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Journey through the Ala-Tau Mountains: Lenin's Chauffeur

"Canyoneering" in the Ala-Tau Mountains with 6000 HP at the back: An adventure train ride first row foot-free with engineer through one of the most dangerous railway canyons of the former Soviet Union.



Engineer Hassan with editorial journalist Micke
Picture by T. Micke

Left and right of the tracks, the steep walls of the Ala-Tau grow like gigantic fortress walls into the sky. Before the sun sets we drive into the canyon, which is called "Booemskoe Ushchelie" the "Shoelace", that connects the second highest navigable mountain lake of the world (after the Titicaca lake in Peru), the Issyk-Kul in Kirgizstan with Bishkek, the capital of the country. Kirgizstan, as big as Austria and Hungary together, was during Soviet times mostly taboo for foreigners. Uranium and gold were mined, and in the 700 meters deep Issyk-Kul the Russians carried out top secret torpedo tests. Today one hopes for the tourists. Within the area of Trekking and Canyoeering, the mountain country with the 5000-meter-giants of the Tien Shan Group and its innumerable glaciers is still an insider's tip. Unique, like the chance offered to a technique fan like me: to ride along on board of a legendary Russian 2TE10V-double locomotive just for a tip...

Beside the rails the river Chuy roars down into the valley, so deafeningly, that one can still hear it in the driver's cabin, despite the roaring 10-cylinder-monstrosity of the 30 years old Soviet traction engine. Even so deafeningly, that the children, who shortly before dark run back into their villages from washing and playing at the river, do not often hear the rare train and its shrilly warning signal.

Locomotive 2TE10V Diesel with 2 x 3000 PS
Picture by T. Micke

Sometimes the rails of the Shoelace canyon become a death trap thereupon. And then even an engine driver like Hassan with the routine of 27 service years cannot do more than informing the rescue over the radio. Or right away the mortician.

Hassan therefore slows down the more than 600 tons heavy train on modulation rate. There in the meantime blank-faced tourists eat their diner in the food car. He whistles after his young machinist Illias, who is at the back of the 2 x 3000 HP strong double locomotive and screws at a radiator problem. Together they search for children in the bushes along the route, in order to still be able to pull the emergency brake or to give a life-saving train signal.

And really: No ten seconds pass and Hassan lets a deafening warning whistle shrill through the canyon again. Two girls flit, laughing and diverted by their discussion, over the rails. At the moment they recognize the enormous green locomotive, they become dreadfully frightened and in the last second jump to the other side-but still before Hassan is able to operate the brake.

"Djermo!" Hassan darns his Russian language and points on his grey hair temple. The family father has two kids himself, already counts three children loosing their live under the wheels in the course of the last years. The innumerable dead cows, sheep and goats he does not count anymore.

Engineer Hassan in the Cockpit of his 2TE10V
Picture by T. Micke

The Shoelace canyon is dangerous, not only because of the inobservant children: Like shot up through cannon balls, enormous holes gape toweringly in the about a meter thick protection wall, which through the Canyon separates the tracks from the narrow road. Only last March, Hassan tells, a colleague of him had a deadly accident here. On the strongly sloping route he was too fast on the way. With his goods set he banged into a fallen down rock, which laid on the rails, and landed with the locomotive in the river.

Some dried fish from the Issyk-Kul Lake; provisions for the road to Bishkek
Picture by T. Micke

Hassan longs for the time back when he was allowed to drive in the regular passenger traffic starting from Bishkek, on fenced off distances with an electrical "Wl-80", to Lugovoy in Kazakhstan. The payment was worse during that time, but the work was better: "WL", he explains, "stands for, Wladimir Lenin '. And my son in the school always said proudly: My dad, he is 'Lenin's Chauffeur'."

It is dark outside now and Hassan was able to relax a little. He gives himself a cup of tea from his self-made coil boiler and offers me a bottle of lukewarm "Baltika". Beer from St. Petersburg which really tastes delicious with the small dried fish from the lake, which he bought a fully whole bag, he says.

Unfortunately sheep and tractors on the railway trails are something totally normal in this region
Picture by T. Micke

We roll through the small station of the hamlet "Red Front", where some Volga German people live until today. Here they sought refuge before Stalin area. Illias is leading me through the engine room, where one of the both nearly five meters long two act engines circulates an incredible heat apart from blustery noise. In 1958 this engine was with 2208 kilowatts of capacity the strongest railway Diesel drive of the world, he explains proudly. In the twilight the young machinist dances with somnambulistic security around the hot pipes and pumps. "But the shakily steel bottom is so slippery from the oil, that I am glad to arrive back at Hassan in the leader house without any rougher burns."

Just on time, they recognize a tractor in the searchlight beam. A farmer parked too near at the rails. The following metallic crunch is lost in the whistling train signals. Frightened I look at Hassan. But he only grins and twitches with the shoulders. The small tractor added the substantial 184-Tonnen-Lok at best a few new scratches: "For children I stop, but not for the tractor of a stupid farmer..." And as Hassan sees, that does not calm me down, he adds: "For an emergency braking with this speed the train needs approximately 60 meters until it stands. From full travel it is more than 500. So anyway one has nearly no chance."

From the west bank of the Issyk-Kul until Bishkek, the train needs three hours for 172 kilometers thereby mastering barely 1000 meters of downward slope. The hundred passengers of Germany and Austria, who are on a round trip on the traces of the old silk road, now still awaits another folklore performance in the national theatre of the city.

And Hassan? He is pleased that today once more nothing happened to the children in the canyon. He looks forward to relish the dried fish, which he will certainly drink with a large bottle of "Baltika".


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© A report by Tobias Micke (14-03-04) – Contact