The first thing I remember was being frantically shaken out of my slumber. “Ben! Wake up! Something is moving outside the tent!”. I stirred and looked up. I could see a silhouette. As I lay in the damp field in my tent, a hundred or so yards from the highway, I could just make out the faintest hint of pre-dawn light through the partially transparent tent fabric. Every minute or so I could hear the faint rumble of traffic on the distant road. Right now, the sanctuary of the tarmac seemed so far away. I kept still, listening for noises outside the tent. We were somewhere in southern Georgia, an hour or so from the Turkish border, and our wild-camping spot had been discovered.
The previous morning, Victoria, her sister Nairy, James and I had hitchhiked our way out of Yerevan. Our aim: Ankara, the capital of Turkey. Between us and our destination lay 1,500 kilometres of highway, working its way through the mountains of Armenia and Georgia, before blasting along Turkey’s Black Sea coast and then cutting south at Samsun to Ankara. We wanted to arrive in two to three days.
But this wasn’t just an adventure for the hell of it. Visa-related issues prompted the trip, in the middle of December in the Caucasus Mountains, with little more than 12 hours notice. Hitchhiking, as well as being a favoured past-time of ours, was essential now. We couldn’t afford the luxury of a bus.
The night before I’d arrived home late from work, packed my backpack, camping gear, camera equipment, and tried to get a few hours sleep. My sense of anticipation, and the excitement of the road calling my name again despite only having returned to Armenia from Iran a couple of weeks earlier meant I barely got any real rest. I awoke at 5:30 and stumbled to the kitchen, scrambled some eggs, brewed a cup of tea, and waited for James to emerge. An hour later, we left the house and met Victoria and Nairy at their apartment. Making our way to the edge of Yerevan, we decided to split into pairs for the journey – for ease of getting rides, and to race our way to Ankara.
The day started well – we’d barely stuck out our thumbs at the hitching spot when an old truck pulled over. Victoria and I had our first ride. As we rumbled away from Yerevan I looked in the door mirror to see James and Nairy had vanished. Seconds later, a car – which I assumed carried our two friends – swept past us and sped into off the distance. We were already behind, but at least were making progress.
The high plains of northern Armenia were beautiful. By late morning we’d worked steadily northwest through the countryside in a combination of cars and trucks, been treated to the sight of a lone wolf stalking across the tundra looking for it’s next meal, and seen the winter snow slowly take over the landscape of this high altitude country. Soon, snow would be covering every inch of the region. It usually did by now, but we’d had an unusually dry autumn. It was biting cold however – every time we left a vehicle we’d layer up and jump around for warmth. I’m glad I’d brought my woolen hitchhiking shirt.
At lunch time, as Victoria and I wandered across the desolate mountain top no mans land between the Armenian and Georgian borders, a car pulled over. The Georgian-Armenian driver and his Russian friend offered us a ride to the other side of the frontier and on to the nearest town. We accepted and were whisked seamlessly to Akhalkalaki, where the kind driver dropped us off on the far edge of town, and pointed us in the right direction. At the Georgian Border Post we asked the guard if he’d seen two other travellers pass. He’d just started work a few minutes before, and had no idea, but I was sure we were well behind the competition.
For the next few hours Victoria and I made our way through the Georgian countryside. It was sunny. We hugged the river valley, taking in truly amazing scenery of southern Georgia. A twelfth Century castle, which belonged to an Armenian Prince, stood imposingly on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the vast valley, as we hitched along the single-lane highway with a Georgian family in their Mashutka. The daughter, Kety, spoke good English, and invited us to stay at the family home that night and drink wine with them. Sadly, we had to turn down their kind offer. We needed to make miles – but promised to call her on our way back home.
It was mid-afternoon by now, and Victoria and I were within a couple of hundred kilometres of Batumi, the Georgian border town with Turkey, on the Black Sea coast. I imagined James and Nairy were still way further ahead of us, but we’d probably not find out if this was correct until we arrived in the Turkish capital. We’d arrive where we were due to stay at our friend Tarik’s house to be greeted to their victorious grins as they sat relaxing on the sofa with cups of steaming hot tea. Maybe.
Further down the road, by the village of Khertvisi, we were dropped off by Kety and her family. I couldn’t wait to explore this dramatic scenery more thoroughly on the way home. Perhaps it would be snow-covered on our return. We hung around on the side of the road for a few minutes in the fresh air, until a huge yellow truck came thundering along the tarmac. Instantly, Victoria sprinted to the shoulder and began dancing, thumbs raised, in her traditional hitchhiking dance. The truck ground to a halt. We were off again.
The driver, it turned out, was on his way home to Turkey from Armenia. He drove fast through the countryside and we made swift progress along the winding valley road. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours ride, he dropped us off in the centre of an unknown town – a hitchhikers nightmare. We’d have to walk out of town to get another ride. Victoria speaks Armenian, Turkish and Arabic – aside from English, but here none of these languages were of use. Another hour, and the last of the daylight was spent trying to get back to the highway. Eventually though, after a few detours and wrong turns, we made it.
We waited in the dark, head-torch blazing, on the side of the highway. Hitching isn’t generally a night activity, but we’d decided to push on, hoping to make it to within striking distance of the Turkish border before calling it a night. After a few minutes, and one inquisitive police car later, another Turkish truck pulled over. We jumped in, greeted the driver, and were on our way. Our friendly host only spoke Georgian and Russian but we managed to communicate without too much trouble. He was heading toward Poti, 60 kilometres north of Batumi. Our aim would be fulfilled.
After a khachapuri stop we continued into the night. James and Nairy must be in Turkey by now, I thought. I was wrong. A few miles later, as we rumbled along the rural highway, I spotted two other hitchhikers on the side of the road. As we came closer I recognised them – none other than James and Nairy. We’d caught them up. We motioned for the driver to stop and I jumped out of the cab and sprinted back down the shoulder to meet them. Soon, the truck cab had five squeezed into it, and the driver was watching us with much amusement.
We exchanged stories from the day on the road. It turned out James and Nairy had managed one ride all the way from Yerevan almost 200 kilometres to the Georgian border. They’d made good progress along the same road as us during the day, but we’d caught up after they’d had an extended dinner stop with a Turkish trucker who’d picked them up in Georgia.
By midnight, we reached the town before Poti. It transpired that the driver would have his truck unloaded here, before making the short jaunt to Poti itself, where he’d sleep. We waited an hour or two in the haulage depot whilst the late-night depot workers did their thing. The unloading of the truck seemed to take an age. We were all tired and ready to sleep.
Eventually, the driver returned, and we continued on. By now, it was 2am. At the edge of Poti we jumped out of the truck at a suitable spot on the side of the highway. There were grassy fields here, and scrubs to hide our tents from view – perfect for wild-camping.
Tents up, bags safely stored in the porch, and it was sleep time. I passed out, safe in the knowledge that we’d made good progress. Almost 600 kilometres in a day, and now a undisturbed rest for a few hours before continuing.
But then I was awoken. The silhouette, it passed slowly by. As I lay on my side, watching the shape, I tried to figure out who had discovered us. The shape – it looked like the shoulder of a military uniform. I lay still. Nobody made any noise. Eventually, I decided to investigate. If one of us was going to have to explain why we were in someones field camping on the side of the road in December, it would be me. Carefully, I unzipped the tent and opened the flap. I was met with two pairs of bulging eyes staring back at me. Blankly, whilst chewing mouthfuls of grass in the morning light, and not having the faintest idea what was lying in their grazing area, were a couple of smelly cows watching me. Phew. Maybe it was time to get back on the road.