After clearing Chinese immigration at Ulugchat

On the road to the border

If you reach this fork in the road you are on the wrong road

Desert surroundings with the mountains in the background

Road construction in the middle of nowhere

Camel transport along the road

Climbing up a mountain pass

Deserted old border town

Post-apocalyptic border town

Border wasteland

Old Chinese immigration building at the border

Inside a Chinese transport truck across no man's land

Truck convoys in no man's land between China and Kyrgyzstan

Last point in China

Photo opportunity during a cigarette break in the midst of a blinding snowstorm at 3600 meters

Mountain pass in the fog and snow

Taxi mafia across the Kyrgyz border

The narrow chasm of a road up the mountain pass

Sary-Tash, Kyrgyzstan

Crossing into Kyrgyzstan

May 7, 2012

Well I'm running down the road trying to loosen my load

Got a world of trouble on my mind

- Eagles

If traveling in China wasn’t easy then leaving China certainly wouldn’t be easy. Being determined to avoid paying the extortionate rates that China wanted for a 20 plus hour journey in a filthy bus only made it more complicated.

The journey to Kyrgyzstan started with a taxi ride to the Kashgar bus station at 8am with a British guy and two Japanese travelers. There we were fortunate enough to find a shared van to take us to Ulugchat, the new site of Chinese immigration. For some reason the Chinese government had decided to move the location of its immigration control office from the actual border to Ulugchat, some 180 km away from the actual border. After figuring out where this office was we took a taxi there passing by a newly built four lane road lined with limbless birch trees that will possibly look nice in 10 years.

At the immigration office we had to wait about 45 minutes for the Internet connection to be restored so they could process our passports. Fortunately, while we waited, we met a Scottish guy who had paid for a minivan to take him to the Kyrgyz border and he just happened to have 4 empty seats in the van. After some negotiating with the driver and guide they let us ride with them for 100 RMB each. Once the Internet was restored we got our passports stamped and were on our way.

Not long after leaving Ulugchat the paved road ended and we were stuck with a rocky dirt track that was sometimes, but not always, adequately marked. The scenery along much of this route was through a dry canyon with walls colored from red to gray. All along the way we could see roadwork being done to hopefully someday pave this stretch of road, but from the looks of it this was obviously a long way off. In the distance behind the dry desert landscape we could see the snowcapped mountains looming above landscape. Our driver was in a rush, as he had to pick someone up at the border before going back to Kashgar, so he was driving like a madman around these ragged roads. At one point we came to a fork in the road and neither option looked acceptable so he got out of the car to scout out the options before realizing that we had lost our way a kilometer or so back. Further on the road we were flying down the road and crested a hill when the road immediately branched into two diverging paths. Our driver was faced with a split second decision and he seemed to realize about a second too late that we needed to go left instead of right. Luckily he decided not to jerk the wheel over at the last minute or else our car probably would have rolled over.

Somewhere in between Ulugchat and the actual border we passed a security checkpoint where our passports were checked and the numbers recorded in paper logbooks, no Internet failures here. Finally after about 3 and a half hours on this road we reached the Chinese side of the border. Since Chinese immigration has moved to a new location this border town has all but disintegrated into a vision of post-apocalyptic civilization. The row of shops and restaurants that once lined the main street were all abandoned, trash is strewn everywhere, and there was a lone cow wandering around untethered. Due to our timing we managed to arrive about 45 minutes before the office was scheduled to re-open from the lunch break. We managed to find one open store, which sold some drinks and packaged foods along with other relics that were covered in dust. Almost right on schedule ten Chinese soldiers marched out of one building right into the next one to open the final Chinese checkpoint before the Kyrgyz border.

At this point it was the four of us plus the Scottish guy, since his driver and guide had picked up their passenger and departed back to Kashgar. We had our passport numbers recorded one more time, just to make sure you wouldn’t elope into this desolate wasteland and cause some sort of mischief. Past this checkpoint was 7 kilometers of a virtual no man’s land; in this zone you can’t go back to China and you aren’t officially in Kyrgyzstan yet. Due to some Chinese technicality you are not allowed to be unaccompanied here so each of us were put into whatever vehicles were also waiting to cross the border. We had to ride in these trucks until we reached the Kyrgyz checkpoint at the other end. Here, our passports were checked and numbers recorded, and the guard radioed ahead that there were tourists coming through to the actual immigration office. A few minutes later we reached the office, disembarked from the trucks, and got our passports promptly stamped.

From there it got interesting. Our new Scottish friend said we could ride in his car from the border to Osh, since he had already paid for it and had room. The driver thought otherwise and said he wouldn’t take us. Somehow there was cell phone service in this desolate region and the Scottish guy called the owner of the tour agency to clear things up. Sadly this cleared nothing up as the driver still would not take us. We offered extra money but he still would not drive. We waited in the car trying to negotiate while other taxi drivers swarmed outside our car like sharks. This taxi driver mafia intimidated our driver because if he agreed to let us ride in the car he would be depriving another driver of a good bit of money. Sadly, several phone calls later and offerings of more money resulted in nothing so we gave up and got out of the car.

In this empty border we actually had a few options. One was to find a ride in a truck heading away from the border. This was quickly eliminated when we realized that the Chinese side of the border had already closed so there would be no more traffic coming through. The second was to walk into whatever town might be nearby and stay the night in some miserable hovel. At that point a cold rain started to fall so that didn’t seem plausible anymore. The third was to take a taxi to Osh. With absolutely no negotiating power we ended up paying $25 a person for the four hour ride.

The rain continued to fall as we switched from one car to a bigger car and picked up more passengers. It was the four of us, the driver, his helper, a Kyrgyz soldier, and two other locals. From the border the road climbed steadily upward and the weather steadily deteriorated. The cold rain turned to sleet that then turned to snow as our elevation increased. On top of the precipitation it became increasingly foggy on this winding mountain road. If we could have seen anything out of the windows the scenery would have been great. But with nothing to see out of the windows we had to watch Russian music performances from some 1990s Russian MTV show on the LCD TV screens in the seatbacks. As we neared the top of the final mountain pass Vanilla Ice came on stage and we got to see him perform “Ice, Ice, Baby” in front of a crowd of screaming Russians; something completely random that made all of us smile.

Around this point the road conditions also began to get dodgy. The snow piled on the side of the road began to encroach closer and closer and at one point the road was down to a single narrow lane with the snow banks cut vertically to make room for one vehicle. Not long after that we reached the top of the mountain pass and the driver decided this would be a good time for a cigarette break. Amidst this driving snowstorm we stopped and took the opportunity to pile out of the car and stretch our legs. The snowstorm, fog, and random crowd made this an ideal time for a bizarre photo opportunity.

From that point onward it was all downhill through small towns in the growing darkness. We reached Osh by 9pm after about fourteen hours on the road, $50 poorer but much richer in unique experiences.