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Crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to China with kids was one of the things I was most nervous about on our trip. If it was just us it would be different. But, we had the kids along! We’d have to keep them safe, and entertained, for the crazy crossing.
Initially, I wasn’t even sure if we’d be able to make it across the border. There’d been reports that the border was closed for a holiday, and we wouldn’t be able to get across. After contemplating a detour to either Kazakhstan or Mongolia, we decided to take our chances and head to China as planned.
We had to pick up a car in Osh, somewhere on a random road, and get to SaryTash. Here we’d hope to find lodging in one of the “well marked (yet unnamed) guesthouses” according to lonely planet. Then we would hitch a ride to the border. We’d then hitch another ride down a 7km stretch of no-man’s land to the first Chinese border post. Our luggage, pictures, etc, would be thoroughly searched and scanned. A special taxi would load us up, and drive the 140km to the place where we’d actually get stamped into China. Then, once we were stamped into China we’d hope there was another taxi ready to take us the 90km to Kashgar. What a gong show!
The Great Unknown
Although I was nervous about it, I was also excited! It was going to be one of those adventures that really tested our travel skills. We were walking into a great unknown, armed with a bit of knowledge found on Caravanistan and in Lonely Planet. It all seemed straight forward when I read it months ago. But, when faced with actually doing it, all of a sudden there were some HUGE gaps.
Where on this road were we supposed to catch the taxi to SaryTash? How would we know they were shared taxis or long distance taxis as opposed to city taxis? When catching a ride from SaryTash to Irkeshtam, would all 4 of us be able to fit in one vehicle? Because the directions were definitely not written for a family! And the supposed “well marked guest houses” in SaryTash, were they actually going to be easy to find? Would they have room? There were no names or numbers so we were unable to call ahead for a booking.
In reality the journey turned out just fine.
Randy described it as his “worst border experience ever” but he’s just being dramatic! Our worst border experience ever was catching the ferry in Victoria, BC on the way to Port Angeles, WA when the border guard didn’t want to let Randy in because he didn’t have a spouse visa, and he was “job-hunting”, and he was a risk to stay in the US or some such nonsense. I ended up having to burst into tears before the guy finally took pity on us and let him in.
This was NOWHERE near as bad as that! No one had to cry, and there was no question about our ability to enter the country. It was long, boring, and filled with largely unnecessary waiting, but it was uneventful. I’m not sure it’s possible to describe a boring, uneventful border crossing as the “worst one ever”!
Day #1: Bishkek to SaryTash
We arrived from Bishkek on the early morning flight and caught Taxi #1 into Osh. We had a few post-cards to send (because we needed to add something else to the day!) so we had the taxi drop us off at the post office, sent our post-cards, and then found a second taxi to Zainabetdinova street to search for our ride to SaryTash.
The first driver we talked to (we’ll call him taxi #3!) initially looked like he was going to take us for 1200 som ($24CAD), but once we had the bags loaded up, and the girls and I had piled in, all of a sudden it was 1200som each. He had clearly written 300p on the dirty back window, and I wrote 1200, underlined it, and made a circle with my arms around all of us, to which he nodded. It was amazing how quickly the number multiplied. Of course, it wasn’t just us and the driver negotiating. There were at least 5 other drives in the fray. Randy finally lost it a bit, yelled at the man to open the hatch, and we put our bags back on and marched down the street.
We had a few minutes of not having a clue what we were going to do.
The panic was just starting to kick in when we realized we were almost at the Osh Bazaar. On the north side of the bazaar was another group of taxis. The first man we spoke to was going to charge us 150som to take us to another place to find a shared taxi.
Just as we were beginning to load up our bags in taxi #4, another man came over. He said he’d bring us all the way to SaryTash for 2000som ($40CAD). This was similar to the price quoted by Lonely Planet. We didn’t even negotiate, just said okay and threw our bags in the hatch of taxi #5. I jumped in the back seat with the girls, but the driver didn’t get in. Apparently the first guy was mad he’d stolen his cab fare. A fist fight ensued, complete with one taxi driver tearing the “taxi” sign off the top of our car. Oh, the never-ending drama!!
Eventually things were sorted out, our driver got in the car, and we were on our way. Randy clarified (via Russian google translate) that we were going 180km, to SaryTash, for 2000som. The driver said “yes” and we finally relaxed.
And finally, we were on our way
The drive took us through some beautiful mountain passes, and around multiple groups of livestock on the road making their way home from their summer Jailoo (pasture). Immediately upon entering SaryTash I saw a sign that said “wifi”. Above the wifi sign was the name of a guesthouse with an arrow. We directed our driver to follow the arrow, and pulled into the driveway of a cute pink house with a green roof.
Tatiana, the owner, spoke reasonable English and was very welcoming. We paid our driver, unloaded our bags, and made our way into the guesthouse. Our room was simple, with 2 single beds and electricity that would turn on at about 5pm.
The toilet was an outhouse a little way away from the house. The wifi would work once the electricity came on. She offered a hot shower, but we decided it wasn’t worth risking it. It was significantly better than sleeping outside!
Our nightly rate of 900som per person included dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. Plus, her brother had a car that could take us to the border for 3000som ($60).
We stumbled upon an expensive ride to the border.
This seemed a bit expensive considering we’d just come twice the distance for 2/3 that price, but she didn’t budge on the price so we finally accepted. We’d had enough hassle with the taxi’s in Osh that it was worth just paying a bit extra for the convenience.
At the advice of both Lonely Planet and Caravanistan, we were up bright and early and on the road by 7am. This proved to be (in my opinion) unnecessary, but live and learn! The drive to the Irkeshtam border was breathtaking.
We drove right through the mountains that graced the horizon the night before. There was one quick passport check prior to reaching the Kyrgyzstan border, and once we arrived our driver navigated the massive line-up of trucks to drop us off right at the door.
Getting out of Kyrgyzstan was easy, we simply handed our passports over for a stamp, and the border guard gave each of the girls a candy! The border guard outside then flagged down a big truck, we hopped in, and took off. Initially we were going to use a taxi, but he was waiting for more people, and they were taking forever (not sure why), so we decided to use a truck instead.
We made it through the first 2 passport checks in the truck, and then about 4km down the 7km road we were stopped behind the LONG line-up of trucks. We said Rackmat and good-by to our driver, offered to pay him (which he didn’t accept), and started marching down the road. I had no idea how far we’d need to walk, which was probably a good thing, but we could see a building way off in the distance and had a sinking suspicion this was where we were headed.
I think the taxi drove the other people all the way to the border, but even with our 3+km walk with the girls we still arrived before them! I’m glad we didn’t wait, I would’ve been incredibly impatient.
Entering China, almost.
I was prepared for a full-on search at the first Chinese border post. It was more thorough than we’ve had elsewhere, but it wasn’t that bad. Randy’s bags were pulled completely apart, and they asked about the bug-repellant wipes and contact lenses (our stack of daily lenses seem to throw a lot of people off!). My small backpack was completely searched through, but he only pulled 3 packing cubes out of my big backpack. For the girls, they simply looked inside and zipped them back up. I’d read stories of the border guards searching through browsing history, and sifting through pictures on phones and cameras. The group behind us had their phones thoroughly examined, but not us.
Once our bags were back together we were told to wait for a “few minutes”. This turned into 45 min. The taxi driver was waiting for more people to come because he wasn’t counting the girls, but he didn’t ever ask if we wanted them to have their own seats. In the end, 45min later, We ended up in a taxi with one other man who had been waiting longer than us. It was a completely unnecessary wait, as with most of our waits!
The long haul into China
It’s a 140km, almost 2 hour drive (down a new highway) between the two Chinese immigration buildings. The one inside China is closed from 1:30-4:30 Beijing time (2 hours ahead of Kyrgyzstan), and of course that’s when we arrived. There’s a small building, that looks like it might’ve once been a hotel, and a dirt parking lot. I decided to brave it and venture to the bathroom. This was a mistake! The running water doesn’t work, and likely hasn’t worked for awhile, so all but one of the squat toilets were piled high. The one that wasn’t piled high didn’t have a door. I braved the door-less toilet as quickly as I could, and then let the kids just pee in the grass outside!
Actually Entering China!
Finally, at 4:30, the gate opened, we hopped back in our taxi, and drove through. The driver handed our passports over to someone, we filled out a yellow customs form, and then we waited, again. It was more than an hour before someone brought our passports back to us. We were stamped in, had our passports checked again about 3 seconds later, and at about 6:00pm Beijing time (9 hours after we started), we were in China. BUT, we were still 90km away from Kashgar!
One of the taxi drivers took us and another man to Kashgar for 300yuan total, and dropped us off at our hostel. By the time we checked in and dropped our bags in our room, it was after 8pm. Perfect timing! The night market was up and running, so we had a wander down the street to the night market for some well-earned supper.
You might also like the Route for our Great Big Trip or We’re Not Running Away from Kyrgyzstan.
Osh to SaryTash: 1200-2000 som depending on your negotiating skills
Sary-Tash to Irkeshtam: 3000som (apparently there’s no negotiating). You could also catch a truck for about 300som per person on the side of the road.
Irkeshtam to 1st Chinese Border Post: 100 som, if the driver will take the money!
Chinese Border Post to Chinese Customs: 100 yuan per person
Chinese Customs to Kashgar: 300 yuan per car. Chat up the other travelers so you can split the cost!
– Bring lots of food and water, surprisingly there was nowhere to buy anything along the way
– Change money at the gas station in SaryTash. They’re able to change Euro, USD, Kyrg som and Yuan. I suspect they can change Tajik som as well. The rate was reasonable.
– Pack a lot of patience!
- Osh – you can pick up a taxi from the north side of the Osh Bazaar on Zainabetdinova road, but it’s easier to get a shared taxi from the bus stand under the bridge at the Bazaar, Старый Автовокзал in Kyrgyz.
- Sary Tash – Stay in one of the guesthouses across the south side of the road from the gas station, right when entering town. Tatiana’s was fantastic, and reasonably priced.
- For ease, arrange your taxi to Irkeshtam with your guesthouse. If you’re flying solo you can pick up a car on the road, but make sure you start by 7am or 8am to ensure you get a ride.
- Have the border guard grab you a truck to take you as far as possible once you’re through the Kyrgyz border.
- If you can’t or don’t want to walk a portion of the 7km, ask for a taxi at the Kyrgyz border.
- Chinese Customs closes from 1:30-4:30 Beijing time, 2 hours ahead of Kyrgyzstan time. If you’re stuck at the first customs building, there are a few small cafe’s close by. If you’re stuck at the second customs building, make friends with some of the other locals waiting and they’ll share food with you!
- One of the taxi drivers will likely wait to take you from the Customs building into Kashgar (for a fee of course!)
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