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The International Writers Magazine
: The Lonliness of the hardcore backpacker...

Antakya – It’s Clear I’m No Hard Core Backpacker
"The biblical Antioch, where St Peter did a spell of converting, was said to be the most depraved city in the Roman Empire."
Lonely Planet, 1997
Guy Burton

I was tired with solitary travel in Syria. Although I had barely scratched the tip of the iceberg – perhaps a bad metaphor given the July heat I was travelling in – but it was hard travelling alone. As backpacking destinations went Syria was not off the map. But if Europe and South East Asia with their legions of backpackers resembled a large villa, then Syria was probably more like a garden shed.
I thought about the moments I had enjoyed most during my time in the country and realised it was when I was in the company of others. In Damascus and Aleppo there were ready-made friends to share the sights and sounds of the city, with whom I could hire a minibus and make a journey into the interior.
As I thought about this, it slowly began to dawn on me: I wasn’t cut out for the solo, independent lifestyle. I would never be the type of person backpackers everywhere bow down in awe to: the Hard Core Backpacker.

The Hard Core Backpacker is the one everybody aspires to be. Usually there’s at least one in every big town. He (it’s usually a he, rarely a she) occupies the best bed in the dorm, has the best gear to smoke and the most illuminating stories to tell. And what marks him out is his discretion in telling them. Unlike the others in the dorm, who feel the need to blurt them out to all and sundry, the Hard Core Backpacker is usually the one sitting on his bunk bed, rolling out the largest joint and saying little. Only when someone asks does he give up an even bigger and better story. He plays his cards close to his chest, revealing his experiences like the treasures they are: one gold nugget at a time and only when necessary.

Unlike other backpackers, the Hard Core Backpacker doesn’t need people; he is prepared to go the extra distance, with or without company. He will leave the usual route and make his own way, to the more obscure places. He doesn’t need a bed or even a roof over his head. In fact, as we speak he is probably making the journey from the Syrian garden shed to the foundation stone on the brownfield site that is Iraq or Afghanistan.

Anyone who has been backpacking has met him. He’s usually the one to walk in unwashed and unshaven, yet smelling fresh. His T-shirt is always white, no matter how long it was since he last washed it. He stays as long as he feels like it and leaves when he wants. No obstacle stands in his way – and certainly not money. He’s already travelled around the world twice, with £100 and a couple bags of sweets. And more often than not, he is always surrounded by the best-looking girls who hang on to his every word.
God, I hate him.
I, by contrast, was Backpacker-Lite. I liked my creature comforts: I preferred to have somewhere to sleep by nightfall. I calculated the money I would need and carried as much as possible, if not more. I needed to wash my clothes and no matter how little effort I put into not shaving, the results were always disappointing. As for my stories, they weren’t even in the same league as the hard-core backpacker’s dorm jester, let alone his lieutenant in the bunk bed next to his. Besides, I liked the company of other people.

I needed somewhere soft and cosy to head to; and given that Turkey was only a few hours away from the city I was in – Aleppo – it seemed to fit the bill more than adequately.
Unfortunately I was going to have to make the journey alone; no-one was heading in the same direction. I had been told that costs were slightly higher in Turkey, so I decided I would need to save as much as I could. This meant foregoing the three-hour intercity bus between the Aleppo and the closest town on the Turkish side, Antakya. Instead I made my own way by minibus to the border, in the hope I would find another on the other side. I assumed it would be easy to find one. But I was wrong.
Antakya is the modern name for the city of Antioch. It had once been the capital of the Roman province of Syria and served as the Mediterranean outlet for trade which passed through Aleppo. After the First World War the Ottoman Empire was divided up and the two cities found themselves on separate sides of the border.

Given the two cities’ shared history, it therefore comes as a surprise to learn only two intercity buses make the journey each day along a route which at first glance appears bereft of human activity. This only complicated matters for me, since I needed to save as much money as possible: the intercity bus would have to be dispensed with in favour of a minibus to the border.

Of course this wouldn’t have been a problem for the Hard Core Backpacker. He would have made light work of it all. But not for me: I reached the border to find there was nothing to take me to the nearest town, Reyharli, 12km on the other side. I realised there was nothing for it: I would have to walk. Alone.
I shouldering my rucksack and set off. Soon I passed some military barracks stationed on the Turkish side of the frontier. The recruits all ran out to stare and jeer at me as I walked past, heckling the ridiculous sight before them. What kind of mug crosses the border on foot and with a rucksack on his back?

I was feeling fed up and this wasn’t helping. How was I supposed to know the border wasn’t well-serviced? Why wouldn’t I listen to people in Aleppo? I was angry, at them, at my audience, at me. This wasn’t going to be fun: walking 12km in the midday sun with a rucksack on my back.
But luck was on my side that day: a car seemed to pull up out of nowhere on that empty road. The driver had stopped to join in what was becoming a communal stare. Was this crazy foreigner for real? I took my opportunity: would he offer me a lift into town? He leaned over and opened the door. I glanced back, flicked a V-sign at my critics and we were off.
Hardship: who needs it? Maybe the Hard Core Backpacker.
But certainly not me.
© Guy Burton March 18th 2005

See Also
In Lebanon
Ancient Tyre

More Destinations


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