China => Kyrgyzstan => Tajikistan in one day!

in Border crossings, China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan by on August 3rd, 2010

Breakfast in China, lunch in Kyrgyzstan and dinner in Tajikistan.  This is going to be a lengthy post because it was a looooooooooong day.

After some delay in getting our exit customs clearance in China, we finally started our journey out of China with a late afternoon drive from Kashgar to the Chinese side of the border at Irkeshtam Pass.  Our plan was to spend the night there, get a good night’s sleep instead of having to wake up at 4am in the morning to drive there, so that we would have enough energy for the long day ahead.  Plus we had to get A (our fixer) to drive up early because he drove like a snail and was prone to flat tires.  Eventually it took us 3 hours and him 7 hours to travel the same 280km from Kashgar to Irkeshtam.

Staying at a border town catering to truck drivers was an experience in itself.  We will let the pictures do the talking here…

5-star luxury: cup noodles, sleeping bag and iPad movie night in Irkeshtam!

The toilet wasn’t so 5-star though…we are happy to be leaving Chinese toilets behind

The next morning, we got to customs bright and early.  Immigration was a breeze, but customs…  Given all the hassle we had with Customs the last time, no surprise then that we faced a hiccup here again. We only had a fax of the approval with the original on its way from Kashgar in a cab, which would have taken another 3-4 hours to arrive. After waiting about 2 hours for the customs chief (‘ke zhang’) to get out of his meeting, and then another half hour to write a petition letter to get customs clearance with only the faxed copy. Finally, we sped our way out of China just 5 mins before the Chinese border officials took their obligatory 3-hour lunch break.

It was a short crossing to the Kyrgyz side. We decided not to linger too long in Kyrgyzstan with the unstable political situation and also with the time on our Tajik visa fast running out. We had heard reports of knee-deep mud on the road from the border to Sary Tash but good weather plus ever-amazing Chinese road construction made the ride easier than expected.

Amazing views riding from the border to Sary Tash

From Sary Tash, we followed what seemed to be the better road (tarmac hmmm… tarmac) and ended up in the wrong direction. About 30km in, we realised our mistake and had to turn around. In the meantime, the clock was ticking… we still had about 6 hours to make a border crossing and the 233km to Murgab in Tajikistan.

As with before, the Kyrgyz side of the border was easy, if tedious, having to have our passports checked by three different authorities, all in different buildings (more like shacks actually).  After a quick lunch in front of their customs shack, we headed off for our next border crossing of the day.

Power lunching in Kyrgyzstan – coffee and cherry cake at the border

About 5km after the Kyrgyz side, somewhere in the no man’s land between the two countries, the road had been washed away.  The only way across was through a river.  The fast-rising water levels required us to make an immediate decision whether to attempt a crossing or to turn around.  Actually we had no choice – we only had a single-entry Kyrgyz visa, it was Tajikistan or remaining in no man’s land (which wasn’t really an option).

Road destroyed!

Challenges are meant to be met.  After offloading all our bags, MJo took the AT across but got caught at the very end in a deep gravelly section where the rear wheel dug deeper and deeper into the gravel under water.  Luckily, there was a Russian 4WD van passing by which helped us tow the bike out of the river just in time before it would be swept downstream.  (Actually in hindsight, our guardian angels were clearly working overtime, as we later realised that there was no way there would be any more traffic along this stretch for a while.)

But once out of the water, the AT wouldn’t start anymore!  MJo had to take out all his tools to do some serious roadside repairs.  In the meantime, some Kyrgyz soldiers came by and looked on from the other side, but the water had gotten too deep for their jeep to cross over to us, and they drove off.  Eventually, after taking apart the bike, including disconnecting and removing the fuel tank and changing all the spark plugs, the AT came back to life!  Hearing the roar of the engine never felt so good before!

Where is AA’s roadside assistance when you need them?

The naked AT after removing the fuel tank

Abandoned by the Kyrgyz army!

We have some awesome video footage of this which we will edit and post up in the next few days, so look out for it!

We had spent about three hours in no man’s land by then and finally made it to the Tajik side around 7.30pm.  The border was of course closed by then and we faced the prospect of spending a night in no man’s land.  However, after showing the border guards our photos of the washed-away road accompanied by much gestulating to tell our story, they specially opened the border for us.

Chances of us getting to Murgab (180km away) where we’d planned to spend the night, were slim. And they vanished completely when we got to yet another section where the road had been washed away.

No road again!

This time, the AT got across safely though we had to carry our bags across.

Sabby’s “slave”, a.k.a MJo the manual labourer carries our bags across the water in darkness

By then, there was only the light from the stars and the headlights of the AT as we rode towards Karakul Lake.  We couldn’t see what we were riding through, only the near distance illuminated by our headlights.  Although it was only 60km on a tarmac road, this ride seemed especially long in the darkness of the night.  Just as we were losing hope of finding accommodation for the night, our headlights hit upon a sign for a homestay!

Phew! We have a place to stay for the night!

Our host turned out to be the brother of the van driver who had helped us earlier in the day, what serendipity!  We had a simple but delicious dinner of instant noodles and instant soup and collapsed into sleep almost straight after.  It had been a looooooong day – two border crossings and two river crossings – quite a lot of excitement for the mere 12 hours after we first arrived at Chinese customs!

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Kashgar and its Markets

in China by on August 1st, 2010

As nothing happens with customs clearing in China from basically Friday to Monday lunch time, we spent 3 days in Kashgar exploring the city.

MJo was here previously some 10 years ago climbing the 7542m Muztagh Ata mountain (which we passed on our way down from Tashkorgan a few days earlier) and calmed Sabby’s enthusiasm about the famed “Sunday Market” early on. And he was right, whilst a large market, it wasn’t anything special with traders trying to sell carpets to us and not understanding that there was no room on the AT for such things.

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What was much more interesting and special however, was the Sunday livestock market about 10km outside the city center. Massive numbers of sheeps, donkeys and goats waited to exchange owners. We will let the pictures do the talking and you decide which one to buy…

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FLASH UPDATE: WE ARE IN KASHGAR, CHINA!!!

in Bureaucracy, China by on July 31st, 2010

We got our bikes yesterday and rode 296km from Tashkorgan to Kashgar, where we will be for the next few days. Hopefully no later than Tues as our visa for Tajikistan is only until the 10th of August, plus Sabby needs to make it back to school at some point!

More about our Tashkorgan-Kashgar ride to come…

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Tashkorgan: To laugh or to cry?

in Bureaucracy, China by on July 29th, 2010

There are times in life when you don’t know if you should laugh or cry at the predicament you find yourself in.  Now is one of those for us.  We are currently in Tashkorgan where we have been for the past 3 days waiting for customs clearance of our bike.  Since we arrived, everyday brings its share of unexpected developments.

So let’s start from the beginning.  We arrived in Tashkorgan on the 27th of July, a day earlier than planned as our fixer (let’s call him A) in China was expecting 2 other motorbikes the same day.  When we arrived at immigration at 730pm, A hadn’t arrived, was still 200km away and most probably would not arrive before immigration closed.  So the immigration authorities refused to process our passports, much less the customs officials start the clearance process for our bike.  Luckily, Sabby is fluent in Mandarin (which was going to be a huge asset over the next few days) and was able to persuade the immigration officials to at least let us go to our hotel with our luggage.

A finally showed up at 11.30pm.  The other 2 bikers hadn’t showed up and we didn’t expect them to make it anytime soon.  They were having battery issues when we ran into them at Sost so we figured they must have gotten stuck somewhere along the way.

The next day, we showed up at immigration at 1030 when they opened, got our immigration procedure done and moved on to customs.  And this is where all the fun began.  We mentioned before that it is a complicated (an expensive) process to drive our own vehicle in and out of China.  We are learning exactly how complicated it is.  As A explained to us, his travel agency had to apply with the Kashgar/Urumuqi military authorities for a permit for us to do so more than 2 months ago.  And now, the Tashkorgan customs had to enter this authorization code into the customs systems, then Kashgar customs had to approve it, then Urumuqi customs had to check it before an official declaration of entry could be issued.  Then the customs broker in Kashgar needs to fax this official declaration to our fixer here to show to the Tashkorgan customs before we can leave with the bike.  That’s slightly complicated by the fact that the Tashkorgan customs doesn’t have a fax machine (???!!!) and we have to use the one at the corner shop outside the customs office.

Oh and that’s just the procedure for the bike to enter, we can’t wait for the procedure for the bike to exit.

At customs, our fixer first gets told off for having blank forms (albeit with the proper seal stamped on it).  The customs officer tells him to get a fully-filled in one faxed over from the customs broker.  This takes time and in the meantime, we, especially Sabby, try to butter up the customs officer by telling him all about our trip, showing him photos from Pakistan and telling him how much of a hurry we are in because of our onward visas.  A doesn’t return with the fax until 12.30pm, half an hour before the customs office breaks for lunch until 5pm.  But the fax was still not right, the authorization code is missing one letter in the front.  Also, the customs officer (“customs officer 1”) claimed that we were missing a few documents, one of which A needs to obtain from the Kashgar customs which also breaks for lunch at 1pm and does not resume until 4pm.  Officially, we only needed a properly filled in copy of the first form, the so-called other missing documents was just the customs officer making life difficult for A as there had been bad blood between them in the past.  Great, we just lost a morning.

We return at 5pm, by which time the other 2 bikes had shown up, the reason for which will be a story for another post.  We were missing the document from the Kashgar customs because they refused to release it to us.  Luckily, it was another, younger and less experienced, customs officer (“customs officer 2”) on duty and he entered our authorization codes into the system without question.  An hour later, we got a call from the customs broker: the Kashgar customs still could not find our authorization codes into their system.  So Sabby went back to the customs office with A where customs officer 1 was on duty this time.  She put on her most pathetic face and begged him to check on it.  Turns out that A had filled in the date of import as the day before.  The buttering-up from the morning paid off, Sabby managed to get customs officer 1 to re-enter the authorization codes for both our bike and the other 2 bikes.  She even managed to persuade him to stay in the office until Kashgar customs confirmed receipt of the authorization codes.  What a relief, we thought then that we would be able to get the bikes cleared the next day.

Sabby works her charm and Mandarin at the customs office

This morning rolled around, we weren’t expecting to receive the clearance until noon so we had a lazy breakfast, packed up all our stuff and sorted out our photos.  Still nothing at noon, so we knew we wouldn’t get our bikes until 5.30pm at the earliest when the Tashkorgan customs re-opened after lunch.  So we went to the internet café.  We called A every half hour from 3.30pm to get a status update.  Finally at 5pm, we get an update that our cases were now with Urumuqi customs for the final checking.  Things were looking up.  Sabby went with A to the customs office at 6 in a bid to make sure that the customs officer didn’t leave before our clearance came through.  They got there in the nick of time, he (“customs officer 3” this time) was literally walking out of the office as they arrived.  Again, Sabby worked her Mandarin and pleading look, so he gave his phone number and said to call him when the fax arrived.

3 very sorry-looking motorcycles sit outside the customs office in the rain waiting for their customs clearance

By 7.30pm, no fax had arrived and no way we were leaving today.  A’s story this time: it’s month-end at the Kashgar customs and they would not accept any payments, including ours, until the start of August.  ???!!!  As MJo puts it, it’s like “the dog ate my homework, the Indian customs officer didn’t have an umbrella”.

So here we are, in Tashkorgan for yet another night.  No water tonight though due to some flooding in the area.   Yes, it’s a ???!!! again but at this point, we will try to focus on the positives, we do have electricity and beer after all.  And at least we have 2 other bikers stuck in the same situation and it has been fun hanging out with them, trading stories about our respective journeys.

MJo with fellow rider, Achim – to laugh or to cry?

We will hopefully leave tomorrow around noon.  We have sent A back to Kashgar now to make sure he is ready to deal with the exit clearance process.  In the meantime, Sabby, her Mandarin skills and her determination to leave Tashkorgan, are left in charge to make sure we leave tomorrow, by hook or by crook.

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KKH: Day 4 (Passu-Sust-Tashkorgan)

in China, KKH, Pakistan by on July 27th, 2010

Another big day for us as we had to cross the Pakistan-China border today.

At Sust, we ran into the other 2 bikers who would be making the crossing with us today.  All the petrol stations were dry with no petrol trucks able to get through due to the “lake” at Attabad.  But of course, there was one guy in the village who managed to get hold of petrol and was selling it diluted and at inflated prices. MJo was concerned as to the low octane of the fuel but as this was the only option he was happy to pour it in the tank.

Pouring petrol from jerry cans

Our petrol seller goes behind and measures out the petrol by hand

As with the border crossing at Wagha, Pakistani immigration and customs were a breeze.   The road from Sost got more challenging, a lot of roadworks along the way.

You can see how bad the roads got

We still managed to maintain an average speed of 40km/h and made it to the top of the Khunjerah Pass in 2 hours. This border is the world highest border crossing apparently. When we got there, we enjoyed a leisurely picnic lunch with great views – MJo really knows how to take a girl out on a date! At the top, we also met some Chinese tourists who had driven all the way to the border just to take a look over to Pakistan and take lots of pictures, with no intention of actually crossing the border??!!

We made it to China!

From the Chinese side of the border, we got a Chinese military and truck convoy escort all the way to Tashkorgan, ostensibly to make sure we didn’t over-speed or get lost.

Our truck escort driving ahead of us on the way to Tashkorgan

We finally got to Tashkorgan around 7pm (Beijing time which is imposed upon the entire country regardless of actual sunlight hours).

You may be wondering what happened to the other two bikers (Achim and Saki) that were meant to be doing the crossing with us?  How come no pictures of them or with them?  Well it turns out that we were uber-lucky.  A landslide came down on one section of the road, stopping them in their tracks, before a second avalanche of rocks started coming down “like diarrhea” for the next 3-4 hours, killing any hope of them making it across.  We were only 5-10min ahead of this avalanche.

Check out this video of the avalanche

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