A knowing look from a check point soldier
An unfamiliar motorbike with a foreign number plate will always raise interest and concern from the locals of countries excluded from mainstream tourism. Often it’s the youth that are the sharpest spotters of riders and machines from overseas and the attention that comes from being recognised as an alien can be closest thing you will ever feel to being a celebrity. The attention is overwhelming with generous offers of hospitality. Questions are asked in a friendly way but tend to be the same repeated endlessly over and over again: “Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? Any kids? Selfie?”
Sometimes however, interest can come from those in a position of authority: the police, over zealous border officials, traffic cops and of course the military, perhaps the most unpredictable out of all uniformed enforcers.
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 areas 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 government buildings . Men in green or kaki coloured fatigues are never too far away in southern Asia to the point that you can find yourself being escorted by soldiers for small sections of your itinerary, too (Pakistan and Iran).
Clearly, the biggest worry for any solo 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 categories, who might just find it entertaining to make your life difficult for an hour or so under the desert sun or tropical rain. This is where your motorbike, your machine comes to the rescue and should be used accordingly!
Everyone at a check point is genuinely intrigued by an “exotic” machine from far away and invariably wants a “piece of it”. Questions are asked about power, speed, cylinders. Smart phones appear, poses are struck and selfies are taken to send to girlfriends, wives, pals near and far. The bike is like a magnet, a decoy, a great distraction and although perhaps mildly annoying I’d rather soldiers took pictures of themselves sitting on or standing around my motorcycle than have them open up my bike bags for a detailed inspection of their contents. A little empathy is always a good thing, especially if it helps connect with the person wearing the uniform rather than trigger they authority the uniform represents.
So, prop up your bike up on centre stand, take the keys from the ignition and bury them in a pocket. Let the garrison feel your bike up, smile be courteous, answer questions, perhaps use some local language too to enquire about where to find food, water, fuel, women (always a great one) or a place to simply crash out for the night. More often than not a sergent or a coporal would take control, answer my queries, sometimes even offer me a cup of tea or a coffee and then dispatch me on my way whilst the rest of the crew were still checking out the pictures on their phones.
Only once, close to the Russian border did I come across a man in green who demanded I let him ride my bike. In cases like this an outright refusal is the only possible option to safeguard your trip and your motorcycle. Stand your ground, do not give in, make sure the keys to the bike are hidden in your deepest pocket. 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!
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.