From Tash Rabat to the Torugat Pass and Into China

Trip Start May 14, 2009
Trip End Jun 15, 2009

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Where I stayed
International Hotel, Kashgar

Flag of China  , Xinjiang Uygur,
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

We were well read about the administrative difficulties tourists can encounter crossing the Torugat Pass into China and we were keen to get going so that we would not miss our driver who was picking us up at 12.00 noon from the Chinese side of the border. Vita and Slava were not quite so enthusiastic about our desire for punctuality, relaying horror stories of the Chinese drivers always being late, and in some instances not turning up at all.

The main administrative problem in crossing is that the Pass is not meant for tourists. It is a Class 2 border and designated by the Kyrgyzstan and Chinese governments as a commercial thoroughfare. In short, tourists just aren't welcome there. What we didn’t know then – and neither Vita nor Slava knew either - was why the Chinese drivers were always late when the Kyrgyz drivers were always on time.

We were to find out from friends who had crossed Torugat before and also from our experiences crossing the Chinese side of the border into Xinjiang Province that the Chinese authorities give these drivers a very difficult time, causing them lengthy and seemingly unnecessary delays at the various check points. With Xinjiang having a largely Muslim Uighur minority population desperately wanting independence, Chinese authorities are highly sensitive to its geographic proximity to neighbouring Muslim countries. It is our understanding that most of the Chinese drivers to the Kyrgyzstan border are Uighur which may explain the difficulties they encounter in delivering and picking up travellers to and from Kyrgyzstan.

To cross Torugat into China, we had to arrange for a Chinese driver to meet us. Foreigners are not allowed to use the public bus. This we did before we left Australia through the travel agency Silk Road Adventures ( who also organised all our Chinese border paperwork and border logistics. Without written confirmation and a driver we would not have been allowed to cross the border and in a 70 km wide No Mans Land Zone some 300 kms from the nearest town, it would be a miserable way to spend any time at all. We were reminded of a story about a group of Dutch backpackers who did not have their correct paperwork. They exited Kyrgyzstan only to find that they were not allowed to enter China and spent some weeks in the freezing and hostile No Mans Land. We didn’t ever find out whether they were allowed into China or were forced to return to Kyrgyzstan. Anyway, it was a stern warning to us.

The road from Tash Rabat to Torugat was more like a goat track, and in some instances we found we were travelling up the middle of washed out creek beds. When we did get to the main road it was a spine jerking and perilous journey to the outer Kyrgyz checkpoint. Despite it being the first days of summer the road conditions were icy and the surrounding desolate scenery was that of wide open snow covered plains dissected by power lines and then by an old Soviet barbed wire fence. A smoking chimney signaled a yurt with a family and a small number of animals. It was the only sign of habitation we saw on this road.

South from the outer border the road degenerated even further and in the distance we could see the Fergana Range. The road climbed up the Tuz-Bel Pass and then skirted the rather lovely Lake Chatyr-Kol, a protected nature reserve. The mountains then petered out to flat snow covered wind swept plains. At an altitude of some 4,000m, it sure was forbidding country.

Slava grunted that he was never going to do this trip again. It certainly must have done some wear and tear to his van. We sympathised. It was a hard and responsible task for these two young people to get us through such a difficult and isolated terrain with problematic and unpredictable border issues and the added worry of having to stay with the tourists for the night should there be any problems with the Chinese drivers. And that was without having had to camp at Tash Rabat for the night!

Torugat Pass is a three point border – two border controls some 12 km apart with a security station in between. We could well understand why the border officials looked so grim. These poor souls are posted here for months on time in the most hostile environment imaginable and with absolutely nothing in sight. The border buildings were dismal concrete blocks with no heating and staffed by equally dismal looking officials. Vita carried with her newspapers for the staff that not only gave them some welcome reading but we suspect it also facilitated our path through the Kyrgyz side of the border. An officious man took my good pen and didn’t return it. I was getting angry but decided this was no place to have an argument. Funny how such little things become such issues when you are tired and anxious.

Only drivers with a Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry special permit can travel as far as the China border. For some reason Vita did not have this document for herself and for a while it looked like she would have to stay in the brutally cold concrete check post building while Slava drove us on to the border. Vita’s unstoppable charm probably was the reason she was finally let through and we were highly relieved. As her mobile phone did not have reception in this part of the country we would have had to leave her here not knowing when Slava would be able to return to collect her. And it may well have meant an overnight stay.

Although procedures were slow, Alan and I did not have any problems getting through Kyrgyz border formalities and onto the final border post.

The final border post was staffed by officials who barked furiously if we went anywhere slightly near the border gate. But they didn’t seem to mind us wandering off trying to find a spot to relieve ourselves. I was rather amused to find myself skidding down an embankment that could have been in China and trying to pea with literally no privacy. Alan fared less well and came back with two sodden feet. He had slipped into a muddy hole on a stream bed while trying to find some privacy.

We were disappointed but Vita and Slava were not one bit surprised to see that our driver had not arrived. The weather was bleak and it was blowing a snowy gale. We filled in time by sitting in the van eating our way through our huge lunch boxes that Vita had bought for us in Naryn. We were to appreciate the amount of food that they gave us to take on our way into China.

A couple of hours passed and Alan and I were more than a bit anxious. By this time we had no spare American dollars and very little Chinese currency. We were hoping to change money at the Chinese border post but were not optimistic. If we could not change money there then we needed to be in our next destination of Kashgar (some 200 km away) in far western China before the close of business. We knew also that the border closed for lunch – or any reason - and it all meant further delays. At the very worst it could mean an overnight stay in the van seriously affecting all our connections from China to Pakistan.

We were also more than mindful that our friends Vita and Slava had before them a straight twelve hour journey from the border back to Bishkek. We well understood that the last thing they wanted was to hang around the border post with us.

From the border gate you could the see incoming winding road from China for miles. From the first sight of a vehicle it took some twenty minutes before it arrived at the border gate. We peered anxiously at this road for what seemed like years. Another Kyrgyz vehicle arrived and we chatted to the guide while we waited. We couldn’t help being bitterly disappointed that the next car to arrive from the China side was transporting his tourist. And we were surprised to see it was an English woman in her seventies who was travelling on her own. She was formally dressed in a long tweed suit and heeled good shoes. She looked very keen but we wondered how she would fare in her overnight stay at the Tash Rabat yurt camp. Another two cars arrived but they were not ours.

After what seemed forever, another car pulled up and once again we were downcast as the car was transporting a number of Polish passengers into Kyrgyzstan. Then to our surprise and delight the guide called out "Mrs Wendy Morrison?" Abdul and his driver had finally arrived and we were beckoned through the border gate and into another world of China.
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