Day 101 (1): The pros and cons of hitch-hiking

Irkeshtam Travel Blog

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The road to Irkeshtam (the part which was still good...)

The easiest way to get to the Chinese border crossing at Irkeshtam is to hitch a ride with one of the Chinese trucks passing through Sary-Tash in the morning. I had asked Ieda, the proprietress of the guesthouse last night and she had told me that every morning plenty of trucks pass the petrol station in the centre of town.

And indeed, as I was getting my stuff ready and had a quick breakfast, I saw three trucks passing through the town already. However, once I reached the petrol station it seemed all traffic had died out. For the next 35 minutes not a single car or truck passed.
Then at 7:35 Chinese truck came. It stopped and I asked the Chinese driver if I could hitch a ride to the border. He looked at me not understanding. “Border?” I asked.

The views on the Kyrgyz side of the border
“Irkeshtam?” “China?”
Still no reaction.
“Kashgar?” I tried again and he nodded his face. Kashgar was a word he understood and I could climb into his cabin.

For the next 4 hours I was rattled and shaken as we drove the indescribably bad road to the border. The truck didn't have too many problems with the potholes, but there would be no way Tim and Wim's car would ever have managed to drive this road.

The road is slowly being upgraded though. I saw many roadworks along the way and once again these were Chinese workers, rather than locals. Just like in Tajikistan. I wondered if Kyrgyzstan is also selling off land in order to have the Chinese fix their roads, but later I learned that Kyrgyzstan struck a different deal with the Chinese.
The views on the Chinese side of the border
If China gives Kyrgyzstan new roads, Kyrgyzstan gives Chinese traders tax benefits to export their goods. A win-win situation for both countries, it seems.

The views along the way were terrific. We drove in the middle of a wide, green valley, with high snowcapped peaks on both ends. Absolutely amazing.

We reached the Kyrgyz border post and I had expected this would be the end of my ride and I would have to find another truck to get to the Chinese border post, 7km further up the road. However, as the truck was empty he got through formalities really quickly and he even waited for me until I was done.
At the first Chinese border post it was the same thing. My luggage was scrutinized and I even had to hand over my laptop for inspection and all the while the driver kept waiting for me.
The road to Kashgar
So nice of him! He didn't speak a word of English, Kyrgyz or Russian, so it was difficult communicating with him, but he was a genuinely nice guy.

We finally reached the Chinese immigration post. I had to go through a different queue than my driver, so we got separated. The whole immigration procedure took about 10 minutes and I was pleasantly surprised at the friendliness of the officials. “Welcome to China” one guy said - I don't think I have had a border crossing this friendly since arriving in Iran.

When all formalities were done and I was officially in China, all officials immediately closed shop and locked the doors of the immigration building. Time for lunch, I reasoned. I was very lucky to be allowed entry, otherwise I would have had to wait 2.
The road to Kashgar
5 hours.

To my shock I discovered that my driver had not been so lucky. He was still stuck on the other side of the border and would have to wait. Bugger! I hadn't expected to travel all the way to Kashgar with him, but I had wanted to at least be able to thank him for the ride and give him some money.

The other side of the border was chaos. The Chinese side of the border crossing has turned into a complete village, with restaurants and shops catering for the hundreds of trucks that pass here every day. The only thing lacking was... a bank. I needed an ATM or change some money in order to pay for onwards transport to Kashgar. With the border closed for lunch it would be a while for the first trucks to pass through, so hitch-hiking was not an option, and besides, I preferred to get to Kashgar quickly, rather than taking an excruciatingly slow truck descending down from the mountains.
The road to Kashgar

There were some cars and drivers who approached me, offering a taxi ride. $ 100 to get to Kashgar. Wow, that was a bit much. My book says about $ 10 per person for a shared taxi, so a car should not cost more than $ 50. I walked on in search of a shared taxi stand. Though I didn't have any high hopes of sharing a taxi, since everybody seemed to be travelling in opposite direction.

After searching for more than half an hour I found a driver willing to drive me to Kashgar. He too quoted $ 100, but after hard bargaining we settled for $ 40. Still way more than I had wanted to pay, but it seemed I wasn't going to find any cheaper.
Only when we were on our way did I understand just why the prices were so high - it is 220 km from the border to Kashgar. No wonder the drivers want money!

So the drive to Kashgar took another 4 hours. Again, the views were stunning. I was amazed just how different the mountains look this side of the border. How can it be that when you cross a political border the landscape changes completely? Gone were the green pastures, they had made way for barren cliffs with colours ranging from light ochre to dark red.

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The road to Irkeshtam (the part wh…
The road to Irkeshtam (the part w…
The views on the Kyrgyz side of th…
The views on the Kyrgyz side of t…
The views on the Chinese side of t…
The views on the Chinese side of …
The road to Kashgar
The road to Kashgar
The road to Kashgar
The road to Kashgar
The road to Kashgar
The road to Kashgar
The magnificent road to Kashgar
The magnificent road to Kashgar
The road to Kashgar
The road to Kashgar
photo by: Biedjee