Kyrgyzstan: So We Waited & We Waited or “Don’t Forget Your Yorkie Bar”
If you would like to read about the first part of this journey, which involved getting from Bishkek to Sary Tash, then click here.
To pick up where Kirsty left off with her previous Kyrgyzstan blog, we sat around in Osh for a couple of days hoping that another set of travellers would come through so that we could join forces and once again try to get into Tajikistan but our luck on this trip to date had been terrible (see earlier blogs) and of course nobody turned up. In itself, this wasn’t a complete disaster as we could have waited even longer but there was another problem that we now had to deal with, public holidays and lots of them.
In China, there is May Day and National Day which are more commonly known as Golden Week and in Kyrgyzstan, there was Unity Day, Constitution Day and Remembrance Day. And how did this affect us exactly? Well, it meant that the Irkeshtam Pass (that we needed to cross to get back to China), which already closes at the weekends, would be closed for a full ten days (can you imagine a major border in Europe closing for this long?). We had a couple of days in hand before the closing of the border and hence our dilemma was as follows; did we try to get to Tajikistan again or did we give up and cross the border before it closed? If we tried again and failed it would have meant hanging around in Osh for ten days (boring) or going all the way back to Bishkek and flying out (tedious and expensive). To cut a long story short and all that (there were potential complications about getting out Tajikistan as well for example) we decided to take the safe option and get into China before the border with Kyrgyzstan closed for what seemed like forever and a day.
So, with the decision made we focused on the best way to get to China. It takes two days of travelling to get to Kashgar in western China and we’d heard that it was relatively easy to hitch most of the way and given that the alternative was to hire a land cruiser at $400 a pop, we thought we would give it a go.
The first part of the journey was the familiar three-hour run back down to Sary Tash (we had travelled this leg twice already) but from there on there was no organised transport and it was time to practice the old ‘showing a bit of leg’ (me) and ‘sticking out of the thumb’ (Kirsty) routine and waiting it out for a ride. It must have been the ‘showing a bit of leg’ (of course!) that did it but we waited no more than five minutes for our first friendly truck driver to pick us up and take us on the first part of our journey.
En route from Osh to Sary Tash
Lunch with our driver and the other passengers in the shared taxi from Osh to Sary Tash
It was the first time either of us had been inside the cabin of one of these big trucks and they were very homely and most comfortable. Our driver (a Kyrgyz) had a mate who occupied the passenger seat so we sat on the bottom bunk at the back. Small talk (well, smiles and gestures) and groovy Turkish style music plus some pretty hairy moments cutting through the snowbound road meant the journey was never boring and we arrived at Irkeshtam about four hours later.
On the road from Osh to Sary Tash
Deep snow on the road from Sary Tash to Irkeshtam
Irkeshtam can only be described as a huge car park for trucks (and a dusty one at that) and it was very quickly obvious that there was nowhere to sleep for the night (it’s normal practice for travellers to sleep in Sary Tash and make an early start the next morning). Thankfully our driver was very kind (all truck drivers are in our opinion!) and offered us one of his bunks in the cabin and although we were most grateful for this we knew it was going to be very cold and we didn’t have sleeping bags.
“So be it,” we thought and headed out to find some hot water for our pot muck. On the way back to the truck we were approached by a woman (there aren’t many in Irkeshtam) who asked if we would like a cup of tea. We happily accepted and it turned out she was the resident doctor cum Bed & Breakfast owner and after an hour or so of small talk and looking at photos of her family she asked where we were sleeping. When we told her she promptly offered us copious duvets and a mattress on the floor of the surgery. We (even more promptly) accepted, went back to the truck to get our stuff and thank the driver and ended up having a very warm and pleasant night’s sleep plus a delicious breakfast of warm, fresh bread and fried eggs.
Above: With the doctor of Irkeshtam (left) and our bed in the doctor’s surgery in Irkeshtam
Above: With the doctor (right) and her friend (left) and outside the doctor’s surgery/B&B/our saviour for the night in Irkeshtam! (right)
One distinct advantage we had over the truck drivers was that we didn’t have to sit in queues for hours (possibly days) on end waiting to clear customs and pass through checkpoints. Having said goodbye to the doctor, we walked (past all the waiting trucks) to the border, cleared formalities and jumped on the first truck heading to Chinese customs. It really was that easy and the truck drivers are almost ordered by the border guards to take hitchhikers with them although given ALL truck drivers are so nice, I reckon they would have picked us up anyway?
To begin with, our second driver (a Tajik) didn’t seem as nice as the first one but he ended up being very kind and a very good driver. It was bear hugs and big smiles all round when we bumped into him again a week later in Kashgar.
Chinese customs used to be the actual border but for some reason, the Chinese have moved this some 300km further inland meaning that it takes around seven hours to cross a very barren and empty no man’s land. At Chinese customs, we did have to wait and get back on the same truck which took about an hour but at the brand spanking new Chinese border thankfully we were allowed to cross by foot and pick up another truck. I reckon if we hadn’t done this we would have been there all night as there were four lines of trucks extending back at least 800 metres and they weren’t going anywhere fast. Plus the border was due to close in about two hours time.
On the road from Sary Tash to Irkeshtam
Chinese immigration took a while but only because the (young) border officials wanted to practice their English and search our bags with a fine-tooth comb but they were very polite and promptly sorted out our third and final truck that would eventually get us to Kashgar. Our hearts sank when we were put on a Chinese truck but he turned out to be OK although his driving was by far the worst even though he had the biggest truck plus he made me take my shoes off before allowing me to sit on his bed. Fair enough I guess but it did leave a rather nasty aroma in the air!
The last part of the journey took about four hours and we arrived in Kashgar around 9pm Xingjiang time (Kirsty will explain this in the next blog).
To sum up, this was a great adventure, made even better by the fact that we only spent about $20 between us to get all the way from Osh to Kashgar. None of the drivers ever asked for money and the scenery along the way was wild and rugged. It’s a shame we didn’t make it to Tajikistan but as Kirsty pointed out, in nearly four years of being away this is the only trip that hasn’t gone according to plan. It also gives a good excuse to go back…….
Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
And finally, for those of you who are not old enough to remember or from the British Isles (or both), the “Don’t Forget Your Yorkie Bar” reference in the subheading is related to a bar of chocolate called a Yorkie Bar that was very popular when I was a kid. The TV adverts used to feature manly truck drivers chomping on an equally manly Yorkie Bar. Truck drivers were great then and they are now! Plus, you can still buy Yorkie Bars …
Check out the following YouTube links for a trip down memory lane or to see what an earth I am talking about. Or, if you prefer, scroll down to see a few photos of southern Kyrgyzstan’s awe-inspiring scenery.
Above: En route from Osh to Sary Tash
The settlement of Sary Tash
Scenery near Sary Tash