The crowd gathers in Babusar, Himalayas, Pakistan
“Hey man, I’ve been following you for the past couple of blocks” said the biker on his ageing Honda as he pulled up next to me in the dark.
I was trying to figure my way around the outskirts of Amritsar (India), just across the border from Pakistan, it was getting late and I felt a little apprehensive.
“Really?” I replied feeling a small sting of anxiety.
“Yes, I recognise you. I know who you are” the boy insisted .
“What?!” I replied stiffening up and trying to predict what might be coming next.
“Come on man, I’m your fan! I saw you on the Discovery Channel…. can I take a selfie?”
I found out on my route across Asia, that as a solo traveller on a motorbike I was in many ways as much of a curiosity to the people I encountered on my path as they were to me, often even more so. Also, riding an “exotic” machine with increasingly weathered riding gear just added to my alien carisma and boosted my standing pretty much to celebrity status. There were countless occasions by the side of the road in which I was approached by locals with smiles, hand shakes, words of appreciation and eager offers of hospitality. I was treated like someone in a position of eminence, ranking, a star, or at least it certainly felt as though I were.
Just a few moments stop and I’m the centre of attention on my way to Sultan, Pakistan.
The attention however, had a twist to it. It was flattered initially and I felt encouraged to engage with my new found friends and “fans”. People seemed authentically welcoming, kind and concerned about me. I was a guest in their country and a flag carrier for the world I had come from. However, it soon became apparent that dealing with the interest and curiosity of the locals was a repetitive routine in which I was subjected to the same questions time and time again, five, six, ten times a day. It became hard to bare, a bit of an annoyance and I found it less stressful to avoid all unsolicited attention as much as possible in pretty much the same way I think real celebrities do.
It all began as in Chechnya, the rebellious Russian republic just north of the Caucasus. Since the end of the clashes for independence (fifteen years ago or so), this area has seen few tourists and even fewer foreign registered motorbikes venture across it’s borders.
As I idled at a traffic light in Grozny (the capital) admiring the gleaming new town centre I noticed some commotion in my rear view mirrors. A bunch of lads hurried to my side from the cars behind me.
“Mister, where are you from?” they asked. I explained that I had travelled from the UK.
“From UK to Grozny with moto?”
I nodded, and acknowledged the looks of surprise on their young faces.
“…welcome to Chechnya and thank you for visiting!…..selfie!” and before I knew it, half a dozen smartphones were at work.
First stop in Iran and a young family comes along to enquire about my trip.
In Iran things really took off. I was regularly honked at on the roads by truck drivers and given the thumbs up sign of approval. Smartphones were pointed at me from inside cars, either filming or taking a sneaky picture with waving hands and at many road side stops I was regularly approached by curious passers by.
I stopped at a beach side eatery one afternoon, on the Caspian coast. As I pulled up I caught the attention of some youths lounging near by. While I sat at a table sipped my hot drink the gang gathered around me and started asking questions politely. What was the reason for my trip? What I had seen so far? What did I think of Iran? There were some particularly telling ones as well:
“Is it true that everyone in Europe believes we are all terrorists here in Iran?”
“What’s it like to travel to a foreign country?”
“How many countries have you seen?”
“Do you have problems with the police?”
Students surround me when I stop for a sip of water in rural Pakistan
… in Pakistan
In Pakistan it continued. An overnight stop in the village of Dalbandin on my way to Quetta, attracted a few locals to the guest house I was staying at. I was a foreigner and an opportunity for these people to practice their English. So, converse we did.
“Sir, are you married? Sir,why not? Do you have a job, sir? You have children, sir? Sir, will you be travelling to India after Pakistan? Please sir, a selfie?”
Further East, through Punjab and beyond to valleys of Gilgit and Baltistan in the Himalayas, every road side stop close to a village drew a small crowd of inquisitive folk .
“Sir, where you from?”
“Sir, you married?”
“You have children Sir?”
I was an eccentric, an oddball, a weirdo on a strange bike, someone who clearly needed to be checked out and either branded a fool or given some assistance. The attention was occasionally massive with maybe twenty to thirty people crowding around me but I cannot say that I ever once felt under any threat, far from it.
There was always someone that would come and enquire about my well being in Asia.
Eventually I had enough of the attention and decided that I would try to blend in with the locals as much as possible. Camouflage seemed like a good idea. In Islamabad I bought a Salwar (trousers) and a Kameez (shirt), as is customary for men in Pakistan.
Confident that I could now mingle and not stand out too much from the crowd I donned my new outfit and walked into restaurant, somewhere I had never set foot in before. The cashier clocked me straight away:
“Ohhh, Pakistani style today. Very good. Nice colour. ….You American Sir?” he asked, as he picked up his smartphone: “Selfie?”… there was nowhere to hide.
Kamez and Salwar for camouflage
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