Crossing from China to Kyrgyzstan via the Torugart Pass is notoriously difficult. The pass is high (3,752m) in the Tian Shan mountains and sometimes snow closes the road. The border is also considered a special crossing with extra security needs and as a result a special permit is required, including a guide and pre-arranged transport for both sides of the border. All of this means it’s expensive.
Originally I was going to bypass all this hassle and expense and cross into Kyrgyzstan via the Irkeshtam Pass (2,841m) by local bus. But I’d read a report the local bus may not be running and then I meet some other travellers in the hostel in Kashgar who were planning to do the Torugart Pass who I could share the cost with. The Torugart Pass is also the classic Silk Road route across the mountains. Taking this all into consideration my decision was made, the Torugart Pass it was! With the excellent help of Old Road Tours the arrangements were made, including a stop at the Silk Road caravanserai of Tash Rabat, and I would soon be on my way to my next country after 34 days of travelling across China.
Not long after leaving Kashgar we were driving across desert and the road slowly climbed higher into the mountains. The adventure had begun.
After only 60kms we reached Chinese immigration and customs. Inside the large building it was empty other than a few X-ray machines and immigration officials. Me and my travel companions passed easily enough but when we joined our car we were made to wait, and wait, and wait. Our timing had unfortunately coincided with three tour buses just arriving at immigration and the Chinese had decided we needed to leave all at the same time! After all people from the three buses were finally processed we are able to leave.
Another stop at another checkpoint before we reached the final Chinese checkpoint (yes, three checkpoints on the Chinese side alone!) Again our timing was terrible as we reached the last checkpoint at lunchtime and we were made to wait some more. But it was only half an hour this time before we were on our way again. Large gates across the road and a watchtower indicated we’d finally arrived at the border. A little more waiting and the gates opened. We walked across into Kyrgyzstan and met our Kyrgyz driver.
From here the road descended towards a large lake, Chatryr-Kol. Not far down the road we were made to stop again with some more waiting before we could continue to the Kyrgyz immigration. Formalities were pretty straight forward and soon I had a Kyrgyz stamp in my passport (yay!) As we drove off the landscape opened up with Chatryr-Kol spread out before us and mountains dusted with snow skirted the plain. It was spectacular. One final checkpoint and we were finally through. I was in Kyrgyzstan!
Mountains followed the road on each side as we continued driving. Not long after crossing into Kyrgyzstan we took a side road into a stunning valley.
Tucked into the valley amongst the mountains was Tash Rabat, a wonderful stone, fortified caravanserai with a large dome. I could easily picture how this was another important safe haven on the Silk Road.
That evening we stayed in yurts, portable homes made of felt perfect for the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Kyrgyz people. The yurts were grouped in clusters in the valley and as night fell I lay curled up under layers of blankets while piles of dung burned merrily on the stove. I was staying in my first yurt on my first night in Kyrgyzstan. A fitting way to start my visit to this country of nomads.
In Kashgar I highly recommend talking to Abdul at Old Road Tours to help organise your crossing over the Torugart Pass.
In Kyrgyzstan CBT Naryn can arrange the necessary paperwork, permits and drivers to cross the Torugart Pass. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or +996 (3522) 50865