That time I walked from China to Kyrgyzstan...
- Irkeshtem / 2017
It's one road, and I’ve got notes. I’ll be fine. Famous last words.
Crossing the Irkeshtem border is no mean feat for any traveller, let alone crossing it with a group of people who are relying on you to get them to the other side and you haven’t done it before. Blind tours, gotta love them.
We set out early from Kashgar in Xinjiang province in western China very early. It is about a two-hour drive to the border from the city. Once there we go through customs and drive to the start of no man’s land. Luckily we have gotten there just before the Chinese guards go on their two hour lunch break. Why it takes so long to eat noodles I’ll never know.
We pick up a guard and drive to the last outpost, I have read in my notes that the Kyrgyz border post is 750 meters away from the Chinese one, so it should be a short walk. The people I have with me are elderly and for the most part not great walkers, so I’m grateful it's not that far to the relative safety of our next guide and transfer. The notes also said that sometimes there is the odd taxi who will be able to take you to the Kyrgyz side, but I had warned the group that this would likely not be possible. There was in fact one guy there, but he only had a regular car and just kept saying “Osh, Osh, Osh!” Which is the name of the closest city, and we only wanted a ride to the border station. And since it was only apparently 750 meters it wasn’t really worth trying to make him understand.
We walked past the border hut and around the corner and past the man in the taxi into the pass through the Tien Shen mountains that leads to Kyrgyzstan – I can’t see the opposite border. It is at this point I realise I might be in trouble.
I tell myself, there is only one road. I can’t get lost and I can’t go the wrong way. This is the mantra I repeat to myself through the entire ordeal. “There’s only one road”. We all have luggage and one man in particular is struggling as he has done the entire trip. He tries to sit down in protest, I have to explain to him that no one is coming to get him if he doesn’t make it. Our Chinese bus can’t come into this area because it's not China and the Kyrgyz driver can’t come and get us because it's not Kyrgyzstan. Walk or be eaten by the vultures who have started to circle I explain to him. This may sound like a heavy handed way to behave towards a customer to anyone reading this, but it was part of a strategy to get him across. I also had another passenger who was very fit and walking in front of him offering encouragement, with me in the back cracking the whip and telling him it's “do or die out here mate”, to keep him moving. This is Central Asia, it's unpredictable, rough and it’s not Europe.
We had walked about 2km and even I was starting to get tired, carrying my heavy backpack was taking its toll. Little did I know I wasn’t even halfway yet. (So much for the notes and the 750 meters) I looked back and realised I had left the other four people in my group way behind, however they were more than competent and could walk properly so they weren’t an immediate concern and after all, it was only one road and they couldn’t get lost.
The scenery through which we were passing was spectacular and terrifying at the same time. Rocky outcrops rose into the sky all around us and a river ran by the side of the road. They sky was overcast and the mountain air cold, although I barely noticed through my exertion.
Walk, walk, walk, one foot in front of the other. Come on Kris, it's only one road. A total of 4km later and three of us had reached the Kyrgyz border station, I high fived my slow walker and congratulated him for making it. The Kyrgyz guards, who looked very surprised to see us, came out and helped us into the office where I waited for everyone else. We went through passport control, where I was promptly asked if I had visited Kyrgyzstan before, “yes” I said with out hesitation and wondering when I had become so comfortable lying to border officials.
My passport was stamped and now I had to find the Kyrgyz guide and driver. I walked through the gate where there were quite a few cars waiting, to try to find them before my group all got through passport control. I noticed a young guy in a sleeveless shirt with great arms leaning up against a van. He came gently towards me and just said “Kristina?” Something about the guy just made me feel completely at ease, like everything was going to be alright. I suddenly lost control and threw myself into his arms. “Thank god” I said. He laughed and asked me why I hadn’t taken a taxi from the other side. I explained to him that there was only one car there and the driver had only wanted to take us to Osh. The guys name was Rams and he gave me his number and said next time to use Whatsapp and he would try to come over and get us. I got everyone onto the bus and headed for the village of Sary Tash, where after my group went to bed at their homestay, Rams and I watched horror movies in the house out the back until the wee hours of the morning, with a roaring fire going in my room. It was amazing how comfortable and relaxed I was, after one of the most stressful days of my life. A day, which had also been one of the biggest of adventures…