This is an account of how we crossed the Torugart Pass at 3752m from Kyrgzstan to China.
68km from Ak-Beyit, we reached a caravan (wagon) site and were stopped in front of a “Militia Post” (Police checkpoint). Our passports were checked and registered inside the small post. After the registering, we were told by the 2 men in army jackets that we had to pay 200 som (~US$5) per person, for whatever reasons we were not clear.
We asked to see their official documents stating this ‘entrance’ fee for foreigners but they said that they were in the safe. Then they tried to break open the safe in a bid to recover the so-called document. The standoff lasted for >15mins before they finally agreed to return our passports. Before they left, they reminded us to return the next morning and they would show us the document to pay our fees.
From the “Militia Post”, we were told that the Kyrgzs Customs Checkpoint was just 500m down the road. A multi-stories government lookalike building could be seen from there.
It was blowing shivering cold winds that evening but we did not fancy paying for a night in one of the wagon ‘motel’ there. They asked for 100som each. While searching for a possible site to pitch Jeremy’s tent, Sean explained to the previous Police that we had been putting up at locals’ houses every night. Surprisingly he offered his wagon to us, free of charge. We could even put our bikes inside the wagon. Tucked comfortably in our sleeping bags, we were lucky to have gotten this wagon as it was freezing temperature outside.
We rode straight into the customs building. However, it was totally vacant, not a single soul around. An hour later, an army personnel chased us out of the premises, requesting us to wait outside the gate.
We were asked by the guards to enter the Customs building. Just outside, we were stopped and questioned by some army personnel. They asked if we had somebody from China waiting for us at the Chinese border. We gave a name from Kashgar and were cleared to enter the building.
The customs formalities were in fact smoothly done. We did not have an entry stamp when we entered the Kyrgzstan from a remote border crossing between Kazakhstan and Kyrgzstan. Luckily that did not pose any problem as the Kyrgzs officer recognised the exit stamps on our Kazak visas. With the Kyrgys “Torugart” exit stamps on our passports, we rode out of the Customs building.
Immediately after leaving the customs, we climbed a gradual hill. At this point, we were around 3600m a.s.l. and 2km later, we reached a Kyrgzs Border Guard Post where our passports were checked again. A couple of minutes later, we were back on the gravel track, riding towards the Torugart Pass. Weather was brilliant on the mountain top, we could almost feel the sun on our cheeks. 4km on the rolling hills later, the China flag appeared and the Torugart Pass, the highest crossing point between China and Kyrgzstan lie right infront of us. The Chinese army had their border base stationed at the Pass.
When we approached the border, we were stopped by the Chinese soldier stationed there. He told us that if we did not have someone to pick us up from the Pass, we were not be allowed to enter China. What he said was something we had heard of before about crossing the Torugart Pass. However information abt the Pass crossing was vague so we decided to try crossing without applying for any ‘permit’ or arrangements with any travel agency.
We were stuck at the border for sometime before a 2-star officer came out with some marching soldiers. He saw us with our bikes and approached us, immediately enquiring about our trip. The officer was around our age (rest of soldiers were in early 20s, serving their military service) and appeared very enthusiastic about our cycling stint. We stood chatting on the border with him and his men and eventually took a group photo with the P.R.C soldiers!
By then, it was already 1100hrs (1300h Beijing time) and the lunch time for the soldiers. What happened next caught us by surprise as the officer invited us into their TV room for LUNCH! We gave them our meal boxes and brought our chopsticks inside. Minutes later, our meal boxes returned with steaming hot rice and chicken legs with cucumbers spiced with chilli. What a rare treat! We never imagine having such a meal of Chinese rice on a 3752m mountain pass and in a military compound.
After lunch, we proceeded to descend; nobody seemed to bother about the pick-up issue except for the previous border guard. The signboard at the Pass read “Kashgar 160km. Artus 171km”.
It was downhill all the way but along rocky, gravel road. Trucks of scrap metal were passing us, competing with us on the narrow downhill track. We eventually came to a bigger scale Chinese military compound 5km later. We were informed that this was the “Preliminary Inspection Zone” and we could see every truck been checked by the soldiers.
We submitted our passports for the first time to the Chinese officer on duty, a 3-star guy. When he returned minutes later, he delivered a disappointing message to us – we could not descend the Torugart Pass on bicycles. He explained clearly to us that the Torugart Pass is considered a 2nd class transport route between China and Kyrgzstan. As such, they do not allow people of other nationalities to travel on this road. He cited security and safety as reasons due to the long distance to the Chinese Torugart Checkpoint (at 100km later) and the remote landscape and the bad gravel road, unsuitable for bicycles. As we were tourists entering China, they have to hold responsibilities in ensuring our safety. The only solution would be to engage a state-recognised travel agency from Kashgar to ferry us down in a van all the way to the checkpoint 100km later. According to him, it was impossible to arrange at that moment as such arrangements had to be made prior to reaching the Chinese border and travel agencies on both sides had to tie up. Furthermore, there was no network for mobile phones there and the army relied on radio sets for communication. His message was clear – we had to return to the Kyrgzs Checkpoint by that day. As it was a military zone, we could not stay for the night there. He also further explained that they have an agreement with the Kyrgzs Customs whereby our exit stamps would be cancelled once we are back on the Kyrgzs side. A new stamp would be applied when we exit the next time.
There was a Kashgar travel agency guy at that moment. He offered us US$180 for the 3 of us and even stated that he could make arrangements with the checkpoint to allow our descend on the same day. We tried to negotiate for a lower price but he refused and we eventually rejected his offer. He left with his van and we were left stuck at the Inspection zone.
The 3-star officer repeatedly warned us to return a.s.a.p. or otherwise he might have to resort to military actions according to their law. Seeing no other possibilities, we climbed back to our bikes and pedalled up again. Barely out of the zone, another van appeared infront of us. It was from another travel agency and they had come down coz their clients did not appear on the Pass. We approached him to bring us down but unfortunately he did not get clearance from the 3-star officer. He told us he could arrange another van for US$250 the next day if we wanted. Again, the price was non-negotiable. We did not agree to any arrangement and rode all the way up.
Coincidentally on the pass, we met the 2 tourists, a New Zealand trekking guide and a Dutch woman who were supposed to take the 2nd van that we had met earlier. Since we were able to communicate in mandarin, we assisted them in contacting their travel agency and with the guards to arrange for their transport back. We tried to arrange with their travel agency over the phone to pick us up since the 2nd van was returning to pick them up. However, when the Uygur man returned >2hrs later, he cited no approval from below and refused to bring us down. This time, his price for the next day van was US$300. We disagreed to pay such price and once again, we saw them off without any arrangements.
After they left, we tried to contact the 1st travel agency whom we had met at the 5km Inspection zone. He agreed to pick us up at US$200 the next day. Before we left the Chinese military compound, the officer gave us buns and warm soup to fill our empty stomachs. It was 0′C when we left the Chinese border.
We decided to head towards the Kyrgzs Border Guard post and tried our luck in putting up for the night there. On our 1st approach, an officer from the hut did not allow us for the night, citing military area. We were told to return to the Kyrgzs Customs and the gate would be opened for us. However minutes later, 2 young Kyrgzs men came out and beckoned us to follow them to an abandoned house opposite with our bicycles. Once there, hidden from the main road did they explain their intention. It seemed like they wanted to help us for the night, possibly in the hut. However, when we rode down, we passed their higher ranking officers’ jeep and they had seen us cycling toward the hut. We had to hide behind the house until the officers finished with their drinking and returned to base. The young Kyrgzs soldiers even lent us their winter army overcoats while waiting in the freezing cold.
Finally, the officers left in their jeep and we were brought into the hut. We were given hot tea, bread and some leftover rice. As we sat and ate in their dining area, the officer explained the situation to us. It would be impossible to house us inside as it was a military compound. Furthermore, his officers had seen us and might be searching for us. However, he also stated that if we return to the base, it would be troublesome as the Customs officers would demand for money when we asked for another exit stamp the next day.
He left us for 30mins while he tried to think of possible solution for us.
He returned to our table and nodded in approval of our stay inside their hut. We would sleep in their dormitory with the soldiers for the night. It was too cold outside and with the sweeping wind and possible wolves, too harsh to sleep in tent.
He further explained that we would have to leave early the next morning and should not return to the Kyrgzs customs.
We were served a hot meal of porridge with meat and freshly baked ‘nan’ for breakfast. Leaving the soldiers after breakfast, we rode towards the Torugart Pass. It was a sunny day but gloomy clouds were moving towards us rapidly. As it was still early (the Chinese border only opens after 10am Kyrgzs time), we rode merely 2km and waited on the grass patch there. 1-1/2hr later, we resumed our ride. By then, the 1st truck had appeared on the Torugart road.
We waited outside the Chinese border this time. The weather changed rapidly on the mountain pass. One moment it was sunny and next moment, it was blowing snow and sweeping wind.
The van finally appeared and we descended the pass to the 5km Inspection Zone, our 1st time on the road with an arranged vehicle. We met the same 3-star officer again. As if to make things difficult for us, he wanted to search for books and magazines. Jeremy had a French version of the Lonely Planet on China and it was confiscated by him.
The book was confiscated on grounds of sensitive content, unfriendly towards the P.R.C.It had a map of China on the back cover that did not show Taiwan as part of the P.R.C. – China was shaded in yellow and Taiwan was in different colour. The officer wrote about this book and passed the note with the book to our driver to bring down to the Chinese checkpoint.
The journey down the mountain, across valleys and remote villages on the mostly gravel road lasted almost 3hrs, covering 107km from the Torugart Pass. It was a pity we had to go through this fascinating landscape in a van.
The Chinese Torugart Customs checkpoint was housed in a modern, seemingly new building with smartly dressed officers, customs booths and x-ray machines. A senior Army officer politely welcomed us, took Jeremy’s book and gestured us inside for customs formalities. Our passports were checked and nothing was questioned about our earlier exit date from Kyrgzstan customs the day before. All our bags and panniers went through the x-ray machine whereas Sean’s rear panniers were checked from the bike as they could not be removed easily. The army and customs officers were all very friendly and helpful towards us, especially interested in our cycling stint. Jeremy’s book was returned. The Senior officer and the passport control lady officer even helped to re-stamp Sean’s entry stamp because they had previously stamped on a new page – there were not enough pages in his passport for further visas.
We did not have an easy time coming down the Torugart Pass but the warm gesture and friendliness of the officers in the Chinese Torugart Checkpoint certainly lifted our spirits.
We have finally entered China.