On the ‘New Silk Road,’ a Father-Son Road Trip Goes 8,000 Miles to China and Back

June 2, 2019, 10:30 AM UTC
road trip camel

As far as road trips with your dad go, this one was unusual, even for Siebe Alblas.

First, there was the distance: more than 4,000 miles one way, from Rotterdam in the Netherlands to western China, via Berlin, Moscow and much of Kazakhstan.

Then, there was the pace: more than 80 hours of driving—nearly as long as it would take to drive from New York to Los Angeles and back—over less than six days, with father and son switching off when the other was tired.

And finally, there was the return journey. After reaching China, the pair enjoyed a celebratory dinner, stayed one night, turned around and went right back. They gave themselves one day of vacation: a stop in Moscow, to do some sightseeing.

“There were moments that were stressful, but looking back it was a really good experience,” Alblas said.

Alblas, 32, is the operations manager at Alblas International Logistics, a family-owned Dutch trucking company, and his father Jan, 61, is the owner and director. The road trip last fall was an advance journey to check out the route the company would soon be operating, from western Europe to western China, including places to eat, fuel up, and the conditions of the roads. And they were scoping out what other truck companies they would see on the way. Most of the time, there was no need to take notes.

Siebe Alblas Road Trip truck map
The Albases’ 4,000-mile one-way driving route, from Rotterdam to Western China. (Getty Images)
Getty Images (2)

The land route between Europe and China had been possible before, but it wasn’t practical until just recently. What changed? China joined the Transport Internationaux Routiers, a global transport convention, in May 2018, and its ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” has built a network of fresh highways and transit links through Central Asia—routes that could bring Europe and China closer than ever before.

The Alblases were the first ones to send commercial trucks on the route under the new convention, but they expect the journey to soon be commonplace.

“We might be the only ones now, but of course in the near future there will be others,” Alblas said.

The New Silk Road

The Belt and Road Initiative is a Chinese project first announced in 2013 to expand the country’s economic and cultural influence the world over—especially on vital trade routes, including the ancient Europe-to-Asia thoroughfare once known as the “Silk Road.” Much of the initiative’s focus has been on funding infrastructure, and in the sparsely populated countries of Central Asia, that often means roads.

Kazakhstan alone has received $2 billion worth of investment through the program. In return, China solidified trade links through its westernmost region of Xinjiang. Kazakhstan is vast—about a quarter of the total size of the U.S.—with a population slightly smaller than New York state. Providing a reliable thoroughfare has been key to the country increasing trade, not just regionally, but also with Europe, via truck, which is faster than ocean freight, cheaper than air freight, and more flexible than rail.

The Alblases’ car on a highway in Kazakhstan. (Courtesy of Siebe Alblas)

From China’s perspective, constructing those links is about more than just sending trucks to Europe, says Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London. It’s also aimed at changing its own narrative; that China is not just about exporting inexpensive goods; it has the technology and the backing to build sophisticated infrastructure. The initiative has also included the rapid development of the traditionally remote western regions of China—a push that has come alongside oppression of the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang.

That said, putting down physical roots has never been easy in Central Asia, a region sandwiched uneasily between China, Russia, and the Middle East.

“It’s a big assumption that [China] is going to be able to build massive amounts of infrastructure in these regions,” says Brown. “Without a huge amount of knowledge, it’s doing ambitious things. No one else has found it easy, so why would China?”

Still, China seems eager to try, says Brown.

China or bust!

The plan to send Alblas trucks—carrying a variety of goods, from clothing to pharmaceuticals—between Europe and China had been years in the works. The company already had an office in Urumqi, in western China, and was the first European company to apply for a permit when China joined the global transport convention.

China’s membership in the convention meant goods could now be checked through customs at either end of their journey, rather than at several points along the way, meaning the round trip was suddenly doable in about ten days. That’s ideal for goods that are valuable and perishable enough to justify the higher cost of truck transport—versus cheaper and slower ocean or rail routes—but aren’t worth the expense of air freight, Alblas said.

Bumps in the road

Alblas and his father left Rotterdam on a Thursday in October, driving a gray Mercedes 4X4 loaded with Dutch food and candy for snacking. Neither had ever driven the route before, and they would have to find hotels and food along the way using a time-honored method: Google maps.

The pair was used to driving together after years of family road trips. More recently, they’ve made business trips across Europe also by car, says Alblas.

A truck owned by Alblas International Logistics leaves the Khorgos border control in western China. (Courtesy of Alblas International Logistics)
Alblas International Logistics

The trip from the Netherlands through Russia was straight-forward, but the country that lay beyond—Kazakhstan—was different, he says.

Sections of the road in Kazakhstan were “not good” Alblas says. “[A]nd we still had 3,000 kilometers [or nearly 2,000 miles] to go,” he says. “We said, ‘Should we go back?’ But we kept going.”

Aside from the bumps, there wasn’t much to look at: wide, flat plains, dotted with the occasional camel or cow.

“It’s a massive country that you’re driving through, and it’s really empty,” he says.

Arriving at your destination

Along the way, they listened to music (Coldplay, Kazakh pop music on local radio stations), and tried to answer work emails from back home. Sometimes there was no phone reception, Google maps, or local radio, so they just talked. They navigated by their vehicle’s GPS, which mostly led them in the right direction, Alblas says. But some highways were so new they didn’t appear on the system’s map. In those instances, they attempted to decipher Kazakh road signs.

In Almaty, the Kazakh commercial capital, they picked up a human guide to show them the route to Khorgos, the Kazakh-Chinese border town to the east. Along the way, there was newly built highway—a route that forms part of the new Western Europe-Western China International Transit Corridor—and a new border crossing into a Chinese Special Economic Zone that doesn’t require a visa. At the time of their trip last year, the border crossing was less than one month old, introduced as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Siebe Alblas and his father Jan in Moscow on their way home from a trip to the Kazakh-Chinese border. (Courtesy of Siebe Alblas)
Siebe Alblas

Less than a month after their road trip, an Alblas truck would make nearly the same trip in reverse, bringing packaging material from China to Poland, the first of several pilot trips. The company says the journey is now a full commercial route, with at least ten trips a month, with plans to increase the number of trips further.

For Alblas, driving the route from Moscow to Kazakhstan to China was a totally new experience. And despite a childhood of lengthy road trips around Europe with his family—most of whom work in the family business—it was still an unusually long, intense road journey, he admits.

By the end, he was exhausted.

“It was a nice trip,” he says. “But it makes you really tired to drive all day long.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—What killed Jamie Oliver’s restaurant chain?

—Where Google’s ban on Huawei will hurt the most

Europe’s vacation hot spots have a message for tourists: Sorry, we’re full

—The boom, bust, and rebirth of Perth

—Listen to our new audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily

Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune‘s daily digest on the business of tech.