A bustling trackside market in Tbilisi offers a taste of what Georgians hope soon to gain: an economic boost as trains pass through their country en route from oil-rich Azerbaijan to trade partner Turkey and beyond.
The dynamite comes from Ankara. Ten tons, and it takes two days. The truck climbs carefully, screwing 2,500 feet up the mountains of northeastern Turkey, where the clouded sun makes faraway ice fields roll like a distant sea. This is beautiful, forbidding country, through which a new railroad will soon run.
Arslan Ustael awaits the dynamite in the snow, with night temperatures reaching 40 below. Standing before the rail tunnel, Ustael says that in this weather your spit freezes before it hits the ground. He is a young man still, 30, and free with Turkish good humor, even up here in the cold clouds waiting for the dynamite that will make the volcanic mountain agreeable to his demand to bore a tunnel through it. Free with good humor because he knows this is an undertaking that could make a young engineer's career: building the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway, an "Iron Silk Road" that will connect the oil-rich Caspian Sea region to Turkey—and beyond to Europe.
The travels of antiquity are tiring to contemplate. The 750-mile stretch of land between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea is known as the Caucasus, named for the mountain range through which Ustael is digging his tunnel. Before the region got swallowed up by the Russian Empire, the Caucasus served as a transit point between Europe and Asia; the old Silk Road passed through it. Yet transport between West and East has never been easy. For centuries, to get from one sea to the other, you had to paddle north up the Don River from the Sea of Azov, portage over the steppe, then drift down the Volga to the Caspian. Only when the Russians began building railroads over the Caucasus in the 19th century could you travel more directly across the region.