Silk Road 7 – Hitchhiking towards China

Crossing the Pamir and Tien Shan ranges that separate China and Kyrgyzstan today was one of the most difficult stages for Silk Road travellers. And it continues to be. 🙂

There are only two border crossings: Irkeshtam and Torugart. For crossing at Torugart you need special permits, a Kyrgyz driver with special permits to take you through the no-man’s land and pre-arranged transportation from the Chinese border to Kashgar, everything to be arranged through a travel agency. A costly nightmare of red tape. Obviously, I chose the Irkeshtam option, despite the greater distance. I wanted to cross before the weekend (on weekends both borders close) to be in Kashgar for the Sunday Market (next post). The only public transport is a very uncomfortable bus going twice per week, but the cheapest and most comfortable option is to hitchhike.

The journey started in the city of Osh. Just after arriving from Bishkek, I started looking for a shared taxi leaving for Sara Tash. It was rather difficult to find one. All the drivers would insist there were no other passangers going, in their – hopeless – effort to make me hire a full car. But finally in a more out-of-the-way stand I found a driver heading for there. It took me more than half an hour to negotiate a fair price, probably the lack of competition pushed the prices higher.

In this trip through mountaineous roads I met Benoît, a French traveller who would travel with me for the next 3 days and share the effort of hitchhiking. And he was experienced: he had come hitchhiking all the way from France.

After a few hours we arrived at Sara Tash, in time for dinner. This is a very small village, spread over the intersection of two important roads: the one that goes to Tajikistan and the one that goes to China. We asked in one of the two “hotels” in town, and agreed to sleep there for the night and have dinner. The place was a family house with a semi-independent big room where they welcome travellers to sleep on the floor with some pillows and bed linen. A hole-in-the-ground toilet was outside with no shower. Later, 4 travellers from Israel, Canada and Poland who were heading for Tajikistan appeared and shared the room with us. Two tents were also laid in the garden by Swiss cyclists.

The village boasts some spectacular views of the mountains that separate this country from China:

The road to China

Our first driver

We decided to skip breakfast and start hitchhiking at 6 am believing that most Chinese trucks would cross early. No truck or car passed through the road to China for the first 40 minutes, and I was really freezing! Suddenly, the first truck appeared and stopped. We got on, and this nice driver took us all the way to the Kyrgyz frontier, for a small fee.

We reached the frontier at 9 am, exactly when it opens. There were many trucks stopped there but nothing seemed to move. I was hoping to find some breakfast or at least a hot drink but none of the houses marked as “bar” seemed to be open. So we continued to the frontier and were particularly welcomed by the guards, being the only travellers who were crossing on foot in such a remote location. We had to wait some time until a truck was inspected and ready for crossing, and the Kyrgyz officers put us into it.

In this second truck we crossed the no-man’s land, a really scenic road where we only saw a couple of trucks.

Trucks follow the scenic route to China

When we reached the Chinese frontier, we entered the immigration post and surprise: the only bus that links Osh to Kashgar twice per week was crossing at the exact same time. Then waiting, waiting, waiting. In total, crossing from the Kyrgyz frontier to the last Chinese immigration post was something like 8 hours. We handed our passports to the officer and had our baggage thoroughly inspected. He took all my clothes one by one, opened all my medicines and stuff and asked me what each thing was. Then he took my books and looked at them, and he started watching the videos in my iPad (in Spanish). Apparently, he didn’t see anything offensive in my belongings, but one of his colleagues noticed my Lonely Planet guidebook. He knew that the map on the first page did not include Taiwan as part of China and therefore he had to tear it out from the book. I tried to convince him to strip only Taiwan (which is not included in the guidebook anyway), but after consultation with his superior, he tore the whole map.

A sign informed that the actual immigration post had moved something like 125 km down the road, and that people crossing on foot should join a truck so as “not to get lost”  and because “truck drivers know the way” 🙂 But the high-ranking Chinese officer ordered us to get into the bus instead. The bus conductor asked for a lot of money to take us to Kashgar (the full fare from Osh to Kashgar, even though we had covered most of it), and we refused. The officer got really angry but in the end he gave in and ordered a cheerful young officer to take us to a truck, while saying “here, no money, no money!”. The trucks were waiting there for ages, but this one immediately got permission to proceed.

Our third truck driver that day told us he was neither Chinese nor Kyrgyz, he was a Uyghur. Except for the last part, the approx 125 km were mostly empty space, just like the no-man’s land, occupied by some of these camels. There was also a checkpoint in between.

When we got to the new immigration post, the same story: waiting, waiting, more waiting, full baggage inspection item by item and, finally, we got our passports stamped and could proceed. It was late-afternoon, and we hadn’t  had breakfast yet. There were no moneychangers, so we had to rely on a few yuan I carried from a previous trip.

There was still an hour or more to Kashgar by car. There was only one taxi driver outside the border, offering his services to us insistently. But we had already come a long way to here, so why not continue hitchhiking?? We walked to what seemed a main road and eventually found a driver who took us to Kashgar for much less than the taxi fare.

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Silk Road 6 – Kyrgyzstan

The first impression when entering Kyrgyzstan is that nothing has changed much: Uzbek people all over Fergana. Actually, boundaries in Central Asia are nonsense. The frontiers were drawn by Stalin when they were not intended to be national bordes. Tajiks inhabit Samarkand in Uzbekistan, while Uzbeks live in Fergana Valley in Kyrgyzstan and so on. To fully understand the region, you need to forget official boundaries and think in terms of the other, more real frontiers which are not drawn in any map.

The road trip to to Bishkek was enjoyable. I met a colourful local family and two young students who were back from the military academy in Moscow and could speak some English.

Bishkek also has the looks of a USSR capital. Broad avenues and monumental buildings fill the city centre. Russian is the language of choice here over Kyrgyz, and there’s a sizeable Russian population.

Bishkek

The rest of the country is eminently rural in stark contrast to metropolitan Bishkek. The most visited part of the country is the area surrouding huge lake Issik-Köl. On the Northern shore there are some resorts catering to wealthy Kazakhs, as this is the spot that most resembles a beach town in thousands of kilometres.

To the East of the lake stands Karakol. This city is the base for most western travellers, due to the fact that there are countless opportunities for trekking in the surrounding mountains. Actually, most western travellers in the country are experienced mountaineers or at least nature-lovers.

But there are also a couple of interesting sights in Karakol. One of them exemplifies the great exchange and merging of cultures, religions and peoples along the Silk Road. This mosque in an Islamic Central Asian country is built in the style of a Chinese temple, merged with Islamic features such as a minaret and crescent moon. Interesting.

Chinese Mosque in Karakol

Some Kyrgyzs still preserve a half-nomad lifestyle. They go up in the mountains with their livestock in the summer and back when it starts to feel really cold. You find yurts dotted in the countryside in many parts of the country.

Yurts

Market

You don’t have to go far in Kyrgyzstan to find one of the many traditional markets that still give a commercial flavour to this once important stop in the Silk Road. From spices to vegetables, fruits or cheap clothes, everything can be bought in the bazaars across the country.

Merchant in Kyrgyzstan

I recommend all of you to visit Kyrgyzstan. Far from the package tours radar, it preserves a sense of authenticity and tradition that fascinates most travellers.