en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 28, Number 6November/December 1977

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Long Route East

It was 7:00 am. and the white cliffs of Dover were barely visible through the morning mist The big rigs stood wheel-to-wheel on the cold, damp dock waiting their turn to board the cross-Channel ferry to Zeebrugge. Ahead of them was a grueling, 4,000-mile run to the Middle East

Then, with a deafening roar, the 40-ton truck-and-trailer "road trains" and the 32-ton articulated trucks mounted the boarding ramp and vanished into the cavernous belly of the ship. Moments later the ferry edged out of the harbor and our trip east had begun.

The Channel was choppy that morning, but the drivers barely noticed. Their attention was focused on the long road ahead-and on memories of previous trips. "The last time I went through Turkey" recalled one, "the snow was piled six feet high." "In just one night". Said another, "I counted 30 trucks that had gone off the road." And on this trip, added still another, there would be mud.

Four hours after leaving Dover we docked at Zeebrugge. As the trailers had been sealed by British customs inspectors, clearance at the Belgian port was quick. In minutes the first truck off, a five-axle Fiat, was heading toward West Germany into a strong headwind. For one driver the long route east had already begun.

For me-and photographer Tor Eigeland-there was another stop first Our destination was France, so at Ghent we wheeled south. We were going the same way but from Paris, another staging point on the Middle East run, another jumping off point on what truckers call the "Ho-Chi-Minh Trail."

The trail is actually a network of interlocking national highways linking West and East Vital to the economies world - and one of the busiest overland freight routes anywhere - it is also called "the new silk route."

Running from northwest Europe roughly southeast the long route east crosses two continents, six time zones and more than 10 national frontiers. Running north from Italy south from Scandinavia, and east from Britain, the Benelux, West Germany and France, it crosses central Europe in two main streams: one flowing across Austria and Yugoslavia, the other through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania to Bulgaria After converging in Istanbul -and crossing the Bosporus into Asia - the route diverges again. At Ankara traffic forks east for Iran and Afghanistan, south for Kuwait, via Iraq, and for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates via Syria and Jordan.

In summer, with two drivers alternately driving and sleeping, the trip can be made in one week. In winter, when blizzards bury Anatolia and avalanches block the roads for days, it can take more than a month and sometimes a lot more. John Krogh, a 28-year-old Danish driver, once took 65 days to travel from Copenhagen to Tehran when Turkish snows trapped him for a week, unloading took 8 days, he was stranded without money for 10 days at the Iranian border, and had to wait another 21 days getting his crippled rig repaired. "I thought I would never get home" he said.

The average transit times, of course, vary From London, the averages are 10-12 days to Baghdad, 12-14 days to Tehran, 12-14 days to Kuwait, 14-17 days to Jiddah, 17-21 days for the 5,600-mile distance to Dammam, and nearly 30 days to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. As one trucker said, it doesn't really compare with long distance trucking elsewhere. The 3,000-mile coast-to-coast haul across the United States, for example, takes 3 to 4 days.

But our starting point was Paris. We left in the rain on the Autoroute de I'Est, one of Europe's newest superhighways, and cruised through scenic northeast France to the ugly smokestack-dotted heartland of West Germany's industrial Ruhr There we joined the German autobahn network at Saarbrucken and drove to Munich over the Rhine and the Danube.

Compared to our smooth, fast drive across France, our progress now was slow. Once the envy of Europe, West Germany's now not-so-new highways were undergoing extensive repairs, reducing our speed, at times, to a first-gear single-lane crawl. Then, on Sunday we reached the German-Austrian border near Salzburg and came to a complete halt. Hundreds of trucks, caught in the two nations' "never-on-Sunday" trucking ban, were parked three-deep, bumper-to-bumper half-a-mile back on both sides of the border - a graphic example of the conditions that are slowly raising transit times on the long route to the Middle East.

Once, according to Britain's Economist, trucks had a decided competitive advantage over ships, barges, trains and pipelines. "These are the four competitors to the truck. But singly and collectively they provide access to a fraction of the factories, warehouses, shops and homes to which roads give access. They are all slower in total journey time than the truck. They all have less operational flexibility."

As the bumper to bumper logjam at Salzburg suggests, however, this flexibility is slowly being strangled by a combination of prolonged border formalities and new restrictions. In addition to West Germany and Austria, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have now banned truck travel on Sunday.

Long-distance truckers are finding it increasingly difficult to get permits to transit countries straddling the West-East route. Troubled by increased wear and tear on their highways, West Germany, Austria and Italy have imposed severe quota restrictions on trucks. Even Hungary, which briefly provided an alternative routing, is tightening up.

In response truckers have begun to "piggy-back" by train across central Europe, or by ferry from southern France to east Mediterranean and Red Sea ports. But although German railways have extended their piggy-back services through to Yugoslavia, low bridges enroute limit load sizes and the thus reduced cubic capacity plus the high cost of rail travel, has began to boost trucking charges. As for the ferry services - now being developed through Iskenderun in southern Turkey, Latakia and Tartous in Syria, and Jiddah, Saudi Arabia - they do help. But direct overland delivery is 10 percent cheaper and takes about two-thirds the time.

Even with transit permits in hand drivers can come unstuck. Delays enroute cause many a permit to expire before truckers reach the country of issue. They must then sit it out on tin border until a new permit comes through.

Fortunately for us, the drivers stalled by the Sunday driving ban at the German-Austrian border did not have to wait too long. At one minute past midnight police raised the barriers and off we roared into Austria's sugar-frosted Alps. As the trailers barely cleared overhanging crags and their slipstream caused roadside cottages to tremble, it was soon obvious why some countries frowned on the big rigs, and why the drivers complained so bitterly about the slow progress of a new highway being built parallel to the narrow, twisting road.

When completed, the new highway will link Salzburg with Klagenfurt, near the Austrian-Yugoslav border, and through a tunnel to be drilled through the Alps, connect with a planned $2-billion, 750-mile, six-lane highway extending across Yugoslavia to Bulgaria. Drivers then will be able to drive almost from one end of Europe to the other by modern high-capacity highways.

Unfortunately drivers said, as we neared the Balkans, the highway will not be finished until 1978 at the earliest. Meanwhile, truckers must contend with the present two-lane routes across the Balkans.

As we moved on those roads we quickly saw why truckers find this leg of the long route particularly hard. Withered floral wreaths dot the roadside from Zagreb to Belgrade, sorry epitaphs to unlucky truckers. One truck we passed had most of its left side sheared off, the driver's cab buried about halfway back along the trailer. Further on, after Nis, the road twists east through narrow, unlit tunnels and along ledges hewn into the side of a rocky gorge. On one side are towering granite walls, on the other dizzy drops into the Morava River.

Then came Bulgaria, where road surfaces vary from smooth asphalt to bone-jarring cobblestones, and where phlegmatic policemen, drivers say, frequently levy on-the-spot fines. Enroute there is a medieval stone bridge, built to carry four-wheel ox carts. Miraculously, it survives the constant pounding of the 22-wheel juggernauts.

At the border with Turkey, at a post called Kapikule we found confusion. In addition to contending with officialdom, drivers explained, truckers must compete with thousands of homeward-bound Turkish migrant workers. As we waited, the drivers began to tell stories about the stratagems that are sometimes necessary to keep on schedule.

At the Yugoslav border, for example, one trucker discovered that he lacked an important document Undismayed, he jumped the processing sequence, starting in the middle so that his papers were not checked. By the time he reached the end of the process, a new shift of officials had come on duty, so he went back to the beginning, and blamed the omission of a stamp on the forgetfulness of the officer who has just gone off duty. Another time, at the Bulgarian border, a British driver found that insurance rates had trebled since his previous trip. As he did not have enough cash to cover the charges, the driver, an avid soccer fan, smiled at the customs officer and said, "Manchester United very good." The officer shrugged expansively and stamped a paper. Finally the driver casually admitted that Bulgarian soccer, was good too. A grin split the officer's face. "All right English" he said, "pay at the other end."

Stratagems, however, are often not enough. Border officials may suddenly refuse to cash travelers' checks or demand an entirely new type of permit and although the Geneva-based International Road Transport Union tries to keep track of new regulations and advise trucking firms, they are often too late. When Turkey, for example, slapped a three-cents-per-mile charge on international trucking - to help pay for the upkeep of her battered roads - hundreds of drivers without enough money to pay were stranded at Kapikule.

That incident as it happened, triggered an international furor. To the Turks, whose road repair bill had risen to $100 million a year because of increased truck traffic, the toll was fair. But to Iran, the Middle East's main overland importer, it meant huge increases in shipping costs. And Bulgaria, whose trucking companies handle a large portion of the traffic, threatened reprisals against Turks crossing her territory to jobs in Europe.

But the Turks eventually won their case, and today a loaded rig crossing Turkey from West to East pays a tax of $800. Returning to Europe empty after discharging its cargo, it is charged $200.

And Turkish transit taxes are only part of the cost; some Arab countries also charge transit fees, which vary according to the value of the cargo.

The web of transit taxes, moreover, threatens to enmesh central Europe. Yugoslavia has announced its intention of introducing a tax on foreign truckers, and Austria is considering a similar levy. This would further increase Middle East road freight charges.

After Kapikule we joined the stream of trucks converging on the Bosporus. At the rate of one every three or four minutes, trucks trundle through the dusty border city of Edirne, pelt up and down the green hillsides of Thrace, skirt the Sea of Marmara and, finally reach Istanbul.

Before the construction of the Bosporus Bridge in 1973 (Aramco World, September-October 1973), drivers say trucks had to wait between 24 and 48 hours - some times longer - to cross from Europe to Asia by ferry. Now they bridge the two continents in a matter of minutes, racing across the 1,000-yard span high above the city's towering minarets and busy sea lane. Again, it's costly; trucks pay a $5-an-axle toll to cross the bridge.

But to Turkey the cost is justified. From such tolls the country paid off the cost of the bridge less than 30 months after it opened and current revenues are financing a network of superhighways around Istanbul from which long-distance truckers will benefit further.

Like the Salzburg-Klagenfurt road, however; and the proposed Yugoslavia-Bulgaria highway, the advantages of this network still lie in the future. On our trip the highway soon petered out and we were back to two-way traffic. We were once again, drivers said sourly, on a hard leg of the route.

The highway between Istanbul and Ankara, they said, carries five times more traffic than it was designed for and is one of the most dangerous stretches on the Middle East run.

At Ankara, the long route to the East divides. Trucks bound for Iran and Afghanistan head east and those going to the Gulf swing south. As our drivers were heading toward Saudi Arabia, we turned south - with few regrets. The drivers had told us about the other leg of the route - through the formidable mountains of eastern Anatolia, and about the Tahir Pass, 9,000 feet high at the summit, almost impassable four months of the year. On the steep, ice-sheeted roads, trucks slide even when stationary and when it is too dangerous to brake, the only way to slow down is to run from drift to drift.

Once, our drivers said, a British driver named Gordon Pearce spent Christmas lighting fires under both fuel tanks and the engine to keep the diesel fuel from freezing after his truck stuck in a snow drift halfway up a mountain in eastern Turkey.

The temperature was 32 below zero - Fahrenheit. When the brakes froze, each of the seven axles had to be jacked up in turn to free them. Pearce and his co-driver fought a losing battle as the diesel fuel became too thick to siphon out of the tank to keep the fires going. Finally he huddled in his cab and wrote in his diary, "All hope gone." At daybreak he discovered a road repair camp 200 yards away and spent four days there before he could drive on.

Our leg of the route, fortunately, was easier. Having wheeled south at Ankara we began to climb. By then Eigeland was in a truck with two Danish drivers and I had joined a convoy of four British trucks.

Halfway up "the box" - five forward gears, each available in high or low ratio at the flick of a switch - we were moving steadily in close file out of the smog shrouding the Turkish capital. An hour later we were in high-high gear and speeding across a rocky, arid plateau at 70 miles an hour, the landscape unfolding across the wide windshield like a travelogue in Cinerama.

Five hours after our dawn take-off, fueled with nothing but a cup of coffee and a cigarette, we stopped by the road side to warm up some sausage and beans - and to talk about the problems of eating during the long hauls east.

Ask a trucker where the best place to eat is enroute, and he will usually reply: "In your own cab." Drivers cook most of their meals themselves on two-burner camping stoves installed in place of the passenger seat if they are traveling alone, or balanced on the dashboard if they are driving with a partner.

They supplement their diet of tinned food and milk, cereals and cookies with fresh fruit and bread bought from roadside vendors, or an occasional motel meal. If they do eat "out" it is usually at a place they know they can get egg, steak and french fries. "None of this fancy foreign food," said a British driver "You can't afford a 'funny tummy' on a job like this."

Our meal was quick - to keep on schedule, all meals have to be. Then we washed up, stowed our gear, added our empty baked beans cans to the growing pile in the rest stop and moved out. "Give it plenty of stick (acceleration) going up," yelled Barrie Critchlow as he gunned the lead truck forward in the direction of the Taurus Mountains.

An hour later, we were twisting and weaving around tight, hairpin bends that most drivers would have difficulty getting a car around. Occasionally I caught a glimpse in the ravine below of a rusting wreck that had not made it.

The descent was no better Each time we hit a pothole the beautifully sprung seat of the Scania 230 nearly catapulted me though the cab roof and the vibrations scattered my belongings stowed on the bunk behind me.

Finally ten hours after leaving Ankara, we bellied out onto Turkey's Mediterranean coastal plain and pulled in for the night at a small service station near Adana. As Charlie Norton, with whom I was traveling, still had to go into town to telex his whereabouts to his company, I helped get the bunks ready - no easy job. Truckers carry enough food and clean clothes for the entire trip, and as they store them in the cab - along with sleeping bags, extra blankets, tools, spare parts, cooking utensils, first aid kit dishwashing soap and toilet paper - making room for sleeping was a major job. Space, in fact is at a premium throughout the big rigs.

Fresh water tanks, spare propane tubes, picks and shovels, for example, are lashed to the roof of the cab; snow chains and spare tires are slung from the chassis.

For Charlie it was a short rest. I had barely closed my eyes when Charlie was drawing back the curtains round the cab. A cold wash and a hot cup of coffee, and our four-truck convoy was on its way again. It was about 7:00 am.

As we drove, Charlie told me still more about driving east. It was, he said, his 15th trip to the Middle East this time with 16 tons of traffic signal equipment for Riyadh. Two other drivers in the convoy, Barrie and Dave Prosser, were both driving for Carmans Transport Ltd., carrying 22 tons of wood piling for a school near Dammam. They too were veterans of the Middle East run. The fourth, Jim Fletcher, was an owner-driver on his first trip to the Gulf. He was carrying a mixed load of oil equipment and fittings for Dhahran and Doha in a right hand-drive Volvo.

Fletcher's fee, from Antwerp to Qatar, he said later, was about $5,600. He estimated his profit after deducting running costs at $3,700: more if he could pick up a return load somewhere on the way back. "But if anything goes wrong" he said, "I could lose the lot. Everything I own is tied up in this truck."

We were now rounding the northeast corner of the Mediterranean and again the routes diverged. Ours lay south towards the Syrian border while traffic bound for Iraq and Kuwait headed east via Gaziantepe, Urfa and Mardin to Zakho on the Turkish-Iraqi border.

Again, no one in our convoy minded going south; until recently the drivers said, no truck traveled on from Zakho without a military escort, because Kurdish guerrillas were trying to block shipments into Baghdad, the capital of Iraq.

During that period, trucks once formed a convoy of 15 vehicles with a six-man guard at front and rear, recalls Janson Vick, a British trucker delivering a load of Scottish electronic equipment to a new city in southern Iraq.

Today Kurdistan is peaceful and the road surface quite acceptable. But because there are difficulties in getting Iraqi visas, the route through Syria - our route - is more popular.

At Bab-el-Hawa on the Syrian border we joined a line of about 50 trucks and, four hours later, rolled through the last checkpoint and headed for Aleppo in a driving rain. Later, in the dark, we stopped at a small filling station to fuel up, went back to look for Dave and Jim and finally headed for the parking spot where it had been agreed earlier we would spend the night Dave and Jim were already there when we arrived, having taken another route.

We had then been on the road for 15 hours and were all dog-tired, but Charlie and I decided to have a cup of coffee with Barrie before going to bed. As usual the talk focused on their experiences as drivers.

Both men had been driving trucks since their teens, living in their cabs nine months of the year for longer than they cared to remember Barrie had tried other jobs, including a stint as a bouncer at a London night club, but had always returned to the road.

"I took this job to get away from it all," he said. "I don't like people breathing down my neck telling me how to do things. I pick up my load and it's up to me to get it there."

Charlie, a quiet lanky man in black jeans, cowboy boots and a Stetson, scoffs at some of the wild exploits of his colleagues. "Nothing ever happened to me", he says, "and that's how I want it." As I agreed, we were both pleased the next day with an uneventful run down the southerly main road to Damascus and on to the Jordanian border, where a young Palestinian ran up waving wildly. He was neatly dressed and well-mannered and all four drivers handed him their documents without hesitation.

His name was Muhammad Abu-al-Jhanzar, I learned later, and he had built himself a flourishing business helping truckers process their papers at the frontier. A refugee, he supported his family on his earnings and had even been able, that year, to send his mother and father to Mecca for the Hajj. The amazing thing about all this was that Muhammad, 16, was a deaf-mute.

Leaving him to handle their paperwork, the drivers adjourned to the Ramtha Guest House alongside the border for double-egg, steak and french fries and luxury of luxuries - a hot shower, courtesy of one of the numerous small entrepreneurs along the route who earn good livings by providing such simple facilities for the truckers.

Here, in Jordan, the long trail diverged again, one road running south to Medina and Jiddah and then east to Riyadh, the other southeast to Al Kahfah and along the Tapline highway to Dammam. From there, a first class road continues along the Gulf coast: north to Kuwait and south to Doha.

Until recently when the Saudi Arab government completed a new highway linking the Jordanian border with the Tapline road, truckers used to dread this leg; it was 70 miles of cross-desert travel with only scattered oil drums to mark the way and treacherous sand lying in wait. But by the time of our trip the new highway was open and, as our small convoy split up, farewells were quick as Charlie headed south for Jiddah and Riyadh, the others southeast for Dammam and Doha.

But as they disappeared into the dusk, I could still hear the melody that Charlie had played constantly on the tape recorder fitted in his cab. It was a truckers' ode entitled "Six Days On the Road." That's nothing, I thought, compared to this route. Nothing at all.

This article appeared on pages 8-15 of the November/December 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1977 images.