Railways in Central Asia

by Alexander Morrison

The first time I went to Tashkent, in October 2001, it was by train: the “Uzbekistan” express left Moscow’s Kazan station near midnight. I had a coupé, which I shared with a middle-aged Russian visiting his father in Tashkent, an indestructible Ukrainian grandmother returning to her home in Namangan, and an elderly Tatar gentleman in high leather boots travelling back to Khujand in northern Tajikistan, which he still referred to by its Soviet name of ‘Leninabad’. We talked about politics and travel, made each other tea from the samovar at the end of the carriage in the little blue-and-white pot provided, and munched on the salo (salted pig fat), of which our babushka’s bag turned out to contain incredible quantities. I can still remember her satisfied sigh of ‘poryadok’ (order) as the tablecloth was straightened and the rubbish removed, and her voluble insistence that true hospitality had disappeared from Russia, and was now only to be found in Central Asia, where she had lived since her 20s.

We crossed the frontier into Kazakhstan during the second night of our journey, and awoke the following morning beyond Aqtobe to see the telegraph poles flickering past before a seemingly endless expanse of grey-green steppe. The electrified line had ended, and our train was now pulled two gigantic blackened diesel locomotives. When we stopped, lines of women with heavy qazans (cauldrons) of meat and potatoes lined the platforms, and as we neared the Syr-Darya and what remains of the Aral Sea they were joined by small boys garlanded with strings of raki – boiled crayfish, a favourite accompaniment to the vodka consumed in copious quantities in other coupés, but mercifully not in mine.As we travelled south, settlement became sparser. Occasionally there would be a Kazakh cemetery, all yellowish bricks and rusting iron cupolas, a man on a pony with a flock of sheep, and eventually the first double-humped camels. As the second day of travel wore on, I began to notice the stations. Each was announced some time before we reached it by an octagonal, wooden-clad water-tower, with dainty fretwork under the eaves. The buildings themselves were of yellow brick (which I would later learn was known as ‘Nikolaevskii’ in Central Asia, after the last Tsar) decorated with art nouveau motifs and ironwork: one occasional variation was a curiously Parisian mansard roof. Some, such as that at Turkestan, had been beautifully restored, some were sinking into decay, but they all remained defiantly elegant, and in most cases little changed since 1906, when the line was originally completed.

As I later discovered, on the older Transcaspian line further south, built between Krasnovodsk, Samarkand and Tashkent from 1881 – 1898, the original station buildings had been replaced by concrete behemoths in the Soviet era, as the land along the line was ever more intensively developed. At the steppe stations, time seemed to have stood still. No town had sprung up around them, and with their original raison-d’être as watering and refuelling points for steam locomotives long gone, they still had a pioneering air. This was appropriate, as the Orenburg-Tashkent or ‘Trans-Aral’ railway was the first line to be built across the steppe, replacing the multiple routes once used by caravans with a single, steel path. It introduced the Kazakhs to industrial modernity and tied the distant Governor-Generalship of Turkestan more firmly to the Russian metropole, allowing troops to be rushed to Central Asia in case of need (as there would be in 1916, when the steppe erupted in revolt) and raw cotton to be exported to Moscow’s textile mills. In the Soviet era it was somewhat eclipsed by the mythology surrounding the Turksib – the Turkestan-Siberia Railway which linked Tashkent to Alma-Ata and Novosibirsk constructed between 1926 and 1931 – although the latter was also a Tsarist project, partially constructed before 1917 and then placed on hold. Railways were a potent symbol of Soviet modernity: Akmolinsk, which had no rail connection at all before the 1950s, as the centre of Khrushchev’s ‘Virgin Lands’ scheme became the nucleus of a network of lines so extensive that in 1998 this could be offered as a key argument for its suitability as Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana.

The Trans-Aral line remained the main highway to Moscow for all the Central Asian Republics, and it serves the same purpose today. When I made the same journey this year my companion was an Uzbek trader, brashly prosperous, boasting of his wife and family in Uzbekistan and his Kazakh mistress in Orenburg and of the wagonloads of fresh and dried fruit  he sent to Russian markets. He was unusually successful – the thousands of Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz labour migrants who empty Russia’s bins and work on her building-sites often cannot afford to travel by train at all, and when they do go platskart – in ‘hard class’, not the luxury of a coupé. The patterns of travel and economic life laid down with the Orenburg-Tashkent railway over a hundred years ago have proved remarkably durable: Central Asia remains firmly oriented towards Russia, and if anything, after a brief hiatus, the connections and mobility between the two have increased since the collapse of the USSR.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Alexander Morrison is Lecturer in Imperial History at the University of Liverpool, where he teaches courses on Russia, India and Central Asia. He is the author of Russian Rule in Samarkand 1868-1910. A Comparison with British India (Oxford, 2008), and is currently writing a history of the Russian conquest of Central Asia.