Sometimes good travel ideas aren’t the best timed. Turkey seemed to be full of them for me. For example: renting scooters for a day? Great. Not returning until after sunset and freezing on the way back? Not so fun.
My most blatant travel blunder was probably deciding to hitchhike out of Istanbul.
I’ll start off with saying that generally there is no problem hitchhiking (I know some of you will think otherwise, but just go with me on this!). In Europe, especially Eastern Europe, it’s very common.
I had great experiences with Turkish hospitality which you can read about in the article I wrote for OnIslam.net, Turkish Hospitality: A Non-Muslim’s Discovery, so I didn’t expect it to be unsafe (as far as hitchhiking goes).
I was sticking to major roads, I had a route planned out, friends offered to host me along the way and, most importantly, this was the first time I was hitchhiking with someone else. And he was a…. well, he was a he!
Hitchhiking with someone else, especially a guy, definitely increases the safety. Everything was going to be perfect. I had taken everything into account. Except one small thing.
December weather is not hitchhiking weather.
My friend living in London only had two weeks off in mid December, so he decided to fly to Istanbul and hitchhike back as his holiday. Since I happened to be in Istanbul and was ready to leave, I invited myself along, just thinking about the fun it would be.
There is a reason you don’t see hitchhikers out on the roads in December.
It’s freezing cold in December. Not to mention days are shorter and hitchhiking in the dark is not a good idea.
We left Istanbul with signs made, hosts lined up and our spirits high.
We planned to leave Istanbul, get a lift with a truck driver (notorious for picking up hitchhikers and very nice guys – seriously) to Bucharest, then head across to Budapest, up to Prague, over to Berlin and Amsterdam, then hitchhike on the ferry or through the Chunnel to the UK and find our way to London. No problem, right? Hosts in every city. Signs made. Plenty of time. No problem.
At least not at the beginning.
We didn’t have any major problems getting out of Istanbul. It’s a huge city, but my host’s flatmate gave us a lift to a good spot and we were picked up after about 30 minutes.
The first few lifts only took us a few kilometers and tried to take us to the bus station but we were warned about that.
Eventually, while hitchhiking at a toll booth, some policemen called us over. When they took our sign from us, we thought we were in trouble until they smiled, held out our sign and put out their thumb. Eventually, they found a truck for us and we were on our way to Bulgaria!
People were going out of their way to help us.
After two long days on the road, our lift dropped us just outside of Bucharest, Romania. Instead of just abandoning us, he asked around to other truckers seeing if anyone was going our way. He even stood in the middle of the road to flag down trucks!
Eventually, he found us someone who passed us onto someone else later and in the end, we got to my friend’s house in Cluj-Napoca in the wee hours of the morning.
The following day, my friend (who hitchhikes to work every day) dropped us at a good spot and we were picked up by a very nice Italian man. He took us all the way to the border town and we walked on to the border.
After the border crossing, we got a lift with a group of 20-somethings and while they seemed hitchhiking-savvy, they ended up completely foiling our plans.
And then it all hit the fan.
It was probably due to miscommunication or confusion on which roads were which, but at the moment it seemed like complete incompetence.
Most European cities have ring roads and if you want to go north or south of the city, you need to get on the right road before you hit the city.
Well, these guys got on the right road around Budapest – for them. After they dropped us at a service station (a good hitchhiking spot in normal circumstances), we realised we were on the south ring road when we wanted to be on the north ring road.
We still tried to hitchhike north toward Prague.
We learned when persistence doesn’t pay off, it turns into stubbornness.
Did I mention it was now two days before Christmas?
We were trying to be in Prague for Christmas dinner but after 6 hours of worthless attempts, we were still at the same spot on the wrong ring road outside Budapest.
Snow and well below-freezing temperatures pushed us inside where we ‘hitchhiked’ by looking at car’s license plates from inside the cafe and asking people in person for a lift to Prague. No takers.
Changes needed to be made.
Finally, we realised our plans for Christmas in Prague weren’t going to happen.
My friends from Virginia living in Germany had offered to host us if we passed through southern Germany. I had thanked them, but assured them we were going north.
It was about 3am on Christmas Eve and we decided the best decision was to change plans and crash their Christmas dinner. Not the nicest, but better for us than being stuck at a petrol station on the outskirts of Budapest.
We got a second wind and a burst of hope.
Within the hour, a German car pulled up.
I practiced my German phrases to myself to ask them as politely and desperately as I could for a lift. When they entered, I asked them in German if they spoke German (I assumed they did from the license plate, but it’s common courtesy). No. They weren’t German. They were Serbian! Luckily, one of them spoke English and offered to take us just north of my friend’s place.
It was 14 hours away from where we were and they were taking us within about 45 minutes of their house. We were delighted! A nice, warm, fast car, a comfortable place to rest my eyes and a delicious Christmas dinner were in sight.
I have never been happier to be in a car with strangers.
That morning, I called my friend (who was still unaware of our change of plans as I assumed a 3am phone call wouldn’t be a good way to start off the begging and pleading) and made plans to meet them on the autobahn.
I was so happy to get to people I knew, in a warm house that felt familiarly American and food that wasn’t from a service station.
My friends have no idea how much they improved our Christmas.
After Christmas, my friend continued on to London, making it back just in time for work. I stayed with my friends for a few days to recover from the insane cold and frustration of hitchhiking in December.
Hitchhiking can be a great experience. Besides this hitchhiking trip, I’ve had nothing but a fantastic time doing it. I’ve met new people, been able to see places I’ve never planned on visiting and been able to travel faster, cheaper and more interestingly than by bus or train.
I’ll certainly hitchhike again (taking my normal precautions, of course) but if there is any chance of snow, rain or freezing temperatures, I will definitely be taking whatever bus, train or airplane there is!
December is not in the hitchhiking season.
To read about my past hitchhiking adventures, check out my other posts about hitchhiking.