The New York Times, November 17, 1884, p. 2:|
LIFE BEYOND THE CASPIANA RAILWAY IN THE DESERT
AND PETROLEUM LIKE OUR OWN.
RUSSIAN ADVANCES TOWARDS INDIA--
WORK YET TO BE DONE ON THE RAILWAY--
SOME THRILLING EXPERIENCES.
Cape Apsheron [Absheron], Oct. 12--Gen. Sir Peter Lumsden and his six British officers came past on Wednesday night, sailing from Baku for the Persian coast the first thing on Thursday morning, on their way to settle the frontier of Afghanistan in concert with the Russian delegates. How far they will be able to do so remains to be seen, for I have noticed that whenever Russian delegates settle anything in concert with anybody the settlement somehow leaves a very considerable balance in their favor...
Every one of Russia's recent movements in that direction has been a masterpiece. In Western Persia she has made an admirably studied show of moderation by adding to her border only a tiny strip of hill country barely 40 miles broad, a gain which would seem absolutely valueless to any one who, not having traveled through that region, is ignorant that this insignificant scrap of territory includes the only two practicable passes through the Khorassan [Khorasan] Mountains into Persia from the Caspian seaboard.
In Eastern Persia, again, she has merely taken possession of some stony and seemingly worthless mountain ridges around Mahomedabad, without thinking it necessary to state that these ridges enable her to swoop down at will upon the defenseless plain amid which stands Meshed, the great commercial and strategic centre of the Shah's eastern dominions.
But Russia's crowning achievement beyond the Caspian is unquestionably the new military railway across the Khiva Desert, about which it may be worth while to say a thing or two in passing.
On the opposite shore of the Caspian Sea, due east from this great headand upon which we stand, lies a deep pouch-shaped gulf sheltered by two projecting capes, known to Russian geographers as "Mikhailoff Zaliv," (Michael's Bay...) one bright morning late in the Autumn of 1869, the wandering eyes of the hillmen saw a Russian flotilla heading straight for the mouth of the bay, and presently numbers of men began to pour out of the vessels on to the northern shore, and lines of huts and tents grew up as if by magic upon the lonely beach, and the Russian flag fluttered jauntily overhead, and little by little the rude encampment developed itself into the pretty little town of Krasnovodsk [Türkmenbaşy (or Turkmenbashi), Turkmenistan], wither a weekly steamer now runs in a few hours from Baku.
For a time, however, the "town of red water" (as its name implies) was simply a remote military outpost... the Russian military administration, looking round for a fresh point of departure, fixed upon Krasnovodsk and began to consider the feasibility of constructing a railroad thence across the Khiva Desert...
The Russian authorities, remembering that three-quarters of Col. Markozoff's camels had perished during his abortive advance upon Khiva in 1873, and that in Gen. Lazareff's Turcoman expedition of six years later 9,400 camels had died out of 10,000, thought that the ship of the desert was beginning to prove unseaworthy, and decided in favor of the railway... The condensers provided by Messrs. Nobel & Co. [Branobel], the great petroleum manufacturers--whose works we inspected the other day at Baku and Balakhani--turned out 70,000 gallons of excellent water daily. Sea water, brought up in tanks, was sprinkled over the slopes of the cuttings and embankments, which it bound together with a firm crust of salt as it dried. Stiff clay from the neighboring marshes was employed to consolidate the sandy portions of the line, while the sand was used to dry and stiffen the muddy spots. Light hurdle shields, such as those which protect the railways of European Russia against their five month's snow, were employed with equal success to check the drifting sands of the desert...
By September, 1880,... the new railway was already open as far as Mulla Kari (a distance of 14½ miles) and 22 more were traversed by horse tram cars on the French De Korval system. Since that time both the line itself and its accessories have advanced rapidly. One may now cross the Caspian in one night by steamer from Baku and travel eastward by train the next morning over the wide waste of gray, lifeless sands beyond it, till at length you reach the spot where a big, newly built Russian barrack stares out of countenance the crumbling walls of the ancient Persian fortress of Kizil Arvat [Kyzyl-Arvat or Gyzylarbat, Turkmenistan]. But although the trains run no further at present, the track is being vigorously pushed forward in a southeasterly direction toward Askabad [Ashgabat or Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan], the capital of Russia's new Province on the northeastern border of Persia. Once at Askabad, the railroad will have only 390 miles further to go in order to reach Herat itself, (the key of Western Afghanistan,) traversing on its way the now celebrated "oasis of Merv," and the very spot where Moore's "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan" led such a jolly life nine centuries ago...
But Krasnovodsk has another claim upon the world's attention besides that furnished her by the famous "desert railway." At no great distance from the town lies one of those small salt lakes so frequently met with on both shores of the Caspian, and found likewise upon a much larger scale on the eastern bank of the Lower Volga. On the banks of this lake has recently been discovered a deposit of petroleum, which, according to the testimony of the Baku experts, (for we did not ourselves see it,) cannot be distinguished either in color or in quality from that furnished by Pennsylvania...
However commerce and war may disturb the skirts of the great Asiatic desert, the past still holds its own against the present in the tremendous solitudes beyond... Bleaching skeletons of camels, and even of men, stare gauntly up at you from the wind-tossed sand drifts...
Even in the more fertile tracts along the two great rivers of Central Asia, where the migratory camps of the Kirghiz [Kyrgyz] tribes keep up a fitful and ever-shifting semblance of population, the habits and customs which you see are those of the world's remote infancy, as depicted in the earliest chapters of the Bible. In an age of railways and telegraphs, of elaborate civilization and incessant change, these pathless wastes have preserved the living image of what the world was in days when the great Hebrew race, which now fills every corner of the earth, was limited to the household of one wandering sheik on the steppes of Eastern Syria...
In traversing this wild region one has the same feeling as in gliding across the arctic circle into the eternal daylight of the Polar Ocean. It seems as if you had suddenly burst into a new and unknown world, where all the laws of nature are suspended, and the strangest marvels are recieved as mere matters of course. When I saw in the lonliest part of the great northern desert a wild-looking man with a swarthy face and shaggly black hair pop his head up through a hole in the ground, reconnoitre me for a moment with his small, ratlike eyes, and then dive down again and return leading two horses after him, it seemed quite natural for men and horses to burrow in the earth like rabbits, and I should hardly have been surprised at the apparition of the demon dwarf who startled Norna of Fitful-head, or the "Brown Man of the Moors," who appeared so inauspiciously to Lord Keeldar.
In fact, another day or two sufficed to make me quite at home in these "Podzemelia," (undergrounds,) as the Russians call them, which, connected with the upper air by a narrow, sloping passage, looked very much like monster retorts used by some chemical giant. Many a time have I been glad to escape from the burning sand and the blistering glare of the sun into the snug little room of one of these subterranean Postmasters, where, while drinking tumbler after tumbler of "brick tea," I listened to my host's description of how the passage connecting him with the surface was once choked up with snow, and how he, after vainly endeavoring to use his spade in the narrow tunnel, at length bored his way through the drift with a redhot bar and dragged himself half stifled into the free air beyond.
But the deserts of Central Asia contain other dwellings equally primitive, and other forms of hospitality even more startling. A rare treat it used to be for me, after struggling wearily for hours over the scorching sands, with my blood in a fever and my skin as gritty as a match box, to see far in the distance the 10 or 12 cap-like tents of gray felt that marked the whereabouts of a Khirgiz camp. The moment the camels halted I sprang to the ground, and without waiting to be introduced lifted the hanging flap of the nearest tent and walked straight in, saluting with one word "Amaun" (peace) the four or five gaunt, brown, keen-eyed scarecrows in greasy sheepskins who were squatting on the earth within. One of the gang rose at once, and instead of kicking me out again hastened to offer me a big earthen jar filled to the brim with cool, fresh milk, which I emptied down my parched, swollen throat with a delight of which no one who has not suffered the extremity of thirst can have the least idea.
But the courtesies of these strange entertainers did not always stop here, and the form assumed by their hospitality was at times not a little embarrasing. On one occasion a Tartar [Tatar] "Bek" who had given me some food paid me the additional compliment of taking an enormous and fearfully dirty wooden spoon from his pouch, deliberately licking it clean, and then presenting it to me. A few days later I entered a Khirgiz camp on a day of unusual plenty, one of the camels having just dies of old age and been promptly cut up for dinner. The hospitable barbarians set before me a liberal allowance of this delectable food, which was as blue as a sailor's jacket and as tender as the Atlantic cable. But a two days' fast is an excellent cure for daintiness, and I dispatched the wiry delicacy as briskly as the glutton in the American tale who "ate as if there were no hereafter."
On another occasion, while crossing the great plain to the north of the Caspian Sea, which forms a kind of border land between Europe and Asia, I became a guest in the tent of a Kalmuck [Kalmyk] chief, who kindly invited me to seat myself (and that, too, in white trousers) upon a newly flayed sheepskin with bloody side uppermost. What was to be done? To sit down would have been utter ruin to my clothes, while to refuse would have been what Mrs. Partington might have called "catamount to a mortal insult." My only way of extricating myself from the scrape, in fact, was to declare that "I did not consider it befitting to seat myself in the presence of so great a chief," a compliment with which the worthy savage seemed mightily pleased.
But the most awkward of all my adventures in Central Asia befell just after my escape from imprisonment at Kazalinsk [Kazaly], the Russian fort near the mouth of the Syr-Daria [Syr Darya, Jaxartes or Yaxartes], where poor MacGahan [New York Herald reporter Januarius MacGahan, author of Campaigning on the Oxus, and the Fall of Khiva] had narrowly avoided a similar fate a few weeks before. Between Fort No. 2 and Fort Perovski the Syr-Daria, or Clean River—a name which sounds bitterly ironical when applied to a stream the color and consistency of mutton broth—shallows itself into a wide reach of sluggish, miry water, expressively called "Djaman Daria," (Bad River,) barely one foot deep in the dry season and flankedfor many miles on either side by hideous swamps, foul with slime, green with rank weeds, and buzzing with mosquitoes. In order to avoid this dismal region my Kirghiz teamster proposed to strike across the open steppe to the north of it; and although the night had already begun to fall when we started to do so, we could count upon the brightness of the full moon to make our venture a safe one.
But scarcely had we been half an hour on the road when the sky was suddenly overcast, and down upon us came a squall of wind and rain through which seven moons could have given no light. Even the sturdy little Tartar horses refused to face the storm and came to a dead halt. The Khirgiz wagoner and my Tartar servant actually took refuge under the wagon—which, having no tilt, could not otherwise protect them—while I, confident in my panoply of plaid and waterproof, remained sitting where I was.
But not until nearly midnight did the rain abate, and even then the gloom which it had brought with it hung so thickly on every side that for all we could see of the country around us we might as well have been in the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky. To stay where we were, however, was out of the question, so on we went again through the great waste of blackness that lay before us. But we had not gone far when it became evident that our Kirghiz was heading completely at random, and he himself, on being questioned, was forced to admit that he had not the least idea where he was.
To lose one's way even in the streets of a crowded city, where one can ask advice at every turn, is not an agreeable experience. But when the same thing happens at midnight in the heart of a pathless desert hundreds of miles in extent, where any man you meet will most likely prove to be a robber, able and willing to cut one's throat, it is an awkward matter indeed. We were just considering what was best to be done—which, cold, wet, and hungry as we were, almost without provisions, and spent with long fatigue and watching, was anything but an easy question to settle—when suddenly a plashing tread far away in the distance broke the ghostly silence of the desert.
My Tartar felt for his axe and I for my revolver, for in these regions every stranger is an enemy. Nearer and nearer came the sound, till at length a faint gleam of moonlight showed us a tall figure on a black horse, with the high sheepskin cap of the Turcoman. Our challenge of "Amaun ust?" (Is it peace?) was promptly answered with "Insh' Allah, amaun ust," (Please God, it is peace,) and the horseman, on learning our dilemma, leaped down and plucked a tuft of the short, wiry grass, sniffed at it for a moment, and then, springing into the saddle again, went off at a slowish trot, bidding us follow him. We did so, and, just as the first gray of dawn tinged the eastern sky, came in sight of a Turcoman camp, where we were heartily welcomed.
D. K. [DAVID KER]
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A Central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions, most of Kyrgyzstan was formally annexed to Russia in 1876. The Kyrgyz staged a major revolt against the Tsarist Empire in 1916 in which almost one-sixth of the Kyrgyz population was killed. Kyrgyzstan became a Soviet republic in 1936 and achieved independence in 1991 when the USSR dissolved.
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