Hitching from England to Istanbul

Facebook has managed to almost entirely replace email as a form of electronic communication amongst friends. While I dislike the immense waste of human energy that is poured into it, I decided to use it to conduct a small experiment. I would allow my Facebook friends one chance to directly affect my life in the midst of this enormous virtual shouting match.

Should I: a) Wait 6 days for a guaranteed lift aboard an articulated lorry heading across Europe from Kettering to Istanbul, or b) get up, shoulder my bag, walk out of the door, stick out my thumb, and repeat until Turkey?

The vote was cast, and after a couple of hours a majority emerged. I was clearly going to hitch hike. So I did. I’m writing this from Istanbul. It took 7 days to get here.

I did not hitch-hike the entire route. I am not as blithely stubborn as I used to be, and I think this a good thing. I set off to hitch for the sheer hell of it primarily, and to prove it was possible secondarily. I took 7 lifts from strangers, totalling several thousand kilometres. I supplemented this with 3 train rides, 2 buses and a variety of urban transportation to fill in the gaps.

On Thursday night I jumped aboard the train to London and met a very good friend from my university days who I was very happy to catch up with and whose sofa I was glad to sleep upon.

Bright and early the next morning I took a suburban train to Mottingham in South-East London, from where I had been advised to catch a ride onto the M20 going to Dover. It was grey and cold and walking up and down the queues of traffic at the lights lost its novelty value rather quickly. I held my Bran-Flakes-box sign aloft, put on a big cheesy grin (which, in retrospect, might have put a lot of people off), and waved my arm around for 45 minutes. This was not an encouraging start. As I was contemplating trudging up the A20 to the next garage, a battered old Nissan pulled over. I had found my first lift.

The driver’s last hitching experience, she explained as we sped along, had occurred on the same stretch of road. She’d spontaneously bought a motorbike and had hitched back to the garage to pick up her car. Subsequently she’d travelled by motorbike in India, Tibet and Mongolia, though I didn’t find out more as we arrived at the first service station outside Greater London, and I exited the car warm, reassured and thankful.

Not five minutes later I had my second lift, all the way to Dover, with a couple of hours off in Maidstone. Holly was driving to a meditation retreat and had to pick up her sister from her home, and would I like to come along for a cup of tea and a salad? The young lady sported dreadlocks, flowers and green clothes, by her own admission delineating herself a neo-hippie. I accepted.

I sat in her living room with my cup of tea. She and her sister were on a “raw-food” diet, eating nothing cooked or heated above 50 degrees Celsius. The kitchen was a jumble of blenders, juicers, food dehydrators and trays of sprouting pulses. When I asked her why, I was given a abstract answer involving oneness with nature/God and high humans.

I wasn’t sure whether this was a test of my comprehension and philosophical openness or a barely-concealed assertion of elitist divisiveness manifested in a diatribe of gargantuan intangibility. Anyway, I thought I knew what she was on about. But her sister gave a more coherent definition. “It’s just a way of eating to avoid all the processed food we’re conditioned to live on these days, eating food in a more natural and alive form.”

I agreed with the principle. Even the most basic food is often subject to some kind of mysterious process these days. You might be too young/urban to remember birds pecking the foil off the milk bottles to get at the cream, but I’m not. Now you can leave your Tesco’s milk undisturbed for a week and you won’t get any cream on top. How? Why? But as for not cooking, I don’t subscribe to that. Cooking broadens our dietary range, kills germs and aids digestion and palatability. We’ve been at it ever since man created fire.

I also believe that understanding where our food comes from and how it is cultivated is fundamental to the rebuilding of community values in the UK. Food is one of life’s indelibly fundamental needs. Community life and cooperation in producing food has always been an essential trait of the survival of civilization, and losing it in favour of systematic economic efficiency and importing all of life’s essentials from overseas would be a great undermining of our humanity. Is it worth the effort to try and spread these ideas, or is it better to do as the neo-hippies do and isolate ourselves from the world we disagree with? Is resistance futile? Is escapism the answer?

I had plenty of time to think about these things while waiting for my ferry, but came to no real conclusions other than that given the choice to work at improving the world I live in or running away from it, I would choose the former. This philosophy is rooted in reality; it involves hope, a powerful driving force; and by these virtues it gives my life meaning. I’m always questioning the reasoning behind my actions and opinions, and this has stood its ground so far.

On the ferry I pondered my departure from The Island and began to feel a bit down. It was getting dark and I knew Calais was a bit of a dump. I motivated myself sufficiently and then wandered up to the Routiere’s lounge, reserved for truckers. After asking around, I found a British driver who offered me a lift to a big truck-stop in Belgium.

One of the best things about hitching is the variety of people you meet. Until a few weeks back, this chap had never had a tattoo. Now he was having a classic Disney character added every Saturday to a growing montage. He was collecting sponsorship money and had so far raised over 1,000 GBP for Great Ormond Street children’s hospital. He said I was the first hitcher he’d picked up in 16 years.

That night I sneaked into a campsite in the dark and pitched my tent behind the tennis courts. Being 10pm in the middle of January, there were no staff on hand to welcome me at the reception. The following morning, I discovered that despite being in one of the best trans-European hitching spots, I’d arrived on exactly the wrong day. Roads across Western Europe are closed to freight (except live produce and refrigerated trucks) on Sundays. It was Saturday, and the truck park was full of truckers from all over Europe who would be staying there until Monday.

After 3 hours of getting cold and wet, I met Steve, another Brit who had decided to continue down into France before his Sunday off. France dies a death on Sundays, even in the towns and cities. As we cycled through France 18 months ago, we would know it was a Sunday when it became impossible to find food or people. I spent the day wandering in the cold rain in Besancon, a town familiar to me from cycling with Andy and Mark in 2007, with nothing to show for it other than an unexpected visit to a wedding-dress exhibition, a tasty Greek kebab and an enourmous blister on my right heel which soon thereafter became infected. (I’m now on antibiotics.)

At 10pm sharp we departed and drove through the night. Steve took an unorthodox and possibly ill-advised route through the French Alps, climbing snowy 4000-foot passes at 2am in the name of avoiding the exhorbitant tolls on the highways. EU law requires countries to provide non-toll alternatives for freight vehicles, but France ignores these laws, imposing weight restrictions on the alternatives and sticking two fingers up at the EU, forcing lorry drivers onto the expensive highways — or into the sticks.

At 1pm on Monday, Steve dropped me off at a petrol station outside Milan. I had had an insight into the complex world of regulations, fees and obstacles that today’s trucker has to negotiate (650 EUR and a 17-hour wait for a wide-load escort through the Mont Blanc tunnel?!), and also with the striking thought that next time I felt like complaining about the number of lorries on the road, I should remember that everything I’d ever owned or bought — food, furniture, electronics, clothes, cars, building materials — had at some point in its life almost definitely been transported on one of these articulated lorries. A startling thought with many implications for the transport industry and its contribution to the problems of emissions and fossil-fuel consumption, and an equal range of implications for consumer culture and the economic system underpinning it.

I had no luck getting a ride along the highway past Milan towards Venice. Italy, for the second time, proved difficult to hitch, as Tenny and I had discovered in November. Eventually I was offered a lift to central Milan. Not ideal, as hitching out of a Western city is extremely tough, but my only apparent option as darkness fell. I’d been standing on the roadside for several hours and hadn’t slept properly in 4 days. I spent several more hours tramping in the wet snow through Milan, trying to find the cheapest bed for the night, and ended up in the old fallback of the local youth hostel. The shower and warmth was welcomed, but inexplicably I awoke at 6:30 and decided to get moving after my staple hostel breakfast of a single dry bread roll with jam and hot chocolate.

Hostelling isn’t what it used to be. The only thing you can depend on is sharing a room with at least one lonely and over-friendly rogue who wants to spend the evening with you, and at least one person who is asleep when you arrive and asleep when you leave, with no apparent waking cycle in between. Maybe my childhood and teenage memories of hostels are distorted with time, but the Hostelling International hostels always seem clinical and antisocial. It’s a shame that Couchsurfing doesn’t lend itself to last-minute arrivals.

I took a train, rather than spend an indefinite amount of time walking out of Milan with my thumb sticking out. I was longing to be on my bike again. Ancona, a major Italian port, was 300 kilometres away, and I planned to get a ferry over to the Greek port of Igoumenitsa. This was partly at the advice of Steve, who suggested that most haulage going to Turkey would take this route, and that I’d surely get a ride on a Turkish TIR (lorry) headed for Istanbul.

The following morning I awoke on the floor of the on-board bar (due to having a deck-class ticket, not to heavy drinking) and disembarked the boat into a balmy 16-degree-Celsius Greece. No more snow or sub-zero temperatures, but the rain quickly reappeared and drenched everything. Of the five lorries that got off the boat rather than continue to Patras, not one was Turkish, and not one stopped to pick me up. My information was out of date. There was no traffic to Turkey from here.

Maybe it was the time of day, or the fact that the highway to anywhere civilized was still only half-built, but the road out of Igoumenitsa was entirely traffic-free. Having no map or knowledge of Greece or Greek, I felt a bit stranded. Again, rather than stubbornly marching off up the road to prove a point, I found a bus station and took the next bus to Thessaloniki, arriving 7 hours later after winding through some spectacular forested mountains. I didn’t know what I would do in Thessaloniki when I arrived that evening, but I hoped it wouldn’t involve another deathly HI hostel.

As it happened, my evening was decided for me. I got off the bus, clutching my camera bag, and went to retrieve my tattered Iranian backpack. It was not there.

I asked if anyone spoke English. They didn’t. I motioned to the empty hold of the bus and mimed the putting on of a backpack. Cue much loud gabbling and gesturing. One of the other passengers came to my rescue and we extracted information to the effect that my bag was still in the port bus station, 7 hours drive away. The driver had asked the passengers (in Greek) if anyone owned the backpack fitting the description of mine. No-one, unsurprisingly, had replied, so the bag had been taken off, and had sat in the bus station office as I spent 7 hours contentedly munching chocolate biscuits and watching the world go by.

My bag would arrive on the last bus, I found out, which would arrive at around 3am. I decided to wait it out at the bus station, which was a considerably distance from the town centre, and my blister was causing me to limp comically. It was a predictably long night after my MP3 player’s battery ran out, and I had nothing to amuse me but a 20-minute sports highlights programme on permanent repeat in the bar. This closed at 12 and I shivered in the cold, bleak concrete arena for a further three hours before my bag, thankfully, turned up. It contained all of my camping gear and spare parts for my bike, so losing it would have been a blow. I decided to get back to hitch-hiking as soon as possible. It was clearly more dependable.

Now, just for a minute, imagine if the UK government sold off the country’s road network in small chunks to private investors. The new ‘owners’ of the roads start building all kinds of ‘improvements’ that aren’t actually needed, but competition from other ‘owners’, as well as having filthy-rich stakeholders to please, drives this demeted obsession with ‘growth’. Someone’s got to pay for it, and it now falls to you, the driver, to foot the bill. You now have to pay an inflated fee every time you pull out of your drive onto the road. Not only that, but it’s way cheaper to arrange your car journey two weeks in advance — if you go on a spontaneous journey, to see a friend or have a day out or go to buy something, you are penalised with a giant bill for not organising your life sufficiently to have known about and booked the trip beforehand. And once you leave the district, you discover that the ‘owners’ of the neighbouring road system have an entirely different set of rules, regulations and fees. Sounds ridiculous, but replace ‘roads’ with ‘railways’ and ‘car’ with ‘train’ and you have our railway system.

Public transport, and not just rail, in the UK is diabolically expensive. It’s hysterical, in fact. A train journey of less than 1 hour from London St Pancras to my local town costs 44 GBP. Forty-four freaking pounds. The same money gets you on a plane from the UK to the other end of Europe, and back, for goodness’ sake. A 1‑stop tube ticket is Four Pounds. (In Yerevan, by the way, it costs the equivalent of Eight Pence.) I can’t get my head round the logic of converting a national transport service into a series of profit-making corporations. What was Thatcher thinking? Competition equals improvement and growth? Did anyone tell her that Earth isn’t getting any bigger? Is enough not enough? Can’t we see beyond the primitive need to try to prove our superiority?

Is re-nationalization even possible? I’m all for it. I think transport should be a subsidized, standardized, cost-price public service. How else to tackle transport-related emissions than to make the most energy-efficient means also the most viable and affordable?

Other European countries haven’t necessarily got it all figured out, but the UK really does take the biscuit. In Italy, the 5 hours to Ancona was 37 EUR — not cheap, but about 6 times cheaper than my UK train journey by a journey time to fare comparison. In Thessaloniki, I took a 6‑hour train journey to Alexandropolou for 12 EUR, about 25 times cheaper by the same measure.

From Alexandropolou I was determined to thumb it. I didn’t want to let my Facebook friends down, after all! I sat in the back of a pickup to the Turkish border and arrived in the late afternoon, just in time to watch a crowd of Greek farmers blockade the border with dozens of tractors in protest at some kind of agricultural dispute with Turkey. I was on the parallel minor road and hitched over to the Turkish side. I had eight days left on my Turkish visa as I was stamped in. I hoped that it would be long enough to get my bike sorted in Istanbul and chuck it on a bus to the Syrian border.

At the Turkish border I was picked up by an Azeri who had flown to Berlin to buy a second-hand BMW and drive it back to Azerbaijan at a rate of about 1,000km a day. (Shame I hadn’t met him earlier!) He was a nice guy although conversation was stunted by the lack of a common language. I had enough Turkish to communicate the basics — where I was from, where I was going, and how. He dropped me on the highway in central Istanbul a pant-wetting former-Soviet-driving-BMW-style 300 kilometres later. I rearranged my kegs and said my thanks. It was about 9pm, and I had made it to Istanbul.

What would happen if the UK lost access to imported food? Is an ever-growing consumer-driven economy sustainable in a finite world? What is the future of transport? Can we move forwards without going backwards?

Your ideas and comments are very much invited. If you’ve enjoyed reading this, please spend a couple of minutes writing them below.

Comments (skip to respond)

2 responses to “Hitching from England to Istanbul”

  1. Hi Tom!
    It´s been ages, and I am happy to read all these news. You have had food for thougts and experiments. Indeed nothing is hardly ever simple.
    I read your news sitting on my sofa, in Paris, where I eventually returned, one ñonth and something ago. I have at last internet at home, and can travel through the web now.
    I hope you´re well and that soon you´ll hit the road again, after hitch hiking. Where did you leave your bike at? And Tenny´s?
    Good luck for all and please keep going with the posts!

    1. Hey Max, good to hear from you. I left the bike in Istanbul — you\‘ll hopefully have caught up on the blog with everything that\‘s happened in the last few months! Take care and all the best!