You ever have one of those experiences where you know what you have to do, but have no idea how to actually go about it or of what to expect? That’s crossing the China-Kyrgyzstan border. I formed a group with five others from my hostel in Kashgar and we met the night before to discuss our battle plans.
Yet for all we talked about, our plan boiled down to fuck it, let’s see what happens.
The thing about border crossings in this part of the world is that there’s no resource that tells you what to do or what to expect. There’s a few blogs devoted to the subject (Caravanistan is a lifesaver), but even those fail to adequately express what to expect.
That said, the best you can do to prepare is find an approximation and an average of all the intel you’re able to gather. Who’s getting across and when, who’s getting turned back, and what reasons can you surmise as to why any of those things are. Lord knows the Chinese border guards have any kind of rationale for who gets in and out.
By the end of our meeting, we looked at each other and shrugged. Regardless of the intel, we were going to attempt one way or the other.
“I guess we’ll find out.”
We met at 6:00 AM. In our group of six, we planned to make a convoy to customs and on to the border, hoping a larger group might improve our odds.
There was the mysterious grizzled old Spaniard, whose name we didn’t learn until days later.
Two Indonesian school teachers.
A Frenchwoman hitchhiking her way across from Vietnam back to France.
A Belgian who had been cycling until losing his bike.
And me, an American on his way home from a stint of English teaching in Nepal.
We were ready, or so we thought.
Act I: “That cabbie just tried to steal our tickets!”
We arrived at the bus station by 7:30. All we needed was a ticket to a city called Wuqia, which is the location of Chinese customs for basically any border crossing out of Xinjiang. Tickets were supposed to be no more than 40 RMB.
From the moment we arrived, we were besieged by cab drivers trying to herd us towards their cars. We were caught up in a crowd, trying to escape as cabbies shouted in mixtures of Mandarin, Uighur, and Arabic (as if we could understand any of it). Some spoke enough English to shout, “Yes, good price my car!” I was extremely hungover and having none of it, and led the effort to separate ourselves and join the line for tickets with all the local travelers.
When we got in line, most of them dissipated, shaking their heads. After a 15 minute wait, the woman at the counter directed us to the adjacent line with a frown.
We joined the next line, where thankfully the woman at that counter spoke English. The Belgian stepped up to begin negotiations.
“Hello, we need tickets for the bus to Wuqia.”
“It’s not a bus, it’s a small van.”
“Alright, well, can we have tickets for that?”
We looked at her in surprise. 400 was more than any of us had budgeted for this crossing, because it was the wrong price.
“It’s 400 for a car to Wuqia.”
“Yes, but what about seats on the bus?”
“It’s a small van!”
This continued back and forth for nearly 20 minutes. The woman felt very strongly about the detail that it was a small van and not a bus, and eventually turned her back to us when she became frustrated.
Someone in line came to our rescue and after some back and forth, we were given tickets for 34 RMB each (this is what it should actually cost to get to Wuqia — don’t accept anything else).
We thanked her and hurried away to the terminal, expecting to grab a bus. The guard ran our bags through the X-ray and waved us past. Once outside in the lot full of taxis, vans, and buses, a man approached us and called us over. We assumed he was the one taking the next bus, so we followed.
He brought us to his taxi and started loading our bags. We had thought we were looking for a bus, and he started talking about a price, so we were concerned. He wanted 400 RMB, the price we had worked so hard to avoid.
“Wait a minute, it’s not 400, we have tickets, see?”
The moment the Frenchwoman produced our group’s tickets, the cabbie made a mad grab for them like they were the first scrap of food he had seen in days. He managed to get a hand on them and crumpled them nearly beyond recognition. A small scuffle ensued while he and the Frenchwoman wrestled for control of our tickets, and thankfully our team won.
We each gave him a “fuck you” in our respective languages (that makes 8 thanks to our multilingual members) and took our bags from his car. A traveler’s information desk was nearby, so we went there instead, the driver following us angrily.
We explained the situation to the guard at the desk and showed him our tickets. He disappeared with them and suddenly we were without tickets, stuck at this desk while several drivers glared at us. I left to find the entrance to the office, and sat outside the door until someone gave our tickets back. During this time, I missed whatever chain of events that led to our group getting new tickets printed, and we found ourselves loading our gear into a different taxi, which we paid only 34 RMB for.
Once safely in the taxi, we breathed a collective sigh of relief as we drove away from the bus station, nearly three hours after we arrived.
Act II: “Passports please. You want ice cream?”
We knew ahead of time that we would pass through several passport checks on our way to Wuqia, about 2 hours from Kashgar.
When we came to our first, we found the Indonesian guys’ car had arrived ahead of us. Police were searching their bags thoroughly. We were required to show our passports as we passed through the security apparatus, and then handed over our cameras and phones for photo inspection (they didn’t see my laptop while searching my bag, and I wasn’t about to unpack everything to get it for them).
As we sat and waited for them to finish their inspections of our photos, one guard came from behind the desk and gave us bottles of water. Then he offered us ice cream, and a few said yes. He came back out with small packages and distributed them, and then stood in the corner eating his own small ice cream.
One by one, our bags were searched and we were questioned. A few spoke English, and were actually super nice to us. We didn’t spend more than 45 minutes at the check before we continued. Later, we found out the Indonesian guys who arrived before us had been subjected to a much more rigorous and unfriendly search. I wonder why that could be? Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country. They were allowed to pass, but the border guards were not nearly as hospitable to them as they were to us (this is called foreshadowing).
We got back in the car and continued along, watching the alien landscape zoom past. Xinjiang/East Turkestan is home to the most bizarre landscape I’ve ever seen. Red and orange eroded mountains scattered around the desert are just the foreground to black, jagged ridges and then the snow-capped wall that is the Tien Shan Mountains.
Our next stop was Wuqia, but we arrived too late to go straight through customs. They take a lunch break from noon to 4:00 PM, and we arrived at 1:00, we we had three hours to kill. Thankfully a guard brought us to a nearby restaurant to chill and eat, which we occupied for the entire time. After a meal of plof(?), a rice dish with meat and peppers, I went to sleep in the corner under instructions to be woken when it was time to continue.
Act III: “You cannot say goodbye to your friends. It is forbidden.”
I’m gonna start this section about Chinese customs with a quick little fuck China.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s continue.
We entered the customs building and gave our passports to the guards at the desks. They gave us some immigration forms to fill out, and then brought us aside to check our bags and photos (again).
For us white travelers, there was no problem. I had photos of shrines to the Dalaï Lama from my time in Nepal and even those didn’t cause any issues. They just asked us general questions. Our route though China, where we arrived, why we were taking the border crossing, that kind of thing.
But as we listened in on the questions asked of our Indonesian friends, we found that they were not given such an amiable treatment.
“What is your job?”
“How many times have you been to China?”
“What is your relationship?” (Are you gay?)
“Are you Muslim?”
They answered it all truthfully and politely, giving unreciprocated smiles. The guards exchanged looks. We were told to continue through to the next check and that they would stay behind.
“When will they come?”
“An hour. We must investigate.”
Ah yes — they’ve been found guilty of being Muslim.
We rolled our eyes and continued through the rest of customs quickly, then sat down in a waiting area on the other side. We’d end up sitting there for four hours, waiting on the “investigation” to end. At several points, the head guard tried convincing us to leave them behind. We refused unanimously every time.
But then he came back.
“You must leave. They stay until tomorrow.”
“Why are they staying? Why can’t we stay with them?”
The guard smiled. “It is forbidden.”
“What’s the problem?”
“We must investigate further. They must stay 24 hours. You must continue.”
“So we stay here with them, no problem.”
Again, he smiled. “No, no. It is forbidden.”
“Why’s it forbidden? They’re just travelers like us.”
The guard huffed impatiently. He leaned closer to me, pointing at his chest. “I have a duty. I must follow the law and investigate, and you cannot stay.”
As he spoke, other guards came to form a wall, starting to try to direct us out the door.
“Can we go talk to them and get their contact information? So we can find them when they cross or get an update?”
“No, it is forbidden.”
“Well how do we know they’re gonna be alright?”
“I have a duty to the law. I will protect them.”
“Can we at least say goodbye?”
The guard laughed and smiled unnervingly again. “It is forbidden.”
This time he pointed at the door, and other guards picked up our bags, trying to give them to us. It was obvious that we weren’t being given a choice, and that the longer we argued, the more agitated the guards got. I tried to see our friends, but they were out of sight. The guard pointed at the door and said, go.
We begrudgingly left, leaving the guards to carry out their bullshit “investigation.”
So one more for good measure: Fuck China.
Act IV: “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!”
We rode on in silence, occasionally breaking it to offer a new complaint about China and its mistreatment of anyone who’s not Chinese. There were a couple more passport checks along the way, but mostly it was just a drive through more ridiculous landscape.
We finally came to a long line of trucks, piled up for several kilometers behind a fence; the long-awaited Irkeshtam Pass.
Our driver drove right on past them to the fence, and then demanded his payment. It was agreed 100 RMB per person, which would’ve amounted to 600 if our Indonesian friends were allowed to continue. But they weren’t, and we only paid 400. After an argument via Google translate, he conceded. Then a Chinese solider got into the car, and then we were all on the same team.
He instructed our driver to continue through the gate to the actual border. We got right up to the fence and the soldier got out to talk to someone in the guard tower. He got back in and made our driver turn around, driving away from the border. After 100 meters, he made the driver turn around and once again drive to the border fence. This repeated several times until the door swung open and a soldier told us to get out.
To cross the border (and most borders), you must cross a no-man’s land. Some have a shuttle, but Irkeshtam Pass requires a 2km walk on foot to Kyrgyzstan. We were escorted by two soldiers, but when we came to a big metal gate, they waved us through and would go no further. After 100 meters, we came to a small metal barricade that looked like it had been there since the fall of the Soviet Union. Two guards with rusty Kalashnikovs smiled and waved us through, a welcome change after the unfriendliness of the Chinese side.
They instructed us to keep walking down the road another kilometer to the town of Irkeshtam, where Kyrgyz customs is. It took nearly 30 minutes and it was past dark when we arrived, but we had made it out of China, albeit with casualties.
Once we arrived, we managed to get a driver to take us on the hour-long drive through the mountains to our guest house in Sary-Tash. Our host assured us that our friends would come the next day, but at the time of writing this four days later, we’ve received no update.
But for now, I am in Kyrgyzstan and am incredibly happy to have left China behind.
Onto the big question mark of my travels: Central Asia and the Silk Road.
Pick of the Day:
Not at all biased by posting some more of my brother’s music. But you all need to hear what these guys have to say.