Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Ride On The Trans-Siberian Railroad In 1899

By John W. Bookwalter

The Trans-Siberian railroad, like all railways in Russia, is well construc­ted, the road-bed firm, the track well ballasted, generally with stone, at least as far as Tscheljabinsk, and the gradients easy. The road has a five-foot gauge, uniform with all the roads in European Russia. This gives an ample breadth to the cars, which, with their unusual height, imparts an air of comfort not possessed by roads of narrower gauge and less height of ceiling in the car. The bridges are almost wholly of iron, save a few of the original and temporary ones, which are rapidly being replaced. Those over the Irtish, Ishim, Obi, Tobol, Omsk and Tom Rivers, I found to be well con­structed, of the best material and most approved modern pattern. The stations, always artistic and picturesque, and never of the same style, are neat, comfortable, substantial, and of good size, fully equal to the average depot on the New York Central or Pennsylvania railroads.

It is a delight to take a meal in the station restaurants. On entering the din­ing-room, you will find at one end an im­mense sideboard literally groaning under a load of newly prepared Russian dishes, always piping hot, and of such a be­wildering variety as to range through the whole gamut of human fancy and tastes. You are given a plate, with a knife and fork. Making your own selection, you re­tire to any of the neatly spread tables to enjoy your meal at your leisure, and, I might add, with infinite zest, for travel in this country, besides pleasing the eye, quickens the appetite. The price, too, is a surprise to one accustomed to metropoli­tan charges. You can get soup, as fine a beefsteak as you ever ate, a splendid roast chicken whole, cook­ed in Rus­sian style, most tooth­some and juicy, pota­toes and other vege­tables, a bot­tle of beer, splendid and brewed in this country, for one ruble —about fifty cents.

One of the Stations of the Trans-Siberian Railroad
Safety seems to be the one idea uppermost in the minds of the railway ministry. Beside the electrical and other appliances used in the best railway practice, they have an immense army of guards both for the train and the track. The road is divided into sections of one verst each--about two-thirds of a mile. For each section there is built a neat little cottage in which the guard and his family live. It is the duty of this guard or one of his family to patrol a section night and day. As soon as a train passes, the guard steps into the middle of the track, holds a flag, or at night a lantern, aloft and watches the retreating train until it passes into the next verst or sec­tion. Where there is a heavy curve preventing the view of the road for the distance of a verst, several guards are employed on a section. A train is, therefore, never out of sight of a guard. I might add that women often perform this service, which is quite apart from that of the section gang, whose duty is to repair the road. On the Siberian railway as far as Tomsk, there are to be nearly 4,000 of these cottages for the use of the guards; a very costly precaution, but one that gives a pleasing sense of security to the traveler.

A sufficiently accurate general description of the Siberian railroad and its vari­ous appointments would, I think, be cov­ered by the statement that it is fully equal to either the Union or Northern Pa­cific Railway, although the oldest portion east of Tscheljabinsk has been in operation scarcely two years, and the newer portions a few months only. I noticed too, that recent surveys have been made along the line, and on inquiry was in­formed that they are preparing to build one or more additional tracks. This is a very timely provision as the road is already taxed far beyond its capacity.

A New Settlement on the Siberian Steppes
I was fortunate enough to form the ac­quaintance of one of the engineers of the Siberian Railway, a most courteous gentleman, who gave me not only many details concerning the great line, but also a brief outline of the proposed ultimate Siberian system. In addition to the contemplated line running northward to Tobolsk and several toward the China border, they design running one in a southwestern di­rection toward Samarcand, crossing the trans-Caspian road, now completed-to the western border of China, and thence south­ward through Persia, with its ultimate destination on the Persian Gulf.

The recent entente with China has caused a radical change in the plan of the eastern section of the Siberian railway, as originally projected. Instead of mak­ing the long detour via the Amoor River to Vladivostok, necessitated by passing around Manchuria, they are now permit­ted, under the new treaty with China, to construct a line running through that province direct to Vladivostok. They have, therefore, stopped work for the present on the eastern section of the line, and are bending all their energies to build, in the shortest possible time, a line through Manchuria to their newly-ac­quired open port on the China Sea, at Port Arthur. This line will leave the main one at Chiti, about 800 miles east of Lake Baikal, following almost a due east course to Vladivostok. A line will branch off at Kirin, and run due south to Port Arthur. This will create a system that will make Russian influence practi­cally paramount in Manchuria.

Kirghiz Tartar Village on Siberian Steppes
To aid in forming an understanding of the country a brief glance at the main geographical and physical characteristics of Siberia may, I believe, properly be made. Our maps show us that Siberia is a vast country of nearly 5,000,000 of square miles area, extending from the northern confines of China and Turkestan to the Arctic Sea, through over thirty degrees of latitude, and from the Ural Mountains in the west, to the Pacific Ocean in the east, through about 180 degrees of longi­tude.

In substantially parallel courses there are many mighty rivers flowing through the entire breadth of Siberia into the Northern Sea. The chief ones are the Obi, the Yenisei, and the Lena. The main stem of these rivers usually extends southward 1,000 or 1,200 miles, when, by numerous radiating tributaries they spread fan-like through an immense area of coun­try, finally finding their source in the great, high plateaus of Central Asia. The railway line, therefore, in its western half, passes through the upper reaches of the Obi and the Yenisei rivers.

Somehow I had formed the idea that Siberia was, in the main, a mountainous, broken, barren, and even sterile country, covered with forests—which opinion, I am inclined to think, is somewhat gener­ally entertained in the west. Nothing could be farther from the fact. Of all the surprises met within my somewhat ex­tensive travels, Siberia is the greatest.  As a whole, it contains, perhaps, the largest continuous area of level lands on the globe. Excepting spurs of the great Altai range of mountains fringing its southern border, and cutting occasionally to some distance northward into Siberia, the entire western half of the coun­try is exceptionally level, almost to flat­ness. Near Lake Baikal, in the foothills of the Altais, the mountains rise to a height of not over 6,000 feet, and it is only when going 100 miles further, to the very China border, that anything like a great altitude is reached.

Map Showing the Course of the Trans-Siberian Railroad
(the black line indicates the portion of the railroad which is 
completed; the dotted line the portion still unbuilt)
The railway, therefore, having no great mountain ranges to cross, and throughout almost its entire length being built through a practically level country, pre­sents no example of more than ordinary engineering achievement; in fact, it will be no more difficult to construct it clear through to the Pacific Ocean than it was to build the Union Pacific from Omaha to Salt Lake City. If a great section of country of, the United States and British America be taken, extending from the Gulf of Mexico through thirty degrees of latitude northward, and 2,000 miles east­ward from the Rocky Mountains, it would fairly represent an area of country similar in physical characteristics to that portion of Siberia which we are considering. In­deed, the resemblance is not in extent only, for in their geological formation they are quite identical—the one being formed by the wash in primeval times from the eastern escarpment of the Rocky Mountains, and the other from the north­ern face of the great Central Asian Mountains in the south and that of the Urals in the west. The alluvial character of the soil in both places goes far to bear out this identity of origin. It would not be far from the fact to say that for 2,000 miles east of the Ural Mountains, and extending to the Arctic Sea, Siberia is almost as level as the ocean. In over 1,000 miles I do not believe the grade of the railroad varied 300 feet, and in many places it is as straight as an arrow with­out the slightest curve for forty or fifty miles. Indeed, there is one stretch of perfectly straight road for 116 versts, or nearly eighty miles.

Along the whole line there is the most luxurious growth of grass I have seen in any country. There are many varieties, some like the native blue stem of the west, and one variety that in appearance seemed closely allied to the Kentucky blue grass. Judging from the superb condition of the animals that graze upon them, they must all be of the most nutritious nature; it is, there­fore, not only one of the finest, but by far the largest grazing region in exist­ence. If fully utilized, I believe Siberia could fur­nish the beef supply for the world. The soil seems similar to that of Eastern Nebraska and Kansas; in fact, it is, in great part, identical with the Tchernozium formation in European Russia, an eastward extension of which it seems to be.

Ferry over the Obi River
The country for 600 miles is literally dotted with beautiful lakes of clear, pure water of one-half to two miles in diame­ter, the habitation in the season of myriads of ducks, geese and other wild fowl. These lakes, as also the rivers, abound in fish of good quality and many varieties. There are many grouse and partridge in the steppes, but no deer of any kind, accountable, no doubt, to the long occu­pancy of the country by the Tartars, who converted it into a sort of semi-domestic domain. The country is, therefore, well watered and well drained. I saw scarcely any traces of alkali in the soil.

Although the winters in Siberia are very cold, they are not especially long or trying. While the extreme temperature during winter may reach a point ten to fifteen degrees lower than in Ohio or generally in latitude forty in the United States, still as the air is very dry and there are no high winds, I have no doubt the win­ter season can be passed without especial discomfort. When winter sets in, which it does suddenly, and usually about the first of November, it continues steadily through about five months, when there is as sudden a break-up, ushering in per­manently pleasant warm weather. There are no mid-winter thaws, as in the United States, with their extremes of summer heat and polar chills, but the weather remains continuously cold, and the snow lies un­broken on the ground until the spring thaw. Nor is the snowfall excessive. By those who have the experience, I and informed that the winters are far more agree­able than in other countries, where the temperature is higher and more violent changes occur.

Street Scene at Tomsk, the Capital of Western Siberia
There is one climatic feature here that gives marked advan­tage over our own great west, where a higher tempera­ture prevails, and that is the entire absence of those blizzards which are the terror of our western stockmen. I am, indeed, told that the Tartars give their herds nei­ther food nor protection in the winter,  leaving them to take care of themselves, which, it is said, they read­ily do by scratch­ing a way the snow that covers the tall, thick growth of grass beneath. The rainfall in summer is seasonable and abundant. I have been unable to make out to my own satis­faction where the rain conies from. As in America, it invariably rains here when the rain-bearing clouds come from the south and west, and clears away with a north or northwest wind. It is easy to understand why, in America, a smith wind brings rain. As the current of air saturated with moisture frog the Gulf and warm equatorial waters in the south comes in contact with the colder air of higher latitudes, it naturally deposits it in the form of rain. But as a south wind here comes from the high cold plateau re­gion of Central Asia, where the air is dry and evaporation meagre, it is not easy to see why a southern current of air under these conditions should deposit rain.

New Russian Settlement on Line of Railroad
Wood fuel is used in the engines of the
 road and is supplied from piles along the line
All along the route of the Siberian rail­way are to be found those examples of quick settlement of country and sudden growth of towns so familiar in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska in the early days of the extension of railways through those States. Every few miles a station is located on the open plains or prairies, around which there quickly clusters a thriving village. Fields of newly culti­vated lands, many covered with a golden harvest, can be seen for miles at all these stations. There are some instances of rapid growth not surpassed in our own great West.

From Moscow to Wajsaowaja, the line of travel leads through more than 1,000 miles of treeless plains and prairies. Syran, a city of grain shipment in the valley of the Volga, and Botraki, a like port, where the Volga is traversed by a magnifi­cent railroad bridge, are the sole centers of commercial importance which break this monotony. At Wajsaowaja, the sum­mit of, the Ural Mountains looms in view. Those who from the great length of these mountains—over 1,700 miles from north to south—have been led to expect an imposing range, are doomed to disappoint­ment. The height is only moderate, being a little over 6,000 feet at the extreme, scarcely equal to the Appenines. The summit is reached a little beyond Zlatoust, at an elevation of 3,000 feet. It is an easy grade and requires no special effort to sur­mount. On reaching the summit one might well believe this to be the railway summit of the Alleghenies near Altoona, so simi­lar to the latter are the surroundings.

Ordinary Passenger Train on Trans-Siberian Railroad
Zlatoust, a large town, is most import­ant in several particulars. It was until recently the "Botany Bay" of Russia. Here one occasionally sees prisoners chained in gangs destined to work in the mines, or perhaps, doomed to the solitude of farther Siberia. Zlatoust is in the center of the iron regions of Russia. A very fine quality is produced here in great quantities, and being free from both sulfur and phos­phorus, it is consumed principally in making sheets and bars for those pur­poses where the highest quality is re­quired. In Zlatoust, also, there are great government works for the manufacture of steel cannon and other arms. Cutlery of various kinds is made in large quanti­ties, and it is said the swords are of ex­ceptional quality.

Officials of the Trans-Siberian Railroad
Shortly after leaving Zlatoust we pass a large stone monument erected at some distance from the railway. On one side is, in Russian, the word "Europe," and on the opposite side "Asia." It marks the boundary between Europe and Asia. One, however, does not need a monument to learn that he is passing from one great geographical division to another, for the sparse population, uncultivated lands, and general wild aspect only too clearly indicate that he has suddenly entered Siberia.

The eastern slope of the Ural Mountains is, for a space, more abrupt than the western, but it soon enters upon a gentle slope that continues until it touches the western edge of that great level plain which seems to stretch indefinitely to the east. On leaving the summit we join the Isset, a small river, whose course we closely follow until it deflects to the north: east, becoming a tributary to the Irtish, one of the main branches of the great Obi River. Fifty miles further on in the plains we come to Tscheljabinsk, where ends the first section of this great railway. The railway on leaving Tscheljabinsk, takes an almost due eastern course, which it varies by a few points only, until be­yond the Yenisei River, a distance of about 2,000 miles, when it deflects to the southeast for nearly 800 miles until it reaches Lake Baikal, only a short dis­tance from the China border.

The first town after leaving Tschelja­binsk of importance is Kurgan, once the seat of the Tartar government before its conquest by the Muscovite. It is situated on the Tobol River, which, after flowing 500 miles north, joins the Irtish at To­bolsk. Kurgan lies in the midst of what, in virtue of its extent, richness of soil and exuberant pasturage, is perhaps the largest and best tract of grazing land on the globe. The town owes its importance to the large cattle trade that centers here from the Kirghiz steppes in all directions. It was a town of no inconsiderable impor­tance before the railroad was constructed.

Station at Zlatoust in the Ural Mountains
Here one sees the Kirghiz in his nat­ural state, but little modified by modern civilization. They are a splendid race, having strong features and a dignified bearing, and are accredited with many virtues. It is said they are unusually cleanly and of notable fidelity and hos­pitality, especially where strangers are concerned. Being a purely pastoral peo­ple, they disdain the tillage of the soil, living almost wholly on the production of their herds. The life of the Tartar is a simple and monotonous one, and withal frugal. Their diet consists almost wholly of meats and cheese.

Kurgan is certainly cast for a large city, when once the great coun­try tributary to it is utilized to anything like its full capabil­ities. Although you see every­where immense herds of ani­mals, and al­though the country is checkered with newly plowed fields, still it is apparent that its ultimate grazing and cereal re­sources have as yet been scarcely more than tested.

Petropavlovsk is the next town of importance reached. It is on the Shim River, a tributary of the Obi, and it contains about 20,000 inhabitants. It was once the frontier fortress used by Russia against the Kirghiz. It owes its existence to an important trade with Samar­cand and Central Asia, great trains of camels coming from those places. Like all the old towns on this route, new build­ings and other evidences of rapid development attest the vivifying influence of the railroad.

From Petro­pavlovsk to Omsk, distance of about 400 miles, there is the same mo­notonous repe­tition of level, fertile plains, flowery fields, budding villages, and new­ly cultivated lands. It is evident that the Russian policy of settling this coun­try is produc­ing marked changes, es­pecially in those parts ren­dered accessi­ble by the railroad. For miles on each side of the line, as far as the Yenisei River, the lands are being tak­en, and in many places heavy crops are being raised. Long trains crowded with emigrants on their way eastward are frequently passed. Of wheat and oats, they have already produced a large sur­plus. All along the route, as far as Tomsk, one will see at the stations great piles of sacks containing wheat of last year's crop, which, on account of the congested traffic of the road, is awaiting shipment. This surplus is happily most opportune, as it will be shipped to the drought-stricken region 1,500 miles to the west, where, on account of excessive, dry weather, the fairest portion of Russia, in the Volga valley, the crops have been al­most an absolute failure and much dis­tress exists.

Emigrants going east on Trans-Siberian Railroad
Omsk, on the Irtish River, the second city of Siberia, with a population of 40,000, owes much of its importance to the fact that it is the capital of Western Si­beria, which was moved from Tobolsk in 1824. Like all Siberian towns of this class, it has some elegant and even mas­sive government buildings, along with many fine brick and stone business struc­tures, all embedded in a mass of curi­ously built wooden houses. The streets, except the long one on which the busi­ness houses are located, and forming the artery of the town, are unpaved; most of the year they are almost impassable. Like all Russian towns, there are many fine churches in Omsk, some of them of great size, and, being always of the Oriental type of architecture, sometimes present an indescribably charming appearance.

At Omsk, a most interesting character came aboard the train, on his way to Tomsk, returning thence to Moscow, to attend the dedication there of the monu­ment of the Czar, Alexander II. He was a fine specimen of this hardy race, sixty-five years of age, most intelligent and well educated. He is the mayor of quite an important city called Vernoe, in Southern Siberia in the Altai Mountains, over 1,000 miles southeast of Omsk. He had just driven from that city in a troika, a distance of 1,200 miles, in eight days. Having spent most of his life in that re­gion, he had never before seen a railway. It was interesting to note his dazed and half frightened appearance as the train moved off. Through my guide, I obtained from him much valuable information as to the nature of the great region lying south of the railway line. He informed me that for 600 miles the same level, rich, black prairie lands extend. After that, by a gradual ascent about through 500 or 600 miles further the lands mean­while growing more rolling and rougher, the summit of the Altais is reached at an elevation of 12,000 feet.

After passing the Obi River the land, as far as the Yenisei; becomes more rolling and has a thicker growth of trees, the fir being present to some extent, with the birch. This region is almost exactly like Eastern Nebraska and the State of Iowa, the same rolling lands and deep, black soil. If possible, this is even better, wheat land than the more level lands west of the Obi. From the Yenisei for about 600 miles, I am told that much the same coun­try exists, until the mountain range near Lake Baikal is reached, running as a spur from the Altais in Northern China. Just beyond the Obi River, we stopped at a town, called Obb, of over 14,000 inhabi­tants, containing many handsome build­ings and several beautiful church edifices. It was a flourishing community and the seat of an active trade. I am told that less than three years ago there was not a house existing where the town now stands, and, indeed, that the whole country round was one of wild solitude and desolation. Tomsk is, perhaps, the most important and largest town in Siberia, and has had a rapid growth since the railway has been completed there. It is not on the main line, but eighty miles on a branch run­ning northward down the Tom Valley, and which in due time will be extended. It much resembles Omsk, having some fine government and business buildings. The prison is a huge, ugly, brick build­ing, with low, vaulted corridors in the interior, the whole of such gloomy aspect as to fully satisfy the most dismal imagin­ings of those who are disposed to believe in the horrors of Siberian prison life. There is a flourishing university in Tomsk, with 300 students and thirty professors. I might add that Tomsk is lighted by elec­tric light and has a telephone system.

A View at a Station Two Thousand Miles East of Moscow
It is possible to go some hundreds of miles further on by rail, but it is doubtful if what one sees will be an adequate reward for the delays and hardships encountered. I am told that for the most part the coun­try and scenery is quite the same as I have been looking at for weeks. The same succession of fertile plains, with their wondrous growth of grass, bedecked at times by a sea of flowers, and stretching far away to the horizon like a billowy ocean, the same crowds of emigrants. in streams and train loads pushing to the country beyond, and the same embryo towns springing up everywhere like mush­rooms from the earth, all of which, however surprising and interesting it may be in the out-start, becomes at last a weari­some monotony.

This great region is not likely to be settled and developed with that rapidity which marked our lightning-like advance in the West; still, it will be fast enough to make a decided change in the commercial and economic interests of old or Eu­ropean Russia. It is easy to see what a magical transformation must take place, even if slowly under the influence of an ex­tended railway system. It is all the more easily imagined by one who has already seen in his own country an object lesson of a similar character. I doubt if the Rus­sians fully realize to what an extent their great enterprise is going to modify their economic and, perhaps, social conditions.

From Ainslee’s Magazine, May 1899.