These early engines were all very well as long as the line lay over an almost horizontal plain. But now we are among the gorges of the Pamir plateau, there are gradients of such steepness as to require more engine power.
I watch the proceedings, and when the locomotive has been detached with its tender, the baggage van--with Kinko in--is at the head of the train.
The idea occurs to me that the young Roumanian may perhaps venture out on the platform. It would be an imprudence for he runs the risk of being seen by the police, the "gardovois," who move about taking a good look at the passengers. What my No. 11 had better do is to remain in his box, or at least in his van. I will go and get a few provisions, liquid and solid, and take them to him, even before the departure of the train, if it is possible to do so without fear of being noticed.
The refreshment room at the station is open, and Popof is not there. If he was to see me making purchases he would be astonished, as the dining car contains everything we might want.
At the bar I get a little cold meat, some bread, and a bottle of vodka.
The station is not well lighted. A few lamps give only a feeble light. Popof is busy with one of the railway men. The new engine has not yet been attached to the train. The moment seems favorable. It is useless to wait until we have left. If I can reach Kinko I shall be able to sleep through the night--and that will be welcome, I admit.
I step onto the train, and after assuring myself that no one is watching me, I enter the baggage van, saying as I do so:
"It is I."
In fact it is as well to warn Kinko in case he is out of his box.
But he had not thought of getting out, and I advise him to be very careful.
He is very pleased at the provisions, for they are a change to his usual diet.
"I do not know how to thank you, Monsieur Bombarnac," he says to me.
"If you do not know, friend Kinko," I reply, "do not do it; that is very simple."
"How long do we stop at ?"
"And when shall we be at the frontier?"
"To-morrow, about one in the afternoon."
"And at Kachgar?"
"Fifteen hours afterward, in the night of the nineteenth."
"There the danger is, Monsieur Bombarnac."
"Yes, Kinko; for if it is difficult to enter the Russian possessions, it is no less difficult to get out of them, when the Chinese are at the gates. Their officials will give us a good look over before they will let us pass. At the same time they examine the passengers much more closely than they do their baggage. And as this van is reserved for the luggage going through to Pekin, I do not think you have much to fear. So good night. As a matter of precaution, I would rather not prolong my visit."
"Good night, Monsieur Bombarnac, good night."
I have come out, I have regained my couch, and I really did not hear the starting signal when the train began to move.
The only station of any importance which the railway passed before sunrise, was that of Marghelan, where the stoppage was a short one.
Marghelan, a populous town--sixty thousand inhabitants--is the real capital of Ferganah. That is owing to the fact that does not enjoy a good reputation for salubrity. It is of course, a double town, one town Russian, the other Turkoman. The latter has no ancient monuments, and no curiosities, and my readers must pardon my not having interrupted my sleep to give them a glance at it.
Following the valley of Schakhimardan, the train has reached a sort of steppe and been able to resume its normal speed.
At three o'clock in the morning we halt for forty-five minutes at Och station.
There I failed in my duty as a reporter, and I saw nothing. My excuse is that there was nothing to see.
Beyond this station the road reaches the frontier which divides Russian Turkestan from the Pamir plateau and the vast territory of the Kara-Khirghizes.
This part of Central Asia is continually being troubled by Plutonian disturbances beneath its surface. Northern Turkestan has frequently suffered from earthquake--the terrible experience of 1887 will not have been forgotten--and at Tachkend, as at Samarkand, I saw the traces of these commotions.