But in railroading, some things are the same, the world over. Diesels, for example, don't have sleeper cabs.
There were no bunks for sleeping, or even bathrooms. Just as the Pony Express of the American West relied on a series of riders to carry the mail, the H.P. train relies on a new driver, assistant driver and guards to board the locomotive at stops every three or four hours. Even the locomotives are replaced with fresh ones every third or fourth stop. At each stop, railway guards dressed in black or military fatigues hustle up and down the train, checking the cars for signs of tampering. Over the course of each three-week journey, more than 100 drivers and guards board the train."Eagle eye" is railroading slang for the engineer, and in Beskol or in Barstow, safety is of the first importance.
To [engineer Azamat] Kulyenov and [assistant engineer Alexander] Nemtzev, the Silk Road is an abstraction, a little-remembered historical detail studied in school. Mr. Nemtzev, who grew up in easternmost Kazakhstan, remembered how he would play with little plastic trains as a boy and yearned to drive real trains someday. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else,” he said as the headlights traversed a vast emptiness. We traveled for nearly an hour at one point without illuminating a single house, car or person anywhere near the tracks.
An hour after sunset, Mr. Kulyenov and Mr. Nemtzev were replaced by the next pair of drivers. Vladimir Kolozorkin, 52, took over as the main driver. With a gray crew cut and an uncanny ability to distinguish complex patterns of railway signal lights at enormous distances, he greeted visitors with a gruff warning that rules strictly prohibited distracting the driver in any way.
But he mellowed as the hours passed, saying that he remembered from his early boyhood in eastern Kazakhstan how camel caravans, a fixture on the Silk Road for two millenniums, had still traveled to mountain villages.