We were in the city of Kars, Eastern Turkey, and we needed to get to Gyumri, just 40 miles across the border in neighbouring Armenia. This would have been an easy task, if the Turks hadn’t murdered over a million Armenians 100 years earlier. But they had, in what is now recognised by most of the world as the Armenian Genocide.
The Turkish Government, however, to this day refuses to acknowledge that what took place in 1915 was a genocide, and so no diplomatic relations exist between the two countries, and the land border that separates them has been closed for the past twenty years. This meant that we would have to take a 210-mile detour through Georgia.
It was around 11 in the morning when we dragged our knuckles along the dusty road leading to the eastern edge of town, from where we would hitchhike the 96 miles north to the border crossing with Georgia, before looping south into Armenia. It had just started to rain when a silver Dacia pulled over and we squeezed into the back seat, joining three good-humoured manual labourers making their way home for lunch. They didn’t speak English, but explained to us with the help of a map that they were only going as far as the town of Susuz, about 20 miles up the road. Despite the language barrier we got a good feeling from these weather-beaten lads, whose smiles and laughter were a constant the whole ride. When the driver pulled over into the car-park of a small supermarket, his friend returned to the passenger seat a few minutes later with cans of Coke for everyone, including us. This wasn’t unusual; this was normal practice for Turkish drivers with hitchhikers. As a stranger in a Turkish man’s vehicle you can expect all sorts of gifts to be bestowed upon you. Fresh fruit, biscuits, cake, tea, cartons of juice and cigarettes all come as standard, the rule generally being that if your driver is enjoying something, then you will be invited to enjoy it with him. Then there is the other type of gift, usually some little knick-knack of sentimental value to the driver, that fills you with gratitude, as you know it isn’t just a piece of throwaway junk to him. On our journey through Turkey this category of gift included hand-crafted Islamic prayer ornaments; evil eye pendants made from glass (every Turkish vehicle has the evil eye hanging in it, to ward off evil spirits); tiny versions of the Qu’ran; and a traditional Turkish hat. These three boys were no less generous, but probably were less religious, as instead of any Islamic paraphernalia, hanging in their windscreen was a mini scarf with the word Türkiye emblazoned across it. As we arrived in Susuz, all three men got out of the car to say goodbye properly. The driver handed us the scarf as a parting gift.
Within minutes of standing again in the kerb, a dolmuş (minibus) pulled over with a sign in its windscreen indicating that it was going to Ardahan, the city we had written on our cardboard sign. One of the passengers in the back opened the door for us to get in.
“Otobüs yok. Otostop. Para yok! ” we protested, trying to tell the driver to keep on going. ‘No bus. Hitchhiking. No money!’
The rain had started again, this time heavier than before. The driver ignored our protestations and with a nod of his head indicated for us to climb in.
“Para yok,” I said again, shaking my head and rubbing my fingers together.
“Problem yok!” said one of the passengers in the back. ‘No problem!’
“Teşekkürler!” We thanked the driver and also everyone in the back, who had all had to move around a bit to make room for us.
The majority of our fellow passengers were Kurdish peasants, and not one of them spoke during the journey; instead they just stared right into us with blank expressions on their faces. From what Adriana did next, I can only guess that she felt we weren’t doing enough to blend in with the natives and that we should make more of an effort. So she tied the Turkey scarf we’d just been gifted around her head and ordered me to take a picture.
As we got closer to Ardahan it began to snow. Heavily. A blizzard was taking place. Either side of the road sat nothing but open fields, stretching off into the distance. Every couple of miles the driver would stop and a man would get out and just walk off, across a field, disappearing under the whiteness.
Just like that, we passed through the storm and came out the other side. Behind us we left the type of scene you see on a Christmas card. In front of us, everything went back to being grey and wet.
We reached a fork in the road. The path to the left went to Ardahan, the path straight ahead continued on to what the Turks call Gürcistan, and what I call Georgia. The driver pulled over to let us out.
Back to hitchhiking we went.
Vehicles on this part of road were scarce. In 15 minutes just three passed us, none with any room for passengers. And then a silver Renault pulled over and in we got. Mert and Emre were two middle-class, middle-aged men driving to Tbilisi for a business conference. Both spoke English and both were going to Georgia for the first time.
The drive to the border crossing at Türkgözü took about an hour and a half, and carried us along winding roads high up into the Lesser Caucasus mountain range, where the clouds could be touched by hand, simply by opening a window and outstretching an arm. Down in the lush green valleys below us, little towns with their red roofs looked inviting.
The crossing into Georgia went smoothly, and we were soon driving through the Georgian town of Vale.
Our chauffeur and his friend dropped us at a junction at the town’s exit. They carried on towards Tbilisi, we found the sign that pointed us in the direction of Armenia and began walking. This side of the border was less developed than the Turkish side. The roads were cracked and dusty. The town resembled a building site. There were very few people walking around, but there were plenty of stray dogs. Most were unfriendly and aggressive, the kind you crossed the road so as not to have to pass; but not the one that decided to befriend us.
Hobo – I named her after the dog from my favourite childhood Sunday morning telly programme, The Littlest Hobo – approached us slowly and submissively, with her head bowed. Her bones were showing through her fur, she had scars all over her body, and she was missing both her ears. As she emerged from a puddle of muddy water, she looked like a baby polar bear. I instantly fell in love with this misfit. She had been through the wars, treated terribly by the looks of her, but was still willing to trust strangers. Desperate for some affection. We didn’t have any food to give her, nor any Georgian money to buy her any. She didn’t care, she only wanted companionship. There were no cars passing our way, so we decided to just walk for a while. Hobo followed, joined to my hip. We walked for a few miles along the dusty road, stopping every ten minutes or so to sit on our backpacks and just be alone with our thoughts. Every pause we took, Hobo took with us; lying patiently at my feet. I wanted to take her home with me and to grow old with her. Old in dog years, I mean. Each time we heard a car approaching – which wasn’t very often – we would put down our things and take up our hitchhiking positions; standing in the kerb, thumbs out, smiles on our faces. Hobo would stand with us. It soon became apparent that Hobo was damaging our chances of getting picked up, as it appeared to drivers that we came as a trio. I didn’t care and wasn’t going to hold it against her or try and get her to leave us alone.
‘Who knows?’ I thought, ‘Maybe someone with a bit of compassion will pull over and let us take her with us.’
Just ahead of us, on our right, was a builder’s scrap merchants, guarded by a vicious and horrible mutt that we will call Brutus. Brutus was barking, snarling, full of venom. It was as if his sole purpose in life was to kill us; and as he couldn’t fulfill this destiny, thanks to the padlocked gate that stood in his way, he was angrier than a member of the Taliban on a cultural visit to Roedean School.
(I’m not gonna explain that reference. Some of you will get it.)
As we came to pass the gate, and with Brutus doing his best to squeeze underneath it so as to be able to maul us, Hobo froze in fear. Brutus seized upon this and became even more savage. Hobo started to cry.
I stopped, knelt down and put my hand on Hobo’s head.
“It’s alright, he can’t get you. Come on, we’ll walk past him together. You can do it,” I said.
Hobo looked up at me, stopped crying, pulled herself up, and led the way, past the loathsome Brutus.
“Yea! I told you you could do it! Don’t ever be afraid of bullies again!”
I was talking to a dog.
A car was approaching and we quickly assumed the pose necessary for getting a ride. A white Lada pulled over and an absolute bear of a man got out of the driver’s seat and opened the boot. Only one of our bags would fit into the tiny space, so we climbed into the backseat with the rest of our gear. A tall man with a trustworthy face and a friendly smile was waiting for our company in the back. In the passenger seat was another man.
As we were boarding, Hobo cried loudly and begged us not to leave her. I was ready to cry myself, but managed to man up. We got into the car and drove off, leaving Hobo as a memory in the wing mirror. The three men, all heavily built, watched her disappear behind us. They looked at me and saw the sadness in my eyes.
“Priyatel,” I told them, Russian for ‘friend’.
They smiled understandingly.
Kris Mole’s book ‘Gatecrashing Europe’ – where he freeloads his way around an otherwise expensive continent – is published by http://www.valleypressuk.com/ and available on Amazon. Follow him on twitter at @KrisMole.
Copyright © 2016 Kris Mole