24-25th September, 2012
It seems Istanbul is in a mood with me as I cross the Bosphorous back over to the European side on the boat. “What are you still doing here?” she says with cloudy skies, a city shrouded in grey.
I’ve been in Istanbul a week longer than expected. The city is fabricated from a giant magnet, designed to keep hitchhikers from leaving. Some of this, admittedly, has something to do with a young man named Coşkun – pronounced “Joshkun” – whose full name means “Enthusiastic Diamond”, and who I will no doubt miss a great deal when I finally leave this crazy bustling city.
I wake one morning in Tanja, Dağlı and Danielle’s flat, where I’ve been staying for most of my time in the city. I sit in the wide, wooden-floored lounge and open my laptop on the futon, smiling at the sound of the vegetable seller on his megaphone down below. One day, my Turkish will be good enough to understand what he’s calling out.
An email from another traveller on the little used Hitchhikers group on Be Welcome:
I am in Istanbul right now and very very soon, I will start going East, towards Georgia, Armenia and then Iran.
Anyone would like to join, for part of the way?
Hoping to read your messages!
I reply right away, a flurry of excitement:
That’s exactly my plan! I am also in Istanbul now, hoping to leave in the next few days. Let’s meet up soon and discuss it over a çay?
I meet Emée later that day, at the cafe where she does her writing. It’s so perfect that she’s also a writer, also a hitchhiker, also on her way slowly East.
A few days later, we meet at Taxim Square with sizeable backpacks and a blonde Belarussian girl named Alla.
Alla, in my opinion, did it all wrong while she was in Istanbul. To start with, she made an Open Couch Request – a new option on the CS website, where you send your details to everyone in a city stating what you are looking for and wait for them to invite you. She also messaged the entire Istanbul group on the public forum, looking for people to hang out with in the city. The problem is this: in Turkey, there is kind of a ‘thing’ about Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian women. Particularly blonde ones. She received hundreds of replies from men wanting to meet her and inviting her to stay with them. She had to move hosts two or three times because they wanted to sleep with her and she managed to unwittingly offend hosts and other people, because they made plans for her without asking. There are undoubtably hundreds of truly amazing Turkish hosts in Istanbul, but this is not the way to find them.
“You are no longer from Belarus”, I tell Alla as we begin our journey. “Let’s say you are from…”
“I am from Australia”, she says, and from then on, that’s what we tell our drivers.
We take the five minute ferryboat back over the Bosphorous to Asia and a dolmuş to the highway.
The first car stops. “Where are you from?” ask the two guys inside.
“England, France… Australia”, I tell them, pointing at each of us. We ride with them as far as the next big city. They offer to pay for us to take a bus all the way to Göreme, but we refuse politely – “we really like hitchhiking!” we tell them. Later, we will come to regret this decision, but for now our road is open.
Two different guys take us through Ankara and leave us at a gas station on the other side, where we stop for a çay break. A man woking in the market puts three apples in our bag when we buy bread from him, a gift.
The sun sinks fast and everything changes. We get a short lift with a suspiciously quiet man who seems uncomfortable about it. I think I know why.
Walking, walking, walking, walking… cars and trucks stop often, but not to offer a lift.
I poke my head inside the open door of a truck that ground to a halt in front of me. “Where are you going?” I ask in Turkish. “Here”, he tells me. “Oh.” I start to leave. “No sex?” he calls after me…
They apparently think we are three prostitutes soliciting for customers, and backpacks big enough to contain an entire kitchen are somehow not dissuading them from this impression.
We walk as far as a gas station somewhere close to Kirikale. The owner shakes his head gravely as I explain to him how we came to be there. “But now it is late”, I finish.
“Yes,” he nods slowly, “it is late.” He shows us to a small vine-covered outside area with a sofa and some cushions, just next to the car park. We can sleep here, he says. Awesome. We nominate Alla to sleep on the sofa, since she is bereft of a roll-mat and sleeping bag.
Emée and I begin making our beds on the concrete floor, but soon find ourselves the subject of some curiosity. An entire extended family from Diyarbakır are standing and staring at us, with a fair bit of giggling from the younger family members. Of course, we get chatting with them. They ask if we are married, and when we confess we’re not, they begin discussing which of their cousins we should marry. A photo-shoot ensues.
After waving goodbye to our Kurdish friends, another of the gas station employees comes over to speak with us. After a fair amount of miscommunication, I understand that he is offering us to sleep in the women’s prayer room, in a small separate building next to the gas station. “But, won’t women want to come and pray in there?” I ask him, wondering at the reaction from elderly village women, to three scruffy travellers sprawled out in their sacred space. But no, he says, it is too late now and they will only come in the morning, perhaps 8am.
We set our alarms for 7am and huddle down on the thick red carpet.
They feed us tea in the morning from a big urn outside the gas station. We’re on the road by 8am, but nobody is stopping. A man comes out from the restaurant – “Çay?” We only just got on the road! We decide if we are still here in half an hour, we’ll take a tea, but two guys stop after ten minutes and drive us to a better spot.
We get a long ride to Göreme with two very polite Turkish men who refer to themselves as tourists. We say no when they offer us chocolates and coke, but they buy it anyway, and tea of course. “Where are you from?” they ask us.
“England, France and Australia”, we say.