China => Kyrgyzstan => Tajikistan in one day!

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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