on the Caspian by Merv to Charjui on the Oxus, and on to Bokhara, Samarcand, Khojend, Khokand, and Andijan. One branch line ran south from Merv to the frontiers of Afghanistan, while another line went north to Tashkent.

The Transcaspian Railway, which was begun in 1880 and opened to Samarkand in 1888, enabled Russia to establish her power in these regions on a secure foundation. It also placed her in a position to mass troops either on the Persian or the Russo-Afghan frontier. It was essentially a military enterprise at that time, and was carried forward under military organization. By 1888 the line was in operation as far as Samarkand; it has been extended from time to time since that date until the system under the administration of that railway comprised 1590 miles, including two considerable tributary lines and a few short branches.

The Transcaspian Railway, close to the southern borders of this region, is therefore 1,000 miles south of the Siberian Railway, and roughly parallel with it. The northern half of the region, containing five provinces, is administered as the general government of the Steppes. Still to the south of the government of the Steppes lie the regions reached by the Transcaspian Railway, the general government of Turkestan. This is divided into the provinces of Sir Daria, Ferghana and Zarafshan. The latter province contains the city of Samarkand, which is the provincial capital. Tashkend is the capital of the province of Sir Daria, and is also the seat of authority for the general government of Turkestan.

This wonderful railway into a more wonderful country begins, in the west, on the eastern or Asiatic shore of the Caspian Sea, opposite the petroleum port of Baku, and extends more than 1,200 miles directly eastward, almost to the outposts of India and the Chinese Empire. In this distance it skirts the northern boundaries of Persia and Afghanistan, crosses the khanate of Bokhara and the whole of the Russian territories, and has for way stations such famous capitals as Merv, Bokhara, Samarkand, Khokand and Tashkend. It ends at Andijan, only 500 miles from Peshawur, northern terminus of the British railways in India. There was, then, a gap of but that distance in continuous railway communication between Calais and Calcutta, except for the short crossing of the Caspian Sea.

The rivers of Central Asia have no outlet to the sea, being entirely contained within the great central basin of the continent. But the landlocked Caspian, eightyfour feet below the level of the ocean, and the lowest point of depression, receives none of these rivers, being cut off from them by the worst of deserts. The Aral Sea, 243 feet above the Caspian, receives the Amu Daria and the Sir Daria—known of old as Oxus and Jaxartes—the largest rivers of the region, one at the north and one at the south of its basin. The Murghab River, which waters the Merv Oasis, and the Zarafshan, which waters Samarkand and Bokhara, have no outlet even into the Aral, but are entirely exhausted in irrigation service, until the rivers vanish in gardens and grainfields. The ultimate source of all these rivers, like those of Afghanistan, India, Tibet and Chinese Turkestan, is that stupendous tangle of mountain range and plateau, the Pamirs, "roof of the world," where their headwaters all are born of the eternal snows, and three great empires meet. To the shadow of these Pamirs the Transcaspian Railway now penetrates.

No higher motive than military expediency stimulated the beginning of this railway. The difficulty of military transport by camel train always has been one of the greatest obstacles to successful campaigning in Central Asia. De Lesseps and several Russian engineers had proposed railways into the heart of Asia from Orenburg, but the idea of a line from the Caspian Sea took no definite form until General Skobelev began his advance on the Akhal Tekke Turkomans in 1880, and summoned General Annenkov, director of the military transports of the empire, to his assistance.

This expedition was to start from the Caspian. They asked the government at St. Petersburg for material for the construction ot a temporary line, but no result followed. Annenkov therefore took some rails which had been stored for use in the Russo-Turkish war, and shipping them in haste to the Caspian, landed them on the shore of Michael's Bay. The best American records are rivaled by the speed of construction of this line, the first seventeen miles of railwav ever laid in Central Asia having been put down in ten days, from August 25 to September 4, 1880. This was extended by twenty-three miles of horse tramway, and at that distance camel caravans were again utilized, so that steam, horse and camel power were employed by Skobelev in his famous advance.

Since that time, each successive extension, including the latest ones to Tashkend and Andijan, has been suggested by the political and military conditions. These conditions always have been held superior to any commercial value that the line might have. General Annenkov, however, who built the line to Samarkand, and Prince Khilkov, his principal assistant, who gained his early railway experience in America, and is now the Minister of Communications in the Imperial Government, never lost sight of the commercial possibilities. Undoubtedly it is due to the latter that the railway is at last opened to unrestricted travel after twenty years of operation as a military line.

The road was not built all at once. In 1888, eight years after its beginning, trains were running to Samarkand, 900 miles from the Caspian. This was three years before the Siberian Railway was begun. Eight years later the branch was built from Merv up the Murghab River, 200 miles, to Kushk Post on the Afghan border, eighty miles from Herat. In 1899 the eastern extension was completed from Samarkand to Andijan. 300 miles beyond, with a branch northeast to Tashkend.

The utility and significance of the Transcaspian line remained purely military. The origin of the Transcaspian Railway was a campaigning necessity. The line was built for the sake of the speedier subjugation of the Turkoman tribes inhabiting the country between the Khiva principality on the north, the Persian frontier on the south, the Afghan boundary (wherever that is) on the south-east, and the Caspian on the west. In Lord Curzon's estimate it had more than duplicated the offensive strength of Russia in Asia. The railway extends from Samarkand to Tashkent, and the Czar's forces in Turkestan could either reinforce the Transcaspian army or operate in concert with it. To complete her railway menace to Afghanistan, Russia set to work on the Orenburg-Tashkent section in the autumn of 1900.

In 1902 the Russian government removed its restrictions upon travel over the Transcaspian Railway into Central Asia, and that hereafter no special permit will be required for the journey. Under this new policy, Central Asia will be as accessible to tourists as any other part of the Russian Empire. It is true that certain discomforts and inconveniences await the traveler in Transcaspia and Turkestan, greater than those to be found along more hackneyed routes, but the rewards likewise are great, with the distinct advantage of absolute novelty.

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Page last modified: 15-08-2012 15:10:54 ZULU