Wednesday, 22 June 2011

You will not be punished.......this time

Despite having a lovely weekend in Kashgar it was hard to fully relax knowing that we had overstayed our visa and were now in China illegally. After investigating the options it appeared that a relay of shared taxis across the border and beyond looked like the cheapest way to get from Kashgar to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. There was a bus twice a week but this was expensive and we didn't want to fork out for a ticket only to be turned back at the border. We teamed up with Tom an Israeli. He was a man of few words. We explained our visa predicament - his response 'we will fight them'. Well actually Tom I'm not sure if that will work. Best leave the negotiations to us.

There are two border crossings into Kyrgyzstan from China, the Irkeshtam Pass to Osh and the Tourgat Pass to Bishkek. We were travelling via the Irkeshtam pass as it did not need a special permit and pre-organised transport which was expensive and took time which we did not have. For those needing information on getting to the border by shared taxi this is how we did it:

We went to the taxi rank at the bus station in Kashgar and got a taxi to Ulugqat for 30 Yuan each.
In Ulugqat we were dropped in the centre of town. Walk back towards the main road and about halfway on the left is a taxi rank tucked away behind some buildings. Here take a shared taxi to Irkeshtam for 35 Yuan each.

When we arrived at the border it was closed for a 3 hour lunch break. We knew this in advance - the problem was we were not sure which time they were working on. Officially the whole of China is in one time zone. However in Xinjiang, being so far west, it often works two hours behind. To confuse matters further the clock on the immigration building was showing neither of these times. So although we knew that the border opened again at 4pm we had no idea which 4pm so we had an indeterminate wait of 1, 2 or 3 hours.

Waiting for the border to open

The border turned out to be working on Beijing time and we had a 2 hour wait. At precisely 4pm Beijing time a dozen soldiers marched out of the military compound and paraded in front of us - with riot shields. They were followed, with an equal degree of military order, by a dozen officials with briefcases. This seemed a little over the top for the sum total of 5 Westerners and one Kazakh woman who had were waiting patiently to cross the border and looked on bemused. The soldiers were dismissed to their posts and we were politely asked into the building.

Inside the official immediately identified the problem with our visas to which we presented the note a Chinese traveller had written for us explaining our visa/border closed predicament. A supervisor was summoned. Tom looked ready to fight. We looked on imploringly. The official looked at our passports, the note and the dog eared bit of paper which was our Tibetan Permit and said, 'ok, we will not punish you........this time.'

We could barely contain our elation and tried not to jump up and down. Another 4 checks later and we were at the final passport stamping desk were there was a 'rate your experience' gadget. Happy face for good, not fussed face for mediocre and sad face for bad. We rated our experience as a big happy face which pleased the official behind the desk.

The next hurdle of our border experience was crossing the 7 km of no mans land. Here the Chinese officials waved down trucks for us and ordered the drivers to take us to Kyrgyz immigration. Numerous passport checks later we were met by a smiling Kyrgyz who said 'welcome to Kyrgyzstan' and waved us to a shack, which was passport control, for a cursory glance over our passports and visas. We next had to go through health control where someone asked us how our health was. Giving the response 'good' was enough to be waved through. Against all the odds we'd made it to Central Asia overland. However, the taxi drivers at the border were a little more hard nosed than the Kyrgyz border officials. Tough negotiations ensued in Russian. With a flurry James finished with, 'well if that is your price then we will just have to walk.' At this point the men’s faces turned to concern, 'it is a long way', one said, 'and it isn't safe at night', another. It was over 200 km to Osh and we had barely been able to walk the 100 m to the taxi rank with all our bags but it seemed to help our cause and the price dropped a little more. Negotiations had come to a standstill and efforts to try to edge the price down further were going nowhere until James said 'how about $110 …and 10 Chinese Yuan, it is everything we have'. James isn't known for his mathematical skills and what he actually meant to offer was 100 Yuan (about $15). However after much discussion the 10 Yuan (about $1.50) appeared to sway it and we got our ride.

 Trucking across no mans land

The journey was jaw-droppingly spectacular, leaving the arid mountains of western China for the lush greenness of Kyrgyzstan. Yurts dotted the hill sides and snowy peaks touched the horizon. Still euphoric at not getting fined we initially didn't notice the pickup truck behaving suspiciously in front off us. We were near Sary Tash, an area known for opium smuggling from Afghanistan. The pickup stopped blocking our way. We asked Tom what he thought, 'we will fight them' he replied. Luckily the pickup moved on and we made it to Osh.

So to summarise our journey by shared taxi

Kashgar to Ulugqat - 30 Yuan each
Ulugqat to Irkeshtam - 35 Yuan each
Irkeshtam to Osh - $110 and 10 Yuan for 3 people

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