The ride from Osh
From the central bus station, near the central bazaar, I found a driver (shared taxi) to go straight to Irkenshtam. I got a deal for 1000 soms. But the car broke down just outside of Osh, so I eventually hitch hiked to Sary Tash (tipping 200 soms).
Anyhow, I seriously doubt about those cars that guesthouses and agencies arrange for you for 200 US dollars! So it’s worth trying your luck at the bus station to get a shared taxi!
From Sary Tash, I got a ride from local people for 500 soms to Sary Tash. Again, the amount they first ask for is outrageous, but you got to haggle hard!
IMPORTANT TIP: get some Yuans in Osh. At least 500, you will need them for the shuttle (150) and the last taxi ride (100) to Kashgar, if for the overnight at the border (20) and then food and drinks.
Crossing the border
First of all, you must keep in mind that the border is CLOSED at nights and weekends, on a few public holidays.
So ideally, you have to cross from Monday to Thursday (avoid Fridays, because any delay or unexpected trouble, and you’re stuck for the weekend!) from 9am to 5pm.
To reach the border before 2/3pm you must leave Osh no later than 10am (with a fast car, or 9am with a slower one!), and Sary Tash no later than 2pm. Later than 2pm, overnight in Sary Tash, and leave the next morning to avoid having to find accommodation in Nura or Irkenshtam!
Now there’s another important thing!
When I crossed the border, around 4pm, the officers wouldn’t let me get a ride on a lorry. They wanted me to get on the official shuttle bus from the Irkenshtam (old) border to new border post in Ulugqat, 140km away. This shuttle bus is only once a day at 11am (Kyrgyzstan time, which is also the unofficial time in Xinjiang). This means I had to overnight at the border. They showed me a ‘hotel’ in the barracks that seemed to be the only accommodation for both travellers and staff. No shower, no toilet, and the whole area is a shit hole. They only charge 20 Yuan though.
The ride to Kashgar
If you are luckier than me, you can probably get a ride from one of the many lorries, in a continuous flow from opening to closing.
They forced me to take the shuttle at 11am, for 150 Yuan.
Because the road was under construction, it took us almost 3 hours to get to the NEW border post in Ulugqat. It was probably a lot faster and comfortable on the bus than on a lorry though…
Then from the NEW border post, you have to share a taxi to Kashgar (100 Yuan, 90km, 2 hours approx)
So the thing about the border and the road
When I crossed, the road between the KG border and the CN border was a dirt track, but no construction seemed to be on the way. On the CN side, there is a border post at the highest point of the pass. It looks totally abandoned and insanely run down.
The Chinese are building a new road from this point to a new border post in Ulugqat. This new post is already in operation. So are they going to keep the old one when the new road opens? I don’t have the answer, but I think they will because there are inhabited village between the two, and those people can’t realistically be living in a free zone. Or can they?
Today the situation is as follows: there is a full border check at the old border, including bag search, questioning, passport control and intrusive digital picture browsing of your camera and computer. Then, they do it all over again at the new border, and only there do they STAMP your passport.
So if like me you do have to overnight at the border post — which I don’t really recommend, but in the end it’s quite an epic experience — it won’t waste a night off your Chinese visa, it’s just the free zone.