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Greetings from Afar

A Tombstone Every Mile

It  was the winter of 2006 and the electric trains that usually pull the weight of Russia’s commerce were off line because of unusually heavy snows. Not so, “Old Number Ten”. She and her three sisters, products of the last century and maintained in the case of just such emergencies “soldiered on”. The big, black and red steam powered 6-8-6 combine puffed and rumbled it’s way through the Urals, shoving the snow aside as it climbed ever higher into the mountains, until it reached the dividing line between Europe and Asia. Slashing it’s way through the snow, and temperatures that approached 50 degrees below zero, the big train and it’s tender, manned by two engineers, four hard working firemen and two brakemen, trailed a column of twenty-one cars along with a plume of oily black smoke, laced with red and amber sparks. Unlike the nearly silent electric trains, Old Number Ten rattled and clacked along; the ceaseless throb of it’s driver rods and the mournful wail of it’s whistle announcing it’s presence to the world as it passed through the tiny, sleeping villages that dotted the “Iron Highway” to the East.

Sitting in a passenger car, inside the cozy warmth of a private compartment, drinking the excellent Russian “Champaign” and eating caviar on tiny salted crackers, it is easy to imagine yourself in a time long ago… especially as you look out the window and watch the silent birch forest pass by, or a pack of wolves running along chasing the shadow of the engine that a full moon casts on the brilliant white blanket of snow. There is something about the steam trains… something that can’t be defined. There is luxury here… a special kind of luxury that the world, as we know it, has generally lost. Most business travelers fly when they have to cross Russia, but the only real way to travel is by rail, and the best way is in the winter, behind Old Number Ten or one of her sisters. It takes a while, but it’s worth it. Every six hours or so, the big engine slows as it glides into some tiny, forgotten station to take on water for the boiler, or to pick up a load of mail. Once a day, she stops to take on coal. Old Number Ten has a healthy appetite.

At two in the morning, on the second day into their ten-day odyssey from Moscow to Vladivostock, Number Ten rolled into a tiny station. The sign on the platform said “Uriatin”, and it was much like the last dozen stations that the train had visited on the trip. There wasn’t another major stop… a city of any size, until Ekatrinburg. This tiny station in the Urals was nothing more than a water stop, and Vlad Samsonov, the Chief Engineer, was not looking forward to getting out of his warm cab and fighting with the, undoubtedly frozen, water chute on the track-side tower. He had already armed himself and his companions with prize bars and shovels with which to assault the ever-present sheet of ice that barred the door to the cab.

Samsonov was a special breed of man… far past the normal retirement age; he was an expert in the operation of steam locomotives. He came out of retirement every winter to operate Old Number Ten, just as several of his companions came back to operate the other six steam engines that the Government kept on stand-by for particularly foul weather. He generally expected to make about six runs each winter training new men in the “care and feeding” of the steam locomotive as they pushed on, across the vastness or Mother Russia.

Samsonov nodded, and Alexander Shaposhnikov, the Senior Brakeman applied the steam. The big engine slowed, and came to a stop right on target just like always, right in front of the water tower. Samsonov moved toward the door, grimacing as he looked out the window and noticed that the ice buildup was even worse than usual “it must be really cold out there”, he thought.

Unexpectedly, before Samsonov could open the cab door, a troop of local workers tramped out from the decrepit little stationhouse and began to de-ice the engine, inspect the trucks under the cars, and hoist the water chute into position Up in the engine, Samsonov and his companions watched in amazement. This kind of thing just didn’t happen not any more, and hadn’t for as long as Samsonov could remember.

The workers moved with speed and determination as they saw to the needs of the big engine. Samsonov counted at least fifteen of them. It was funny, he thought, none of them seemed to be really dressed for the kind of weather they were currently experiencing… They looked warm enough, but they were not really dressed in winter clothing. They seemed to be bundled in several layers of much lighter apparel piled on in the absence of real winter clothing to fight the bitter cold. Not one of them was wearing a proper “shapka” fur hat.

In the orange glow seeping from the stationhouse window, Samsonov could see several uniformed figures, carrying rifles. That was odd. “No, not really”, he thought. “It s cold tonight. The local Militia Company has come into the station to keep warm It’s not like there’s likely to be any serious crime on a night like this”.

Two minutes from the time they stopped, the train was completely de-iced, the boiler filled with water, and the trucks oiled. In the dim glare of the stationhouse lights, the foreman of the work gang approached the cab window, took off his tattered cloth cap, grabbed his forelock, and bowed solemnly. “Comedian” Samsonov thought.  He smiled grimly, and mimicked the motion as Shapishnikov released the brakes. The big engine started to slowly move forward lurching a bit at first, but soon gliding out in a smooth liquid motion as the six-foot tall drive wheels gained purchase on the rails.

Early the next morning, Old Number Ten pulled into Ekatrinburg. It was a one-hour stop, since the train had to take on coal and pick up the surface mail. Samsonov reported, as usual, to Nikolai Stalnov, the Station Master, and made his report. In passing, he mentioned the excellent service that his engine had received in Uriatin.

“Uriatin?” the Stalnov asked. “Are you sure?’

“Absolutely,” Samsonov replied. “I can’t remember ever having the engine serviced there before, but I’ve never seen such an efficient yard crew”. He laughed, and then commented on the “salute” that the crew foreman had given him as he pulled out of the station “Comedian” he repeated, this time, out loud.

“Vlad” The Stationmaster had a somber, thoughtful look on his face. He hesitated briefly as he spoke. “There’s no yard crew at Uriatin. There’s NOTHING in Uriatin just a water tower. That place has been deserted for almost a hundred years. The last time there was an active station there was back when they were building this damned section of track”

“What?”

“You heard me Uriatin was a Labor Camp. The Tsar sent people there to get rid of them quickly and to build that bridge over the Ocha that you crossed just after you left the station”. Grandfather Lenin kept it up, until the end of the Civil War, but afterward, the place was abandoned.

“But who de-iced and serviced my engine?”

“That, I can’t tell you. Maybe you were dreaming. Maybe you and your friends were a little drunk. I can’t blame you, you know. A little vodka does keep the cold out I even do it myself sometimes”.

“Nikki are you accusing me of being drunk on the job?”

“No, Vlad, nothing like that’ but are you sure that you want me to put this in your report? I mean…”

“I’m telling you what happened. If you don’t believe me, ask Shaposhnikov and the others”.

“And what I am telling you is this. There is nothing in Uriatin. Absolutely nothing except the broken-down remains of the old Prison Barracks, a water tower, and the graveyard where they buried those poor buggars that built the bridge. They died like flies, you know. The Tsar and the Cheka sent them here with nothing. Most of them froze to death or died of starvation. Now, are you sure that you want me to include this in your report?”

Samsonov shook his head and kept silent. What could he say, really?

It runs from the Baltic to the Pacific, but the main Stations are Moscow, Kazan, Ekatrinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk), Omsk, Novosibisk, Tomsk, Yakutsk, Khabarovsk and Vladivostock. It spans six thousand miles worth of two continents, crosses some of the most rugged and desolate land in the world, and provides a lifeline of freight and passenger transportation to the largest country on Earth. It took over a century to complete. Most of the work was done by criminals, political prisoners and prisoners of war. It is a source of myth, legend and history. It is the Trans-Siberian Railroad the “Zhelezna Daroga”… the “Iron Highway” that spans the largest single nation on earth, as the saying goes, “whether you see it or not, there’s a tombstone every mile”…

© 2009 by Dr. J. Lee Choron. All rights reserved unless specifically granted by the author in writing.