At the moment, the political situation in China‘s Xinjiang is tense, and the Chinese authorities are not exactly looking forward to have tourists wandering around there. Therefore, crossing Irkeshtam Pass, the border between Kyrgyzstan and China, was not too easy. The border procedures took us around 7 hours, with numerous amount of checkpoints and controls.
Note: We were writing this story more detailed than usually, because we thought it might help someone who is going to cross this border in the future.
The Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in far west China is inhabited by Uygur muslims, other ethnic minorities and Han-Chinese population. It’s also a place of cultural dispute. The region became a media topic in the last years after it came out that the Chinese government is holding around one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in so-called “vocational training centers“. For this reason it is a sensitive area to the Chinese government, and we knew that crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to China would not be simple. Other travelers have been reporting about several checkpoints, long interviews, thorough investigations on their computers and phones and even installing of some spyware on the border. We were not looking forward to entering this part of China at all. But this was the most reasonable way for us to cross from Central-Asia to Pakistan.
We started our journey towards the border from the small village of Sary Tash, where we spent our last night in Kyrgyzstan. After finishing our delayed breakfast, we said goodbye to our friends Lena and Tjerk, while our host was already waiting in the car, ready to give us a ride until the Chinese border.
After riding for some time between fields of snow and the mountains, we passed the last remote Kyrgyz village and arrived at the first border checkpoint. As the border workers knew our driver, they just asked to see our passports and waved us through. We passed an endless line of waiting trucks and then came to the first bigger border station. As we entered, we could still leave our bags in the car. We were out of the building with exit stamps on our passports within five minutes.
After a few kilometers we came to a small hut with an armed soldier inside. This was the end of the Kyrgyz territory. Our driver told us that from here on we were on our own. We walked around half a kilometer uphill on a curvy road, surrounded by barbed wire. On top of the hill we bumped into another long queue of trucks.
At the Chinese Border
The first Chinese checkpoint was a barb-wired tent with two soldiers inside. We showed them our passports and they told us to proceed.
After 150 meters we came to a border point that was regulating the traffic (Chinese checkpoint number 2). They checked our passports and told us to wait for a driver – we were not allowed to walk further. Now the traffic was going to Kyrgyz direction, while the cars to China had to wait. The Chinese border is carrying the slogan “sunshine service“. While we waited, the sun really started to shine, warming up the cold winter morning, and we had to get rid of our jackets. After a while a group of Han-Chinese showed up. Then came a minibus and we all were told to enter.
First luggage-check and interview
After a few minutes we arrived at a bigger border facility (number 3) and were told to go to the waiting room. Soon the Chinese were processed further but were just asked to hand our passports and to wait.
Then we had to put our shoes and belongings through the scanning machine. We came to a table where Johanna was told to unpack her whole backpack. At the same time, we were questioned about our personal backgrounds and about our travels with the help of a translation device. They had a quick look on Johanna’s iPad but were more interested in our camera. We were watching our holiday pictures from Kyrgyzstan together with the guards. (The rest of our pics were on the cloud.) At least three times they pointed at a picture and asked “Uzbekistan?“, to which we answered “No, Kyrgyzstan”. This they could have figured out faster by having a closer look at our passport and realizing that we didn’t even have any Uzbek stamps there.
The guards got curious with Seri’s computer, asking what he is doing with it. Without much time to think, he answered writing, reading and internet. This was, of course, not the best answer, raising the border guards’ suspision. They changed their tone and the translations were getting weirder. „Will you write something after leaving China?“, „What do you read without internet?“. Seri tried to explain them that we travel for a long time, so we need to write emails and do some travel research. At this point another guard came and, as it seemed, told the guys to hurry up. There was a huge mess of Johanna’s stuff on the table. We continued without the guards even checking Seri’s bags. We were shown the way to another waiting room with other foreigners.
On the tourist bus
After waiting another while, all of us foreigners were told to board a bus that was waiting outside. It turned out that this would be our transport through all the remaining checkpoints, all the way to Kashgar. Before we started the journey, each person had to pay 200 yuan (around 25 €). We didn’t drive far until we had to get out of the bus for another checkpoint (number 4). This one was more forward. The passports were checked, random questions were asked. Then we drove through a sandy landscape with mountains for at least an hour (the Chinese border area is huge!).
At the Chinese customs
Finally, we reached the gates of the actual border customs (number 5). As the Chinese are having a 3-hour lunch break every day, we had to wait 20 minutes until it was over. At 4 pm Beijing time the gate reopened and the bus could park next to the terminal. Once again, we were shown to another waiting area. By that time we had already learned how to write “waiting area” in Chinese. There we were handed some migration cards. While we were filling them, a nice young man from the state police in cool civil clothes came to us and started a little chat about our visit to Xinjiang and about our travel route. After telling him we were going to continue to Pakistan and already had our visas, he proceeded to chat with someone else.
Finally we could move on to scan our faces and fingerprints. Johanna was the first one to do the scans. Then she got the entry stamp (yay!) and was proceeded to the luggage scan.
In the meanwhile, Seri was waiting to get his face and fingerprints scanned, but for some reason they didn’t start the machine. Instead, some guards friendly asked him to follow them to the investigation room. Johanna saw this happening from the other side and was getting slightly nervous. Seri had to sit down while his passport was given to another worker. The translator device was taken out and the investigation started again. “Where are you from? “, “Austria, Euuuurope, Vieeenna“ (not to get Austria confused with Australia for the hundredth time). The guard left and told Seri to wait.
After a few minutes he was taken back to the scanning place. “What is your profession?“ As Seri had already collected some precious experience on answering this question, he tried to choose the best possible answer to it in order to not to indicate any further questions. “Social worker, I work with youth“. The guards nodded their heads. “Ahh, you want to volunteer?“, “No thanks, I‘m on a holiday!“, he answered. All of a sudden, the scanner started to advice Seri in German language. We‘re not sure if the whole point of the extra questions was to change him the right language. Finally, he got the scans done, too, got the entry stamp and proceeded to luggage scan.
While Johanna had to dig out our plastic sporks to prove that she’s not carrying a dangerous knife, and even hand away our two pears, nobody paid attention to Seri’s luggage (again) and the Leatherman hidden deep inside.
We went outside and had to go through another passport check (number 5). Then it seemed that we finally left the main border area and got to the road leading to Kashgar. Of course, there were still two checkpoints (numbers 6 & 7) on the way, but there we didn’t have to do anything else than to show our passports and wait. After we passed the city border in the early evening, the bus dropped us all out in the middle of nowhere. And we had thought 200 yuan would bring us all the way to the city…
The search for the hostel
We talked to the other few westerners in the bus and found out that two Israeli girls were going to the same hostel as we (not a big surprise, as there are only 3 accommodations in Kashgar where foreigners are allowed and only 2 of them were open that time). We decided to share a taxi. The first problem was to get one in that part of the city, next to a highway. The second problem was that there were two different addresses available for the hostel. Later it turned out that neither one of them was right.
At the first address there was some shut down building. A young woman appeared and told us (mostly in body language) that the place has moved and that it is very hard to find. She suggested to get into the taxi with us (and to sit on Johanna‘s lap) and to lead us there. Even though we were not sure if this was some kind of a scam, after a short Chinese-English-body language conversation between us, the Israeli girls, the taxi driver and the helpful/scamming woman, we agreed to take her to the taxi. She really did lead us to the right place, which we would have never been able to find on our own, because even the door didn’t have anything written in our letters. We offered, of course, to pay this lovely woman her ride back home. She refused, smiled and said „Welcome to Kashgar“.
Tips for crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to China via the Irkeshtam Pass:
- You can get from Sary-Tash to the border either by hitch-hiking or you can try to arrange a ride. The owner of Pamir Extreme guesthouse might be able to help with that.
- It took us around 7 hours to get through the border procedures. The whole journey until Kashgar took between 9-10 hours
- The border is operating from Monday to Friday but might be closed during some local holidays – check in advance.
- The border opens at 9 (Kyrgyz time), as far as we know. Try to be there by that time. Otherwise you might not make it through until they close the border at 7.45 pm (Beijing time). There is a lunch break between 1 and 4 pm (the times might vary between summer and winter). If you get stuck there overnight (or for the whole weekend!), we’ve heard that there would be some hotel after the Chinese customs.
- You will need some yuan. At least 200 yuan for the bus (as of October 2019) and something for the taxi to the city.
- Pack some drinking water and snacks. The day is long.
- It helps if you have a booking in Kashgar to show at the border controls. At least, make sure that you know some address (of a hotel accepting foreigners) that you can provide when asked.
- If you are going to continue to Pakistan, have a print out of your Pakistani visa with you. It will reduce the questions about your travel plans in Xinjiang.
- If you are carrying a pocket knife, be aware that knives are officially not allowed into Xinjiang and it might get confiscated…
- They will likely go through your laptops/cameras/phones on the border – photos seem to be of special interest. We didn’t get any spyware installed on our devices.
- Also the cover of a book we were carrying was photographed and translated. Just in case you have some „suspicious“ literature with you 😉
- Even though the whole situation is quite unusual for us westerners, the people at the border were friendly towards us. No need to be scared.
- Have fun crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to China!