Hitching a Ride Versus Riding a Bus

For generations, farmers across the world have become skilled in the art of herding. A strong voice, an authoritative air, perhaps a loyal canine friend. All help to make the herd go where you want it to. Recently, on a bus between Turkey’s largest city of Istanbul and Hopa, a few miles from Georgia, I found out what it was like to be part of the herd. And I did not like it one bit.

And this, incidentally, is one huge reason why I will always prefer to take the option of hitchhiking across countries, rather than pay for a simple bus fare. It’s not just that hitchhiking is cheaper and more adventurous. It’s just a damn sight more fun, mind-broadening, and it lacks the outright misery of long distance bus travel. I’d much prefer to spend two days thumbing my merry way across the Anatolian plateau than dealing with a harrowing, uncomfortable bus journey that you pay through the nose for.

Yes, to get to a suitable hitchhiking spot you may find yourself lugging your backpack under a broken wire fence on the edge of some nameless, dusty highway. Or you might be standing in the sunshine putting on your friendliest grin for a couple of hours before an old couple from Missouri picks you up. Maybe you don’t speak Turkish, or Spanish, or Arabic. But improvised communication and sign language is fun, too. With hitchhiking, though, the end game, for me at least, is far more fulfilling than spending a day dealing with some crying children in the confined space of a coach, whilst some inane program blares out of the overhead television in a language I barely understand.

Thumbing a ride over paying for one

The average backpacker I know likes to save a penny or two. We’re a resourceful breed, often preferring to take our broken kit to a backstreet tailor in Borj Hammoud, than going to the big fancy mall in downtown to buy something new. But, I’ve found that quite often, travellers will pay large amounts for one of these hellish bus rides than go for a hitchhike.

I did the same a couple of weeks ago. My personal circumstances have caused me to travel between Yerevan, capital of Armenia, and Istanbul on more occasions than I’d like to admit. Up until now, I’ve hitched every time. Each journey has been punctuated with joyful dinners of delicious food in trucker cafes, endless glasses of steaming hot chay, glorious scenic breaks in the mountains of southern Georgia, and new friends and friendly waves when our kind driver and us part ways. Many unforgettable memories have been made. The Georgian border guards at the frontier with Turkey always give me a hard time with my aging passport, I’ve had the chance to see the main Black Sea coast highway be finally completed (woohoo), and had many conversations with truck drivers about life, families, travels, and being Turkish and wanting to visit Armenia.

But this time, we decided to take the bus from Istanbul. Not all the way, I might add, but across Turkey, to within touching distance of Georgia. We were feeling lazy, tired, just wanting to get there. In hindsight, we should have hitched. We were going to thumb the rest of the way to Armenia anyway, but just decided to put Turkey behind us.

The sheer tedium of public transport

So, having shelled out a princely sum for two bus tickets, we settled down to enjoy a speedy trip from Istanbul to Hopa. Little did we know how many hours it would take to even leave Istanbul, due to an entire network of bus depots we toured extensively to pick up stragglers within the city. Each time, chaos would ensue. People tried to get off the bus to smoke, buy sweets, stretch their legs. Each time, our bus supervisor man would tell everyone firmly to sit down and wait. We were only here for a few minutes and we’d take a break once we left Istanbul. We were fenced in. Our freedom had been well and truly snatched away.

Finally, after what seemed like hours later, and indeed it actually was hours and hours (and hours) later, we broke free of Istanbul. And then promptly stopped at a service station. For another half hour. This time, we were subject to that ancient art of being shepherded (off the bus), told in no uncertain terms that if we held up proceedings we’d simply be left behind, and finally deposited in the foyer of the bus depot. Cue manic visit to the overcrowded bathroom, flying trip to the canteen, quick smoke (optional, not for me), and then we were rounded up and forcefully shepherded back on to the bus again. We were off.

Already, memories were flowing through my head of that time we hitched through that little village one summer day on an old motorcycle with a sidecar. There were four of us on this thing, plus the driver. The sun shone, we’d just finished hiking to an old monastery in the hills overlooking the village, and a kind local had given us a huge bag of grapes which we were enjoying on some steps in a square after the driver had dropped us off. We sat in the sun and smiled.

And then, back in reality, the guy in front of me decided it was bedtime, and promptly reclined his seat straight into my face. My daydream was broken; I realised how miserable the next 20 hours were going to be. And right on cue, the young child sitting with her parents opposite decided it was time to cry. Paradise.

Yearning to be back on a hard shoulder

Then, with a face slightly more painful than before, I began yearning to be on some filthy highway shoulder in the countryside, waiting for one of the Iranian and Turkish registered trucks thundering past to pull over. Usually, one would stop within about five minutes. The truck would normally take a good 50 metres to shudder to a halt; we’d grab our bags and jog up to the passenger door, climb aboard, and be met by a grinning trucker. Usually, Mr. Trucker would be going to Ankara, or Trabzon, or Tbilisi, or Baku. We’d be welcomed like guests into a family home, remove our shoes to keep the deep pile carpet of the cab clean, and spend the next hours merrily bouncing along the highway. Once in a while we’d be asked if we were hungry or thirsty, wanted a break, a chay perhaps, shortly before spending a relaxed interlude sitting outside a café with some other truckers, drinking glass after glass of chay, and perhaps sharing a hearty meal.

I remember one particular solo hitch out of Istanbul. It was a hot July day and I was following some directions I’d found online for thumbing eastward from the city. That morning, I could have been hanging around the same sweaty bus terminal as I was this time. However, instead I enjoyed a peaceful ferry ride across the Bosphorus, then the driver of the local bus I was supposed to take to the city limits waved me on board free of charge, and kindly pointed me in the direction of the highway at the end of the trip, 30 minutes later. Then, I was a ten minute jaunt from my goal, which I could see in the distance. Before long, I was indeed climbing under that dusty, broken wire fence, before emerging triumphantly on the highway, ready to go to Georgia. And go to Georgia I did, without problem, and with many memories made.

I first discovered hitchhiking as a means of long distance travel during a trip in Mexico. That day, my travel partner and I had shunned the idea of taking a bus down the Baja Peninsula – the cost was astronomical for us. Instead, we gave hitching a shot. I sometimes think back to those weeks, where I still worried about the apparent danger of hitchhiking, but where I slowly realized that actually people generally just wanted to help other people. Since then, I took that attitude to heart. I’ve lost count of the number of rides thumbed across the world, the thousands of miles clocked, but I will always remember the smiling faces, the kindness and hospitality of strangers, and the freedom hitchhiking brings.

About the Author

Ben Allen

Ben Allen is a freelance writer from Northamptonshire, England. In 2008 he relocated to Vancouver, Canada, after wanting to make a change in his life. Not happy being in one place, Ben has just been on the road undertaking a hitchhiking trip around the Middle East. Now he's returned to North America where he's thinking about the next step. You can follow him on Twitter @ballenuk and read more about his adventures at www.benallen.ca.