TRAVELLING STRANGER

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Guide to military check points.

Stolling Soldier-1 A knowing look from a check point soldier

An unfamiliar motorbike with a foreign number plate always will always raise interest and concern from the locals of countries excluded from mainstream tourism routes. Often it’s the youth that are the sharpest spotters of non native motorcycles and riders from far away and  the attention that comes from being recognised as an alien can prove to be colsest thing an overlander will ever feel to being a celebrity.  The attention is surprisingly overwhelming and friendly. Usually there are offers of hospitality and conversation though the questions asked tend to be repeated endlesly time and time again: “Where are you from?  How old are you? Are you married?” are amongsd the favourites. 

Sometimnes however, unsolicited interest can come from those in a position of autrhority: the police, over zealous border officials, traffic cops and of course the military, perhaps the most unpredictable out of the uniformed lot.

From the eastern borders of the EU all the way to Thailand, soldiers play a bigger role in society than we are used to in the west. There are soldiers at borders between neighbouring districts, towns, counties and even in front of  some national monuments. There are soldiers in areas of political tension or martyred by terrorism. There are soldiers in places of strategic interest such as mountain passes (even the remotest in the Himalayas), sea ports, railway stations not to mention airports and govermnet buildings as well. Men in green or kaki coloured fatigues are never too far away in southern Asia to the point that you may find yourself being escorted by them for small sections of your itinerary, too (Pakistan and Iran).

Group of Solders-1

Clearly, the biggest worry for any overland traveller is the risk of being harassed by gun bearing conscripts feeling bored at a road side check point in the middle of nowhere. Truth is, it hardly ever happens, at least not in south or eastern Asia. I found  the soldiery in this part of the world to be professional, diciplined and respectful. However, that’s not to say  that dealing with the army guys is always straight forward. 

There are two types of soldiers: subordinates and superiors. Dealing with superiors (the ones in charge) is generally less time consuming than negotiating with subordinates, but be aware that there are plenty of assholes in both of the above categories, who might just find it entertaining  to make your life difficult for an hour or so.  The motorbike comes to the rescue here and I suggest it should be used accordingly.   Everyone at a check point is genuinly intrigued by an “exotic” machine from far away and invariably wants a “piece of it”. Smart phones appear, poses are struck and selfies are taken to send to girlfriends, wifes and pals. The way I see it I’d rather soldiers took pictures of themselves sitting on or standing around my bike than deal with the inconveninece of being ordered to open my bike bags for a detailed inspection of their contents. A little empathy is alwasy a good thing and it helps engage with the people behind the uniforms rather than trigger they authority they represent.

It’s best to prop the bike up in centre stand, disengage the keys from the egnition and bury them in a pocket. Smile be courteous, answer questions, perhaps use some local language, enquire  about where to find food, water, fuel,  women (always a good one) or a place to simply spend the night. I found that more often than not a sergent or a coporal would  take control, answer my queries, sometimes even offer me a drink of tea or coffee  and then dispatch me on my way whilst the rest of the crew were still checking out the pictures on their phones.

Check point in Pakistan-1

Only once, close to the Russian border did I come across a man in a green who demanded I let him try out my bike on his own. In cases like this  an outright refusal is the only possible option to safeguard your trip and your motorbike. Stand your ground, do not give in, make sure the  keys to the bike are hiden in your pockets and not left dangling elsewhere. Humour always helps and I found that comparing my motorcycle to a girlfriend or a wife, something no man would want to share with another,  was enough to brake the impasse with laughter and send me back on my route without further adoo. 

A huge thank you to the military and border guards of Iran and Pakistan who escorted me on my ride through the troubled areas of Baluchistan close to the border with Afghanistan. Their professionl attitude and timely organisation left me in awe of their good will and abilities. Thank You once again!

 

 

 

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