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National Geographic: New Silk Road

Author: Brett Forrest
July 29, 2010


A railroad through the southern Caucasus will soon connect Europe and Asia, fueling dreams and discord in the region.

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.

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