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This is the first of a series of excerpts from the recently published book, Around The World In Freighty Ways, which tells the story of the three years The Loadstar editor Gavin van Marle spent circumnavigating the world without flying, uncovering the previously unseen mechanics of globalisation. Gavin describes the epic journey around the world’s cargo hot- and more-tepid-spots as “like being given a backstage pass into the freight business”.

Here he is in Romania, “where the more links there are in the [supply] chain, the more stuff gets lost or stolen”.  Read on…

Romania is a country that breathes magic, myth and wild imagery. Dracula, despots and starving orphans, it is a land that has long a held a morbid fascination for me. I’ve often felt that it is the country in Europe where one begins to smell Asia – in the woodsmoke drifting out of the cottages, in the carved faces of the people, on the chipped skyline of the Transylvanian Alps. A tingle of excitement sparkled through my nerves as we approached the border and, as if on cue, the weather began to clear.

Reaching Szeged, Hungary’s last major city, the sun was out and singing. We decided to spend the afternoon in this pleasant little city that nestles on the river Tisva – one of the Danube’s countless tributaries – and is home to Hungary’s largest student population outside Budapest. Say what you like about students, but they make the evenings lively.

Szeged is also renowned throughout Hungary for its salami and paprikas, a change from the rubbish that we had eaten so far during our stay in the country. The diet from Vienna eastwards had almost uniformly been schnitzels – perhaps the vanguard of the EU’s push eastwards is the propensity of restaurants to serve Germanic food, or perhaps it is a leftover of the Hapsburgs. But the spicy goulash we found in Szeged was a welcome relief from fried pork and chips.

We woke early the next day. I had been to Romania once before. In 1996 I had driven through it on my way to Greece, and it was a harrowing experience. Avoiding the huge potholes and the long lines of horse-drawn carts travelling at walking pace were the least of my worries – a series of bribe-points masquerading as police checks had left me penniless. But the biggest mistake was driving in the dark. There are no lights on Romania’s roads, nor on the carts, which don’t even bear reflectors. Several heart attacks later I reached the Bulgarian border.

3 Poiana Brasov (3)

This time I was more prepared. We had to cover 650km from Szeged to Brasov – not a large distance, unless your average speed is 60km an hour – before dusk fell at seven in the evening.

Romania has changed. The potholes have been filled in, and Arad, the first major city in Romania, even has a bypass road now. We were still on the E56, but only the markings on the map would tell you it’s a main road. It is not built for the volume of traffic it carries.

There are still the horse-drawn carts, but now they have been joined by convoys of huge trucks on their way to Turkey and beyond, as well as powerful German cars driven at high speeds by the brash young captains of Romanian capitalism. The police checks have thinned, and their absence serves to make driving seem far more dangerous. Apart from one 8km stretch around Sibiu, the road has just one lane and frequently crosses train tracks. The journey took 10 hours. In one village gridlock and chaos reigned as a herd of cows made their way home – there was no one directing them. A Romanian friend later told me how village families let their cows out in the mornings, which make their own way to the fields and their own way back home at the day’s end. For all the progress made, Romania remains inextricably chained to its past.

Again the question of transport along the Danube came up, and there was considerably more optimism about it than in Austria or Hungary. The Romanian Shippers Association reckons that transit traffic has increased by 60% since the bridge clearance project in Serbia was completed, post Kosovo war. But one local forwarder advised me to take that with a pinch of salt. “There aren’t any accurate figures for river traffic, but despite the long-standing economic problems in Romania, there’s huge demand, especially in Bucharest. Commodities like whiskey are showing big growth. I know of West European supermarkets looking to break into the market here, but they don’t want their depots to be in the capital because of the state of the roads there.”

However, in the true “one-step-forward-two-back” traditions of human progress (and Romania is one of those countries that tends to exaggerate the foibles of mankind), the widespread expectation is that Romanian Customs’ inefficiency and intransigence will continue to do its best to hinder the supply chain.

In the mountains outside Brasov we stayed with a friend working on a bona fide Hollywood film set. Cold Mountain is a ranging film about love and loss, partly a retelling of The Odyssey, set during the American Civil War, directed by Anthony Minghella and based on the novel by Charles Frazier. A mountain of money was spent – a story set in North Carolina was shot in Transylvania. Apparently the North Carolina of today bears no resemblance to that of 1864 – with telephone lines and power cables overhead, and the roar of passenger jets drowning out the sound of musket shots, the suspension of disbelief is broken.

Whereas in Romania, you can come along, pick a spot in the vast, untouched mountains and foothills of Transylvania, and build your own mock-up of a 19th-century American town (it’s true, and that’s as well as the purpose-built 16km road to it). The real reason it was shot, mostly, in Romania, is that it’s much cheaper, especially if you want to dig up vast tracts of virgin land.

Similarly the crew were a mixture of Italians and British, all of them far less expensive than their heavily unionised American counterparts; and the total cost of the extras – Romanian army conscripts – for the huge set-piece battle scenes was negligible. Conversely, and this seems to be true of setting up in a low-cost country in general, filming in Romania presented serious difficulties, not least with the logistics – an aspect of the film that had already cost millions.

A chat with the production department’s shipping manager revealed some of the problems they had encountered: “Customs are a complete nightmare, they’ve got the worst computer system I’ve ever come across, I can’t remember how many times it’s broken down and everything’s been held at the airport or the border. Once it went down for a week! A whole week! We couldn’t get anything in or out; it can be really frustrating.” The most common trick of customs in “developing” countries is to adopt a level of obtuseness that makes paying a bribe preferable.

Warehouses-worth of expensive equipment have been trucked all the way from the UK and Italy, and the manager had little but contempt for alternative transport modes. “Too much stuff gets lost anyway, and the more links there are in the chain, the more stuff gets lost or stolen. Besides,” she said, pointing to a distant factory chimney belching out smoke like a Havana cigar, “the pollution here is terrible, so, comparatively, we’re not adding much.”

Of course, it is nothing compared with the excesses of many filmmakers. Perhaps more bizarre for some of the people I interviewed was talking to a journalist who ignored the stars and wanted to talk logistics (well, they wouldn’t have had anything to do with me so I thought I’d get my blank in first – although that’s not entirely true, a fiery drinking session with Ray Winstone will be a story for my grandchildren). Naturally, they wanted to talk about the stars. “What you see going on here is nothing, nothing!” One told me, “I worked for Joel Silver on Hudson Hawk, which was being shot in Italy. He has a taste for Pepsi but, apparently, the European Pepsi doesn’t taste like the American one, so crates of it had to be FedEx’d in every single day. The cost was unbelievable, you would have been able to buy the best champagne.”

Nonetheless, my own feeling is that it will take some time for Romania to bring transport systems up to EU standards, which admittedly isn’t saying much.

Ten days later we left by the same border crossing, heading for Trieste – since we were uninsured to drive in Croatia we had to go back through Austria. The queue of trucks waiting to get through the border into Hungary stretched for nearly 5km. We stopped to talk to a Turkish trucker who had already been waiting two days, and expected to wait at least another two. “They’re checking every truck; the Hungarians are looking for drugs.”

It wasn’t just every truck. In a surreal scene our car was also taken to pieces, and while one customs guard unscrewed the inner panelling I stood chatting to another about his cousin who lives in Bicester.

“Have you been to Blenheim Palace?” he said to me. “I’m told it’s beautiful.”

“Have you got any heroin? Cocaine?” the other asked my wife.

The rolling hills of green Oxfordshire seemed a long way away.

Around The World In Freighty Ways costs just £12.99. Copies can be obtained from directly from publisher Right River Press Ltd by calling 020 7403 2005 or through this Amazon link


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