Oh, boy, the chills of hitting the road! Even though the trip started from my hometown, I would only get the traveling chills once I left Bucharest, my home for the past many years.
The first day on the road was my favorite one-day hitchhiking trip: Bucharest – Istanbul. This 650 km journey takes you from a big city to a huge one going through small towns and villages, you cross 2 borders (and that means time lost on controls and less traffic around the border) and the roads through Bulgaria aren`t helping you to cover long distances fast. This trip requires you to get up early, hence we started hitchhiking at 6.30 in the morning.
The chills were ever so present as Salome and I put our thumbs in front of the drivers. After a few short rides, we got stuck a bit just after the Romanian-Bulgarian border and the morning sun started to melt us. Much to our salvation, as always, a truck driver going to Sofia takes us towards Veliko Tarnovo and drops us just before taking a turn to the right. A few rides and a speedy driver later, we find ourselves in the middle of Bulgaria in windy conditions; so windy that our “Turkey” hitchhiking sign was blown out of my hands and straight into the bushes so deep that I couldn`t retrieve it anymore.
We took a ride for 2 km as we missed the road to Yambol, we hitched on the ring road just outside a shabby neighborhood of Yambol, or in the quiet, dormant village of Okop.
We gather kilometres under our belt, the scenery changes several times and I start to feel Istanbul`s energy. Every time I hitched on this route, I got a ride directly to Istanbul from the Turkish border, but this time the last ride starts on the toll gate north of Edirne. After 13 rides, at 21:00, we enter Istanbul. Its colorful towers, lit up in the night`s sky, make up for a great contrast from the day`s scenery. It takes us more than 1 hour by the otherwise fast Metro Bus to reach the Anatolian side of the city. Istanbul is seriously huge.
In Istanbul we stayed with our CouchSurfing host, Cem, and the lovely and vicious tomcat, Felix. We watched movies, stand up comedy and went out for a dinner during the evenings as Cem worked during the day. While we had to mind for ourselves, we went for walks in the Acibadem and Kadikoy areas. While the flock of tourists roam the European side, we preferred to stick to the Asian side (or Anatolian; turks call it “Anadolu”).
Kadikoy is a very beautiful neighborhood, easy to reach from the European side as it is linked to it by many ferries. We walked around Kadikoy twice and it was beautiful and amazingly quiet as there were just a few tourists. We learned that tourism decreased significantly in the last few years thanks to Erdogan and the bombings that shook the city.
After 2 full days in Istanbul, we left quite late in the morning as I needed some time to recover after the cold that nagged me for the time I spent in the city. Our destination was Trabzon, but we knew that we couldn`t make it in one day as these 2 cities are more than 1000 kilometres away. Hitchhiking in Turkey is amazingly easy, I think that no hitching skill is required to do it here. Locals stop everywhere to take you on board, even on highways, even on highways inside Istanbul. I honestly think that this is the best way to move on long distances inside a very congested city like Istanbul.
We were dropped off on the highway when our roads were splitting and we continued hitchhiking from that spot and people were stopping really fast. So fast that once, while Salome was trying to put the backpack down in order to try to get a lift, she said she would like to wait more for a ride so that hitchhiking would be somewhat challenging, but before she put her backpack down I told her to grab her things as a truck driver was pulling over for us.
Another truck driver made us part of his lunch break stopping somewhere between Duzce and Bolu in a rest area for trucks. He was super friendly and while trying to fend off invites for lunch we finally gave in and joined him on a Turkish feast. Tea was plentiful, we had a new cup of tea every 10 minutes, courtesy of the owner, I suppose, thrilled to have guests from Romania and Georgia at his table. The truck driver was going to Ankara, so we jumped off the truck when we reached Gerede in order to hitch further east towards Samsun.
The last driver of the day was a Turkish truck driver of Georgian descent living in Ordu. His family moved out from Georgia more than 100 year ago, but his command of the language was still good, though with an accent, according to Salome. As he was going to Tokat, we decided to stop for the day just before he would leave the road towards Samsun, in Merzifon.
As it was too cold and windy (really surprising for Turkey at the end of August) and our health was not in the best condition, we decided to get paid accommodation. According to Maps.me app that are 2 hotels in the town, the first one was way too expensive and in the second one there were no available rooms, or so we were told with a weird smile. On a Thursday, in the middle of nowhere, really?! Across the street there was a “pansiyon” (hostel) were we tried to get a room. We got really weird looks (it was quite late, almost midnight) and we were asked if we are married – he made a sign towards his ring finger. Keep in mind that the guy spoke no English. We soon understood that no marriage means no room for the night, so the lying started. The guy asks for our passports to see if our last names match and Salome starts to explain that we got married in a church. When a young guy with little knowledge of English comes, we explain that Georgian women do not change their names when they get married, that`s why Salome has a different last name than mine (this is actually true) and we finally get the room, after half an hour of explaining and, what it seemed to me, some moral bargaining.
This experience was a harsh reminder that besides Istanbul and the touristic cities, Turkey is still a traditional Islamic country. And with Erdogan`s late changes (reports are saying that Turkey might ban teaching evolution in schools) the country seems to deepen into a religious trajectory.
Next morning we took off right after eating the most basic breakfast ever served in a touristic institution in the history of Turkey. After stopping a bit in Ordu, we arrived in Trabzon for the weekend. We stayed with Hakan, a couchsurfer that invited us to his place upon seeing our public request. Hakan was super friendly from the very start, had a large smile and a positive attitude all the time. We met his family, had dinner together and then we went for tea with a friend of his up a hill to have a lovely view of Trabzon and the Black Sea.
After a bit of chit-chat we learn that the wedding he was supposed to go to in Hopa was not on Sunday, but on Saturday, during our stay at his place. No worries, though, he had everything planned: we were supposed to go with him to the wedding. Really. We had no clothes fit for a wedding, not even close, but we agreed to go as soon as he assured us that he will also dress sporty as he hates shirts because of his work. We knew that we would look like clowns and everyone would wonder at the foreigners that are dressed funny. The day of the wedding comes, but his car breaks down, so we can`t go anymore as Hopa, the town of the wedding, is almost 200 km away. Instead, we order a pizza, take a walk to Aya Sofia and to the local “Malecon”, thus saving our evening.
The second day we packed our bags and started hitching towards Georgia. We wanted to hitchhike all the way from Romania to Georgia for quite a while and we were finally about to do it. Getting closer was especially thrilling for Salome as she could identify bits of Georgian culture as we were approaching the border.