U.S. aid shipments of food and medicine destined for Georgia and Armenia last May found their way blocked after Azerbaijani guerrillas blew up several railway bridges.

Poul Kristensen, humanitarian aid coordinator and de facto transport cowboy for Sea-Land Service Inc., knew he had to move fast.With the help of military officials, he found an old copper mine with an abandoned rail line and routed the train to a rarely used rail head. Then he hired military trucks, got a visiting U.S. official to lend him $1,400 in cash for gasoline and signed on Armenian and Georgian soldiers with AK-47 rifles to ride shotgun in each truck. The shipment made it, a little late but all in one piece.

"Boy, was that fun," said the 48-year old Danish national. "We'll, let me say it was not fun at the time."

Dodging bullets may be out of the ordinary, but defusing daily transport problems isn't for those trying to deliver bilateral aid to hospitals and schools throughout the vast and chaotic Russia and former Soviet republics.

Those in this line of work say you quickly learn to throw away the rule book, think on your feet and use muster, bluster and ingenuity to get the goods delivered.

"It's been a very difficult job," said Jun Yamamoto, an affable chain- smoking traffic manager and point man for Sumitomo Corp., which handles Japanese Red Cross shipments.

Sumitomo, which moved 500 containers of food and medicine to Russia this year, posted representatives at every interchange where containers were transferred from ships to trains or from trains to trucks, to limit theft, loss and misrouting.

Russian railcars can carry two 20-foot containers each, but aid specialists said they never leave space on a railcar. Even if they are only shipping one container, they pair it with an empty. This reduces the risk that the whole car will go off to the other cargo's destination.

"We always had two as a set," said Tadasu Takagi, director of Sumitomo's transport and insurance division.

Finding qualified sub-agents also can be a major problem in a country where economic chaos and opportunism are rampant, and experience, business sense and

financial security are not.

"Everyone always says 'Yes, no problem,' even if there is," said Richard A. McGregor, Sea-Land vice president. Eventually you find reliable partners, he said. "There's a lot of hand-holding."

Then there's the weather. Last year, Sea-Land - which does a lot of its work for Catholic Relief Services - delivered a shipment of 45 20-foot containers (TEUs) of aid cargo by barge to Anadyr, an isolated community on the Arctic Circle. The waterway is accessible only three months out of the year, and this was the end of the season.

"We were concerned if we didn't unload the (barges and containers) quickly, we wouldn't see them again for nine months," said Andrew Wilson, Sea-Land's Vostochny representative.

As the barge arrived, Mr. Kristensen organized teams of workers to unload the Sea-Land containers, re-load the food and medicine into Russian containers and truck them to a hospital. In the process, he convinced normally half- hearted Russian workers to labor around the clock for 36 straight hours.

This particular job also required some acting skills. At one point, a local customs official threatened to stop the entire operation if he weren't given the original bill of lading.

The demand was unreasonable but the local official had the power to stop everything. But Mr. Kristensen also suspected the official had never seen a bill of lading, so he confidently produced a copy of the barge manifest. The official happily withdrew, manifest in hand, and the barge left on schedule.

For Sumitomo, finding reliable trucking companies has been a major problem as it has tried to sort through a maze of state transport agencies under government control, state companies in various stages of privatization and new companies springing up.

"It is all rapidly changing," Mr. Yamamoto said. "One month ago there is no such company. One month later, there's a new company."

Although financial data wasn't available, it cross-checked verbal information until it narrowed down a list of carriers with at least a year's experience and principals that seemed responsible. Often it came down to a assessment of personal character.

Foreign carriers also risk losing equipment to Russian depot managers who cheerfully send empty containers off to the hinterlands with someone else's cargo. "That's one reason we employ people to make sure containers don't get into railyards," said Mr. Kristensen. "In Russia there's been no sense of ownership. A container belonged to the people."

Last year Sea-Land handled almost 2,000 containers in Russia. Eventually it will track down the five it lost to some siding, using the railcar number - not the container number. "The Russian bureaucracy is humongous," he said. ''Somewhere in that bureaucracy you can track the movement of the railcar."

Sea-Land says people in the hinterlands are generally much more cooperative than those in areas closer to Moscow. But bureaucrats are bureaucrats.

When shipments of milk powder first started arriving last year in some places, local health officials still had the Chernobyl accident on their minds. "We practically needed a (resume) from each American cow," he said. ''Eventually we got a blanket document that no American cows ate near nuclear plants."

At other times in the Ural mountains inspectors wanted containers sprayed for fear that worms would emerge from the container and destroy the local timber industry. "We had those rules in the West until the 1960s," he said.

"If you haven't seen Russian bureaucracy, you haven't seen any bureaucracy," he said. "In Russia, once you have a rule it just stays there."