Haulage trucks criss-cross the continent all day and night and have redefined the map of Europe. Andrew Byrne jumps aboard with Turkish drivers Arap, Aziz and Hurşit for a seven-day, 3,000km trek, hauling textiles from Istanbul to Dartford, UK
Day 1, Thursday: Turkey
Our three-truck convoy – carrying socks and flowers for Istanbul hauliers Integral Logistics – sets off for Bulgaria, 280km away. I’m sitting in Arap’s passenger seat. We’ve got just a few words (of German) in common but they’re useful: eat, sleep and stop. With slow customs checks and queues, the drive takes two days.
Day 2, Friday: Bulgaria
At the Bulgarian crossing I meet Bjorn Hubert, a Belgian police officer with the border agency. “I’m a documents expert. We guard against smuggling.” Why is he working here? “For the experience… Why are you here?”
Day 3, Saturday: Romania
The rich green valleys of Transylvania are a world away from the potholed roads of Bulgaria. Michaela sells cheese to passing drivers. Hurşit and Aziz (pictured right, on a break) and Arap complain about corruption at borders in east Europe – they say they are often asked for bribes.
Day 4, Sunday: Hungary
On Sundays it’s illegal to drive trucks in much of central Europe, so we stop for 24 hours in a Hungarian car park. Aziz plays backgammon with the other drivers. I read my book, twice.
Day 5, Monday: Slovakia
Slovakia passes by at high speed. From the truck you can see fields of yellow rapeseed and, in the distance, the pastel-coloured communist-era blocks of Bratislava.
Day 5, Monday: Czech Republic
We stop at a motel outside Prague to sleep, and I take my only shower of the week. In the smoke-filled bar, Bulgarian drivers drink silently. Arap and Aziz sleep in their cabins until 2am. Then it’s back on the road.
Day 6, Tuesday: Germany
Cologne is the only city where we travel downtown. We visit a hospital where one of the drivers’ friends is recovering from a serious truck accident. Road smashes and violent attacks by cargo thieves are common on this route, they tell me.
Day 7, Wednesday: France
At Calais, trucks are loaded on to rail carriages for the Channel tunnel. We meet Colin Robinson from Ireland (far left). “I’ve been driving since I was knee-high but it won’t be long before I’m out of it. It’s all eastern Europeans now. You can’t blame them. It’s cheaper to put them on the road.”
Day 7, Wednesday: United Kingdom
Dartford in sight. Relief floods over me. Showers, beds, toilets beckon. Arap (left) slaps my back and waves me off. For my new friends, the return trip starts tomorrow.