Long road to Asia: Essential route revived

Long road 
   to Asia: Essential route revived

Avni Teke, driving the world’s highways for 42 years, says he is luckily to have never experienced a major accident.

April 12, 2009, Sunday/ 13:19:00/ DANIEL MCINTOSH
In İstanbul’s truck lot, the international trucking equivalent of an airport, the origin of distant license plates marks a trend. According to Hüseyin Sandıkçı, the CEO of a large transport company, Karadeniz Nakliyat, the future of trade is no longer in the West where the sun sets.

“We have to start looking in the direction where the sun rises: the East. Civilization started there, and it will return,” he says.

But it is not the sunrise that is luring thousands of Turkish trucks monthly to set off for all points east. It is Turkey’s booming Central Asian export market, a product of the region’s relatively improved economic stability in the past decade that has been increasing Turkish export figures at impressive rates. In addition, it is the logistical advantages of improved routes and the potential of Central Asian markets that have been catching the attention of Turkish business leaders.

As roads are being patched and palms greased, the historic Silk Road, once a vital artery connecting Europe to Asia, is coming back to life. But in order to reclaim Turkey’s historical position in land trade as a link between Europe and Asia, great hurdles must still be overcome. It is ambition paired with the hardships of the current economic crisis that may generate the push required to revive Turkey’s strategic geographical role, resolve issues and seek out new markets for Turkish goods.

Showing a 5 percent increase in the number of Turkish trade vehicles crossing Turkey’s eastern borders in the first two months of the year, and a 15 percent growth when only considering January, the future looks optimistic for business in the East, whereas Europe-bound exports leaving Turkey’s western border have taken a worrisome 29 percent decline.

Turkey’s east-bound exports, escaping the economic chaos currently consuming Europe, are breaking through the economic crunch that has tightened business markets. Turkey is optimistically looking east.

To those in the know, international business interests in Central Asia are nothing new. In fact, Turkey’s exports to the Turkic republics of Central Asia have been flourishing since the beginning of 2001, when they were at a mere $557,000, according to the International Transporters’ Association (UND). In line with increasing stability in the region, the figure has grown annually by nearly 30-45 percent in value and reached approximately $3,747,000 in 2008. But according to Alpdoğan Kahraman, the UND’s operations expert for Central Asia, this is only a taste of the region’s potential. If projects that aim to remove trade restrictions and ease logistics are realized in Central Asia, “an accelerated increase can be expected,” says Kahraman.

Differences bridged

Avni Teke, a Turkish truck driver who has been on the road for 42 years, jokes that “unfortunately there is no bridge over the nation of Turkmenistan.” Teke’s humor, ironically based in fact, explains that not even a fixed vehicle bridge linking Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan exists. Instead, despite this being the year 2009, there is a floating pontoon that traverses the Amu Darya River -- at the steep cost of $100 per crossing -- highlighting the long time the region has been isolated.

Sandıkçı, also an experienced truck driver, recalls such infrastructure hardships faced in his business. “Last year our drivers could not cross for two or three months,” he explained -- the pontoon bridge was deemed unusable because of melting winter snow and ice in the river, stopping trade altogether. “But they are thinking about building a bridge,” adds another truck driver. Sandıkçı largely blames the former USSR’s approach to logistics for Central Asia’s poor roadways. “The [former] USSR’s transportation was done by train, and they did not give much importance to road transportation,” he explains. He added that today there are still points in Kazakhstan’s desert where, due to the lack of road connections, trucks drive parallel to railroad tracks to guide them.

Aware of the growing potential in Central Asian markets, China has been funding a diverse number of road and infrastructure projects, most recently as reported by Interfax, a long-term $281 million loan invested in mending Tajikistan’s patchy roads thus better connecting Central Asia to the Chinese export giant.

Understandably, because of the bureaucracy and corruption associated with Central Asia, it does not entice foreign business. Despite this, Turkish companies are active in Central Asia, specifically in civil engineering works, where construction materials account for about 80 percent of Turkey’s exports to the region, according to Sandıkçı.

Ali Öztaşdelen, co-owner of Alfarproje, an Ankara-based civil engineering company, understands the challenges of doing business in Central Asia from first-hand experience gained while executing road construction contracts in Tajikistan. “Being away from cities means a lack of everything. Many work sites have harsh natural conditions; high elevation, cold, snow, short working seasons and in addition, getting paid is very difficult and sometimes cannot be guaranteed. The control organizations are weak, too, and everything moves with bribes; if bribes aren’t paid, nothing can be completed.”

Despite the poor infrastructure in Central Asia, which Sandıkçı claims eats away at his fleet’s precious suspension systems at a rate three times faster than when driving on the smooth roads of Europe, his concerns for Turkey’s future in the region, too, are largely bureaucratic.

Bureaucratic hurdles

The untimely manner in which visas are issued, quotas, costly transport permits for vehicles passing through Iran and delays at border crossings top Sandıkçı’s list of concerns. Mine Kaya, chairwoman of the UND executive committee, voices similar concerns about the region -- mostly stemming from bureaucratic issues -- and is calling for the synchronization of regional governments.

But it seems that change is on the horizon; due to a series of joint projects, the synchronization of regional trade rules, visa issuance and permit requirements are to be resolved in talks. One of the most ambitious is the International Road Transport Initiative -- New Eurasian Land Transport Initiative (IRU-NELTI), a project aiming to revive the Silk Road routes and prove that land transport today has no limits.

What has long been an aspiration is now taking shape. A regional group of freight companies is now undertaking experimental runs, logging trip data and noting difficulties encountered in the eastern frontier. Test runs of long-distance trips have shown, as stated in a press release by IRU-NELTI, that Beijing to Brussels can be achieved in less than three weeks, arguing that this is nearly one-third the time needed for sea transport and that the cost is lower because hefty port freight handling fees are avoided and all with the benefit of door-to-door delivery.

Kaya, like the rest of the logistics industry, looks forward to the implementation of these organizational projects and to the day when Turkish trucks can enter China and return to Turkey with goods aboard. But, she explains, up till now there is no trade agreement with Turkey for road transport, although one is awaiting approval.

Until such agreements are finalized, it is a concern that vehicles often deliver goods to locations as far as Almaty, Kazakhstan, traveling weeks on end and may return to Turkey hauling an empty trailer.  Due to the fact that the majority of Central Asian countries do not offer a variety of goods to export, the options are limited to mostly agricultural goods, explains Kadir Çergel, an import specialist with Karadeniz Nakliyat.

In the cabin of his long-haul truck, Teke strikes a match and touches it to another cigarette as he reminds himself that he cannot quit smoking. “My cigarette is my only friend,” he explains, while recalling the solitude of driving along Iran’s highways and through magnificent flat plains in Turkmenistan, describing the raw and desolate Central Asia that he has watched grow from infancy during his career.

Although he has been doing this for decades, Teke explains that he still feels excited when rolling out of İstanbul at dawn setting out on the route for Central Asia. He insists that no matter what changes the region sees in the future, “the sense of adventure in driving across Central Asia will always be there.”

‘There is nowhere that I haven’t been’

“There is nowhere that I haven’t been,” says Avni Teke, a Turkish truck driver, motioning to a world map and in a hand swipe brushing all of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and stopping at the coast of Japan. Speaking with passion, he adds, “There is no other job that will pay you to go to these places.” Indeed he has seen it all in his 42 years touring the world on wheels, but it wasn’t chance that kept him safe and out of trouble on the road. “I don’t make friends with anybody,” he explains, highlighting the inherent independence the job requires.

Aware that many have fallen prey to the lure of the lucrative drug trade, he makes clear that his independence and selfishness has gotten him to where he is today. “I go into [border] customs alone and come out alone,” he asserts. “When one trucker gets caught doing something wrong, it will bring down 20 others.”

Also, by steering clear of hitchhikers, which he claims are in abundance everywhere he goes, he avoids the stabbings and robberies to which his friends have fallen victim. “This job can seem easy on the outside, but it is not easy, the burdens are heavy.”

Despite having seen a significant portion of the world’s landscapes and mountain passes and met the local inhabitants, he insists, “There’s no place like Turkey; with land as beautiful as ours and people as warm as ours, I couldn’t find a better place.” 

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