Going to Irkenshtam, enjoying a friendly conversation in Russian, and a nice beer

Kyrgyzstan From Bishkek to Kashgar, an Epic Journey to Get Into China

After finishing editing the Labrys interview and sending the file to my friends at Homolab, I was at last ready to leave Bishkek. On top of the first week when I entered Kyrgyzstan, I had just spent another two weeks in the capital. Enough! I’d had a good time and was happy with the work I’d done, but a fortnight at the Sakura guest house, I had enough! Besides, the nights were getting cold and the days shorter. It was as if the changing weather was urging me to move on.

Goodbye Bishkek

In the morning of the Wednesday, I got up early to get to the main bus station. Before leaving the guesthouse I had the chance to say goodbye to the few people I’d met there: Pete and Mary from Guersney, Jean from France, and a bunch of other lovely people. And the Japanese biker, who I nicknamed Snorty for his loud and repeated sniff, who’d stayed more than a month and a half to recover from a bike accident that broke him two ribs… I would not miss that guy and his disgusting habit.

I got to the bus station at 9am, hoping to find a shared taxi for a 12-hour ride to Osh. I found one. But I was first. This meant I would have to wait for it to fill up before we could leave. That’s the rule. I knew it. I waited… Until 2pm! With only 4 people on board, we left. We stop again many times, to pick up two kids, collect or deliver bags and packages… For another hour we drove around the city, and we eventually took the direction of Osh around 3 o’clock.

The straight and flat road heads west then turns south through the wide plain of Bishkek. After an hour, it suddenly enters a valley meandering through very steep mountains. We passed many herds of sheep, horses and cows coming down the mountain: summer was finished. The road then goes straight up to a pass at 3500m which opens to a vast plateau on the other side inhabited by a few nomads in yurts. Sheep and horses were grazing freely. They hadn’t left yet, but it wouldn’t be long before they would follow those we’d seen on the road.

The sun was going down, and by the time we reached the big lake of Toktogul dusk had fallen. In the car, the local dance music was very loud, and the driver was playing its favourite four on a loop, which was starting to get on my nerves. It was dark, I couldn’t read, had enough of playing Angry Birds and needed to save my battery to find my way to the guesthouse once in Osh. I tried to get some sleep. With this irritating music, impossible!

The road was long. A few hours later, the playlist of the same four songs was turning to pure torture. We finally arrived in Osh at one in the morning, and the taxi dropped me off not far from the guesthouse.

One night in Osh

I found the Osh guesthouse rather easily thanks to the Lonely Planet’s directions, and despite the unlit and dodgy car park I had to cross: unpaved, dusty, lots of sign or safety poles sticking out… walking through it was treacherous… The guesthouse is in an apartment block, it’s just a flat basically. Third entrance on the left, top floor, the door was open. Everyone was asleep. In the darkness, I could make out some one was sleeping on the kitchen floor, another one on the couch of the central room. The ‘bedrooms’ were all busy and very crowded… I peed, brushed my teeth in the dark silence, pulled out a shyrdak (mattress) from a pile, and slept in my sleeping bag on the floor of the central room.

At 7.30, I was woken up by the noise of people chatting in the next room. The girl who’d slept in the couch got up and went to the bathroom. I realized there was no staff, no one was up. I put away the shyrdak back on the pile, and I sneaked out just as I’d sneaked in… Not showered, smelly, scruffy face and hair, I started walking the busy streets of Osh.

It suddenly came to my mind today was Thursday. The border would be closed on the weekend, and I had no time to loose. I had to find a way to get there by Friday morning for the latest, or I would be stuck.

The bus stop outside the guesthouse was really busy with school children in their uniform and people going to work. The passing buses were already packed. It would be impossible for me to get on one with my big rucksack. I started walking and caught a mashrutka further down to get to the central bazaar, which is also the city’s transport hub.

Feeling shattered and not properly awake, loaded with my heavy bag, struggling to find a shared taxi to Irkenshtam would put my nerves to a test… I really needed a coffee, but impossible to find one around here. I walked around the bazaar area for a bit, and I was lucky enough to find a driver quickly. A short negotiation over my phone’s calculator, and I got the incredible deal of 1000 soms for the ride (20 euros). So unbelievable that it seemed suspicious. Anyway, the deal was agreed.

Hurrying out of Osh

It was already 9 o’clock. The driver took me to the car that was being washed. Here again, I seemed to be the first passenger arrived. I feared it would be long before the car would fill up and we could set off. So, talking with signs to the driver I made clear I had to get to the border by 2pm, and that he had to guarantee me I could cross the border. He confirmed there was no problem.

I had not expected to be able to get to China so quickly when I left Bishkek. I thought I would have to overnight again in Sary Tash, the last town before the border. But then suddenly I was picturing myself in China by the end of the day!

I had the time to get some food from the market, and I was well inspired to change some Kyrgyzh Soms for Chinese Yuans…

When I got back to the car-wash, the driver was waiting for me and told me we were ready to go. But no other passenger had showed up… just a guy who seemed to be a friend. Strange… really odd. A car to Irkenshtam for myself, for only 1000 soms… I started doubting…

We left. We first stopped at a garage to have the car checked with some sort of electronic device that the mechanic plugged in the dashboard. After a few checks dialling on his device, the driver smiled at me as if saying all was right and we were good to go. The car was a recent Honda that looked just fine, and I didn’t think there was any reason to be worried… Last stop at the petrol station to refill, and off we went.

But still no other passenger…Really, 1000 soms, just me…? I started getting the money out of my pocket thinking I should pay before, just to avoid the confusion and possible argument. What if there was a missing ’0′? 10000 soms is usually the price tourists are asked to pay for one car going to Irkenshtam… But then I thought I shouldn’t give him the money straight away. I should wait. My mind wasn’t at rest, but I decided not to pay now.

Amateur mechanics

Outside of town, we made yet another stop. The two guys bought loads of fruits and vegetable from a roadside stall, and the driver told me it was for home… fair enough… And we hit the road again.

We were slowed down by again many herds, each occupying the full width of the road. When passing one herd, driving slowly on the gravel by the side of the road, I suddenly heard a loud bang. The car instantly tilt down on the right front side, to a complete stop. I could picture what happened…. the axle had broken… What if this had happened when we were speeding?! Spooky!

Ouch. We were safe, but I felt sorry for the driver… He phoned a friend to explain the situation, and the other guy got a jack from the trunk and started removing the wheel. I watched them for a while, but it was clear they weren’t going to fix the car just by phoning a friend… It was badly fucked to say the least… The driver told me to hitch hike get a ride. Which I did. By the same occasion, the money issue was sorted out…

A few cars stopped, but none of them were going as far as Sary Tash. The others were full. Eventually a pickup truck stopped and picked me up… The driver was going to Sary Tash. Perfect! I waived goodbye to the ill-fated boys…

My new driver and I exchanged a few words as far as we could understand each other… we didn’t go far and, again, the usual mix of (s)hit music was pouring out the speakers. I dozed off the rest of the way…

The highest pass opens to a road going downhill to Sary Tash, revealing an unbelievable scenery: Sary Tash just there, a vast and desert plain, and the gigantic ice-capped peaks of the Pamir range looming in the background… Absolutely stunning.

We arrived in Sary Tash. Back to practicality, it was almost 2pm and, slightly disappointed, I thought it was too late to make my way further to Irkenshtam. The driver dropped me off at the entrance of the village, he would have lunch at a roadside eatery and signed me to walk to the centre. I got off the van, and thanked him with a 200 soms tip that would pay for his lunch, a good one. The village is very small. I reached the centre in few minutes, where the road splits into two. One road goes to Irkenshtam 70km away and the other goes to Tajikistan through the Pamir. There’s not a lot of traffic here apart from the lorries transiting from/to China, and the occasional backpackers. There are no less than 3 guesthouses to accommodate drivers and travellers short of time to reach the border. I thought I would have to overnight here.

A bunch of guys outside a bar (they apparently had a few drinks) welcomed me, and a sign discussion started. They wanted to give me a ride to the border but wanted 2000 soms. I answered that my maximum was 400 soms, but they refused. I told them I would sleep here and go to the border the next day, and said goodbye. Just a few minutes later they came back to offering the ride for 500 soms. Again, it was just me. No other traveller to share the ride. I asked them if I would have time to cross the border and won’t get stuck, which they confirmed. We had a deal. I threw my bag at the back of the pickup truck, the driver got on board, and the other guy went to fetch… beers! We set off, and opened the beers. The driver wasn’t drinking though.

The way to hell

We had a little chat in Russian (few words, really, but I was really trying this time) while driving on the long and winding road across the steppe. On the right, the Pamir range was standing in the background like a giant white wall. After an hour, we reached the first border control, 10km before the actual exit border post of Kyrgyzstan. My companions could not pass the control, so the guard put me on board the next lorry going to China. Again the small chat with the driver, the picture, and I was dropped off at the exit border post. This was Irkenshtam. A parking lot, a few buildings and the border post. Passport check, exit stamp, another truck ride to get to the distant Chinese entry point.

My excitement was growing bigger. We drove across another desolated steppe. The road, which was good so far was now a dirt track. The landscape had lost its beauty. The place was grim and gloomy but remained somewhat fascinating. There I remembered Dante’s journey down to the darkness. When reading Inferno, it’s exactly the kind of landscape I had in mind. Well, from that lorry I had no idea how close to hell this part of my trip would get…

The lorry reached the long line of lorries waiting to get to the border. I got off, thanked the driver, and walked the remaining couple of kilometres.

Middle of nowhere

The queue would move much. Any truck going the other way would raise a cloud of thick dust. I reached the border the Chinese officers seemed nice and welcoming. While one of them was checking my passport, another one asked me the open my bag, show my camera, books, and computer. He looked at my books: Mrs Daloway, Nicolas Bouvier or Lony Planet’s Central Asia did not provoke any reaction. He looked through the pictures of my camera, ignored my phone as a potential camera, and asked me to show the pictures on my laptop, which were the same as in my camera. That was it! No extensive search through the bag, no further question. Then came the bad news: “Stay here tonight, shuttle bus to last border control tomorrow.” What? Wait, no! There is still time, I can hitch from here now? “No, road too dangerous, truck accident again yesterday.” Argh, no! Sleeping here, in the middle of nowhere?! They held my passport and would only give it back to me on the next day on the shuttle… damn! I was doomed to stay!

He took me to the ‘hotel’. Some sort of barracks, just outside the border post were the ‘staff’ seemed to live. Not only was this the end of the world, but the place was apocalyptic: nature was regaining its rights, struggling to grow anything among the piles of litter and gruelling buildings. The square outside the post wasn’t looking anything like the picture I’d seen inside on the wall. It was proudly showing the place new and pretty neat, with cars, buses and people on the square… well this was before the apocalypse… long before I got there!

This place was so unreal, so incredibly far from anything I know. Not only the place was isolated, but I was incapable of any communication with the few people around. This was such a special moment that I had a strange feeling of euphoria.

Nightmares

Hotel then… a large room with bunk beds all around. A small window, a TV on a table with a few plastic flowers and other kitsch décor. This was the only sign I was in China, or close to it anyway. Compared to what was outside, this room was a safe heaven of cleanliness… I went back out for an evening stroll. the sun was going down, the border was closing. Many lorries were queueing on this side of the border to exit China on the next morning. There was dust everywhere, stray dogs roaming among the ruins. The officer had pointed to a shop and a restaurant. The latter was just a sinister room looking so filthy I was petrified at the idea of even touching anything there. Litter everywhere, this place was a real garbage dump. What seems to have once been the public toilet was sealed, and a roofless precinct seemed to be the new toilet… Hell yes… the smell, the sight of it was unbelievable.

 

It was getting late, and cold. The elevation here is 3000m, and with the shorter days it would be dark and freezing before 8pm. I was so tired anyway. All those rides and all those kilometres in just two days, it went all so fast… I needed some rest. I went straight to bed, hoping what I’d witnessed during my stroll would not give me nightmares!

I’d set my phone time to Beijing time, GMT+8, the official time for the whole of China, but here in Xinjiang, the people hear it a different way: they like to live according to central Asia’s time (GMT+6). So I got up at 10am Beijing time, 8am ‘local’ time. The border was to open at 9am local time, and the shuttle was expected at 11am. No toilet, no shower, no touching anything. I saluted the few people (drivers… who else?) having tea in the front room next to the dormitory where I slept, alone. Those guys slept in their trucks, but just came in for hot tea. I walked the few hundred metres to the square to wait for the opening, and the shuttle. The same officer as the day before greeted me nicely and offered a chocolate bar. He was very friendly indeed. He invited me to sit down in the main room to wait. An American guy showed up. Kyle. He had slept in Sary Tash and made it to the border at 10am, right on time for the shuttle. He was searched more thoroughly, and the officers were acting more suspiciously with him than with me… “Special American treatment”, Kyle remarked with a hint of paranoia and bitter irony.

Off to Kashgar

A few other people later arrived from Kyrgyzstan. About ten of us got on board the shuttle when it finally turned up. We were asked 150 yuans each, which seemed quite a lot. We were given our passport back, at last. And off we went. Once out of this dump, the road was actually under construction. They were actually upgrading the old road to a broader one, probably faster and safer for the numerous trucks. We ran 140 km down the valley alternatively on the old road, a dirt track, and the not yet paved new road. Three hours later we eventually reached the last border control at Ulugqat.

There we did it all over again… passport control, camera inspection and bag search. This time I was asked to open my rucksack, but at the sight of the mess, the officer signed me to fold everything back in and go. Passport again, visa check, stamp, and then again baggage scanner!

Only four of us travellers remained outside the border post after all this. It was already 6pm and we still had to cover a fair distance by taxi to reach Kashgar… but this would be the last ride. There was only one ‘taxi’ outside, and we didn’t have the choice but to accept the 100 yuan deal per person to share the ride. It turned out to be a reasonable price, as there was still another 90km to go.

We finally made it around 8pm in Kashgar. It’s a big central Asian city with a slight Chinese flavour. It’s vibrant and bustling with electric scooters bursting everywhere. Kyle and I decided to go to the same Youth Hostel. And the three day ordeal ended here…

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