Thursday, 17 April 2008

Safety Hitchhiking Guide to Turkey (for Girls)

This is a hitch-hiking guide to Turkey. For tips on female solo travelling and hitch-hiking in the Middle East in general please go to my blog The Mddle Eastern Tales, Travel Tips 
I have been toying with the thought of writing a female hitch-hiking guide especially for Turkey for about a year. It was the recent killing of Italian peace-activist and hitchhiker Picca Bacca has startled me into action.
I am dedicating this article to her.

At first I thought it is pointless to put so much time into formulating a longwinded article about an obscure topic such as this, since surely not a lot of people are going to read this. However with the experiences I have from months of solo-hitchhiking around Turkey, I feel there are a lot of tips I can give to others who want to set off into this amazing beautiful country in which in the end I still feel entirely comfortable.
Maybe some people other than the strict target group -girls setting off hitchhiking around Turkey- will read it for the whiff of adventure they get from armchair travelling...

Here it goes:

Turkey is a country of stunning natural beauty and of exceptional hospitality. However, for female hitchhikers, single or in pairs, I recommend certain areas only for experienced hitchers who have been in a certain number of situations before and feel comfortable about keeping the right attitude up. The main problem in Turkey for hitchhiking women is the presence of exceedingly large numbers of prostitutes. Because the prostitution situation is comparable in the Balkans, in my opinion the tips that I will give are also valid there.

Some of the tips may even come in handy for a guy. On an internet hitchhiking list a Turkish hitchhiker gave the following tip to solo male hitchhikers: "[In Turkey] truck drivers are really hospitable, but it is clever to talk about your girlfriend even if you dont have one. Guys here are very openminded and will sometimes make proposals to you."

There is such a thing as beginner's 'luck'-when I first breezed through Turkey by thumb from Hakkari to Istanbul I was on a natural high from the sheer beauty of the country and had only laughs for the dodgy truck drivers. I intuitively did and said the right things to make it all turn out right. However, as any hitchhiker should know, intuition and luck don't always add up that way.

Before continuing to read this article at first make sure you have read -although I may repeat certain things said there to drive home certain points more assertively I generally assume 'knowledge' of the things mentionned there and build on them.

1st: In Turkey some regions are dodgier than others. What are they?
As a woman you should be most careful in the entire Eastern Black Sea region, especially around Trabzon, which is where those Russian ladies, who arrive in scores to earn money as prostitutes, debark first and hence are present working in larger numbers than anywhere else.

Other regions that are dodgy are the main arteries around Ankara (including Istanbul-Ankara) and the Istanbul-Bulgaria highway. The reason for this is that these roads are the most frequented by heavy loads -i.e. professional drivers- and thus also preferred by prostitutes.

The following tips are tailoured especially to the North-East and the roads around Ankara. If you don't want the hassle of being taken for a prostitute, just take busses. Don't panic, the following tips are valid for other regions of Turkey only to a certain degree!

By the way, even though most Turks will tell you that you should avoid the South East or the East in general this is certainly not true. The people inhabiting this region, the Kurds, are poorer and have historically been brigands, and it is because of internal Turkish racism that they still have a bad reputation up to this day. I assure you it is entirely ill-deserved. I have a deep love for the Kurdish people and I guarantee that you will have the warmest experiences in their heart-wrenchingly beautiful region.

Don't get me wrong though: I am not telling you to blow all warnings by locals to the wind. On the contrary when talking about the 'immediate' surroundings (the surrounding 150 km or so) the locals in Turkey usually have it right if they warn you to be careful in a certain area: the only time that I got near getting raped was when I decided to visit some villages up a beautiful, deserted canyon near a very touristy region, self-assured that nothing would happen to me even after three groups of people seperately from each other had warned me not to take that road, making throat-cutting signs to get their point across. Don't be as stupid as me, don't ever think you are immortal: When I met a German-speaker later on he told me that 4 Dutchmen had been thrown off an a few kilometres high rock only a year earlier.

By the way, I do know from police statistics that by far the most dangerous spot in the entire country of Turkey is tourist hot spot Alanya -way outdoing either of the twin capitals! Not something your regular charter tourist agency would like to become widely known, but let me tell you that to encourage you to visit the more out of the way regions!

This is off-topic but worth mentionning: For entirely different reasons do also avoid (at all, not just for hitchhiking!) the regions of Tunceli and Şirnak-Hakkari; travelling there right now you are exposed to a great risk of being kidnapped by the PKK (or by Turkish undercover police who want to shed a bad light on the guerrillas!).

Back to hitching: It is lamentable to say, it does not matter what you wear or just how big your bag is, on these roads, drivers will take you for a prostitute. Even men with children in the back have stopped, solliciting me for sex. Once even a man who to all appearances was in the company of his wife stopped and made a direct 'appeal' to me -he spoke in Russian to me which I assume his wife did not understand!

It is maybe an advantage that at a first approach you may look like a guy, but as soon as the drivers see who is entering the car this will probably change. In winter looking like a guy may well be manageable, but in hot summer weather it is certainly impracticable/impossible to dress up like this.

Incidentally, I have even tried hitchhiking in full hejab gear (headscarf, body fully covered), or in the company of a kid, but neither of this did prevent inappropriate men from coming on to me.

The police may from time to time approach you as you stand by the roadside. Just act like you have nothing to hide, say openly that you are hitchhiking, state your route, cooperate in showing your passport and you should be fine. Even if you were a prostitute putting your thumb out is hardly any incriminating evidence against you.

Contrariwise it is entirely your behaviour which will govern those of your drivers. These days I hitchhike with a small bag and wear clothes which give away my gender (I do recommend un-sexy and trousers though), but I have less hassle with Turkish drivers because of I have internalised the behavourial techniques more completely.

One simple advise straight ahead: Stay clear of truck drivers. This is because a) They are the main clients of prostitute, so that is definetely what is on their mind when they stop; and b) in a truck you cannot just pull the hand-brake and easily jump out if the driver is driving to a deserted area (you don't have to worry about that in Europe, but in Turkey this commonsensical consideration needs to be applied!)

From far-reaching experience, I also have come to the appreciation that more upper class drivers tend to be politer: Look at what brand of car, and whether it is clean, not dusty etc. and try to stop these specifically.

In Turkey drivers stop very easily, so don't worry about being picky!
It is even possible to apply the technique of only accepting lifts with women, although it may (sometimes considerably) prolong your waiting time. I have explained how to do this before here, but I will reiterate: It is definetely difficult to judge from a distance whether in a car speeding past there is a woman, but generally women rarely drive in Turkey, so punctuatedly try to stop cars in which more than one person is sitting, and chances are high a woman will be among them. If the car stops and there are only guys in there, just politely decline the lift. Do feel free to tell people that you are only accept lifts with women since this gives a clear message that you are acting responsibly and are out to travel and nothing else.

Strangely, there is something in the way a driver stops which makes you understand clearly whom they are stopping for -a hitchhiker or (someone perceived as a) prostitute. If people stop for a hitchhiker, they take a long time to slow down and will usually bring the car to stop at a fairly large distance from you. If men stop for who they think is a prostitutes this happens quickly and assertively in a quickly executed turn to the side of the road! But even these men you can turn into forth-coming gentlemen with the right technique:
Make up a story that ties your sympathies to Turkey -the Turkish diaspora is large in a lot of countries so for example a Turkish boyfriend back home is a perfectly plausible story. This will endear you to your drivers and they will try to show you the best side of their country they can.

For a while I kept telling people who gave me lifts that I had just missed the dolmuş (minibus) to this or that destination. This is slightly illogical in a country with the flawless public transportation system as Turkey has, but it works very well to make clear to people that you are a travelling to get somewhere and not 'looking for work'. I finally grew tired of lying so I don't tell that story anymore, but I do think it is a good idea for others. The phrase 'Usually I wouldn't hitchhike but I thought I'd give it a try...' works well (shows that you are naive and not aware that this might be something prostitutes might do), but at the same time you should insist that that in your country it is totally normal to hitchhike and that you feel perfectly safe. For a hitchhiker -for a guy or a gal, in Europe or around the world- it always puts you in a weaker position to admit any kind of fear: this is strictly inadvisable!
As you see communication is essential. This is generally true for all hitchhikers but especially for single women. I have hitchhiked in over 50 countries but I still do feel uncomfortable all over again if I have to do it in a country where I cannot at least to a certain degree make myself understood. I disrecommend hitchiking without being linguistically prepared. Before setting off, get down the basics of a language. It also adds to the fun mind you!
At this point maybe I should mention that of course you cannot expect drivers to know English or other European languages in Turkey. In touristy areas Turks are astonishingly talented and sometimes speak several European languages accentless without ever having been outside the boundaries of their own country, however, this does not apply to the regular village people who are the ones most likely to give you lifts. I cannot repeat this enough: it is essential to have a certain set of phrases ready. I will add a short hitchhiking glossary at the end of this. With faltering Turkish you will still be able to express what beautiful an impression Turkey has made on you: you won't have to pretend! Don't be afraid of overegging the pudding, just keep repeating how beautiful Turkey is and how hospitable its people are. This will also endear you to people and bring out the best in them.

One of the most important things to know is the following: As elsewhere in the Middle East the question 'Are you Russian?' (Rus musun?) means 'Are you a prostitute?'. (The same counts for the question 'Where are you from?' ('Neredelisin?') followed by the answer 'Rusya'.) In the case that you are actually Russian, unfortunately I'll have to strongly recommend to lie about it! Even if you are from a different Eastern European country it may be a good idea to lie about it: Best thing is you are ('are') from a well-known rich Western country, say, Germany. Usually I would feel flattered if someone thought I was from one of those Eastern European countries like Russia or Bulgaria that I love so much (especially considering the gross German accent I have when speaking Turkish!), but, however lamentably, and as silly as this sounds, I keep pounding on about the fact that I am not Russian, nor Bulgarian or Armenian, but German.
Likewise, while hitchhiking the question "So, do you work in Turkey?" ("Türkiye'de/Burada çalışıyor musun(uz)?") is code for "Do you work as a prostitute?".
If someone speaks enough English to ask you this in English however, I do think they are open enough to the world to ask this question innocently!

To illustrate this point I will narrate one (of a total of two!) unsavoury situation I got myself into and point out the moments when I let down my guards when I really should not have done that:

It is sometime last summer, in South-Western Anatolia: I had waited for a long time in the boiling heat on the wind-swept dusty outskirts of a faceless provincial town when a dirty grey Volvo stopped. I asked the guy where he was going, his answer was 'Doesn't matter, just get in!' Already a clear sign that he was up to something fishy.

He insisted even after I had declined several times -all too obvious a sign he was up to something bad! Really a classic case of when not to get into a car. There is such a thing as becoming too self-assured -it had happened to me at that point. How many drivers had I turned from dodgy to polite and generous hosts with my 'hitchhiking skills'? Countless ones. But this case really bears out the basic principle mentionned on the regular site: Trust your instinct, and if you have a bad feeling, do not under any circumstances get into the car.

The way the story proceeded is scary: We drove several kilometres along the main road to a sort of perfunctory service station where a single lorry was parked. Even this was just off the main road, not one car or inhabited area was around. I could have started running but how far could I have gone on my mere feet? The driver of the lorry got out of his vehicle and as he came walking towards us he yelled 'Where is this girl from?'-actually a rhethorical question: He expected me to be Russian. I, loudly, shouted my answer: 'Almanya!' ('Germany' ) which was enough for him to get back into his driver seat and drive off. The first guy left too, and there I was hitching like usually again.
The next person to give me a lift materialised quickly. It was an absolutely gentlemanly nice lad who ended up buying me lunch at the next village.

There is one more thing I want to say: Obviously it is desirable to avoid sexual advances from drivers not only because it may be dangerous, but simply because it is annoying and lowers your spirits. As I mentioned, the first few times I hitched around Turkey I managed just fine even despite the constant hassle with men, because of what I call ''beginner's impetus''. The pure excitement of movement and seeing new places that makes you oblivious to the dodgy stuff around you.
However after I had spent another month in the country I became increasingly irritated by always being taken for a prostitute.
After three months hitchhiking experience in Turkey, the most important trick in my opinion is the following: Stay entirely cool as you approach a car. It is a natural reaction for any hitchhiker to be excited when a car stops, so this maybe trickier than it sounds. Don't smile and ask very dryly where the driver is going, then ask matter-of-factly if it is not a problem if you go with them.
Only when I had perfected this coldness before getting into a car, I found myself consistently 'unharassed' by male drivers, so I think this simple technique is the most important one!

I want to end this article on a good note so I will relate a short, well-remembered hitch-hiking episode from Turkey; it is very hard to pick a favourite hitchhiking memory, but one I have not yet written about is the following: I was putting my thumb out outside of the town Fethiye from where I was going to the airport in Antalya, about 200 kilometres away. It was to be my last day as I was going to buy one of those cheapish charter tickets for as soon as possible and make my way home to Germany. Staring at the empty street I was just about to tell myself that I was in for a long wait when a car stopped with two young guys and a gal in it -apart from families the perfect sort of combination of people with whom I feel entirely comfortable. About the second sentence we exchanged was 'Have you heard of hospitality club?' and from then on I knew I was right in my place. They themselves were on a holiday outing and thought it would be fun to invite me along. In this way I ended up going with them to the absolutely spectacular natural sight of Saklıkent canyon which is too impressive for words to describe. We bathed in its icy waters and afterwards had delicious fish dinner and tea in an amazing setting (a treehouse restaurant) where we led long inspiring conversations.

The day after I hitched along the same road again and got a straight lift to the airport (!). Nine hours later I was on a flight to Berlin, smiling happily to myself about this extra day that had fallen into my lap so unexpectedly. Could I even have dreamed up a more beautiful ending to my trip?
It still remains an outstanding memory.

A Short Turkish Hitchhiking Glossary (pronunciation is straight forward I think):

Nereye gidiyorsunuz? -Where are you going?
Ben ...'(y)e gidiyorum. -I am going to...
Ben o taraf'a gitmiyorum. -I'm not going that way
Ben Turistim. -I am a Tourist.
Ben Türkiye'de çalışmıyorum. -I do not work in Turkey.
Ben öğrenciyim. - I am a student.
Türkiye çok güzel, Türkler çok misafirperver! -Turkeyis very beautiful and Turks are very hospitable!
Benim erkek arkadaşım Türk'tür. -My boy-friend is Turkish.
Ben Rus değilim. -I am not Russian.
Ben Nataşa değilim. - I am not a prostitute.



I came across your blog while searching for hitch-hiking in turkey. It made a good read. I like your writing style (do you have any links to your journalistic works?).
Thanks very much for the information and links. It all rings true from previous experiences. I am in Istanbul now and will begin putting my thumb out tomorrow...

Cyaxares_died said...

(do you have any links to your journalistic works?).

-unless you read german there is not a hell of a lot except what is linked to on my middle eastern tales blog. In english i have written a lot about iraqi kurdistan so if that interests you give me a shout

happy hitching and greetings from kars, siri


Thanks - I would be interested in that.

Since I've now hitched through Turkey, I can state that it was pretty easy and a great, entertaining pleasure. I recommend to other readers of this article to take the information on board and get out and try it.

denizkokusu said...

Hiii, Lovely Mathilda, the hitchhike guide was really perfect helpfull especially for women. I'm Veli the old hitchhiker from Ankara. I will go to İndia in 2 weeks and will try hitchhiking in İran And İndia :)

will see what time brings.

Elani said...

Thanks for writing this.

lazyboness said...

Thank you!
I could never understand it in Turkey, you've opened my eyes. I'm Russian, but really unusual :) And I'm so sad to represent my country which I don't like at all and even don't understand well it's mentality.
Ones I asked a Turkish guy living in England who knocked on my ICQ: "Why do all Turkish guys talk about sex only?" And the answer was:"Why are all Russian girls prostitutes?" I thought he was just the next asshole! And now I know that Russian girls are different and most of them are prostitutes :(
I usually prefer Europe, but wanna try to stay in Turkey for a month or two, but now I'm not sure I can make it... I don't speak German and I've never been to UK or America to pretend that I'm from there.

cyaxares_died said...

lazyboness nooo! russia is one of the most wicked places on earth, with the one of the kindest, most hospitable population!
if russian women have to go to such extremes as to prostitute themselves it is not because "all russians are sluts" or some similar affirmation, but because life in ex-soviet countries can economically be very harsh, as i am sure you know. if anyone is to blame for the facts that in turkey marriages are broken by the onslaught of slavic ladies and the fact that a single girl hitchhiking through the country has reasons to feel less secure than in a western european country or neighbouring iran, this is not the fault of some abstractly corrupted russian culture, but the one of western governments economically raping the countries of the ex-soviet union in the 1990's when wild west capitalism was preached as the panacea to all soviet ails by the IMF and western countries which sent the economies of coutnries like russia and georgia spinning out of control in a downward spiral and left people lacking the most basic goods.

The Tower Falls said...

I have hitchhiked all over the US, and have always wanted to hitch in other places around the world. I never thought hitching in the Middle East would be easy or safe! It sounds like you had wonderful experiences. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Hey there!

Lovely Blog.Really enjoyed to read it.It is really interesting to hear stories from a different view, from someone who is not an insider. But please let me correct two things or rather add some more words to supplement so that people who doesnt really know much about turkey dont get a wrong impression:

Topic 1:

"By the way, even though most Turks will tell you that you should avoid the South East or the East in general this is certainly not true. The people inhabiting this region, the Kurds, are poorer and have historically been brigands, and it is because of internal Turkish racism that they still have a bad reputation up to this day. I assure you it is entirely ill-deserved."

It is not really true that the south-east completely inhabited by kurds. My family, which is turkish, are also from eastern regions. and it is really mixed up there, i.e. my aunt married to a kurdish man or best friends of my parents are kurdish people or neighbours of my grandpa were kurds and so on. The majority of the kurdish people are living in the southeast turkey, that's a fact which aber doest mean all the people in eastern regions are kurds and all of the kurds are living there.
Other point. it is not really correct to say that kurdish people are poorer. Well at least not that B/W as you describe it (Kurdish = poor)There are lots of rich kurdish people, also very famous ones as politicians, artists, musicians, businnessman in turkey etc. In fact, the eastern regions of turkey are in general poor so anyone living there is having their shares from the eastern poverty. Also big cities like Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir are inhabited by both kurdish and turkish people and even more, since turkeys population contains a variety of different ethnic groups.

Topic2: "As a woman you should be most careful in the North-East, and the entire Black Sea region, which is where those Russian ladies, who arrive in scores to earn money as prostitutes, debark first and hence are present working in larger numbers than anywhere else."

This image of east-european and russian woman has almost dissapeared nowadays. So dont worry that much. In the times of the political and economical collapse in ex-soviet countries a lot of woman tried to earn their money as prostitutes in turkey. Sad but true. But one of my best friends married a lovely russian lady the other day who is an english teacher in Istanbul. So dont think , if you are a russian girl, you are automatically a prostitute in peoples eyes. Just be aware and dont stand at spots and try to hitchhike where normally prostitutes are waiting for clients -this happened to two polish girls, friends of a friend in Istanbul. They were terrified because so many people asked for sex but hey, if you do the same in New York or Paris, I dont think it would be different. :)
So be aware, and like Mathilda says, dont think you are immortal and take big risks.:)

Much Love.

Anonymous said...

Hi. The part about us not recommending going to the east is something akin to your not recommending Tunceli and Hakkari-Sirnak areas for kidnappings. This is more of a safety concern rather than stereotypes.

Veli Metinoglu said...

hope you peacefull hikes

agirlandherthumb said...

Some recent thoughts by a friend on this topic:

Anonymous said...

Very sound advice. As a guy, hitching in Turkey was not so different from anywhere else, but with the whole stereotyping of women thing makes your guidelines make perfect sense.