How to avoid the Trials and Tribulations of Border Crossings

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Crossing an international border can be one of the most stressful aspects of a motorcycle journey.  Some can go so smoothly that you hardly noticed that you passed through but throw in a measure of language problems, corrupt or difficult officials, yards of red tape and a lack of preparedness on your part and the situation can rapidly ‘head south’.  It should be remembered that all crossings will fundamentally consist of 2 parts; immigration and customs formalities and these will need to be completed for both the departure and arrival country.  Immigration basically deals with getting you through the border and customs considers your possessions which includes the bike.   By analysing the crossings that I have experienced and looking at what made some go well and the others not I have come up with a Border Crossing check list.

Be Prepared

There are a number of preparatory actions that you should perform prior to reaching the border.  Firstly have you checked that the border will be open.  I fell foul of this entering Mongolia since I arrived on a Sunday when the border is always closed and unfortunately that Monday was a National Holiday which resulted in me spending an extra 2 days camping on the Russian Steppes.  Probably one of the most important factors is to ensure that all of your paperwork is in order

  1. Passport – When riding normally I would keep my passport in a zip lock bag and in a waste pouch kept below the level of your riding trousers waist band.
  2. Any necessary Visas and possibly a Carnet.
  3. Motorcycle importation paperwork for the country that you are about to leave. Kept with the passport.
  4. Motorcycle ownership document – take a photocopy, laminate it and keep both hidden. I used the pocket of my jacket that contained the back protector.  Keep the original with your passport and use the photocopy when passing through the borders of countries where corruption is rife.  Most border guards will not have seen an overseas ownership document and will nearly always accept the copy.  If they do not then use the original.  It just means that you are handing across one less piece of critical documentation.
  5. Money required for entry. At some stage before reaching the border check the internet to see if there are any financial requirements at the border.  A case that comes to mind is when I crossed from Peru into Bolivia.  The American with me was required to pay an ‘administration fee’ that was a $100 or so and since he did not have it with him he had to leave his bike in ‘No Man’s Land’, cross back into Peru and get a taxi back to the nearest town to obtain the money.  He was gone many hours.  Whilst we are talking about money it is worth carrying a $1000 or so.  I would split this between a location on my body, a secure location in my and somewhere on the bike.  The airbox was a good option on my DRZ400 since it was quite easy to get at.
  6. A kilometre or so before the border pull over and put items 1-4 in an accessible location e.g in your tank bag. You do not want to be showing all of your hiding places to people at the border.
  7. At the same time remove and dispose of all meat, dairy, nuts and fruit. Nearly all countries have a ban on bringing them in.
  8. Generally less developed countries still have not fully entered the computer age. This means that all of the data about you and your bike will still be stored on paper and so quite often you will be required to provide copies of your documents.  Often these are not produced on the photocopy in the border post office since that would be far too simple and has led to a raft of ‘shops that have a photocopy’ being established around crossing points.  Just to save the hassle of obtaining one it is worth keeping a couple of copies of your most important documents.
  9. After crossing the border return all your paperwork to their original locations. It means they are safer from theft and there is less chance of mislaying them.

 Be Courteous and Respectful

Ride up to the Border Officer slowly and confidently.  He or she will usually be in a booth of some sort.  Stop, turn off your bike, dismount, remove your helmet and smile.  At the first booth you will normally only have to show your passport and you will then be directed to an office where the paperwork will be completed.  Firstly immigration for you and then customs for the bike and hopefully the 2 processes will be conducted in the same building though  you may have to walk to another location and the two could be some considerable distance apart.  Remain friendly and if you are told that it will take more than an hour for them to complete the process then go and make a cup of tea.  Quite often your lack of concern will result in significantly shortened wait times.

Keep Your Cool!

There is no point becoming impatient.  Border guards might as well be God since they have the power to decide whether the journey that you spent months planning goes ahead, follows a different route or ends all together.  Even if having lost your temper they may still let you through but beware of other ways that they may get their own back.  On passing from Uruguay into Argentina a companion become irate with an Argentinian border guard and despite justification not to, she did eventually let him into the country.   It was only when he attempted to fly his bike home from Buenos Aires that he found that the border guard had actually given him exit documents and not entry documents and so there was no record of his machine being in Argentina.  It caused a 3 day delay whilst he tried to sort out the problem and I now check my paperwork before leaving all borders.  Checking that they have returned all of my documents, are they stamped, particularly applicable in ex-Soviet countries where there is a love of bureaucracy and it can be guaranteed that there should be a stamp at least somewhere in your passport.

 Safety of Your Bike and Kit

I find that one of the greatest advantages of travelling with someone is that at crossings you can take it in turns to complete formalities whilst the other person guards the bikes.  Most of the time it is not possible to watch your bike whilst moving from one place to the other to complete paperwork.  There will invariably be a teenager offering his/her ‘I will look after your bike’ services and usually for only a couple of dollars.  So how do you know that you can trust them?  Their income will almost exclusively come from people like you and in the travelling community word soon gets round about their reliability.  They will be aware of this and so it is strongly in their interest to ensure that your possessions remain your possessions and of course you must never hand over any money until you are finished and ready to ride off.  Always try to ensure that anything that is left on your bike is attached to it as securely as possible.  Lockable hard panniers are ideal for this and if not try a paksafe net that can be padlocked to your bike.  I have yet to have anything stolen at a border crossing.

In Short

Be prepared, remain cool and good luck.  Once you have learnt the general procedure for crossings the process can become fun.

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Adventure Motorcycling and Fitness

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Throughout my motorcycle journeys I have discovered that in order to ride an adventure motorcycle a moderate level of aerobic fitness is required and when your motorcycle takes on a ‘horizontal’ aspect then some physical strength is also required to get it back on two wheels.  My qualifications as an Aerobics, Spinning, Sailing and Kayaking instructor have provided me with the tools to understand how best to physically prepare for a long motorcycle journey.

So why do we need a reasonable level of fitness when undertaking an adventure trip?  ‘Surely time is better spent preparing the motorcycle rather than preparing the body’.  This is not usually a conscious thought though invariably the body is neglected.  An increase in physical endurance has been shown to improve mental skills and this a benefit to the adventure rider.  All bikers know that it takes considerably more effort, both mentally and physically, to ride a bike from A to B than it does to drive a car and if you throw in some potholes, a bit of sand or some mud and the effort expended increases exponentially.

When we become fatigued it affects both body and mind.  Reaction times will increase and this will impact on a rider’s ability to make fast and appropriate decisions and of course the possible outcomes are significantly more serious than those encountered when driving a car.  The logical solution is to reduce the likelihood of fatigue and this is best done by following a physical exercise regime not only before but also whilst on the trip.

The components of physical fitness vary depending upon the article that you are reading.  I like to list them as follows:

  1. Cardiovascular fitness
  2. Flexibility
  3. Muscular endurance
  4. Muscular strength
  5. Motor fitness

Cardiovascular Fitness: As I have explained there is a clear need to improve alertness and reduce fatigue.  Cardiovascular exercises are a good way of achieving this.  By improving the fitness of your respiratory system, heart and lungs, your muscles will receive a greater quantity of oxygen and nutrients via the blood which will allow you to have a higher work rate and for longer.  Swimming, walking, running and cycling are all good forms of aerobic exercise as are using a range of machines found at a fitness centre including rowers and elliptical trainers.

It is worthwhile using a physical training professional so that an exercise programme can be tailored to your specific physical abilities and needs and as with all physical training it is advisable to consult with a medical practitioner before starting a programme of exercise.

Flexibility: Like most physical activities motorcycling can be improved and made more comfortable by increasing the body’s flexibility.  A whole raft of problems can be avoided such as back pain, muscle soreness and an increased risk of injury to name but a few.  For motorcycling the areas to concentrate on are the neck, back, thighs, hamstrings and calves and the best way to gain flexibility is through a programme of daily stretching.  There are many DVDs that will demonstrate techniques for each of these areas but the following general tips will help you benefit from all stretching.

  1. Muscles are more receptive to stretching and less prone to damage if they are warm. To this end be sure to warm up prior to stretching by doing some gentle aerobic exercise for 10 minutes.
  2. Stretch slowly, gently and do not bounce into a stretch since these contra techniques can cause injury.
  3. Closely follow the technique demonstrated with particular attention to body position.
  4. Try to do a little stretching every day, especially before and after riding and a more intensive stretching session 2 or 3 times a week.
  5. Remember a visible improvement in flexibility is unlikely to happen overnight. Stay committed and improvement will come.

Muscular endurance and muscle strength: I have combined these 2 components under a single heading.  Some may be surprised to learn this has nothing to do with the bulging muscles associated with a body builder.  It has more to do with those core muscles that we will need to stabilise the body and keep it balanced on top of our machine.  Abdominal, back, oblique, pelvic and core rotation exercises should all feature in your training programme.  There are many websites that will explain and coach you through suitable exercises but I found http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/fitness/multimedia/core-strength/sls-20076575 to be particularly useful.  In addition yoga and swimming are very good at developing core strength.

Whilst you do not need the strength of Samson to venture on a trip there are likely to be times when having a reasonable physical strength will be advantageous.  Picking up a dropped motorcycle, loading your luggage or replacing a rear wheel after mending a puncture are just a few conditions.  This does not require you to have the physique of a body builder but the level of strength obtained through a circuit training type class is ideal.

A lot of non-tarmac riding is often conducted whilst standing and so good leg strength and endurance will be beneficial.  A combination of squats, lunges and calf raises are good gym exercises for the legs but I found that cycling is particularly good for training those muscles that will be used when motorcycling.

Motor Fitness: This type of fitness refers to your ability to learn and develop basic physical skills. These skills can be put into six categories: agility, balance, coordination, power, reaction time and speed.  A good example is the coordination required between your hands and feet during a gear change.  The better the gear change the more comfortable it is for you and the less strain will put on mechanical components and so the longer they will last.  The best way to work on those motor skills applicable to motorcycling is by motorcycling.  Ride as often as you can over all types of terrain and try to ensure that you remain slightly outside of your comfort zone and so continually challenge yourself.
Getting your body in shape to ride long distances not only makes your touring trips more enjoyable, it also makes your everyday life healthier and more pleasurable as well.  If you unaccustomed to physical exercise then contact your local gym and have them prepare a training schedule for you that incorporates the points that have been discussed here.  If you are accustomed to exercise, are healthy and used to developing your own training programmes then there is no reason why you cannot develop your own schedule that is tailored to your lifestyle and concentrates on your known weak areas.

Whilst all of the advice above is ideal for pre-trip training I believe that it should be used, to a lesser degree, whilst you are on the trip.  On those days when the riding has been particularly gentle why not go for a pre-dinner run, or devise a circuit session that utilises parts of your luggage as weights. A rigid pannier as well as making a comfortable chair can also be used as the support for ‘tricep dips’ and if your panniers are of the soft variety they can provide added weight for ‘squats’.

Adventure motorcycling can at times be stressful especially when it comes to difficult border crossings, corrupt officials, language difficulties, trying to find petrol and so the list goes on.  When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins and these interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain.  They also act as sedatives.  A healthy release of endorphins by the brain will help reduce stress levels and so make the whole experience more enjoyable.

This post is not meant to provide you with a complete training programme but hopefully has helped you realise that a reasonable level of fitness will make your trip less stressful, less tiring, less painful and generally more enjoyable.  Do not ignore the health of the body in favour of a better equipped motorcycle since a healthier body generally means a healthier mind.  Remember the best piece of equipment that you take on a trip is your brain!!

Reviewed by: Joshua S. Tanner, BSc Kinesiology, CSEP-CPT (Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology – certified personal trainer)