Spoiler alert: We’re super happy that we did.
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.
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!
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…
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.
Finally, there was snow, and icy lakes, and plenty of mud in our peripheral.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- We didn’t have to think about a thing. We told our contact what we needed and it happened, magically.
- We got to see the landscape of a beautiful region of the world.
- 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!