The Adventures of a Special Correspondent
Part 2 out of 5
half-past six as yet, and there is too much daylight for me to risk the
gratification of my curiosity.
The train advances through the open desert. This is the Kara Koum, the
Black Desert. It extends from Khiva over all Turkestan comprised
between the Persian frontier and the course of the Amou Daria. In
reality the sands of the Kara Koum are no more black than the waters of
the Black Sea or than those of the White Sea are white, those of the
Red Sea red, or those of the Yellow River yellow. But I like these
colored distinctions, however erroneous they may be. In landscapes the
eye is caught by colors. And is there not a good deal of landscape
It appears that this desert was formerly occupied by a huge central
basin. It has dried up, as the Caspian will dry up, and this
evaporation is explained by the powerful concentration of the solar
rays on the surface of the territories between the Sea of Aral and the
Plateau of the Pamir.
The Kara Koum is formed of low sandy hills which the high winds are
constantly shifting and forming. These "barkans," as the Russians call
them, vary in height from thirty to ninety feet. They expose a wide
surface to the northern hurricanes which drive them gradually
southward. And on this account there is a well-justified fear for the
safety of the Transcaspian. It had to be protected in some efficacious
way, and General Annenkof would have been much embarrassed if provident
Nature had not, at the same time as she gave the land favorable for the
railway to be laid along, given the means of stopping the shifting of
Behind these sand hills grow a number of spring shrubs, clumps of
tamarisk, star thistles, and that _Haloxylon ammodendron_ which
Russians call, not so scientifically, "saksaoul." Its deep, strong
roots are as well adapted for binding together the ground as those of
_Hippophae rhamnoides_, an arbutus of the Eleagnaceous family, which is
used for binding together the sands in southern Europe.
To these plantations of saksaouls the engineers of the line have added
in different places a series of slopes of worked clay, and in the most
dangerous places a line of palisades.
These precautions are doubtless of use; but if the road is protected,
the passengers are hardly so, when the sand flies like a bullet hail,
and the wind sweeps up from the plain the whitish efflorescences of
salt. It is a good thing for us that we are not in the height of the
hot season; and it is not in June or July or August that I would advise
you to take a trip on the Grand Transasiatic.
I am sorry that Major Noltitz does not think of coming out on the
gangway to breathe the fresh air of the Kara Koum. I would offer him
one of those choice regalias with which my case is well provided. He
would tell me if these stations I see on my time-table, Balla-Ischem,
Aidine, Pereval, Kansandjik, Ouchak, are of any interest--which they do
not seem to be. But it would not do for me to disturb his siesta. And
yet his conversation ought to be interesting, for as a surgeon in the
Russian army he took part in the campaigns of Generals Skobeleff and
Annenkof. When our train ran through the little stations that it honors
only with a whistle, he could tell me if this one or that one had been
the scene of any incident of the war. As a Frenchman I am justified in
questioning him about the Russian expedition across Turkestan, and I
have no doubt that my fellow passenger will be pleased to gratify me.
He is the only one I can really trust besides Popof.
But why is Popof not in his seat? He also is not insensible to the
charms of a cigar. It would seem that his conversation with the
engineer has not finished yet.
Ah! Here he is coming from the front of the luggage van. He comes out
of it and shuts the door; he remains for a moment and is about to take
a seat. A hand which holds a cigar, is stretched out toward him. Popof
smiles and soon his perfumed puffs are mingling voluptuously with mine.
For fifteen years I think I said our guard had been in the Transcaspian
service. He knows the country up to the Chinese frontier, and five or
six times already he has been over the whole line known as the Grand
Popof was on duty on the section between Mikhailov and Kizil Arvat when
the line opened--a section which was begun in the December of 1880 and
finished in ten months, in November, 1881. Five years later the
locomotive entered Merv, on the 14th July, 1886, and eighteen months
later it was welcomed at Samarkand. Now the road through Turkestan
joins the road through the Celestial Empire, and the ribbon of iron
extends without interruption from the Caspian Sea to Pekin.
When Popof had given me this information, I asked if he knew anything
of our fellow travelers, I meant those who were going through to China.
And in the first place of Major Noltitz?
"The major," said Popof, "has lived a long time in the Turkestan
provinces, and he is going to Pekin to organize the staff of a hospital
for our compatriots, with the permission of the Czar, of course."
"I like this Major Noltitz," I said, "and I hope to make his
acquaintance very soon."
"He would be equally pleased to make yours," replied Popof.
"And these two Chinese, do you know them?"
"Not in the least, Monsieur Bombarnac; all I know is the name on the
"What is that?"
"The younger man's name is Pan-Chao, the elder's is Tio-King. Probably
they have been traveling in Europe for some years. As to saying where
they come from, I cannot. I imagine that Pan-Chao belongs to some rich
family, for he is accompanied by his doctor."
"Yes, Doctor Tio-King."
"And do they only speak Chinese?"
"Probably; I have not heard them speak any other language together."
On this information from Popof, I will keep to the number nine I have
given to young Pan-Chao, and to the ten with which I have labelled
"The American," began Popof.
"Ephrinell?" I exclaimed, "and Miss Horatia Bluett, the Englishwoman?
Oh! You can tell me nothing about them I don't know."
"Shall I tell you what I think about that couple, Monsieur Bombarnac?"
"What do you think?"
"That as soon as they reach Pekin, Miss Bluett will become Mrs.
"And may Heaven bless their union, Popof, for they are really made for
I saw that on this subject Popof and I held similar ideas.
"And the two French people, that couple so affectionate." I asked, "who
"Have they not told you?"
"You need not be anxious, Monsieur Bombarnac. Besides, if you wish to
know their profession, it is written at full length on all their
"And that is?"
"Stage people who are going to a theater in China."
Stage people! If that explains the attitudes, and mobile physiognomy,
and demonstrative gestures of Caterna, it does not explain his maritime
"And do you know what line these players are in?"
"The husband is comic lead."
"And the wife?"
"She is leading lady."
"And where are these lyrical people going?"
"To Shanghai, where they have an engagement at the French theater."
That is capital. I will talk about the theater, and behind the scenes,
and such matters, and, as Popof said, I shall soon make the
acquaintance of the cheery comedian and his charming wife. But it is
not in their company that I shall discover the hero of romance who is
the object of my desire.
As to the scornful gentleman, our guide knew nothing beyond that his
luggage bore the address in full: Sir Francis Trevellyan, Trevellyan
"A gentleman who does not answer when he is spoken to!" added Popof.
Well, my number eight will have to be dumb man, and that will do very
"Now we get to the German," said I.
"He is going to Pekin, I think."
"To Pekin and beyond."
"Yes; he is on a trip round the world."
"A trip round the world?"
"In thirty-nine days."
And so after Mrs. Bisland who did the famous tour in seventy-three
days, and Train who did it in seventy, this German was attempting to do
it in thirty-nine?
True, the means of communication are more rapid the line is more
direct, and by using the Grand Transasiatic which puts Pekin within a
fortnight of the Prussian capital, the baron might halve the old time
by Suez and Singapore--but--
"He will never do it!" I exclaimed.
"Why not?" asked Popof.
"Because he is always late. He nearly missed the train at Tiflis, he
nearly missed the boat at Baku--"
"But he did not miss the start from Uzun Ada."
"It doesn't matter, Popof. I shall be much surprised if this German
beats an American at globe trotting."
* * * * *
The train arrived at Kizil Arvat, two hundred and forty-two versts from
the Caspian, at thirteen minutes past seven in the evening instead of
seven o'clock. This slight delay provoked thirteen objurgations from
the baron, one for each minute.
We have two hours to wait at Kizil Arvat. Although the day is closing
in, I could not employ my time better than in visiting this little
town, which contains more than two thousand inhabitants, Russians,
Persians and Turkomans. There is not much to see, however, either
within it or around it; there are no trees--not even a palm tree--only
pasturages and fields of cereals, watered by a narrow stream. My good
fortune furnished me with a companion, or I should rather say a guide,
in Major Noltitz.
Our acquaintance was made very simply. The major came up to me, and I
went up to him as soon as we set foot on the platform of the railway
"Sir," said I, "I am a Frenchman, Claudius Bombarnac, special
correspondent of the _Twentieth Century_, and you are Major Noltitz of
the Russian army. You are going to Pekin, so am I. I can speak your
language, and it is very likely that you can speak mine."
The major made a sign of assent.
"Well, Major Noltitz, instead of remaining strangers to each other
during the long transit of Central Asia, would it please you for us to
become more than mere traveling companions? You know all about this
country that I do not know, and it would be a pleasure for me to learn
"Monsieur Bombarnac," replied the major in French, without a trace of
accent, "I quite agree with you."
Then he added with a smile:
"As to learning from me, one of your most eminent critics, if I
remember rightly, has said that the French only like to learn what they
"I see that you have read Sainte Beuve, Major Noltitz; perhaps this
sceptical academician was right in a general way. But for my part, I am
an exception to the rule, and I wish to learn what I do not know. And
in all that concerns Russian Turkestan, I am in a state of ignorance."
"I am entirely at your disposal," said the major, "and I will be happy
to tell you all about General Annenkof, for I was all through the work
"I thank you, Major Noltitz. I expected no less than the courtesy of a
Russian towards a Frenchman."
"And," said the major, "if you will allow me to quote that celebrated
sentence in the _Danicheffs_, 'It will be always thus so long as there
are Frenchmen and Russians.'"
"The younger Dumas after Sainte Beuve?" I exclaimed. "I see, major,
that I am talking to a Parisian--"
"Of Petersburg, Monsieur Bombarnac."
And we cordially shook hands. A minute afterwards, we were on our way
through the town, and this is what Major Noltitz told me:
It was towards the end of 1885 that General Annenkof finished, at Kizil
Arvat, the first portion of this railway measuring about 140 miles, of
which 90 were through a desert which did not yield a single drop of
water. But before telling me how this extraordinary work was
accomplished, Major Noltitz reminded me of the facts which had
gradually prepared the conquest of Turkestan and its definite
incorporation with the Russian Empire.
As far back as 1854 the Russians had imposed a treaty of alliance on
the Khan of Khiva. Some years afterwards, eager to pursue their march
towards the east, the campaigns of 1860 and 1864 had given them the
Khanats of Kokhand and Bokhara. Two years later, Samarkand passed under
their dominion after the battles of Irdjar and Zera-Buleh.
There remained to be conquered the southern portion of Turkestan, and
chiefly the oasis of Akhal Tekke, which is contiguous to Persia.
Generals Sourakine and Lazareff attempted this in their expeditions of
1878 and 1879. Their plans failed, and it was to the celebrated
Skobeleff, the hero of Plevna, that the czar confided the task of
subduing the valiant Turkoman tribes.
Skobeleff landed at the port of Mikhailov--the port of Uzun Ada was not
then in existence--and it was in view of facilitating his march across
the desert that his second in command, Annenkof, constructed the
strategic railway which in ten months reached Kizil Arvat.
This is how the Russians built the line with a rapidity superior, as I
have said, to that of the Americans in the far west, a line that was to
be of use for commerce and for war.
To begin with, the general got together a construction train consisting
of thirty-four wagons. Four of these were two-decked for the officers,
twenty more had two decks and were used by the workmen and soldiers;
one wagon served as a dining room, four as kitchens, one as an
ambulance, one as a telegraph office, one as a forge, one as a
provision store, and one was held in reserve. These were his traveling
workshops and also his barracks in which fifteen hundred workmen,
soldiers and otherwise, found their board and lodging. The train
advanced as the rails were laid. The workmen were divided into two
brigades; they each worked six hours a day, with the assistance of the
country people who lived in tents and numbered about fifteen thousand.
A telegraph wire united the works with Mikhailov, and from there a
little Decauville engine worked the trains which brought along the
rails and sleepers.
In this way, helped by the horizontality of the ground, a day's work
yielded nearly five miles of track, whereas in the plains of the United
States only about half that rate was accomplished. Labor cost little;
forty-five francs a month for the men from the oasis, fifty centimes a
day for those who came from Bokhara.
It was in this way that Skobeleff's soldiers were taken to Kizil Arvat,
and then eighty-four miles beyond to Gheok Tepe. This town did not
surrender until after the destruction of its ramparts and the massacre
of twelve thousand of its defenders; but the oasis of Akhal Tekke was
in the power of the Russians. The inhabitants of the Atek oasis were
only too ready to submit, and that all the more willingly as they had
implored the help of the czar in their struggle with Kouli Khan, the
chief of the Mervians. These latter to the number of two hundred and
fifty thousand, followed their example, and the first locomotive
entered Merv station in July, 1886.
"And the English?" I asked Major Noltitz. "In what way have they looked
upon the progress of the Russians through Central Asia?"
"Jealously, of course. Think for a moment what it means when the
Russian railways are united with the Chinese, instead of the Indian.
The Transcaspian in connection with the line between Herat and Delhi!
And consider that the English have not been as fortunate in Afghanistan
as we have been in Turkestan. You have noticed the gentleman in our
"I have. He is Sir Francis Trevellyan of Trevellyan Hall,
"Well, Sir Francis Trevellyan has nothing but looks of contempt and
shrugs of the shoulder for all we have done. His nation's jealousy is
incarnate in him, and England will never be content that our railways
should go from Europe to the Pacific Ocean, while the British railways
end at the Indian Ocean."
This interesting conversation had lasted for the hour and a half during
which we walked about the streets of Kizil Arvat. It was time to return
to the station, and we did so.
Of course, matters did not end here. It was agreed that the major
should leave his seat in the third car and occupy that next to mine in
the first. We had already been two inhabitants of the same town; well,
we would become two neighbors in the house, or, rather, two friends in
the same room.
At nine o'clock the signal to start was given. The train leaving Kizil
Arvat went off in a southwesterly direction towards Askhabad, along the
For another half hour the major and I continued to talk of one thing or
another. He told me that if the sun had not set, I should have been
able to see the summits of the Great and Little Balkans of Asia which
rise above the bay of Krasnovodsk.
Already most of our companions had taken up their quarters for the
night on their seats, which by an ingenious mechanism could be
transformed into beds, on which you could stretch yourself at full
length, lay your head on a pillow, wrap yourself in rugs, and if you
didn't sleep well it would be on account of a troubled conscience.
Major Noltitz had nothing to reproach himself with apparently, for a
few minutes after he had said good night he was deep in the sleep of
As for me, if I remained awake it was because I was troubled in my
mind. I was thinking of my famous packing case, of the man it
contained, and this very night I had resolved to enter into
communication with him. I thought of the people who had done this sort
of thing before. In 1889, 1891, and 1892, an Austrian tailor, Hermann
Zeitung, had come from Vienna to Paris, from Amsterdam to Brussels,
from Antwerp to Christiania in a box, and two sweethearts of Barcelona,
Erres and Flora Anglora, had shared a box between them from Spain into
But I must wait until Popof had retired to rest. The train would not
stop until it reached Gheok Tepe at one o'clock in the morning. During
the run from Kizil Arvat to Gheok Tepe I reckoned that Popof would have
a good sleep, and then, or never, I would put my plan into execution.
Hold! an idea! Suppose it is Zeitung who makes a trade of this sort of
thing and manages to make a little money out of public generosity? It
ought to be Zeitung, it must be! Confound it! he is not at all
interesting! And here was I reckoning on this fellow. Well, we shall
see. I shall know him by his photographs, and perhaps I may make use of
Half an hour went by, and the noise of a door shutting on the platform
of the car told me that our guard had just entered his little box. In
spite of my desire to visit the baggage car I waited patiently, for it
was possible that Popof was not yet sound asleep.
Within, all is quiet under the veiled light of the lamps.
Without, the night is very dark, and the rattle of the train mingles
with the whistling of the rather high wind.
I rise. I draw aside the curtain of one of the lamps. I look at my
It is a few minutes past eleven. Still two hours to Gheok Tepe.
The moment has come. I glide between the seats to the door of the car.
I open it gently and shut it after me without being heard by my
companions, without waking any one.
Here I am on the platform, which shakes as the train travels. Amid the
unfathomable darkness which envelops the Kara Koum, I experience the
feeling of a night at sea when on shipboard.
A feeble light filters through the blind of the guard's box. Shall I
wait till it is extinct, or, as is very probable, will it not last till
Anyhow, Popof is not asleep, as I discover by the noise he makes in
turning over. I keep quiet, leaning against the balustrade of the
Leaning forward my looks are attracted by the luminous ray thrown
forward by the headlight of the engine. It seems as though we are
running on a road of fire. Above me the clouds are racing across with
great rapidity, and a few constellations glitter through their rifts,
Cassiopeia, the Little Bear, in the north, and in the zenith Vega of
At length absolute silence reigns on the platforms. Popof, who is in
charge of the train, has his eyes closed in sleep. Assured of safety I
cross the gangway and am in front of the baggage van.
The door is only fastened with a bar which is hung between two staples.
I open it and shut it behind me.
I do this without noise, for if I do not want to attract Popof's
attention, I do not want as yet to attract the attention of the man in
the packing case.
Although the darkness is deep in the van, although there is no side
window, I know my position. I know where the case is placed; it is in
the left corner as I enter. The thing is not to knock against any other
case--not against one of those belonging to Ephrinell, for what a row
there would be if I set all those artificial teeth chattering!
Carefully feeling with feet and hands, I reach the case. No cat could
have been more gentle or more silent as I felt its edges.
I leaned over and placed my ear timidly against the outer panel.
There was no sound of breathing.
The products of the house of Strong, Bulbul & Co., of New York, could
not be more noiseless in their boxes.
A fear seizes upon me--the fear of seeing all my reporter's hopes
vanish. Was I deceived on board the _Astara_? That respiration, that
sneeze; had I dreamed it all? Was there no one in the case, not even
Zeitung? Were these really glass goods exported to Miss Zinca Klork,
Avenue Cha-Coua, Pekin, China?
No! Feeble as it is, I detect a movement inside the case! It becomes
more distinct, and I ask if the panel is going to slide, if the
prisoner is coming out of his prison to breathe the fresh air?
What I had better do to see and not to be seen is to hide between two
cases. Thanks to the darkness there is nothing to fear.
Suddenly a slight cracking greets my ear. I am not the sport of an
illusion; it is the crack of a match being lighted.
Almost immediately a few feeble rays pierce the ventilation holes of
If I had had any doubts as to the position held by the prisoner in the
scale of being, I have none now. At the least it must be an ape who
knows the use of fire, and also the handling of matches. Travelers tell
us that such animals exist, but we have to take the statement on trust.
Why should I not confess it? A certain emotion came over me and I had
to take care I did not run away.
A minute elapsed. Nothing shows that the panel has been moved, nothing
gives me reason to suppose that the unknown is coming out.
Cautiously I wait. Then I have an idea to make something out of this
light. The case is lighted within; if I were to peep through those
I creep toward the case. A single apprehension chills my brain. If the
light were suddenly extinguished!
I am against the panel, which I take care not to touch, and I put my
eyes close to one of the holes.
There is a man in the box, and it is not the Austrian tailor, Zeitung!
Thank Heaven! I will soon make him my No. 11.
The man's features I can make out clearly. He is from twenty-five to
twenty-six years of age. He does not shave, and his beard is brown. He
is of the true Roumanian type, and that confirms me in my notion
regarding his Roumanian correspondent. He is good-looking, although his
face denotes great energy of character, and he must be energetic to
have shut himself up in a box like this for such a long journey. But if
he has nothing of the malefactor about him, I must confess that he does
not look like the hero I am in search of as the chief personage in my
After all, they were not heroes, that Austrian and that Spaniard who
traveled in their packing cases. They were young men, very simple, very
ordinary, and yet they yielded columns of copy. And so this brave No.
11, with amplifications, antonyms, diaphoreses, epitases, tropes,
metaphors, and other figures of that sort, I will beat out, I will
enlarge, I will develop--as they develop a photographic negative.
Besides to travel in a box from Tiflis to Pekin is quite another affair
than traveling from Vienna or Barcelona to Paris, as was done by
Zeitung, Erres and Flora Anglora.
I add that I will not betray my Roumanian; I will report him to no one.
He may rely on my discretion; he may reckon on my good offices if I can
be of use to him when he is found out.
But what is he doing now? Well, he is seated on the bottom of his case
and placidly eating his supper by the light of a little lamp. A box of
preserves is on his knee, biscuit is not wanting, and in a little
cupboard I notice some full bottles, besides a rug and overcoat hooked
up on the wall.
Evidently No. 11 is quite at home. He is there in his cell like a snail
in his shell. His house goes with him; and he saves the thousand francs
it would have cost him to journey from Tiflis to Pekin, second-class. I
know he is committing a fraud, and that the law punishes such fraud. He
can come out of his box when he likes and take a walk in the van, or
even at night venture on the platform. No! I do not blame him, and when
I think of his being sent to the pretty Roumanian, I would willingly
take his place.
An idea occurs to me which may not perhaps be as good as it seems. That
is to rap lightly on the box so as to enter into communication with my
new companion, and learn who he is, and whence he comes, for I know
whither he goes. An ardent curiosity devours me, I must gratify it.
There are moments when a special correspondent is metamorphosed into a
daughter of Eve.
But how will the poor fellow take it? Very well, I am sure. I will tell
him that I am a Frenchman, and a Roumanian knows he can always trust a
Frenchman. I will offer him my services. I will propose to soften the
rigors of his imprisonment by my interviews, and to make up the
scarcity of his meals by little odds and ends. He will have nothing to
fear from my imprudences.
I rap the panel.
The light suddenly goes out.
The prisoner has suspended his respiration.
I must reassure him.
"Open!" I say to him gently in Russian.
I cannot finish the sentence; for the train gives a sudden jump and
But we cannot yet have reached Gheok Tepe?
There is a noise outside.
I rush out of the van and shut the door behind me.
It was time.
I have scarcely reached the platform before Popofs door opens, and
without seeing me he hurries through the van on to the engine.
Almost immediately the train resumes its normal speed and Popof
reappears a minute afterwards.
"What is the matter, Popof?"
"What is often the matter, Monsieur Bombarnac. We have smashed a
"Poor brute? He might have thrown us off the line!"
"Stupid brute, then!"
Before the train reaches Gheok Tepe I am back in the car. Confound this
dromedary! If he had not managed to get smashed so clumsily No. 11
would no longer be unknown to me. He would have opened his panel, we
would have talked in a friendly way, and separated with a friendly
shake of the hand. Now he will be full of anxiety, he knows his fraud
is discovered, that there is some one who has reason to suspect his
intentions, some one who may not hesitate to betray his secret. And
then, after being taken out of his case, he will be put under guard at
the next station, and it will be useless for Mademoiselle Zinca Klork
to expect him in the capital of the Chinese Empire!
Yes! It would be better for me to relieve his anxiety this very night.
That is impossible, for the train will soon stop at Gheok Tepe, and
then at Askhabad which it will leave in the first hour of daylight. I
can no longer trust to Popof's going to sleep.
I am absorbed in these reflections, when the locomotive stops in Gheok
Tepe station at one o'clock in the morning. None of my companions have
left their beds.
I get out on to the platform and prowl around the van. It would be too
risky to try and get inside. I should have been glad to visit the town,
but the darkness prevents me from seeing anything. According to what
Major Noltitz says it still retains the traces of Skobeleffs terrible
assault in 1880--dismantled walls, bastions in ruins. I must content
myself with having seen all that with the major's eyes.
The train starts at two o'clock in the morning, after having been
joined by a few passengers who Popof tells me are Turkomans. I will
have a look at them when daylight comes.
For ten minutes I remained on the car platform and watched the heights
of the Persian frontier on the extreme limit of the horizon. Beyond the
stretch of verdant oasis watered by a number of creeks, we crossed wide
cultivated plains through which the line made frequent diversions.
Having discovered that Popof did not intend to go to sleep again, I
went back to my corner.
At three o'clock there was another stop. The name of Askhabad was
shouted along the platform. As I could not remain still I got out,
leaving my companions sound asleep, and I ventured into the town.
Askhabad is the headquarters of the Transcaspian, and I opportunely
remembered what Boulangier, the engineer, had said about it in the
course of that interesting journey he had made to Merv. All that I saw
on the left as I went out of the station, was the gloomy outline of the
Turkoman Fort, dominating the new town, the population of which has
doubled since 1887. It forms a confused mass behind a thick curtain of
When I returned at half-past three, Popof was going through the luggage
van, I know not why. What must be the Roumanian's anxiety during this
movement to and fro in front of his box!
As soon as Popof reappeared I said to him: "Anything fresh?"
"Nothing, except the morning breeze!" said he.
"Very fresh!" said I. "Is there a refreshment bar in the station?"
"There is one for the convenience of the passengers."
"And for the convenience of the guards, I suppose? Come along, Popof."
And Popof did not want asking twice.
The bar was open, but there did not seem to be much to choose from. The
only liquor was "Koumiss," which is fermented mare's milk, and is the
color of faded ink, very nourishing, although very liquid. You must be
a Tartar to appreciate this koumiss. At least that is the effect it
produced on me. But Popof thought it excellent, and that was the
Most of the Sarthes and Kirghizes who got out at Askhabad, have been
replaced by other second-class passengers, Afghan merchants and
smugglers, the latter particularly clever in their line of business.
All the green tea consumed in Central Asia is brought by them from
China through India, and although the transport is much longer, they
sell it at a much lower price than the Russian tea. I need not say that
their luggage was examined with Muscovite minuteness.
The train started again at four o'clock. Our car was still a sleeper. I
envied the sleep of my companions, and as that was all I could do, I
returned to the platform.
The dawn was appearing in the east. Here and there were the ruins of
the ancient city, a citadel girdled with high ramparts and a succession
of long porticos extending over fifteen hundred yards. Running over a
few embankments, necessitated by the inequalities of the sandy ground,
the train reaches the horizontal steppe.
We are running at a speed of thirty miles an hour in a southwesterly
direction, along the Persian frontier. It is only beyond Douchak that
the line begins to leave it. During this three hours' run the two
stations at which the train stops are Gheours, the junction for the
road to Mesched, whence the heights of the Iran plateau are visible,
and Artyk where water is abundant although slightly brackish.
The train then traverses the oasis of the Atek, which is an important
tributary of the Caspian. Verdure and trees are everywhere. This oasis
justifies its name, and would not disgrace the Sahara. It extends to
the station of Douchak at the six hundred and sixtieth verst, which we
reach at six o'clock in the morning.
We stop here two hours, that is to say, there are two hours for us to
walk about. I am off to look at Douchak with Major Noltitz as my
A traveler precedes us out of the railway station; I recognize Sir
Francis Trevellyan. The major makes me notice that this gentleman's
face is more sullen than usual, his lip more scornful, his attitude
"And do you know why, Monsieur Bombarnac? Because this station at
Douchak might be the terminus of a line from British India through the
Afghan frontier, Kandahar, the Bolan Pass and the Pendjeh oasis, that
would unite the two systems."
"And how long would the line be?"
"About six hundred miles. But the English will not meet the Russians in
a friendly way. But if we could put Calcutta within twelve days of
London, what an advantage that would be for their trade!"
Talking in this way the major and I "did" Douchak. Some years ago it
was foreseen how important this village would be. A branch line unites
it with Teheran in Persia, while there has, as yet, been no survey for
a line to India. While gentlemen cast in the mould of Sir Francis
Trevellyan are in the majority in the United Kingdom, the Asiatic
network of railways will never be complete.
I was led to question the major regarding the safety of the Grand
Transasiatic across the provinces of Central Asia.
In Turkestan, he told me, the safety is well assured. The Russian
police keep constant watch over it; there is a regular police force at
the stations, and as the stations are not far apart, I don't think the
travelers have much to fear from the nomad tribes. Besides, the
Turkomans are kept in their place by the Russian administration. During
the years the Transcaspian has been at work, there has been no attack
to hinder the train service.
"That is comforting, Major Noltitz. And as to the section between the
frontier and Pekin?"
"That is another matter," replied the major. "Over the Pamir plateau,
up to Kachgar, the road is carefully guarded; but beyond that, the
Grand Transasiatic is under Chinese control, and I have not much
confidence in that."
"Are the stations very far from each other?" I asked.
"Very far, sometimes."
"And the Russians in charge of the train are replaced by Chinese, are
"Yes, with the exception of Popof, who goes through with us."
"So that we shall have Chinese engine drivers and stokers? Well, major,
that seems rather alarming, and the safety of the travelers--"
"Let me undeceive you, Monsieur Bombarnac. These Chinese are just as
clever as we are. They are excellent mechanics, and it is the same with
the engineers who laid out the line through the Celestial Empire. They
are certainly a very intelligent race, and very fit for industrial
"I think, major, that they will one day become masters of the
world--after the Slavs, of course!"
"I do not know what the future may have in store," said Major Noltitz,
with a smile. "But, returning to the Chinese, I say that they are of
quick comprehension, with an astonishing facility of assimilation. I
have seen them at work, and I speak from experience."
"Agreed," said I; "but if there is no danger under this head, are there
not a lot of scoundrels prowling about Mongolia and Northern China?"
"And you think these scoundrels will be daring enough to attack the
"Exactly, major, and that is what makes me feel easy."
"What? Makes you feel easy?"
"Quite so, for my sole anxiety is that our journey may not be devoid of
"Really, Mr. Special Correspondent, I admire you. You must have
"As a doctor must have patients. Now a real good adventure--"
"Well, Monsieur Bombarnac, I am afraid you will be disappointed, as I
have heard that the company has treated several chiefs of the robber
"As the Greek Government treated Hadji Stavros in About's romance."
"Precisely; and who knows that if in their wisdom--"
"I don't believe it."
"Why not? It would be quite in the modern style, this way of assuring
the safety of the trains during the run through the Celestial Empire.
Anyhow, there is one of these highwaymen, who has retained his
independence and liberty of action, a certain Ki-Tsang."
"Who is he?"
"A bold bandit chief, half-Chinaman, half-Mongol. Having for some time
been a terror to Yunnan, he was being too closely pursued, and has now
moved into the northern provinces. His presence has ever been reported
in that part of Mongolia served by the Grand Transasiatic."
"Well, he ought to furnish a few paragraphs."
"The paragraphs Ki-Tsang will furnish you with may cost you too dearly."
"Bah! major, the _Twentieth Century_ is quite rich enough to pay for
"To pay with its money, perhaps, but we may have to pay with our lives!
Luckily our companions have not heard you talk in this way, or they
might come in a body and demand your expulsion from the train. So be
careful, and keep a guard on your desires as a newspaper man in quest
of adventures. Above all, don't have anything to do with this Ki-Tsang.
It would be all the better in the interest of the passengers."
"But not of the passage, major."
We returned towards the station. The stoppage at Douchak had another
half hour to last. As I walked on the quay, I observed something going
on which would change the make-up of our train.
Another van had arrived from Teheran by the branch line to Mesphed,
which puts the Persian capital in communication with the Transcaspian.
This van was bolted and barred, and accompanied by a squad of Persian
police, whose orders seemed to be not to lose sight of it.
I don't know what made me think so, but it seemed as though this van
had something mysterious about it, and as the major had left me, I went
and spoke to Popof, who was watching over the proceedings.
"Popof, where is that van going?"
"And what has it got in it?"
"What has it got in it? An exalted personage."
"An exalted personage?"
"Are you surprised?"
"I am. In this van?"
"It is his own idea."
"Well, Popof, when this exalted personage gets out perhaps you will let
"He Will not get out."
"Because he is dead."
"Yes, and it is his body they are taking to Pekin, where he will be
interred with all the honors due to him."
So that we were to have an important personage in our train--in the
shape of a corpse, it is true. Never mind! I asked Popof to discover
the name of the defunct. He ought to be some mandarin of mark. As soon
as I knew it I would send a telegram to the _Twentieth Century_.
While I was looking at this van, a new passenger came up and examined
it with no less curiosity than I did.
This traveler was a fine-looking man of about forty, wearing gracefully
the costume of the richer Mongols, a tall fellow, with rather a gloomy
look, a military moustache, tawny complexion, and eyes that never shut.
"Here is a splendid fellow," I said to myself. "I don't know if he will
turn out the hero of the drama I am in search of, but, anyhow, I will
number him twelve in my traveling troupe."
This leading star, I soon learned from Popof, bore the name of
Faruskiar. He was accompanied by another Mongol, of inferior rank, of
about the same age, whose name was Ghangir. As they looked at the van
being attached to the tail of the train in front of the luggage van,
they exchanged a few words. As soon as the arrangements were complete
the Persians took their places in the second-class car, which preceded
the mortuary van, so as to have the precious corpse always under their
At this moment there was a shout on the station platform I recognized
the voice. It was the Baron Weissschnitzerdoerfer shouting:
This time it was not a train on the start, but a hat in distress. A
sudden gust had swept through the station and borne off the baron's
hat--a helmet-shaped hat of a bluish color. It rolled on the platform,
it rolled on the rails, it skimmed the enclosure and went out over the
wall, and its owner ran his hardest to stop it.
At the sight of this wild pursuit the Caternas held their sides, the
young Chinaman, Pan Chao, shouted with laughter, while Dr. Tio-King
remained imperturbably serious.
The German purple, puffling and panting, could do no more. Twice he had
got his hand on his hat, and twice it had escaped him, and now suddenly
he fell full length with his head lost under the folds of his overcoat;
whereupon Caterna began to sing the celebrated air from "Miss Helyett":
"Ah! the superb point of view--ew--ew--ew!
Ah! the view unexpected by you--you--you--you!"
I know nothing more annoying than a hat carried away by the wind, which
bounds hither and thither, and spins and jumps, and glides, and slides,
and darts off just as you think you are going to catch it. And if that
should happen to me I will forgive those who laugh at the comic
But the baron was in no mood for forgiveness. He bounded here, and
bounded there, he jumped on to the line. They shouted to him, "Look
out! look out!" for the Merv was coming in at some speed. It brought
death to the hat, the engine smashed it pitilessly, and it was only a
torn rag when it was handed to the baron. And then began again a series
of imprecations on the Grand Transasiatic.
The signal is given. The passengers, old and new, hurry to their
places. Among the new ones I notice three Mongols, of forbidding
appearance, who get into the second-class car.
As I put my foot on the platform I hear the young Chinese say to his
"Well, Dr. Tio-King, did you see the German with his performing hat?
How I laughed!"
And so Pan Chao speaks French. What do I say? Better than French--he
speaks Persian! Most extraordinary! I must have a talk with him.
We started to time. The baron could not complain this time. After all,
I understood his impatience; a minute's delay might cause him to lose
the mail boat from Tien Tsin to Japan.
The day looked promising, that is to say, there might have been a wind
strong enough to put out the sun as if it were a candle, such a
hurricane as sometimes stops the locomotives of the Grand Transasiatic,
but to-day it is blowing from the west, and will be supportable, as it
blows the train along. We can remain out on the platforms.
I want to enter into conversation with Pan Chao. Popof was right; he
must be the son of some family of distinction who has been spending
some years in Paris for education and amusement. He ought to be one of
the most regular visitors at the _Twentieth Century_ "five o'clocks."
Meanwhile I will attend to other business. There is that man in the
case. A whole day will elapse before I can relieve his anxiety. In what
a state he must be! But as it would be unwise for me to enter the van
during the day, I must wait until night.
I must not forget that an interview with the Caternas is included in
the programme. There will be no difficulty in that, apparently.
What will not be so easy is to get into conversation with my No. 12,
his superb lordship Faruskiar. He seems rather stiff, does this
Ah! There is a name I must know as soon as possible, that of the
mandarin returning to China in the form of a mortuary parcel. With a
little ingenuity Popof may manage to ascertain it from one of the
Persians in charge of his Excellency. If it would only be that of some
grand functionary, the Pao-Wang, or the Ko-Wang, or the viceroy of the
two Kiangs, the Prince King in person!
For an hour the train is running through the oasis. We shall soon be in
the open desert. The soil is formed of alluvial beds extending up to
the environs of Merv. I must get accustomed to this monotony of the
journey which will last up to the frontier of Turkestan. Oasis and
desert, desert and oasis. As we approach the Pamir the scenery will
change a little. There are picturesque bits of landscape in that
orographic knot which the Russians have had to cut as Alexander cut the
gordian knot that was worth something to the Macedonian conqueror of
Asia. Here is a good augury for the Russian conquest.
But I must wait for this crossing of the Pamir and its varied scenery.
Beyond lay the interminable plains of Chinese Turkestan, the immense
sandy desert of Gobi, where the monotony of the journey will begin
It is half-past ten. Breakfast will soon be served in the dining car.
Let us take a walk through the length of the train.
Where is Ephrinell? I do not see him at his post by the side of Miss
Horatia Bluett, whom I questioned on the subject after saluting her
"Mr. Ephrinell has gone to give an eye to his cases," she replies.
In the rear of the second car Faruskiar and Ghangir have installed
themselves; they are alone at this moment, and are talking together in
a low tone.
As I return I meet Ephrinell, who is coming back to his traveling
companion. He shakes my hand Yankee fashion. I tell him that Miss
Horatia Bluett has given me news of him.
"Oh!" says he, "what a woman yonder! What a splendid saleswoman! One of
"Who are good enough to be Americans!" I add.
"Wait a bit!" he replies, with a significant smile.
As I am going put, I notice that the two Chinamen are already in the
dining car, and that Dr. Tio-King's little book is on the table.
I do not consider it too much of a liberty for a reporter to pick up
this little book, to open it and to read the title, which is as follows:
The temperate and regular life,
Or the art of living long in perfect health.
Translated from the Italian of
Louis Cornaro, a Venetian noble.
To which is added the way of correcting a bad constitution,
and enjoying perfect felicity to the most advanced years.
and to die only from the using up of the original humidity
in extreme old age.
And this is the favorite reading of Dr. Tio-King! And that is why his
disrespectful pupil occasionally gives him the nickname of Cornaro!
I have not time to see anything else in this volume than _Abstinentia
adjicit vitam_; but this motto of the noble Venetian I have no
intention of putting in practice, at least at breakfast time.
There is no change in the order in which we sit down to table. I find
myself close to Major Noltitz, who is looking attentively at Faruskiar
and his companion, placed at the extremity of the table. We are asking
ourselves who this haughty Mongol could be.
"Ah!" said I, laughing at the thought which crossed my mind, "if that
"Who?" asked the major.
"The chief of the brigands, the famous Ki-Tsang."
"Have your joke, Monsieur Bombarnac, but under your breath, I advise
"You see, major, he would then be an interesting personage and worth a
We enjoyed our meal as we talked. The breakfast was excellent, the
provisions having come freshly on board at Askhabad and Douchak. For
drink we had tea, and Crimean wine, and Kazan beer; for meat we had
mutton cutlets and excellent preserves; for dessert a melon with pears
and grapes of the best quality.
After breakfast I went to smoke my cigar on the platform behind the
dining car. Caterna almost immediately joins me. Evidently the
estimable comedian has seized the opportunity to enter into
conversation with me.
His intelligent eyes, his smooth face, his cheeks accustomed to false
whiskers, his lips accustomed to false moustaches, his head accustomed
to wigs red, black, or gray, bald or hairy, according to his part,
everything denoted the actor made for the life of the boards. But he
had such an open, cheery face, such an honest look, so frank an
attitude, that he was evidently a really good fellow.
"Sir," said he to me, "are two Frenchmen going all the way from Baku to
Pekin without making each other's acquaintance?"
"Sir," I replied, "when I meet a compatriot--"
"Who is a Parisian--"
"And consequently a Frenchman twice over," I added, "I am only too glad
to shake hands with him! And so, Monsieur Caterna--"
"You know my name?"
"As you know mine, I am sure."
"Of course, Monsieur Claudius Bombarnac, correspondent of the
"At your service, believe me."
"A thousand thanks, Monsieur Bombarnac, and even ten thousand, as they
say in China, whither Madame Caterna and I are bound."
"To appear at Shanghai in the French troupe at the residency as--"
"You know all that, then?"
"I may add, from sundry nautical phrases I have noticed, that you have
been to sea."
"I believe you, sir. Formerly coxswain of Admiral de Boissondy's launch
on board the _Redoubtable_."
"Then I beg to ask why you, a sailor, did not go by way of the sea?"
"Ah, there it is, Monsieur Bombarnac. Know that Madame Caterna, who is
incontestably the first leading lady of the provinces, and there is not
one to beat her as a waiting maid or in a man's part, cannot stand the
sea. And when I heard of the Grand Transasiatic, I said to her, 'Be
easy, Caroline! Do not worry yourself about the perfidious element. We
will cross Russia, Turkestan, and China, without leaving _terra
firma_!' And that pleased her, the little darling, so brave and so
devoted, so--I am at a loss for a word--well, a lady who will play the
duenna in case of need, rather than leave the manager in a mess! An
artiste, a true artiste!"
It was a pleasure to listen to Caterna; he was in steam, as the
engineer says, and the only thing to do was to let him blow off.
Surprising as it may seem, he adored his wife, and I believe she was
equally fond of him. A well-matched couple, evidently, from what I
learned from my comedian, never embarrassed, very wide awake, content
with his lot, liking nothing so much as the theater--above all the
provincial theater--where he and his wife had played in drama,
vaudeville, comedy, operetta, opera comique, opera, spectacle,
pantomime, happy in the entertainment which began at five o'clock in
the afternoon and ended at one o'clock in the morning, in the grand
theaters of the chief cities, in the saloon of the mayor, in the barn
of the village, without boots, without patches, without orchestra,
sometimes even without spectators--thus saving the return of the
money--professionals fit for anything, no matter what.
As a Parisian, Caterna must have been the wag of the forecastle when he
was at sea. As clever with his instrument of brass or wood, he
possessed a most varied and complete assortment of jokes, songs,
monologues, and dialogues. This he told me with an immense amount of
attitude and gesture, now here, now there, legs, arms, hands, and feet
all going together. I should never feel dull in the company of such a
"And where were you before you left France?" I asked.
"At La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, where Madame Caterna achieved a genuine
success as Elsa in 'Lohengrin,' which we played without music. But it
is an interesting piece, and it was well done."
"You must have been a good deal about the world, Monsieur Caterna?"
"I believe you; Russia, England, both Americas. Ah! Monsieur Claudius."
He already called me Claudius.
"Ah! Monsieur Claudius, there was a time when I was the idol of Buenos
Ayres, and the pet of Rio Janeiro! Do not think I would tell you an
untruth! No! I know myself. Bad at Paris, I am excellent in the
provinces. In Paris you play for yourself; in the provinces you play
for the others! And then what a repertory!"
"My compliments, my dear compatriot!"
"I accept them, Monsieur Claudius, for I like my trade. What would you
haye? All the world cannot expect to be a senator or--a special
"There, that is wicked, Monsieur Caterna," said I, with a laugh.
"No; it is the last word."
And while the unwearied actor ran on in this way, stations appeared one
after the other between the shrieks of the whistle, Kulka, Nisachurch,
Kulla Minor and others, not particularly cheerful to look at; then
Bairam Ali at the seven hundred and ninety-fifth verst and Kourlan Kala
at the eight hundred and fifteenth.
"And to tell you the truth," continued Caterna, "we have made a little
money by going about from town to town. At the bottom of our boxes are
a few Northern debentures, of which I think a good deal, and take much
care, and they have been honestly got, Monsieur Claudius. Although we
live under a democratic government, the rule of equality, the time is
still far off when you will see the noble father dining beside the
prefect at the table of the judge of appeal, and the actress open the
ball with the prefect at the house of the general-in-chief! Well! We
can dine and dance among ourselves--"
"And be just as happy, Monsieur Caterna."
"Certainly no less, Monsieur Claudius," replied the future premier
comic of Shanghai, shaking an imaginary frill with the graceful ease of
one of Louis XV.'s noblemen.
At this point, Madame Caterna came up. She was in every way worthy of
her husband, sent into the world to reply to him in life as on the
stage, one of those genial theater folks, born one knows not where or
how, but thoroughly genuine and good-natured.
"I beg to introduce you to Caroline Caterna," said the actor, in much
the same tone as he would have introduced me to Patti or Sarah
"Having shaken hands with your husband," said I, "I shall be happy to
shake hands with you, Madame Caterna."
"There you are, then," said the actress, "and without ceremony, foot to
the front, and no prompting."
"As you see, no nonsense about her, and the best of wives--"
"As he is the best of husbands."
"I believe I am, Monsieur Claudius," said the actor, "and why? Because
I believe that marriage consists entirely in the precept to which
husbands should always conform, and that is, that what the wife likes
the husband should eat often."
It will be understood that it was touching to see this honest
give-and-take, so different from the dry business style of the two
commercials who were in conversation in the adjoining car.
But here is Baron Weissschnitzerdoerfer, wearing a traveling cap, coming
out of the dining car, where I imagine he has not spent his time
consulting the time-table.
"The good man of the hat trick!" said Caterna, after the baron went
back into the car without favoring us with a salute.
"He is quite German enough!" said Madame Caterna.
"And to think that Henry Heine called those people sentimental oaks!" I
"Then he could not have known that one!" said Caterna. "Oak, I admit,
"Do you know why the baron has patronized the Grand Transasiatic?" I
"To eat sauerkraut at Pekin!" said Caterna.
"Not at all. To rival Miss Nelly Bly. He is trying to get around the
world in thirty-nine days."
"Thirty-nine days!" exclaimed Gaterna. "You should say a hundred and
And in a voice like a husky clarinet the actor struck up the well-known
air from the Cloches de Corneville:
"I thrice have been around the world."
Adding, for the baron's benefit:
"He will not do the half."
At a quarter-past twelve our train passed the station of Kari Bata,
which resembles one of the stations on the line from Naples to
Sorrento, with its Italian roofs. I noticed a vast Asiatico-Russian
camp, the flags waving in the fresh breeze. We have entered the Mervian
oasis, eighty miles long and eight wide, and containing about six
hundred thousand hectares--there is nothing like being precise at the
finish. Right and left are cultivated fields, clumps of fine trees, an
uninterrupted succession of villages, huts among the thickets, fruit
gardens between the houses, flocks of sheep and herds of cattle among
the pastures. All this rich country is watered by the Mourgab--the
White Water--or its tributaries, and pheasants swarm like crows on the
plains of Normandy. At one o'clock in the afternoon the train stopped
at Merv Station, over five hundred miles from Uzun Ada.
The town has been often destroyed and rebuilt. The wars of Turkestan
have not spared it. Formerly, it seems, it was a haunt of robbers and
bandits, and it is a pity that the renowned Ki-Tsang did not live in
those days. Perhaps he would have become a Genghis Khan?
Major Noltitz told me of a Turkoman saying to the following effect: "If
you meet a Mervian and a viper, begin by killing the Mervian and leave
the viper till afterwards."
I fancy it would be better to begin with killing the viper now that the
Mervian has become a Russian.
We have seven hours to stop at Merv. I shall have time to visit this
curious town. Its physical and moral transformation has been profound,
owing to the somewhat arbitrary proceedings of the Russian
administration. It is fortunate that its fortress, five miles round,
built by Nour Verdy in 1873, was not strong enough to prevent its
capture by the czar, so that the old nest of malefactors has become one
of the most important cities of the Transcaspian.
I said to Major Noltitz:
"If it is not trespassing on your kindness, may I ask you to go with
"Willingly," he answered; "and as far as I am concerned, I shall be
very pleased to see Merv again."
We set out at a good pace.
"I ought to tell you," said the major, "that it is the new town we are
going to see."
"And why not the old one first? That would be more logical and more
"Because old Merv is eighteen miles away, and you will hardly see it as
you pass. So you must refer to the accurate description given of it by
your great geographer Elisee Reclus."
And certainly readers will not lose anything by the change.
The distance from the station to new Merv is not great. But what an
abominable dust! The commercial town is built on the left of the
river--a town in the American style, which would please Ephrinell, wide
streets straight as a line crossing at right angles; straight
boulevards with rows of trees; much bustle and movement among the
merchants in Oriental costume, in Jewish costume, merchants of every
kind; a number of camels and dromedaries, the latter much in request
for their powers of withstanding fatigue and which differ in their
hinder parts from their African congeners. Not many women along the
sunny roads which seem white hot. Some of the feminine types are,
however, sufficiently remarkable, dressed out in a quasi-military
costume, wearing soft boots and a cartouche belt in the Circassian
style. You must take care of the stray dogs, hungry brutes with long
hair and disquieting fangs, of a breed reminding one of the dogs of the
Caucasus, and these animals--according to Boulangier the engineer--have
eaten a Russian general.
"Not entirely," replies the major, confirming the statement. "They left
In the commercial quarter, in the depths of the gloomy ground floors,
inhabited by the Persians and the Jews, within the miserable shops are
sold carpets of incredible fineness, and colors artistically combined,
woven mostly by old women without any Jacquard cards.
On both banks of the Mourgab the Russians have their military
establishment. There parade the Turkoman soldiers in the service of the
czar. They wear the blue cap and the white epaulettes with their
ordinary uniform, and drill under the orders of Russian officers.
A wooden bridge, fifty yards long, crosses the river. It is practicable
not only for foot-passengers, but for trains, and telegraph wires are
stretched above its parapets.
On the opposite bank is the administrative town, which contains a
considerable number of civil servants, wearing the usual Russian cap.
In reality the most interesting place to see is a sort of annexe, a
Tekke village, in the middle of Merv, whose inhabitants have retained
the villainous characteristics of this decaying race, the muscular
bodies, large ears, thick lips, black beard. And this gives the last
bit of local color to be found in the new town.
At a turning in the commercial quarter we met the commercials, American
"Mr. Ephrinell," I said, "there is nothing curious in this modern Merv."
"On the contrary, Mr. Bombarnac, the town is almost Yankee, and it will
soon see the day when the Russians will give it tramways and gaslights!"
"That will come!"
"I hope it will, and then Merv will have a right to call itself a city."
"For my part, I should have preferred a visit to the old town, with its
mosque, its fortress, and its palace. But that is a little too far off,
and the train does not stop there, which I regret."
"Pooh!" said the Yankee. "What I regret is, that there is no business
to be done in these Turkoman countries! The men all have teeth--"
"And the women all have hair," added Horatia Bluett.
"Well, miss, buy their hair, and you will not lose your time."
"That is exactly what Holmes-Holme of London will do as soon as we have
exhausted the capillary stock of the Celestial Empire."
And thereupon the pair left us.
I then suggested to Major Noltitz--it was six o'clock--to dine at Merv,
before the departure of the train. He consented, but he was wrong to
consent. An ill-fortune took us to the Hotel Slav, which is very
inferior to our dining car--at least as regards its bill of fare. It
contained, in particular, a national soup called "borchtch," prepared
with sour milk, which I would carefully refrain from recommending to
the gourmets of the _Twentieth Century_.
With regard to my newspaper, and that telegram relative to the mandarin
our train is "conveying" in the funereal acceptation of the word? Has
Popof obtained from the mutes who are on guard the name of this high
Yes, at last! And hardly are we within the station than he runs up to
"I know the name."
"And it is?"
"Yen Lou, the great mandarin Yen Lou of Pekin."
"Thank you, Popof."
I rush to the telegraph office, and from there I send a telegram to the
"Merv, 16th May, 7 p.m.
"Train, Grand Transasiatic, just leaving Merv. Took from Douchak the
body of the great mandarin Yen Lou coming from Persia to Pekin."
It cost a good deal, did this telegram, but you will admit it was well
worth its price.
The name of Yen Lou was immediately communicated to our fellow
travelers, and it seemed to me that my lord Faruskiar smiled when he
We left the station at eight o'clock precisely. Forty minutes
afterwards we passed near old Merv, and the night being dark I could
see nothing of it. There was, however, a fortress with square towers
and a wall of some burned bricks, and ruined tombs, and a palace and
remains of mosques, and a collection of archaeological things, which
would have run to quite two hundred lines of small text.
"Console yourself," said Major Noltitz. "Your satisfaction could not be
complete, for old Merv has been rebuilt four times. If you had seen the
fourth town, Bairam Ali of the Persian period, you would not have seen
the third, which was Mongol, still less the Musalman village of the
second epoch, which was called Sultan Sandjar Kala, and still less the
town of the first epoch. That was called by some Iskander Kala, in
honor of Alexander the Macedonian, and by others Ghiaour Kala,
attributing its foundation to Zoroaster, the founder of the Magian
religion, a thousand years before Christ. So I should advise you to put
your regrets in the waste-paper basket."
And that is what I did, as I could do no better with them.
Our train is running northeast. The stations are twenty or thirty
versts apart. The names are not shouted, as we make no stop, and I have
to discover them on my time-table. Such are Keltchi, Ravina--why this
Italian name in this Turkoman province?--Peski, Repetek, etc. We cross
the desert, the real desert without a thread of water, where artesian
wells have to be sunk to supply the reservoirs along the line.
The major tells me that the engineers experienced immense difficulty in
fixing the sandhills on this part of the railway. If the palisades had
not been sloped obliquely, like the barbs of a feather, the line would
have been covered by the sand to such an extent as to stop the running
of the trains. As soon as this region of sandhills had been passed we
were again on the level plain on which the rails had been laid so
Gradually my companions go to sleep, and our carriage is transformed
into a sleeping car.
I then return to my Roumanian. Ought I to attempt to see him to-night?
Undoubtedly; and not only to satisfy a very natural curiosity, but also
to calm his anxiety. In fact, knowing his secret is known to the person
who spoke to him through the panel of his case, suppose the idea
occurred to him to get out at one of the stations, give up his journey,
and abandon his attempt to rejoin Mademoiselle Zinca Klork, so as to
escape the company's pursuit? That is possible, after all, and my
intervention may have done the poor fellow harm--to say nothing of my
losing No. 11, one of the most valuable in my collection.
I am resolved to visit him before the coming dawn. But, in order to be
as careful as possible, I will wait until the train has passed
Tchardjoui, where it ought to arrive at twenty-seven past two in the
morning. There we shall stop a quarter of an hour before proceeding
towards the Amu-Daria. Popof will then retire to his den, and I shall
be able to slip into the van, without fear of being seen.
How long the hours appear! Several times I have almost fallen asleep,
and twice or thrice I have had to go out into the fresh air on the
The train enters Tchardjoui Station to the minute. It is an important
town of the Khanate of Bokhara, which the Transcaspian reached towards
the end of 1886, seventeen months after the first sleeper was laid. We
are not more than twelve versts from the Amu-Daria, and beyond that
river I shall enter on my adventure.
I have said that the stop at Tchardjoui ought to last a quarter of an
hour. A few travelers alight, for they have booked to this town which
contains about thirty thousand inhabitants. Others get in to proceed to
Bokhara and Samarkand, but these are only second-class passengers. This
produces a certain amount of bustle on the platform.
I also get out and take a walk up and down by the side of the front
van, and I notice the door silently open and shut. A man creeps out on
to the platform and slips away through the station, which is dimly
lighted by a few petroleum lamps.
It is my Roumanian. It can be no one else. He has not been seen, and
there he is, lost among the other travelers. Why this escape? Is it to
renew his provisions at the refreshment bar? On the contrary, is not
his intention, as I am afraid it is, to get away from us?
Shall I stop him? I will make myself known to him; promise to help him.
I will speak to him in French, in English, in German, in Russian--as he
pleases. I will say to him: "My friend, trust to my discretion; I will
not betray you. Provisions? I will bring them to you during the night.
Encouragements? I will heap them on you as I will the refreshments. Do
not forget that Mademoiselle Zinca Klork, evidently the most lovely of
Roumanians, is expecting you at Pekin, etc."
Behold me then following him without appearing to do so. Amid all this
hurry to and fro he is in little danger of being noticed. Neither Popof
nor any of the company's servants would suspect him to be a swindler.
Is he going towards the gate to escape me?
No! He only wants to stretch his legs better than he can do in the van.
After an imprisonment which has lasted since he left Baku--that is to
say, about sixty hours--he has earned ten minutes of freedom.
He is a man of middle height, lithe in his movements, and with a
gliding kind of walk. He could roll himself up like a cat and find
quite room enough in his case. He wears an old vest, his trousers are
held up by a belt, and his cap is a fur one--all of dark color.
I am at ease regarding his intentions. He returns towards the van,
mounts the platform, and shuts the door gently behind him. As soon as
the train is on the move I will knock at the panel, and this time--
More of the unexpected. Instead of waiting at Tchardjoui one-quarter of
an hour we have to wait three. A slight injury to one of the brakes of
the engine has had to be repaired, and, notwithstanding the German
baron's remonstrances, we do not leave the station before half-past
three, as the day is beginning to dawn.
It follows from this that if I cannot visit the van I shall at least
see the Amou-Daria.
The Amou-Daria is the Oxus of the Ancients, the rival of the Indus and
the Ganges. It used to be a tributary of the Caspian, as shown on the
maps, but now it flows into the Sea of Aral. Fed by the snows and rains
of the Pamir plateau, its sluggish waters flow between low clay cliffs
and banks of sand. It is the River-Sea in the Turkoman tongue, and it
is about two thousand five hundred kilometres long.
The train crosses it by a bridge a league long, the line being a
hundred feet and more above its surface at low water, and the roadway
trembles on the thousand piles which support it, grouped in fives
between each of the spans, which are thirty feet wide.
In ten months, at a cost of thirty-five thousand roubles, General
Annenkof built this bridge, the most important one on the Grand
The river is of a dull-yellow color. A few islands emerge from the
current here and there, as far as one can see.
Popof pointed out the stations for the guards on the parapet of the
"What are they for?" I asked.
"For the accommodation of a special staff, whose duty it is to give the
alarm in case of fire, and who are provided with fire-extinguishers."
This is a wise precaution. Not only have sparks from the engines set it
on fire in several places, but there are other disasters possible. A
large number of boats, for the most part laden with petroleum, pass up
and down the Amou-Daria, and it frequently happens that these become
fire-ships. A constant watch is thus only too well justified, for if
the bridge were destroyed, its reconstruction would take a year, during
which the transport of passengers from one bank to the other would not
be without its difficulties.
At last the train is going slowly across the bridge. It is broad
daylight. The desert begins again at the second station, that of
Karakoul. Beyond can be seen the windings of an affluent of the
Amou-Daria, the Zarafchane, "the river that rolls with gold," the
course of which extends up to the valley of the Sogd, in that fertile
oasis on which stands the city of Samarkand.
At five o'clock in the morning the train stops at the capital of the
Khanate of Bokhara, eleven hundred and seven versts from Uzun Ada.
The Khanates of Bokhara and Samarkand used to form Sogdiana, a Persian
satrapy inhabited by the Tadjiks and afterwards by the Usbegs, who
invaded the country at the close of the fifteenth century. But another
invasion, much more modern, is to be feared, that of the sands, now
that the saksaouls intended to bring the sandhills to a standstill,
have almost completely disappeared.
Bokhara, the capital of the Khanate, is the Rome of Islam, the Noble
City, the City of Temples, the revered centre of the Mahometan
religion. It was the town with the seven gates, which an immense wall
surrounded in the days of its splendor, and its trade with China has
always been considerable. Today it contains eighty thousand inhabitants.
I was told this by Major Noltitz, who advised me to visit the town in
which he had lived several times. He could not accompany me, having
several visits to pay. We were to start again at eleven o'clock in the
morning. Five hours only to wait and the town some distance from the
railway station! If the one were not connected with the other by a
Decauville--a French name that sounds well in Sogdiana--time would fail
for having even a slight glimpse of Bokhara.
It is agreed that the major will accompany me on the Decauville; and
when we reach our destination he will leave me to attend to his private
affairs. I cannot reckon on him. Is it possible that I shall have to do
without the company of any of my numbers?
Let us recapitulate. My Lord Faruskiar? Surely he will not have to
worry himself about the mandarin Yen Lou, shut up in this traveling
catafalque! Fulk Ephrinell and Miss Horatia Bluett? Useless to think of
them when we are talking about palaces, minarets, mosques and other
archaeological inutilities. The actor and the actress? Impossible, for
Madame Caterna is tired, and Monsieur Caterna will consider it his duty
to stay with her. The two Celestials? They have already left the
railway station. Ah! Sir Francis Trevellyan. Why not? I am not a
Russian, and it is the Russians he cannot stand. I am not the man who
conquered Central Asia. I will try and open this closely shut gentleman.
I approach him; I bow; I am about to speak. He gives me a slight
inclination and turns on his heel and walks off! The animal!
But the Decauville gives its last whistle. The major and I occupy one
of the open carriages. Half an hour afterwards we are through the
Dervaze gate, the major leaves me, and here am I, wandering through the
streets of Bokhara.
If I told the readers of the _Twentieth Century_ that I visited the
hundred schools of the town, its three hundred mosques--almost as many
mosques as there are churches in Rome, they would not believe me, in
spite of the confidence that reporters invariably receive. And so I
will confine myself to the strict truth.
As I passed along the dusty roads of the city, I entered at a venture
any of the buildings I found open. Here it was a bazaar where they sold
cotton materials of alternate colors called "al adjas," handkerchiefs
as fine as spider webs, leather marvelously worked, silks the rustle of
which is called "tchakhtchukh," in Bokhariot, a name that Meilhac and
Halevy did wisely in not adopting for their celebrated heroine. There
it was a shop where you could buy sixteen sorts of tea, eleven of which
are green, that being the only kind used in the interior of China and
Central Asia, and among these the most sought after, the "louka," one
leaf of which will perfume a whole teapot.
Farther on I emerged on the quay of the Divanbeghi, reservoirs,
bordering one side of a square planted with elms. Not far off is the
Arche, which is the fortified palace of the emir and has a modern clock
over the door. Arminius Vambery thought the palace had a gloomy look,
and so do I, although the bronze cannon which defend the entrance
appear more artistic than destructive. Do not forget that the Bokhariot
soldiers, who perambulate the streets in white breeches, black tunics,
astrakan caps, and enormous boots, are commanded by Russian officers
freely decorated with golden embroidery.
Near the palace to the right is the largest mosque of the town, the
mosque of Mesjidi Kelan, which was built by Abdallah Khan Sheibani. It
is a world of cupolas, clock towers, and minarets, which the storks
appear to make their home, and there are thousands of these birds in
Rambling on at a venture I reach the shores of the Zarafchane on the
northeast of the town. Its fresh limpid waters fill its bed once or
twice a fortnight. Excellent this for health! When the waters appear
men, women, children, dogs, bipeds, quadrupeds, bathe together in
tumultuous promiscuousness, of which I can give no idea, nor recommend
as an example.
Going northwest towards the centre of the city, I came across groups of
dervishes with pointed hats, a big stick in their hands, their hair
straggling in the breeze, stopping occasionally to take their part in a
dance which would not have disgraced the fanatics of the Elysee
Montmartre during a chant, literally vociferated, and accentuated by
the most characteristic steps.
Let us not forget that I went through the book market. There are no
less than twenty-six shops where printed books and manuscripts are
sold, not by weight like tea or by the box like vegetables, but in the
ordinary way. As to the numerous "medresses," the colleges which have
given Bokhara its renown as a university--I must confess that I did not
visit one. Weary and worn I sat down under the elms of the Divanbeghi
quay. There, enormous samovars are continually on the boil, and for a
"tenghe," or six pence three farthings, I refreshed myself with
"shivin," a tea of superior quality which only in the slightest degree
resembles that we consume in Europe, which has already been used, so
they say, to clean the carpets in the Celestial Empire.
That is the only remembrance I retain of the Rome of Turkestan.
Besides, as I was not able to stay a month there, it was as well to
stay there only a few hours.
At half-past ten, accompanied by Major Noltitz, whom I found at the
terminus of the Decauville, I alighted at the railway station, the
warehouses of which are crowded with bales of Bokhariot cotton, and
packs of Mervian wool.
I see at a glance that all my numbers are on the platform, including my
German baron. In the rear of the train the Persians are keeping
faithful guard round the mandarin Yen Lou. It seems that three of our
traveling companions are observing them with persistent curiosity;
these are the suspicious-looking Mongols we picked up at Douchak. As I
pass near them I fancy that Faruskiar makes a signal to them, which I
do not understand. Does he know them? Anyhow, this circumstance rather
The train is no sooner off than the passengers go to the dining car.
The places next to mine and the major's, which had been occupied since
the start, are now vacant, and the young Chinaman, followed by Dr.
Tio-King, take advantage of it to come near us. Pan Chao knows I am on
the staff of the _Twentieth Century_, and he is apparently as desirous
of talking to me as I am of talking to him.
I am not mistaken. He is a true Parisian of the boulevard, in the
clothes of a Celestial. He has spent three years in the world where
people amuse themselves, and also in the world where they learn. The
only son of a rich merchant in Pekin, he has traveled under the wing of
this Tio-King, a doctor of some sort, who is really the most stupid of
baboons, and of whom his pupil makes a good deal of fun.
Dr. Tio-King, since he discovered Cornaro's little book on the quays of
the Seine, has been seeking to make his existence conform to the "art
of living long in perfect health." This credulous Chinaman of the
Chinese had become thoroughly absorbed in the study of the precepts so
magisterially laid down by the noble Venetian. And Pan Chao is always
chaffing him thereupon, though the good man takes no notice.
We were not long before we had a few specimens of his monomania, for
the doctor, like his pupil, spoke very good French.
"Before we begin," said Pan Chao, "tell me, doctor, how many
fundamental rules there are for finding the correct amounts of food and
"Seven, my young friend," replied Tio-King with the greatest
seriousness. "The first is to take only just so much nourishment as to
enable you to perform the purely spiritual functions."
"And the second?"
"The second is to take only such an amount of nourishment as will not
cause you to feel any dullness, or heaviness, or bodily lassitude. The
"Ah! We will wait there, to-day, if you don't mind, doctor," replied
Pan Chao. "Here is a certain maintuy, which seems rather good, and--"
"Take care, my dear pupil! That is a sort of pudding made of hashed
meat mixed with fat and spices. I fear it may be heavy--"
"Then, doctor, I would advise you not to eat it. For my part, I will
follow these gentlemen."
And Pan Chao did--and rightly so, for the maintuy was delicious--while
Doctor Tio-King contented himself with the lightest dish on the bill of
fare. It appeared from what Major Noltitz said that these maintuys
fried in fat are even more savory. And why should they not be,
considering that they take the name of "zenbusis," which signifies
When Caterna heard this flattering phrase, he expressed his regret that
zenbusis did not figure on the breakfast table. To which his wife
replied by so tender a look that I ventured to say to him:
"You can find zenbusis elsewhere than in Central Asia, it seems to me."
"Yes," he replied, "they are to be met with wherever there are lovable
women to make them."
And Pan Chao added, with a laugh:
"And it is again at Paris that they make them the best."
He spoke like a man of experience, did my young Celestial.
I looked at Pan Chao; I admired him.
How he eats! What an appetite! Not of much use to him are the
observations of the doctor on the immoderate consumption of his radical
The breakfast continued pleasantly. Conversation turned on the work of
the Russians in Asia. Pan Chao seemed to me well posted up in their
progress. Not only have they made the Transcaspian, but the
Transsiberian, surveyed in 1888, is being made, and is already
considerably advanced. For the first route through Iscim, Omsk, Tomsk,
Krasnojarsk, Nijni-Ufimsk, and Irkutsk, a second route has been
substituted more to the south, passing by Orenburg, Akmolinsk,
Minoussinsk, Abatoni and Vladivostock. When these six thousand
kilometres of rails are laid, Petersburg will be within six days of the
Japan Sea. And this Transsiberian, which will exceed in length the
Transcontinental of the United States, will cost no more than seven
hundred and fifty millions.
It will be easily imagined that this conversation on the Russian
enterprise is not very pleasing to Sir Francis Trevellyan. Although he
says not a word and does not lift his eyes from the plate, his long
face flushes a little.
"Well, gentlemen," said I, "what we see is nothing to what our nephews
will see. We are traveling to-day on the Grand Transasiatic. But what
will it be when the Grand Transasiatic is in connection with the Grand
"And how is Asia to be united by railway with Africa?" asked Major
"Through Russia, Turkey, Italy, France and Spain. Travelers will go
from Pekin to the Cape of Good Hope without change of carriage."
"And the Straits of Gibraltar?" asked Pan Chao.
At this Sir Francis Trevellyan raised his ears.
"Yes, Gibraltar?" said the major.
"Go under it!" said I. "A tunnel fifteen kilometres long is a mere
nothing! There will be no English Parliament to oppose it as there is
to oppose that between Dover and Calais! It will all be done some day,
all--and that will justify the vein:
"_Omnia jam fieri quae posse negabam_."
My sample of Latin erudition was only understood by Major Noltitz, and
I heard Caterna say to his wife:
"That is volapuk."
"There is no doubt," said Pan Chap, "that the Emperor of China has been
well advised in giving his hand to the Russians instead of the English.
Instead of building strategic railways in Manchouria, which would never
have had the approbation of the czar, the Son of Heaven has preferred
to continue the Transcaspian across China and Chinese Turkestan."
"And he has done wisely," said the major. "With the English it is only
the trade of India that goes to Europe, with the Russians it is that of
the whole Asiatic continent."
I look at Sir Francis Trevellyan. The color heightens on his cheeks,
but he makes no movement. I ask if these attacks in a language he
understands perfectly will not oblige him to speak out. And yet I
should have been very much embarrassed if I had had to bet on or
Major Noltitz then resumed the conversation by pointing out the
incontestable advantages of the Transasiatic with regard to the trade
between Grand Asia and Europe in the security and rapidity of its
communications. The old hatreds will gradually disappear under European
influence, and in that respect alone Russia deserves the approbation of
every civilized nation. Is there not a justification for those fine
words of Skobeleff after the capture of Gheok Tepe, when the conquered
feared reprisals from the victors: "In Central Asian politics we know
"And in that policy," said the major, "lies our superiority over
"No one can be superior to the English."
Such was the phrase I expected from Sir Francis Trevellyan--the phrase
I understand English gentlemen always use when traveling about the
world. But he said nothing. But when I rose to propose a toast to the
Emperor of Russia and the Russians, and the Emperor of China and the
Chinese, Sir Francis Trevellyan abruptly left the table. Assuredly I
was not to have the pleasure of hearing his voice to-day.
I need not say that during all this talk the Baron Weissschnitzerdoerfer
was fully occupied in clearing dish after dish, to the extreme
amazement of Doctor Tio-King. Here was a German who had never read the
precepts of Cornaro, or, if he had read them, transgressed them in the
most outrageous fashion.
For the same reason, I suppose, neither Faruskiar nor Ghangir took part
in it, for they only exchanged a few words in Chinese.
But I noted rather a strange circumstance which did not escape the
We were talking about the safety of the Grand Transasiatic across
Central Asia, and Pan Chao had said that the road was not so safe as it
might be beyond the Turkestan frontier, as, in fact, Major Noltitz had
told me. I was then led to ask if he had ever heard of the famous Ki
Tsang before his departure from Europe.
"Often," he said, "for Ki Tsang was then in the Yunnan provinces. I
hope we shall not meet him on our road."
My pronunciation of the name of the famous bandit was evidently
incorrect, for I hardly understood Pan Chao when he repeated it with
the accent of his native tongue.
But one thing I can say, and that is that when he uttered the name of
Ki Tsang, Faruskiar knitted his brows and his eyes flashed. Then, with
a look at his companion, he resumed his habitual indifference to all
that was being said around him.
Assuredly I shall have some difficulty in making the acquaintance of
this man. These Mongols are as close as a safe, and when you have not
the word it is difficult to open them.
The train is running at high speed. In the ordinary service, when it
stops at the eleven stations between Bokhara and Samarkand, it takes a
whole day over the distance. This time it took but three hours to cover
the two hundred kilometres which separate the two towns, and at two
o'clock in the afternoon it entered the illustrious city of Tamerlane.
Samarkand is situated in the rich oasis watered by the Zarafchane in
the valley of Sogd. A small pamphlet I bought at the railway station
informs me that this great city is one of the four sites in which
geographers "agree" to place the terrestrial paradise. I leave this
discussion to the exegetists of the profession.
Burned by the armies of Cyrus in B.C. 329, Samarkand was in part
destroyed by Genghis Khan, about 1219. When it had become the capital
of Tamerlane, its position, which certainly could not be improved upon,
did not prevent its being ravaged by the nomads of the eighteenth
century. Such alternations of grandeur and ruin have been the fate of
all the important towns of Central Asia.
We had five hours to stop at Samarkand during the day, and that
promised something pleasant and several pages of copy. But there was no
time to lose. As usual, the town is double; one half, built by the
Russians, is quite modern, with its verdant parks, its avenues of
birches, its palaces, its cottages; the other is the old town, still
rich in magnificent remains of its splendor, and requiring many weeks
to be conscientiously studied.
This time I shall not be alone. Major Noltitz is free; he will
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