First A Little Background
I currently have a tourist visa for China that allows me to enter and leave the country as many times as I want until January, 2014. The only catch is that I have to leave every 90 days. Basically just a border crossing to prove I haven’t set up any permanent roots here.
The Border Run
My first 90 days were up in early October, but that’s a busy travel time in China and so not cheap to travel. I found out from Sean though that there is an international border crossing accessible by road from Kashagar, but it wasn’t an easy trip. Basically this is what you have to do:
- Go to the international bus station in the city, walk around the back, and catch a van to a town called Wuqia (乌恰）where there was a customs/port of entry Go through passport control at Wuqia
- Find a certified taxi on the other side to take you to the border. It should cost RMB600 for the car, so find someone to split with
- Long, uncomfortable ride to the border. The road is under construction so expect to take 3+ hours to travel 120km through checkpoints until the last passport check where you get your exit stamp
- Walk from the Chinese border to the Kyrgyzstan border, about 3km, or hitch a ride if you can
- Get your entry and exit stamp in Kyrgyzstan and run back, or hitch a ride, to China.
- Go through the previous steps in reverse to get back to China! Wuqia is where you get your official China entry stamp so the whole cab ride back you’re not technically legal yet.
Ok! So that’s the basic outline of what needed to happen. How’d it work out for me then?
Finding The Van To Wuqia
Woke up, had a fresh bagel from the street market in the old town where our hostel was and then set out to find the station. This turned out to be much more difficult then it should have been as pretty much everyone I met was terrible at giving directions. I would ask where the international bus station was (国际大巴站) which was only supposed to be a short walk away and people would send me in opposite directions. After nearly an hour walking around then looking at my phone and finding I was walking out of the city, I finally hailed a cab.
After arriving at the bus station, I asked someone where the vans to Wuqia were. He yelled into a crowd and someone stepped out and told me RMB200 for the ride that I knew should only cost RMB30. A security guard at the station gestured me inside the station when I asked him. There I was greeted with a massive line plus no signs for the place I wanted to go to. I finally left there after waiting for a while at an information desk that apparently had no one attending it. I then wandered around the station until finally finding the van waiting area for Wuqia. It took an hour waiting for the driver to fill up the van before we could finally leave.
Cab To The Chinese Border From… The Chinese Border
I got to town and had to pay another cab RMB20 to take me to the port of entry (口岸). There customs was actually pretty quick. It helped that I was the only one there of course and all other border crossing procedure was pretty standard: look through your passport, hand in your departure card, etc. The guards there told me there was a cab out back heading to the border crossing and they had one space left (bringing the cost down to 150 per person).
I went to the back and met my travel companions. All four, including the driver, were local Uighur minority but only the driver could speak Mandarin Chinese. This meant most of the communication during the ride was in the local dialect which sounds vaguely Arabic with some Chinese words randomly stuck in every now and then. The other three passengers were apparently crossing the border for some business and had the trunk of the car stuffed with vegetables (presumably to sell in Kyrgyzstan).
The road to the actual border crossing was about 60% beautiful highway (officially closed for repairs) and 40% awful dirt and gravel track, the official re-route. This made for some slow going. At one point there was a stoppage with a makeshift barrier. A bunch of the drivers that had been forced to stop were out arguing with a youngish looking guy in an orange vest clearly overwhelmed with the responsibility of keeping the determined Chinese drivers that wanted to pass off the road. Eventually the kid agreed to let the cars pass for RMB10 per vehicle (so the road isn’t really closed?)
Another stop we had was when a section of road was being paved. The detour road had to pass over the under construction section and so all traffic was stopped while we waited for the asphalt to be pressed, cooled, and dried (nearly an hour). There were several other stops where we also had to get out and either push the cab or just help make it lighter to get it over rough patches. By around 6 we were at the second border control where I would get my exit stamp. After getting our passports back about 5 minutes later we got back into the cab where we were driven 5 more minutes to the actual Chinese border. This is where our cab ride officially ended as we had to get out of the cab and walk to the Kyrgyzstan border.
Getting Into Kyrgyzstan
Somewhere down the road the three other guys I had been traveling with must have had a friend that knew they were coming because unexpectedly a car showed up, before actually getting to the border, and I was quickly ushered into the car. The whole border crossing actually made me feel like some sort of illegal immigrant as I helped one of the guys carry one of his boxes of vegetables, silently walking from one border to the other, and then finally sketchily piling into a random car of someone I didn’t know nor could I communicate with.
Getting into a strangers car:
We crossed the Kyrgyzstan border where I got scolded for taking pictures which I was promptly forced to delete. Now that we were at the border, it was like being in a totally new world, no Chinese or English, only Russian and a local dialect similar apparently to the Uighur dialect, so no one was able to communicate with me outside of the usual border questions (where are you from, where are you going, etc.).
At the passport control, a large soldier with club like hands but a friendly face asked me where I was staying that night. I told him China and the soldier just looked at me confused. I tried to explain that I only needed the stamp and then I was going back, but he insisted I didn’t have enough time to get back to the Chinese border. With an hour until the border closed only 4 or 5km away, I signed that I could run back (lots of swinging of arms back and forth and pointing in different directions involved). They were insistent though and said they wouldn’t even give me my passport back unless I went back tomorrow.
We spent about 20 minutes back and forth with other soldiers getting involved before I finally gave in. When I asked where I could stay, one of the older soldiers simply said “Your problem.” So apparently the earlier question at passport inspection served merely a symbolic purpose and no real security value? Dejected, I walked through the border control, going through yet another passport check and then up through a truck stop where all the trucks were waiting for the borders to open up again in the morning.
At The Kyrgyzstan Truck Stop
As I looked around figuring out what to do, a Uighur truck driver who had earlier helped me translate a little at the passport check called me over. He told me I shouldn’t stay at the truck stop as there was a lot of drinking that went on so it wasn’t safe to stay overnight. He offered to take me to the next town, Osche, to spend the night before coming back to cross the border the next day. Only problem was, Osche was about 200km away… I personally had a history with sleeping at truck stops and so my Uighur friend’s advice seemed wise. It didn’t seem I had much of a choice so I hopped in his cab and we drove off.
The Kyrgyzstan Weigh Station
A couple of km down the road though (much better paved then the Chinese side) we stopped at a truck weigh station. The driver got out and started talking to the cops that manned the station. Soon I got out too and the driver asked if I wanted to stay here with policemen for the night. There were 5 or 6 officers in military fatigues, all with crew cuts, broad shoulders, and with central Asian facial features, standing around the short, stocky Uighur truck driver negotiating the situation.
One guy in a blue captains type outfit different from the others that looked like he was in charge told me $50 for the night. I said I didn’t have USD so I offered 100 RMB, a much better deal at about $15 after conversion. I ended up converting RMB120 to the local currency with the truck driver, paying 1,000 Song to spend the night plus two meals. I probably still over paid, but at least I wouldn’t have to pay for cab fare to come back 200km in the morning!
I spent the rest of the evening in one of the small rooms of the little mobile home that served as the barracks watching Russian satellite television while the cops finished inspections for the night. Russian satellite television primarily consisted of poorly dubbed low budget american films from the 90s, old music videos from the 90s, and infomercials for gold jewelry.
I had dinner with a couple of the cops which consisted of some mutton and wild rice topped with tomatoes and served with bread and tea. It was actually really good and a nice change of pace from Chinese food from the past couple of months. In the evening, after meal time, several of the cops piled into the TV room with me to basically stare and ask me questions (difficult since we shared no language in common). The one in the captain’s uniform was particularly engaging. For a while he was trying to get me to dance for some reason. After that though he shifted his efforts towards trying to get me to box with him. I managed to get out of that using two of the few words be seemed to know in English: “tourist” and “police” (trying to make the argument it wouldn’t be good for me to box a policeman).
Finally, the captain and another of the soldiers/policemen spent a good hour playing on the two iPhones I brought to record the journey. They seemed to go through almost all of my apps and most of my photos in that time. We stayed in the now dark and cramped TV room like this, sitting on a small bed in front of the TV until almost midnight when 4 of the cops left to go on a town run in their little car. My bed for the night, which they setup before driving off, was on the floor of one of the rooms in the barracks with one of the other men, the one that seemed to be the youngest and most junior. My mattress was a blanket which luckily they had two of because I was severely under-prepared for how cold it got in that area in a valley surrounded by snow capped mountains.
Back To The Border
I woke up with the light of the sun in the morning and wandered around a bit as people slowly started waking up. Breakfast was bread, butter, and tea and after that was done it was time to head back to the truck stop waiting area. So I said my goodbyes before the captain gave me a ride the 2km down the road back to the truck stop.
The trip back to China was significantly smoother then getting to Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyzstan border opened at about 8 and after getting my passport stamped by the same friendly, club handed man, I had to wait for a truck going back to China. For some reason they didn’t allow you to walk to the Chinese border even though that’s how we had gotten to Kyrgyzstan in the first place.
There was actually a lot of waiting involved for today. I had to wait for a truck. I had to wait to cross the border. I had to wait for both Chinese passport checks.
No one seemed to be working yet after getting into the truck and driving to the border even though it was supposed to be 2 hours ahead of Kyrgyzstan time where I had crossed at 8:30. This meant we had to hang out in the truck in no man’s land between borders before being let across. At the Chinese checkpoint I met up with my cab driver from the day before who had waited for me in order to take me back. I handed my passport over to the customs officer and waited for the next hour until getting it back. It didn’t seem like they were actually doing anything with it though, and it was more of a procedural requirement meant to make the foreigners squirm a bit before being let into the country.
While waiting though I met two other travelers, one Italian and one Japanese, also crossing over to China and needing a ride to Kashgar. This meant that we could split the costs of the ride back making it much more affordable! We waited there for a while longer while having our bags searched, after which we finally were able to pack into the cab.
The actual road back to Kashgar was noticeably smoother. There was no asphalt being laid, no need to get out and push the cab, and no need to bribe highway workers. The only really difficult stretch was an area that had filled up with puddles and mud from rain the previous night. We had to wait another hour at the final checkpoint in Wuqia since staff there seemed to be on an extremely extended lunch break. By half past 4 I was at the passport check booth at customs finally getting my entry stamp, making me officially legal again in China and giving me another 90 days until I would have to cross another border!
I was back in Kashgar in time for dinner with Amy where we ate some local fried dumpling type food. The long, arduous journey just to get a couple stamps in my passport had really taken it out of me. This made the hot shower and sleep on a bed extremely rewarding.