April 21, 2011

Hitchhiking in Turkey

This is an edited excerpt from a journal I kept. This post includes primarily the sections about hitchhiking, other parts about Turkey and Istanbul are not included. It starts with my exit from Bulgaria and ends at the first town in Greece.

October 31

Suilengrad,Bulgaria - I found that there is only one train a day to Turkey from Bulgaria and no bus to the border. I never did get too good with the Cyrillic alphabet and it turned out that the signs for two train stops looked very similar and I ended up at the wrong one initially.

After arriving at the correct station I started walking out of town to hitchhike. Very shortly a car stopped and they asked if I needed a ride. A young man and his mother took me to the border, where they insisted we have coffee with the kind of hospitality that I encountered on most of this trip. Then I walked across the border - no problem.

The guidebook had mentioned buses from the border to Edirne but there weren't any, so I decided to continue hitchhiking. I crossed the street and stood across from a parked police car, hoping it wasn't illegal to hitchhike. I figured they would tell me if it was! Hopefully politely and without hassles. ( The only place I've heard of it being illegal is in parts of the U.S., where they are not so polite about it.)

A car passed and I put my thumb out to no avail. Now the police officer came over. Ultimately he said something to me about helping me out but the details were not clear. Before long another car came by and the policeman flagged it down and spoke with them! But it was full and he came back and told me "no problem".

The next car he waved over was driven by his colleague - an off-duty policeman - who of course gave me a ride. In a few minutes we reached a gas station run by his buddy and of course we had to have tea by the wood stove for a while. After that we proceeded directly to Edirne.

November 1

In the morning I made my way to the bus station and found that the bus to Istanbul was relatively expensive. I think it was 20,000 lira or more, and I had only 10,000 and didn't want to change more money before Istanbul. So I decided to hitchhike once again.

I had to hike for a while to get out of Edirne. Once I was out on the highway it wasn't long before a man on a small motor scooter stopped. I was surprised, but he motioned to get on so I did. Backpack and all, sans any helmet of course. He gave me a ride for a few minutes to a junction and after a short wait, I got a ride in a Coca-Cola delivery truck. The driver was a young man and very friendly. I thought from our conversation that he was going to Istanbul after stopping at the bottling plant.

When we got to the plant I was invited into the little guard booth at the front gate. The plant manager appeared with a couple bottles of Coke and a big smile and welcomed me. I now gathered that the driver I had arrived with was not going to Istanbul, but that another one surely would be. An older man was leaving in another truck and I went with him.

When we got to the next town he deposited me at the local bus station and went on his way in some other direction. The bus was still 12,000 lira and my limit was still 10,000. So I continued on foot through the town planning to hitchhike once I reached the outskirts. Along the road in the town there were two young soldiers\guards\police - one on each side of the road in small guard booths. (Turkey has numerous varieties of each so I'm not sure what their role was, but I think they were soldiers.) With much amusement the two of them stopped me and asked for my passport. They couldn't speak any English and were laughing and smiling, obviously getting a kick out of the whole thing. I certainly didn't feel threatened.

Despite the language barrier I somehow conveyed to them that I was going to Istanbul and they pointed back to the bus station. I was trying to indicate my financial shortcoming to them just as a bus to Istanbul came by. The soldiers stopped it. The ticket guy always stands by the back door, and he leaned out and said it was 12,000 lira. I took the 10,000 lira out of my pocket and waved it at him and he told the driver to move on. Then the soldiers said something to him in Turkish - still smiling and laughing - and he waved me onto the bus and took the 10,000 lira. So I got a discounted ride to Istanbul.

We arrived at a huge congested bus station outside the city. Before going into the city I got prices to Germany and to other points in Turkey. The city is an amazing transportation hub with buses to all over the place. One day I saw the bus from Tehran arrive - an ancient vehicle with spares and baggage tied on top and a turban in every window.

The intra-national buses within Turkey are mostly new with a video and temperature control and aren't particularly cheap. They also are not open to much bargaining - at best one can get about 15% off the initial quote. However, the buses to Germany are open to heavy bargaining and can be had for 60-70% off the initial quote (or 50% of the posted rate on the wall.) I couldn't fully pin down a price without bargaining for a ticket, but I guessed $60-$80 all the way to Munich. This knowledge came in handy about six weeks later when I returned to Germany from Amman via Istanbul.

November 2

After spending the day Istanbul I decided to return to the Greek border. I felt it would be cheaper than using buses to travel across Turkey. I found a combination of two buses that was an affordable way to get to the last town in Turkey. The actual border crossing was another 5 miles or so and a taxi was way too expensive (as usual). So I walked. It was late by now, getting dark, and very cold.

At the border I took care of all the passport and exit formalities and went to walk across a bridge to the Greek side. Just before the bridge there was a small cabin with a woodstove inside for a few Turkish guards. They told me to come in and insisted I sit by the stove. They were very friendly but didn't speak much English. I had no idea why I was being kept there, but every time I gave any indication of leaving they insisted, with smiles, that I sit back down.

After a while the bus to Athens came by, and of course it had to stop on the Turkish side before crossing. The guards spoke to the driver and then came and got me and put me on the bus! I had no idea if I was supposed to be paying somebody, but it never came up. I'm sure in retrospect that I could have gone all the way to Athens, but I felt unsure about the whole deal so I got off at the first city, Thessaloniki, where I spent a very cold night sleeping in the park. This was just as well since I had more experiences in Greece en route to Athens. But that's another segment of its own.

Posted 13 years, 1 month ago on April 21, 2011
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