The Kyrgyz-Chinese border was a mystery to us and still is to many other travelers. There are different stories on the internet as to how the border crossing proceeds. We had to search different websites to gather all the information we needed. Finally, here is a report of our experience crossing this border and of all the useful information you may want to consider for your next Irkeshtam trip.
Coming from Osh, Sary-Tash is the last major village on the way to China. It is located just where highway M41 (also known as Pamir Highway) splits up into two branches: one leading to Irkeshtam border, the other leading to Kyzylart Pass or Karamyk (both Kyrgyz-Tadjik border crossings).
From Sary-Tash we headed to the Kyrgyz border with China. During the weekend the border was closed due to a Chinese holiday. Here you can find information on when the border will be closed. The information is provided only in Russian and Kyrgyz language. If you don’t speak Russian, search for news starting with “КПП“ – this is the abbreviation for border crossings in Russian – and use a translator. News are posted only a couple of days or a week prior to the actual day of closure.
The road between Sary-Tash and the Irkeshtam border is in good condition and with very light traffic. We saw more animals than cars or trucks. The Irkeshtam pass itself looks more like a road that crosses a hill than a traditional mountain pass with a lot of serpentines. To your left and right you will see high mountains and the snow covered peaks of the Pamir. Between Sary-Tash and Nura, a village situated 5km before Irkeshtam, there is nothing. You might be lucky and meet a couple of nomadic families who sell milk and ayrak along the road. Make sure that you have enough supplies with you as this is one of the most remote areas in the world.
Once you cross Irkeshtam pass you will reach a place where two rivers converge: a red one and a crystal clear blue one. Right before the bridge there will be a checkpoint where you will be asked to show your passport. Note that both Kyrgyz-Chinese border crossings, Irkeshtam and Torugart, are military zones. The soldiers we met were very friendly. They added our names and passport numbers to a list. Before letting us go, they wanted to have a photo with us.
While there are guest houses in both, Nura and Irkeshtam, we chose to spend the night in Irkeshtam village because we wanted to be among the first ones to cross the border in the morning. During the first half of the day, traffic is allowed to move from Kyrgyzstan into China. During the second half of the day, it’s vice versa. When you enter Irkeshtam, there is a hotel on the left, about 100m off the road. You can also ask one of the restaurant ladies (which is what we did). They will let you stay in one of the empty containers for 100 Som per night per person. If you prefer to stay in Nura, then Guesthouse Nur is a popular address. We have also heard of people camping near the river on the left hand side before crossing the bridge to Nura.
In addition to the restaurants, there is a small shop where you can buy basic foods: bread, milk, eggs, water and basically everything that won’t expire in the near future. We advise you to buy food there, as the border crossing takes a whole day and you won’t be able to buy food until late in the evening. Be aware, though, that you may not be allowed to bring any fresh foods (fruit, meat etc) through Chinese customs. Dried fruits are supposed to be allowed according to reports of other travelers.
We left at 8am the following day. Usual passport controls, then we headed into the 3km of no man’s land. On the Chinese side our passports were checked again, and we were allowed to continue. The next checkpoint another 3km down the road is called “China Immigration Inspection”. It’s quite obvious because you have to leave the main road and take a right turn. We figured it had to be an important building because all the trucks turned right. Our bags were x-rayed, and our phones were taken. (We later saw that they had installed an app on each of our phones.) Many people reported that travel guides and knives were taken away. They will make you open your bags and show them what you carry with you. We were mostly concerned with our camping gear (including knife), laptops and external hard drive. We hid our external hard drive in a bag with all other cables and we never mentioned that we had a knife with us. In case you want to hide pictures or other data that you don’t want to be deleted by customs officers, simply put them all into one folder, right click and hit “Properties”. Then, tick the box “Hidden”, and all of your personal stuff will be invisible. For more info, read on here (https://www.lostwithpurpose.com/hide-files-border-crossings/).
We were sent into a room where we were shown a big tableau hanging on the wall and stating the Chinese immigration rules in English. We were asked to read only one of the rules that said that we had to take the “famous taxi” from here on. This means that you are not allowed to walk or cycle the road by yourself but that you have to take a designated taxi instead.
The driver wanted to charge us 400CNY, we bargained him down to 350CNY. We know other people who got a deal for 300CNY. It seemed as if we were allowed to choose our taxi driver, and this guy really wanted to drive us, so we think that if you just say “no”, they will accept 300CNY or even lower. In case the driver says “no”, you may have to wait until the next taxi shows up, which could take a few hours.
Although the border crossing happens at Irkeshtam, the real immigration check point (where your passport will be stamped) lies some 140km into the country in a town called Ulugqat. No matter when you arrive at Irkeshtam, you will almost certainly arrive at the immigration in Ulugqat while it’s closed for lunch break due to the change in time zones between Kyrgyzstan and China as well as the long drive in the taxi. We arrived at 14.30, and we had to wait until 16.30 for them to resume service. We got our stamps and were allowed to leave. There was one last passport check after we left the building.
There is no currency exchange until Ulugqat (not even in Irkeshtam), and our driver did not accept anything but CNY. In order to pay him, we had to ask him to show us where the next exchange office is: Turn right just after the final passport check which is located just before an intersection, then pick one of the small convenience stores on your right, they will exchange Som and Dollar.
Our driver did not want to drive us to Kashgar, so we had to find another one. However, he did take the rest of the passengers to the central bus station from where you can take a bus to Kashgar. You could also try to hitchhike. Should you decide to hitchhike, keep in mind that there are different number plates in China that contain information on where this car is permitted and where it is not. For instance, our driver was not allowed to enter Kashgar with his vehicle, so he dropped us about 5km outside of town.
No matter how you choose to move on, there will be several checkpoints on the way to Kashgar, and not one of them knew what exactly to do with our passports. We spent one hour waiting at one of the checkpoints until they found out that neither one of our faces could be found in the Chinese “face database”. A good idea is to have a new passport only for China. This way the police officers will see only your Chinese visa (and stamp). Jan had a second passport with him only for China and was faster at the checkpoints, whereas Gratsi had a lot of stamps and visas from previous travels and the police officers had a hard time figuring out from which page to take the desired information.
At last, we reached Kashgar at 8pm. We stayed at “Old Town Youth Hostel”.
Once you reach your first hotel or hostel, ask the reception to translate your passport in Chinese and stamp it. You will need this document, for example, to buy a sim card. It will also come in handy at the checkpoints where Han Chinese officers work. There are also Uygur people working at the checkpoints, but in our experience they can’t always read Chinese, only speak it.
Check caravanistan forum where you can find the latest information from other travelers about this and many other borders crossings in the region.
Jan & Gratsi