Winter Roads – the dark side of Anatolia

From Kars to Istanbul, 29th January – 1st February, 2013A Winter Journey Across Anatolia

Rebekah and I leave Kars in a snowstorm early one morning and weave our winter way through Ardahan and Artvin to Şavşat, a small town without much to say for itself.

We left Halil’s place early, without any tea. There’s no çay in Şavşat – only shitty buildings, piles of bricks and hard, unsmiling stares from those we pass on uncrowded streets. Rain is abundant, unlike the tea. We leave as fast as possible, wondering why this small city should be so much more miserable than its neighbours.

We inch our way North to the Black Sea coast. People had warned us to beware of wolves. We peer skittishly over snow-caked fields, see occasional bushy tails disappear over frosted mounds. Finally, we meet some amidst a long wait in a lay-by, somewhere on the way to Hopa.

The wolves lick our hands and snuffle into our plastic food bag, thoroughly cramping our style and warding off anyone who may ever have dreamed of stopping for us.

A group of three men idle out of the roadside shop and stand by us, watching, occasionally asking a question. I let Rebekah do the talking , embarrassed by my own meagre Turkish.

Finally, we get a lift to Trabzon with an older, well-travelled man. He speaks Turkish, Russian and a little Persian, English and German. Rebekah, who also speaks Turkish, Russian, English and a little Persian (as well as German, Dutch, French and a bit of Kurdish and Urdu), chats away with him in each of them. He seems thoroughly impressed by her and I feel myself to be a bit of a let-down.

As we approach Trabzon, our ride slows down and we lose over an hour for reasons unknown. Perhaps he was running early for his appointment with his Russian girlfriend, who he begins to tell us about as we’re approaching the city. He drops us 8km from Çağatay‘s house, outside the hotel where he’ll be staying with her.

We begin walking.

We arrive at Çağatay’s house late,  not in the best of moods. We take him out for çiğ köfte – my favourite vegetarian Turkish fast food. I’m aware of a gulf between cheery innocent Çağatay and these two road-battered women. I’m not sure if it was there or not the last time we met.

The next day, Rebekah and I stumble out of the door as early as we can manage.

Escaping from Trabzon is tough.

Eventually, around lunchtime, we find a dolmuş – a shared minibus – to Akçaabat, further along the coast.

We hitch a truck to Samsun, but get out after 10km when the driver asks directly for sex.

We hitch a ride to Giresun with a man in small van, with dodgy eyes and a lot of questions.

Rebekah wanted to see the Black Sea coast in winter. We knew already that this area of Anatolia isn’t the most favourable place for female hitchhikers. Trabzon, in particular, is infamous for its large population of sex workers, who migrate from Russia and other post-Soviet countries to make money from Turkish truck drivers and sex tourists. One of the side-effects of this is that truck drivers are often seemingly unable to imagine that women might be standing by the road for any reason other than sex.

The worst is a truck driver on the way to Samsun. I sit straight in my seat, hands folded in lap, and try to evoke the countenance of a prim primary school teacher with a poker face. Rebekah is still doing the talking. Her fluency quickly makes it impossible for her to ignore the hints and subtleties which I could easily have glossed over, feigning ignorance. She becomes frustrated quickly, and it shows. Unfortunately, rather than the desired effect of ceasing the truck driver’s flirtation, her display of discomfort only escalates matters.

We each have our ways of dealing with things. Rebekah is frustrated and upset and I can see the driver is getting off on it. I try to calm her down, but she becomes irate, thinking I don’t understand or don’t believe her version of events. I cannot understand all of the words the man is saying to us, but I am hyper-tuned into his body-language and his energy. It’s true that she is the one who will suffer more if we stay in the truck with him. After all, she has to listen, has to understand, where I can just tune him out. On her request, I take the reigns and adopt a tourist-Turkish ‘asking about the family’ stream of conversation. Unfortunately, he takes this as an opportunity to tell us about how hard his work is, with his wife and family a whole 7km outside of Trabzon and how he has a Russian girlfriend, who is currently away. Rebekah explodes.

We climb out from the truck and wait for another lift, each subduing our inner rage.

When I’m asked by drivers if I’ve eaten, I always say yes, declining, at least the first time, the offer of food. Rebekah, on the other hand, is of the idea that we put up with a lot of shit as female hitchhikers, and road-gifts are the pay-off for this. When two businessmen stop and ask if we’ve eaten, Rebekah tells them, “Oh no, we haven’t eaten anything all day!” They drive us to the nearest restaurant.

Breakfast from the businessmen

Breakfast from the businessmen

Our drivers and their medieval steak

Our drivers and their medieval steak

After a slap-up meal at the poshest restaurant in town, the men put us on a bus to Samsun, telling the driver to drop us on the road to Ankara.

We’re not long on the road when a guy stops. Rebekah goes to talk to him, returning to say he looks drunk. We’re well practised at getting out of cars by now, so we decide to get in and see how it goes. His driving is terrible, but he seems nice enough, though he’s not very chatty. “Small brain, big heart” is our eventual conclusion. He phones all of his friends and tells them – “I have two tourists with me. Tourists! One is from England and one is from Germany!” He buys us coffee, then stops in Çorum, a town famous for its leblebi – roasted chickpeas, eaten as a snack. Huge neon signs pronounce the sale of every type you can imagine, from chocolate-coated to plain. Our driver takes us into one after another after another – “Turist!” he tells the sales people, while encouraging us to try a handful of each different type, before sauntering into the next place along and beginning all over again – “Turist!”

Two Turkeys and a fat bird

Two Turkeys and a fat bird

During our journey the guy spontaneously gives us small presents – anything lying around in his car. He gives me a picture of two Turkeys and Rebekah a photo of a fat bird. We thank him, struggling to keep our faces straight.

After running our of petrol and crawling into a garage, the guy puts us on a bus to Ankara, where we meet Rebekah’s friend, Ümit.

During our journey, I heard drivers ask Rebekah, in Turkish, if I could speak Turkish. I heard her say no, repeatedly. I tried not to let this get to me, reasoning that to her, my Turkish is like a child’s at best, and that anyway, I had barely spoken it in front of her because my confidence was so low. Ümit saves the traces of my confidence, with his warmth and patience, speaking with me while Rebekah is in the shower.

It’s been a long, slow road. Rebekah and I are both exhausted. I will continue my journey to Istanbul alone, by coach, the following day, leaving Rebekah with Ümit in Ankara. I will decide, not for the first time, that I’m never going to hitchhike the Black Sea coast again.

I will go back on that decision two months later.


Rebekah described this journey from her own perspective on her blog.

5 thoughts on “Winter Roads – the dark side of Anatolia

  1. Man, I miss hitchhiking in Turkey! This has brought back so many memories. Particularly of how the drivers just give you so many random gifts lying around in their cars, and how they phone their friends to tell them they’ve got foreigners in the car. Love it! Excellent post, Jo. x

  2. Haha, i was taken to that exact same restaurant when i was hitching that coast!!! (i can tell by the tv in the background). I recall them not grasping my veganism at all :D

    Love the pictures of turkeys!!!!

  3. Hey I speak German, too, you forget that ;)
    I wish I had the text I wrote about this little trip, so we could compare. But it is still on some mangled hard disk, waiting to be ressuscitated once we get the money to do so.

    • Oh yeah, how could I forget German?! I think I need to learn something from you about note-taking. The amount of times you whip out your note-book puts even my mum to shame. I did take some notes on this trip, but if I took more it would have saved all of the map-studying and Wikipedia research I had to do to write this!

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