The Irkeshtam Pass to China

It’s pouring rain as we are walking to the marshrutka standing. For most of our time in Osh it has been 30+ degrees but yesterday the weather started to change and temperature dropped to a chilly 17 degrees. Maybe winter is coming. Today we travel to Sary Tash, one of the last towns before the border. From there we plan to hitchhike the last 90 km’s over the Irkeshtam pass to the border. We were told it should be no problem to get on one of the Chinese trucks that pass by.

The route to Sary Tash is beautiful. Even in the non-stop downpour we can see that. We drive through canyons and cross two mountain passes. On our way up we run into several herds of sheep, cows and horses that are brought down from the mountains. Another sign that winter is coming. Just before the last pass it starts to snow. A man jumps in front of our bus. Does he maybe want to warn us not to cross the pass? No, he’s just drunk. The snow comes down in big flocks as we climb the Taldyk pass which is at 3800 meter. The marshrutka has trouble getting up but we manage.

Sary Tash on arrival

Sary Tash on arrival

Then we are in Sary Tash all at a sudden. It’s snowing heavily and we try the first guesthouse we come across. An old man without teeth opens the door and enthusiastic points us our room. As in most home stays our beds are made of a pile of shyrdaks, the typical Kyrgyz mattress. A bit hard to sleep on but in combination with our own air mattresses they are quite comfortable. There’s a nice atmosphere in the guesthouse with some Spanish cyclists and a German one too. We decide to finish our stay in Kyrgyzstan in style, having some vodka and beer with Torsten, the German guy.

Still no truck...

Still no truck…

The next morning we have to get up early. It’s 5 in the morning as the alarm clock goes off. We were told to start hitchhiking between 5 and 6 because that’s when the trucks come by. It’s pitch black outside and theres no sign of life, let alone traffic, at all. We wait another 30 minutes. Still dark. But we don’t want to be miss our lift so to we decide to go out after all. It’s freezing cold as we stand at the gas station. Here the Chinese trucks are supposed to come by. Nothing happens. Maybe we got the wrong information? Then we hear a truck coming. As it approaches we hopefully put our thumbs up but it doesn’t stop. Hmm… this is going to be harder than we thought. Another half an hour passes by, it’s getting light now. But nothing happens. One hour has gone by and we’ve seen only this one truck come by. Just as our toes are starting to freeze off there’s a car. And it stops! In the car two big Kyrgyz guys in camouflage army jackets. I guess they are border officials. “Irkeshtam?” “China?” Yes! We got ourselves a lift! We leave Sary Tash behind and drive into the open Alay Valley that is surrounded by white mountain peaks. Sary Tash is already at 3500 meters, the peaks must be over 5000 meters. Everything is covered in snow. Then the rising sun spreads an orange light across the mountain range in front of us. It’s a breathtaking scenery, one of the most beautiful winter landscapes I’ve ever seen. We are the only car on what looks like a fairly new build road that winds through the middle of the valley. It’s a bit unreal. We keep taking pictures out of the window but none of them can capture what we see.

One of the last persistent yurt camps

One of the last persistent yurt camps

The snow-covered road over the Irkeshtam pass

The snow-covered road over the Irkeshtam pass

We climb further up the Irkeshtam pass and the road is now partly covered in snow too. We pass a couple of trucks. After a while we get to the first checkpoint. A small red cabin in the middle of nowhere. Guarded by a soldier with a machine-gun. We walk up the stairs that are made of old tires and show our passports. Another couple of km’s further we see a huge line of trucks waiting. Now it starts to make sense why there wasn’t any truck passing by in Sary Tash. The border is closed on weekends and as it’s Monday today they had all weekend to gather at the border.

Plenty of trucks at the border

Plenty of trucks at the border

Some of the trucks are blocking the road. But our army guys order the truck drivers to make way and deliver us at the first passport control. I want to give one of the guys some money but he refuses. Ok. Thanks a lot! We were lucky with these guys, much better than a Chinese truck. The border procedure at the Kyrgyz side is pretty easy. We swiftly move from one checkpoint to another, get ourselves stamped out of the country and a border employee gets us on a Chinese truck that takes us through the 7 km of no-man’s-land to the Chinese side. It’s 8:45 now. So far so good.

A friendly Uygur driver took us through no-man's-land

A friendly Uygur driver took us through no-man’s-land

At the Chinese border we have to get off the truck and walk to the building. There’s about six uniformed border officials standing in line. All wearing long winter jackets. They seem young, more like a group of boy scouts. One tall guy looks a bit older. I guess he’s the chief. We are directed inside the building. There’s an Irish guy with a bike already waiting. No other tourists. After a while the chief collects our passports and we have to sit and wait. And wait. Totally unclear what’s going to happen next. Apparently we now have to take a taxi from here to the new border checkpoint in Ulugqat, which is about 140 km further inland. It’s not allowed to hitchhike on one of the trucks. Nor cycle. Chinese rules. But there’s no taxi. So now what? As we sit and wait a bus shows up outside the building. It’s the Chinese sleeper bus that runs between Osh and Kashgar. Since the Chinese border officials don’t take any initiative on what to do next it seems we have to organize ourselves out of here. And it looks like the bus is our only option. So Carina asks if we can come along; we can get on the bus all the way to Kashgar for 200 yuan per person (about €25). Still a good deal compared to the full price from Osh to Kashgar which is $85. We just have to wait for all the passengers to be finished with the luggage check. They strangely never checked our luggage though.

No snow at the Chinese side but the scenery remains continuously beautiful

No snow at the Chinese side but the scenery remains continuously beautiful

Around noon the bus finally leaves. More stunning scenery at the Chinese side. We are warm and comfortable in the bus as it slowly goes down. One time on the new road, then again over an old dirt road full of potholes. The Chinese are completing a brand new highway all the way from Kashgar and it seems they are doing a solid job. The new border checkpoint in Ulugqat feels more like an airport terminal than a land border crossing. Chinese go to the left, foreigners to the right. Passport and visa check first, then the luggage through the x-ray machine and we’re ready to go. Although, that’s how it looks like. But first we have to sit down and wait. The giggling border officials welcome us with some sort of cupcakes. Don’t know exactly what’s the occasion but it could be because of the Happy Moon Festival. It’s funny, specially when they start to take pictures. The whole situation is a bit awkward. Being at the Chinese border which seems quite a serious place (no pictures!), waiting to finally get stamped into China and then the officials clumsily start taking pictures with their smartphones while other officials are handing out the cupcakes.

On the sleeper bus to Kashgar

On the sleeper bus to Kashgar

But as soon as the cupcake event is finished they are back in their roles, pointing us where to stand in line and correcting us as we don’t keep enough distance from the desk. We better follow their orders to avoid further delay. As I finally have my passport back I think I’m free to go. But no. After the x-ray a border official is collecting the passports again. Because we still have to make a group photo!!! Crazy. This must be one of the funniest border checkpoints I have ever experienced. But we’re in! Only 2 hours more to Kashgar.

This entry was posted in China, Kyrgyzstan.

4 Comments

  1. Barna October 2, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    Thnx voor de super coole video, ik geniet veel van jullie avonturen.
    Liep een beetje achter door onze vakantie, maar ben weer helemaal up to date.

    Enjoy jullie super vette avontuur.

    Dikke kus♥♥ v jullie avonturiers

  2. Christina February 19, 2014 at 8:10 pm #

    Hi!
    Great read about your experience!
    I was wondering if the border will be open during Oct / Nov ? Or will it be closed due to weather conditions?
    Thanks!

    • Domingo March 11, 2014 at 12:08 am #

      Hi Christina,

      Thanks! I guess the border will be open year around since it’s an important transport route between China and the Stans. But in Oct/Nov there will for sure be more snow so I’m not sure how they deal with that. You will have to check/ask locally. Or maybe post your question on the Lonely Planet forum?

      But anyway it will be great to take this route. Specially when it has been snowing. Such a wonderful scenery! 🙂

  3. Shawn Michaels January 17, 2017 at 6:55 pm #

    Such a nice post. I really feel so amazing reading your experience. You must had so much fun.

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