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Through the Mountains of the Torugart Pass: From Kyrgyzstan to China

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Instead of flying from Kyrgyzstan to China towards the end of May, Pat and I thought we’d try a more adventurous path of crossing borders: the Torugart Pass.

Spoiler alert: We’re super happy that we did.

naryn pickup

Naryn Pickup - 7am and ready to roll!

Crossing this border is actually something I had considered, and dreamed of, since my first visit to Kyrgyzstan back in 2008. My big, bad plans of doing slow travel through all the Stans and the neighboring regions never came into fruition, however, and I didn’t even have this as an option for this return journey at all. That was, until we set foot in CBT and got wind of the tour options they have on offer in the country.

One tour read something like “from Bishkek to Kashgar”, and that made a little lightbulb go off in my head that we could – instead of flying to Urumqi – travel overland to Kashgar, and further to Urumqi, before flying to Beijing.

After much consideration, we chose the basic “Naryn to Kashgar” border crossing through CBT. We would get to Naryn through a combination of shared taxis and a stopover in Kochkor to stay in the guesthouse of our Bishkek apartment owner’s mother (make sense?) instead of a CBT house. Once in Naryn, that’s when the fun began.

kyrgyzstan hills through the window

How CBT helped:

CBT, or Community Based Tourism, put the whole crossing into action: that included a driver from Naryn to the border, the special pass needed to enter the region, and a driver from the border to Kashgar in China. The entire cost for the day and our pass was $350, or $175 each – and we could have split that cost with another tourist if we’d found one to fill the car. The basic rate was $150 to the Kyrgyz side (CBT contact), and $200 to the Chinese driver.

For these countries, that sounds like a fair chunk of change, but after seeing the roads these cars have to drive on, I almost felt like we were ripping the drivers off because they surely had to drop tons of dough on car repairs!

being driven from Naryn

Notice the roads already -- being driven from Naryn.

Naryn Pick-up:

Our driver picked us up in Naryn at about 7 am. Our driver spoke a bit of English, which was relieving to us, but we still didn’t talk much during the tumultuous drive. At first, it wasn’t so bad, but the poor, poor conditions of the Kyrgyzstan roads leading to the Torugart Pass made the 2 hours or so that I was needing to pee (and not wanting to pee in an open field) almost unbearable.

Oh, but the scenery…

Animals through the window

Animals through the window

Kyrgyzstan’s mountains were passed left and right, but mainly the not so high up and dirt/rock covered ones. These mountains dumped rocked onto the side of the road at random spots – particularly the ones where there wasn’t a protective fence to hold them back.

Our eyes were met with rolling green valleys filled with animals and the occasional yurt… and further the occasional Kyrgyz cowboy doing the daily herd. As we drove, however, the altitude peaked. We headed up and up and closer and closer to snow-capped mountains – the ones out of postcards — but photos were near impossible with the bumps.

ice and snow in the distance

Ice and snow in the distance.

Finally, there was snow, and icy lakes, and plenty of mud in our peripheral.

line of truckers at the Kyrgyz checkpoint

The line of trucks at the Kyrgyz checkpoint. We got to bypass this wait.

The border crossing itself was quite interesting. Since we were in a car, and not a semi truck (the majority of the vehicles that pass) we got to go to the front of the line, just after the marshrutkas of German tourists. We sat at the line as all the Kyrgyz drivers got out, including ours, to laugh and talk, flashing gold teeth every other second.

Kyrgyz Checkpoint

The Kyrgyz border checkpoint.

When it was our turn to enter the building, a Kyrgyz guard chauffeured Pat and I directly to a passport control booth where we were scrutinized for only about a split second before the stamp was smacked down.

The interesting part of this adventure was that we were still a few kilometers away from the actual border crossing, which doesn’t sound like much until you’ve been on those roads… the mud-filled, pot-hole-laden roads that a 2-trailer semi got stuck in, and further almost tipped over on.

mud road

Muddy road... Don't expect to cross the border by bike!

The Kyrgyz-Chinese crossing:

We arrived at the actual border crossing near noon, but our driver doesn’t go any further at this point. We parked the car and waited for our Chinese driver and guide to meet us… which could take up to 2 hours (so bring food with you – our mistake). Luckily, ours came early, so we walked ourselves across the border.

Brooke walking across the border to China

Brooke walking across the border to China

The Chinese guard then asked me for my passport; I hand it over, and he coughs directly onto my hand. Seriously.

Drive to Kashgar:

The difference between the roads of Kyrgyzstan and China was like night and day. While the big mess of pot-holes came from time to time, this road had nothing on K-stan’s unattended system.

back of china car

Back of the car in China.

The scenery was much like Kyrgyzstan, with rolling hills, yurt-like structures, and animals. We even stopped off at a Kyrgyz village for some biscuits towards the beginning of the drive.

Kyrgyz village after Chinese border

Kyrgyz village after Chinese border.

It was here that Saddique explained the structure of Kashgar along with many other insights into the region: “There are places in the Old Town that when you walk around in them, you won’t even feel like you’re in China.”

Both our driver and guide were of Uyghur descent, and Saddique had fantastic English command. So even though our drive was quite long before arriving near 5 pm in Kashgar, we had plenty of time to learn from the locals, which is my favorite part of travel in the first place.

After a while, we finally entered the customs and border control check point in China, and there wasn’t much else to note besides being my first intro into the world of China’s communal trough toilets. Kill me now, I thought.

Thoughts on the process:

We could have flown. We could have saved about 8 hours that day by just hopping on a plane. Only how much fun would that have been? And how much would I have seen or learned? Pat and I were happy to do the crossing for several reasons:

  1. We didn’t have to think about a thing. We told our contact what we needed and it happened, magically.
  2. We got to see the landscape of a beautiful region of the world.
  3. We got to learn from the locals and have interesting encounters.

So, if you need help on doing the same, and are coming from Kyrgyzstan, I recommend getting in touch with CBT. They’re awesome!

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16 Responses to Through the Mountains of the Torugart Pass: From Kyrgyzstan to China

  1. paul | walkflypinoy.com June 28, 2012 at 2:44 am #

    what an adventure! i didn’t even think it was possible to make that border crossing. now, thanks to you adventure, i do! china’s far west and the stans are definitely places that fascinate me.

    • Pat_extreme July 6, 2012 at 4:21 am #

      Hey Paul- you definitely should! It’s a really interesting journey, I can only imagine how tough it would be though in Winter time! I don’t even know how all the large trucks get through when it is icy- I wouldn’t be surprised if it was closed for part of the year.

  2. Waegook Tom June 28, 2012 at 8:13 am #

    Ewwwww at the hand coughing action! Bleargh.

    Kudos to you guys for not choosing the easy route – this is quite the adventure! Plus, think of all the missed photo opportunities if you’d have chosen to fly, instead. The ‘Stans are high on my list, too, so thanks for providing information on the crossing here as well 🙂

    • Brooke July 3, 2012 at 7:28 am #

      I hope you make it to this part of the world someday 🙂

  3. Emily in Chile June 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    I definitely do not think China when I see that last photo. So interesting!

    • Brooke July 3, 2012 at 7:26 am #

      I know, right?! It was very interesting… and Kashgar was even less like China than anywhere.

  4. Dan Granier June 29, 2012 at 3:45 am #

    You proved out to be incredible adventurer, most of the people are proud tourists even for visiting the most conventional tourist places on earth, not giving a second thought about more unusual destinations like Kyrgystan.

  5. Ryan Hoody July 1, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    I am so glad you chose to take a land route instead of flying. I am sure you realized how many more experiences can be had, even though you might not arrive as quickly at your destination. Did you ever feel any danger during the trip? That’s the only downfall of cross land travel; every now and then you run into some hairy situations.

    Awesome pics!

    Ryan

    • Brooke July 3, 2012 at 7:27 am #

      No danger whatsoever 🙂 Everything was super smooth.

  6. Qayyum February 27, 2013 at 5:28 pm #

    Great post and experience. It is really good to read the experience of other traveller. Because we also arrange this type of travel from time to time so it is good to know the travellers experience. Thanks for the post. Hope it helps to inspire others to visit this part of the world.

  7. Marloes March 3, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    Hi Brooke,

    I’m planning to make the same trip as you’ve described above.
    But i’ve got some questions about arranging the Chinese visa. At the embassy they ask for plane tickets, which proves that you’re getting into China and that you’re leaving China. But i can’t when I arrive over land. How did you manage this?
    Besides this, I’ve been reading it could be hard to visit Xinjiang, they say you need an letter of invitation of a tour agent. But i’m planning my trip on my own, so i don’t have a tour agent.

    Thanks in advance,

    Marloes

    • Brooke March 6, 2014 at 8:51 am #

      Hmm… I can’t remember the visa process at this moment, but I believe we had our Trans-Mongolian train tickets so that showed we would be leaving the country.

      In regards to the Xinjiang entrance, I think you can get in touch with some tour companies in the area and they can help you whether that be with a letter of invitation or a proper guide. You’ll just need to pay someone to get the doc you need.

    • Rachel April 30, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

      I have the same question! About having to have plane travel plans to get a China visa but then doing the overland trip instead. I think the visa policy changed since Brooke made the trip last year. Marloes, were you able to figure out any solution? Thanks to you both!

      • Brooke May 1, 2014 at 3:35 am #

        Hi Rachel,

        Ok I had to think really really hard about our visa process because our trip was a big one with lots of weird stops. And it was a long time ago now!

        I got my Chinese visa before we left Australia and I believe I only used my Trans-Mongolian train tickets to get that. It showed that we would be leaving the country and traveling through many other countries after that. I *think* we just took our confirmation letter from Real Russia (who we got the train tickets through) to apply for the visa…

        Anyways, I think the difference here is that we had a travel agency (Real Russia) backing our visa applications up, and showing we had proof of leaving via train, meaning we might not have needed the plane tickets.

        The cool thing about the Chinese visa was that it didn’t restrict the exact dates we could enter and be in the country to the day. We were given a 3 month period (from date of issue) of when we could enter the country – but once inside, we could only stay 30 days.

        Of course things may have changed. If I were you, I’d get in touch with Real Russia as they also help people get visas for all those countries and can give you some tips 🙂

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