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.
The Iron Silk Road will launch a new chapter in the history of the Caucasus. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the newly independent republics of the southern Caucasus—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—regained strategic importance. A realization of the enormity of the oil and natural gas reserves lying beneath and along the Caspian Sea ignited a scramble to lay pipelines across the southern Caucasus to bring those resources to the European market. Today the pipelines are operational, and the BTK is being built to grease a trade boom, transporting European goods east and petroleum products west across the southern Caucasus. Once completed, by 2012, the railway will begin at the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and travel through the Georgian city of Tbilisi, before carrying on to Kars, a Turkish post town on the southwestern lip of the Caucasus region.
The participation of Turkey signals a new alignment in a region often viewed as Russia's backyard. Like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline—which opened in 2005 to bring oil from Baku to the Turkish port city of Ceyhan, on the Mediterranean—the BTK railway is the result of an alliance between Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan; neighboring Armenia was deliberately left out of the party. And like the pipeline, this east-west corridor will provide an alternative to going through Russia to the north or Iran to the south. It is a more than $600-million project of economic development, social engineering, or shrewd geopolitics, depending on your point of view, which in the southern Caucasus shifts as quickly as the snow that obscures the mountain road.
For Ustael, chief of the tunnel operation on the Turkish-Georgian border, this railroad has become something else: a road to loneliness. Back in Trabzon, a temperate, Turkish Black Sea coastal town, his girlfriend's face clouded when she imagined two years in the Caucasus Mountains, for that is how long it will take to build this tunnel. She just couldn't do it. Ustael exhales, stirs the sugar through his tea. A man must make choices. Smoke hangs over the canteen. Workers chalky with tunnel dust stare distantly at the men in sun and shorts chasing a ball across the TV. Through the windows, another blizzard is mixing up the air. In World War I, 90,000 Ottoman soldiers waited in these mountains for the Russians to come. "Some froze to death without firing a shot," Ustael says. He grabs a hard hat and walks to the door. Tunnel work progresses in round-the-clock, three-hour shifts.