Central Asia's first railway was a military venture. Russia began laying track in 1880, primarily to shuttle troops around the Karakum desert, the better to crush resistance to its rule in what is now Turkmenistan. Within eight years trains ran 1,400km from the Caspian Sea to Samarkand. George Curzon, who rode the railway in 1888 as a young British lawmaker (and future Viceroy of India), wrote that it helped Russia to dominate local trade and doubled its capacity to attack India. British strategy, he warned, was not "suited to a position where the Cossacks are at your gates".
Railways have underpinned Russia's clout in the region ever since, but today the balance of power is shifting. America has left Afghanistan, leaving a power vacuum. Russia is preoccupied with Ukraine. China sees an opening to expand its influence and diversify trade routes to Europe. Central Asian nations seek new connectivity too, with each other and to China.