Crossing Irkeshtam: from Osh to Kashgar
Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
88Trip End Ongoing
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Our arrival in Osh also marked Helen's birthday, and Louis whisked us off to an ex-pat bar to gorge on Greek salad and an enormous pizza to celebrate. The excitement at eating such familiar – yet now unfamiliar – foods was topped off by an enormous, creamy cake and bottle of classy Californian red. Not being used to alcohol or such vast quantities of cake, we were swiftly reduced to an alcohol- and sugar-induced stupor, happily sinking into bed and drifting into a thick, dreamy sleep almost instantaneously
Waking slowly, we plotted an ascent of the nearby Papanski Canyon, a rare piece of beauty, almost completely untouched by tourism except for a few intrepid locals, and now us. Sworn to secrecy concerning its whereabouts, this would be our final foray into the dramatic natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan, and it did not disappoint. Climbing steeply from a small but gushing river that wriggled its way from mountain to fertile farmland, we clambered over jagged rocks as we ascended to the top of the canyon.
The tough walk was rewarded as we stood at the cliff edge, peering down a stomach-churningly deep ravine, perhaps a hundred metres of sheer drop. I winced and squirmed as Louis neared the edge and peered into the abyss, and I grabbed at the nearest boulder for extra support in the face of his dizzying act of defiance towards the swirling wind. Across from us, cackling birds darted and swooped across the ruddy-grey cliffs, as if making fun of these three lumbering mammals standing nervously at the cliff edge.
We were due to leave the following morning to Sary Tash, a Kyrgyz village close to the remote Chinese border post at Irkeshtam, and Louis gladly chatted about his own experiences of China as we reluctantly descended from our vantage point at the peak of the canyon. On either side, high, grassy jailoos – the summer pastures for sheep, horses and cattle – stretched for miles, and we could barely see a single building as we scrambled down. It was a slightly emotional last goodbye to the dramatic Kyrgyz scenery to which we had become far too accustomed.
That night we ate heartily with Louis, and packed for the journey. There was no knowing what time we would leave Osh, or arrive at Sary Tash, but we knew it would not be possible to get to the border in just one day. The following morning, we said a deeply-felt goodbye to Louis, emerging into the harsh white light of Osh's shadeless streets for one last time. Trudging to the shared taxi rank, we knew what would follow: hyena-like, the drivers crowded around us, shouting their destination names and tugging at our sleeves. We strode through them repeating “Sary Tash, Sary Tash, Sary Tash”, like a chant to protect us from evil spirits.
Eventually, we found a car headed for Sary Tash, due to leave at twelve midday. High noon, I thought, was an appropriate time to head out into the wilderness of the Kyrgyz south-eastern reaches. Returning to the car at the designated time, we waited. And waited and waited, until two hours late, the driver arrived demanding more money to take just the two of us. We refused, demanded to leave immediately, and a heated argument ensued, which led to an uncomfortable compromise and our eventual departure. It would now be difficult to know if we would arrive at Sary Tash before nightfall, but it was our only hope to arrive that day.
Nerves were running high, and an engine problem shortly after leaving did not help the situation. A further hour or more was spent driving from house to house through a small town, picking up and dropping off different friends of the driver's, until – after a visit to a garage and a long chai break at one of their houses – we were on the road again.
Soon, the car began to climb the steep mountain-sides over which we needed to pass in order to get to the remote Alay Valley, and its chief settlement, Sary Tash. As we neared the top of the pass, a heavy snowstorm began, battering the car with huge icy ball-bearings. The road was deteriorating, and we were momentarily glad that the engine had failed earlier on our journey, rather than now. Cars and lorries sat stranded on the roadside, their occupants huddled in thick coats, as we struggled to the peak, and down the other side to safety.
Towards the valley we rode, relived that the vehicle had survived the ordeal, but still unsure about the driver. The light was fading rapidly as the valley came into sight – a wide, bleak expanse of tundra-like, patchy grassland. The driver stopped on the side of the road and pointed at the petrol gauge, which was very low. Our concerns about him were proved right when he demanded money for petrol, which, again, we refused. When we asked how close we were to Sary Tash, he pointed behind us – it was clear that he had driven through the village and into the middle of nowhere in order to extort more money from us. Now thoroughly enraged, Helen shouted at him until he – laughing like a naughty schoolchild caught out – turned the car around and took us back to the village
After a further altercation about the whereabouts of the guesthouse where we were staying, we eventually found ourselves dumped unceremoniously on the doorstep of the tumbledown wooden structure of the Aida Guesthouse. It was dark now, and only a handful of lights twinkled in this sprawling, bleak collection of low-rise concrete and wood houses. We were tired, hungry, and wound up by the unscrupulous driver, and dreaded what lay within the walls of this shabby-looking house.
Knocking on the door, a young woman in her thirties answered the door, her warm smile and endearingly iffy English immediately lighting up our darkened hearts. Another woman of a similar age scuttled up behind us and welcomed us in. We dumped our bags in the simple but relatively clean and warm room that would be our home for the night, and asked about food.
“No food. Too late, I am very sorry” replied one of the women, before turning and speaking briefly to the other woman and their father, whose bright gold teeth glinted in his wrinkled face despite the lack of light for miles around.
“One chaikhana,” she said, as she gestured down the dark road. “My father take you.”
Touched by this unexpected kindness, we hopped into the car and the father drove us up the road to a little café whose dim lights still shone, diffused, through the net curtains in the window. We each ate a large bowl of noodle and vegetable soup, very quickly and with full, slurping relish, before returning to the guesthouse and an early bed.
The following morning, we packed and left the guesthouse early. At the nearby petrol station was the junction of three roads: one down the Pamir highway to Tajikistan; one north-west over the mountains to Osh; and one east to Irkeshtam. We waited patiently for the trucks – our only option for the onward leg of our journey – to begin rumbling past. The chilly wind blew across our huddled bodies on the roadside, and we surveyed the miserable-looking village of Sary Tash by the cold light of day. Wires hung across the place, with ragged plastic and rope ensnared on them like the stranded relics of torn fishing nets. They flapped limply in the strong wind that whipped across the lonely village and over the corrugated iron roofs of the buildings
We had waited for only around half an hour before a convoy of four Tajik lorries came past, and we waved them down. The foremost truck driver beckoned us on board, and we struggled to lift our bags into the high cab. A slender, bony face and deep green eyes greeted us with a silent but friendly smile. The Tajik language, ethnicity and culture is distinct from the rest of Central Asia, being more closely related to Persian than their Turkic cousins to the north. With only a few common words between us, our journey involved little conversation, but the occasional gesture or chuckle at stray sheep in the road or the recklessness of another driver, helped us all pass the time comfortably.
An hour into the long road to Irkeshtam, we climbed gradually towards a snowy plateau, where half the road remained submerged under several feet of compacted, icy snow. Ahead of us, a driver coming in the opposite direction had fallen foul of these treacherous conditions, and had become stuck. Waiting patiently for the vehicle to be removed, we sat in the cab, occasionally clambering out for a short walk on the grey, slushy tarmac.
The driver finally dropped us at the dusty Kyrgyz border in the late afternoon with a friendly wave goodbye. We were on our own again, and we carried our bags past a shanty village of caravans, trailers and makeshift shops – even one caravan claiming to be an internet café. We passed through this land of limbo, created by the black line drawn across a map, and headed towards the border control. Easily passing through the Kyrgyz side, a border guard waved down a couple of Kyrgyz trucks who took us separately to the Chinese border post, seven kilometres further east.
We entered the empty border control hall and scanned, with fear, the reams of Chinese words plastered everywhere. We suddenly felt very foreign and confused. How on Earth would we cope here, unable to read and barely able to speak more than a few words of their language? Our hearts pounded, as a senior border officer strode up to us and fixed us with a hard stare. He opened his mouth, and we expected a torrent of authoritarian-sounding Mandarin to splash out at us.
“Hi guys, how are you?” was his softly-spoken greeting. We gave out a little collective sigh of relief, tinged with a touch of surprise at his excellent English and friendly demeanour. But we were not let off the hook:
“I am sorry, you cannot cross the border today. You must sleep here tonight and cross tomorrow morning.”
Our hearts sank. The Chinese customs control was 160 kilometres away, and there was no way we could get there and out the other side before it closed to foot passengers. The officer assured us that there was a cheap guesthouse a few minutes' walk into the 'no-man's land', and he offered to take us there. It transpired that he was Uighur – the native Turkic ethnic group of the Xinjiang province – and the owner of the guesthouse was in fact Kyrgyz. We hurled our bags onto our backs once again and trudged to the guesthouse.
The place was damp and dingy, with flakes of paint peeling from the ceiling and a dozen or so bunk beds crammed into the tiny bedroom. However, we were too tired to care, and slumped onto the two least dirty-looking beds
We prepared ourselves for bed, and were on the cusp of drifting off when a commotion erupted at the doorway. A border guard sternly pointed at the empty beds, and the owner went into a flurry of activity, dividing out bedding and plumping pillows, sweeping our bags aside to make space for a gaggle of eight or nine Chinese people. They burst in with all the gentleness of a brick through a window, chatting noisily and attempting to work the dusty television in the corner of the room despite seeing us getting into bed. Using the universal language of waving the hands and shaking the head, Helen gently reminded them that it is often tricky to sleep with a TV blaring into one's ears, and, thankfully, they desisted, decamping into the kitchen of the house where a television was already on.
We drifted to sleep slowly, and their return to the room en masse was not much of a disturbance. However, as they themselves began to sleep, a symphony erupted. At least five of them snored through the night, each rising and waning in intensity in such a co-ordinated way that at all times at least one person was shaking the foundations of the rickety building with the rasping vibrations from their nasal passages
Needless to say, sleep for ourselves was generally not forthcoming, and we rose the following morning feeling truly terrible. We packed and darted out of the guesthouse to meet the first trucks to make it across from Kyrgyzstan, one of which we hoped would carry us the rest of the way to the Chinese customs post. We had foolishly left our Chinese guidebook with our Tajik driver the previous day, and we camped out for an hour or two in the hope that he might come past, but he had not arrived by the time we were instructed to move on.
The Uighur border guard was working again, and he had a word with a fellow Uighur trucker headed for Kashgar, and we piled on board our third truck in two days. Again, language connections were minimal, but he and we knew a few nuggets of Russian. We drove confidently off in the direction of the customs post, sitting high up in the cab and surveying the dramatic, desert-like cliffs and mountains through which we rumbled. The Kyrgyz herds of sheep and cattle waned, and even a number of camels stood by as we ploughed through the westernmost extremities of China.
Stopping for lunch at a small village chaikhana, we sat in the dusty back room and were offered a choice of laghman or laghman
We jumped into the truck and continued for several hours to a large, shiny monolith that transpired was the customs post – at last. As we hopped off, the driver assured us that he would take us the rest of the way to Kashgar, for which we thanked him profusely as we headed for the pedestrian entrance.
The cavernous hall was close to empty, much like the border post itself, but the squeaky-clean floors and walls, expensive equipment and sharply-dressed staff all suggested that this was a relatively new building. Ahead of us was a gaggle of Uighur men being hassled over a rather dubious-looking unmarked bag of chewing tobacco. The guards searched each of their bags meticulously – every pocket, every zip, every piece of clothing and food. We feared a several-hour ordeal with our own tightly-packed bags. However, the flashy newness of the building dealt a lucky card, as a camera crew making some kind of documentary or propaganda video requested that we went forward to the stamping booth without a bag search. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, as our passports were stamped and we were, finally, in China.
But the journey was not yet over, and just as the heavens began to open, we hopped back into our truck and continued through the rain towards Kashgar. We passed Uighur villages, and factories seemingly dumped in the middle of nowhere, as we descended from the mountains towards the city, teetering on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The early evening finally saw us arrive in Kashgar, and the driver dropped us by the side of a large trunk road in the outskirts. Saying warm goodbyes and thank-yous, we jumped out of the cab and wondered how we would get to the centre.
Our plan was to flag down a taxi, having written in our best Mandarin the name and address of the hostel where we would stay. However, every taxi driver was Uighur, whose language is written in Arabic script, and could read neither the Mandarin nor the Latin equivalent. We had no idea what to do but walk towards the centre and hope that we could find someone to help us. A mile or so along the long, straight road, we were beginning to tire from the hard journey that we had undertaken, and were close to losing hope, when we spotted a Uighur café ahead with a few English words in the sign otherwise crammed with Uighir - “Coffee, tea, food”. It was an oasis, and, re-energised, we sped towards it and asked in shaky Kyrgyz (the closest language we could use, since our guide book had gone missing) if they spoke English.
After completely bemusing most of the staff, the manager was eventually ushered to us, and his English was just about good enough to get us into a taxi towards the hostel. The driver took us through the bustling streets, full of noise, energy and drama. In many respects, it was reminiscent of many of the Uzbek or Kyrgyz cities through which we had passed, but the Chinese and Arabic characters that flooded the streets made the place feel distinctly different and unusual. After a confused telephone call from the taxi driver to the hostel, we were dropped at the hostel's door and wearily trudged inside. We had left Louis' cosy little flat in Osh, and around forty-five hours, two taxis, and three trucks later, here we were, at last.