Two weeks in China, even though its been different cities this time, I am China’d out. It’s definitely not my favourite country and everything seems like a hassle, from checking people into the hotel to trying to get dinner. Kashgar has been a totally different animal, but I’m still thankful to be leaving and heading to Kyrgyzstan today.
Our Kashgar guide Musa collected us today at around 8am and drove us 280km to the border through some of the most magnificent mountains I’ve ever seen. 100km into our journey we had a passport check and then at the border we went through customs which took a fair while as they had a trainee stamping the passports and she seemed to want to go through them all and look at all the different stamps, she took a while with mine.
After we were stamped out of China, we were driven another 20km or so collecting another scary border guard with a big gun on the way, who unlocked the actual gate to the swathe of no mans land connecting China to Kyrgyzstan. What’s supposed to happen here is the Kashgar guide is supposed to bribe the officials to let us drive all the way to the Kyrgyz border or there is supposed to be a minibus taxi there to take us. Neither happened today. Today there was one regular taxi, who just looked at us and said “Osh?! Osh!?” Osh is the nearest city to the border, however we were not going there and the one taxi certainly wasn’t big enough to take all of us plus luggage. The golden rule of tour leading is also not to split the group up, especially in a situation like this so making 2-3 trips was out of the question.
There was a small white building around the corner from where the taxi driver was, having never done this before I pointed at the building, but the guards only pointed me onwards. “They don’t want us to go in there today” I say to the group, trying to cover my tracks, least they catch on that I’ve never done this before and hence will not listen to a word I say for the rest of the trip!
I walk past the small white guard house and walk on and on and on, I have my heavy backpack on my back, plus a small wheelie suitcase with all my paperwork. This is the Irkeshtem pass, through the middle of the Tien Shein Mountains and the Pamir Mountains, it is both spectacular and terrifying at the same time. I tell the group we will have to walk, they are not happy. One man who should probably be in an assisted care facility instead of a hardcore tour though central Asia, voices his concern that he will not make it. “Well, you either keep putting one foot in front of the other, or you die out here,” I tell him. “No one is coming to save you and neither the Chinese or Kyrgyz bus can come and get us.” There is another guy, Rob who has been in the army who tries to encourage him, we end up leaving the rest of the group behind, because I know they can manage. If this guy stops and sits down, that will be the end of him.
We walk with the old guy in the middle with Rob in front of him offering words of encouragement and me behind him basically yelling “Mush!” and telling him the vultures are circling. I can’t even see the border post due to the twists and turns through the mountain road, I am unsure of what I am doing and where I am taking these seven people in my charge. In the end, it’s logic that keeps me going, “There’s only one road Kris” I tell myself over and over. “You can’t wander back into China and you can’t wander off into Kyrgyzstan with out having your passport stamped.”
Finally, after what seems like an hour of trudging, I see the border post, it is still a long way off. Trucks are queued up waiting to cross, I know from previous experience in Africa this is a good sign and we are on the right road. The only road. At this point I stop and wait for the others, who are about 1km behind the three of us to catch up. I tell Rob to take the old guy and keep him moving and get to the border post. After the others have caught up a bit, I manage to make it to the border post. A friendly guard (also with a gun) comes up to us and tries to take us through passport control, “Eight!” I say holding up my fingers and pointing into the mountains.
“There are eight of you?” The guard asks, oh great his English seems ok, I think to myself. (No one in China spoke any English over the last week.) He allows us to wait for the rest of the group and then we all go through together.
While a rather good looking soldier is checking my passport before its stamped and entering it into the computer, he asks “Have you been to Kyrgyzstan before Kristina?” “Yes” I say with out hesitation. “When were you here last?” he asks. With out flinching I say vaguely, “Last year sometime…” I answer vaguely. It’s amazing how easily lying to officials and men with guns has become, especially when your entire group is listening.
My other debacle is the old guy, (Who I have since high fived for making it) is travelling on two passports and must have his Italian passport stamped here or he will not be allowed into Uzbekistan. His Chinese visa is in his Australian passport and he needs to go home and shoot his travel agent. As predicated there is a problem when he hands over the Italian passport as there is no exit stamp from China and no Chinese visa. Thank god, it’s the same English speaking guard who is stamping the passport and I ask him to please stamp the other passport and explain the problem. Thankfully he obliges.
Next problem, the guide is not waiting outside customs and I have not been able to call ahead and let him know what’s going on due to the fact that Chinese SIM cards cannot call anyone internationally! This is not something I was ever aware of so it’s a new surprise to deal with! Like I needed anymore today.
I can see a small dirt carpark just up and to the left, there is a while minivan there, it is slightly up hill so I leave the group with the officials and go off to scope it out. The small hill nearly does me in and the group do not stay put as asked. The guide is there and comes running up to me and pulls me exhausted into the van. He is a young guy, named Ramil although he introduces himself to me and the group simply as Rams. He has kind eyes, a strong voice, good English and killer arms. I feel like throwing myself into them. I know our troubles are now over immediately and that Rams will look after the group, me included. I could do with some looking after at this point.
We drive about 1km and have a picnic lunch in a little field just across the border in the shadow of the Pamir mountains. Sandwiches! How good are sandwiches after two weeks of rice and god knows what else in China! Everyone is happy to have some “normal” food again.
Our stop for the night is a home stay in the village of Sary Tash, there is one final check point. I watch Rams go up to the old soviet style carriage repurposed as a guard house with a couple of packs of cigarettes. This guy knows the score I think to myself. “Did you bribe them?” I ask when he gets back in the van. He just nods and gives a shy giggle. “Well done” I tell him, to make sure he knows I approve.
We drive for two hours through more spectacular mountains, Rams stops often to let the group take photos and then makes a final stop for snacks and alcohol which is also appreciated. The homestay is lovely, however it looks like I am sharing with the old guy. No one else wants to share with him, the group have begun to ostracise him as he is obviously not on the right tour and bringing the whole mood down with his constant whinging. I look in the room, hoping another option will present itself and Ram’s says there is another house out the back where he and the driver will be sleeping and that I can have my own room out there. Amazing!
The room is very simple, with white walls and two small beds with felt blankets. There is also a stove which is lit and it is very cosy, thankfully as we are now in the mountains and it is quite cold. Rams offers to take everyone on a walk through the village and countryside. I join them and it is a lovely walk with more spectacular scenery.
After our walk, it is time for dinner in the family yurt which is out the back, it is wonderful. They have these little savory donut things which I just can’t stop eating and dunking in the awesome veggie soup they’ve given us. In the end, I need to pass them down the table away from me, as even when I’m full I can’t stop eating them. When we are all finished with dinner, people go off to their rooms and finally to bed. Rams is looking like he is getting them all settled, I turn to go off to the little house and he says “I have movies on my laptop if you’d like to watch” I tell him I do too and say “Maybe we can watch a movie later?” I’ve already discovered by chatting to him throughout the day that he likes horror movie so we end up watching “From Hell” in my room on my laptop….making a new friend, no better way to end the adventure of a day like the one I’ve just had.