The trip over the Torugart pass from China to Kyrgyzstan was meant to be something of an adventure.
But the fact that it’s only possible to do as part of a well organized pre-booked tour meant that actually it went very smoothly with nary a hint of the unexpected.
The owner of the tour company, Abdul, walked into the lobby of our hostel just as we did, and after some fond farewells to the staff and the kitten we headed downstairs to our oversized (for two passengers, a driver and a guide) ride, a shiny, clean new minivan.
On the way out of town we stopped and traded Abdul for his brother, Petty (not sure of the spelling there) who would be our guide until we crossed the border.
Our final non-official stop was at the dusty, frontier-feeling town of Shang’atushixiang where we picked up some bread, fruit and water for the trip.
Our final Chinese town. The main intersection in Shang’atushixiang
The road from Kashgar passed through wide flat arid and semi-arid land, sometimes passing through oases of willow and poplar trees, sometimes almost empty save for a few goats left out to graze. A couple hour of this brought us to the Chinese immigration post.
For convenience’s sake, this is actually located perhaps 100km from the border. I suspect that just about all of the foreigners crossing the pass that day were at the post at the same time as us, meaning that it took a while to get process us all. While we were waiting we changed the last of our Chinese RMB for Kyrgyz Som with one of a few money changers who hung around outside (I’m somewhat surprised it’s worth their while given the isolation of the place, but then I’d constanly been surprised at what people in China found it worthwhile to do in order to make a kuai.)
Busy as they were, the Chinese (and they were Han Chinese, not Uighur) immigration officers were friendly enough (I said my final “nihao” of the trip to one of them and got a big smile in return) and though it took a while we eventually got our exit stamps and were piled back into the van for the trip up to the border proper.
From this point, much of the trip up to the pass was rather reminiscent of the first parts of the Karakoram highway. It was fairly flat and straight, not a switchback in sight. The road followed a river valley that alternated between a narrow, steep sided gorge and a broad valley with colourful, crenelated cliffs on either side and room for grazing livestock in between.
Dramatic valley, dramatic sky on the way up towards the Torugart Pass
Coloured– painted almost– cliffs in the valley on the way to the pass
The road was in generally okay shape, but the trip was punctuated by rough, bouncy sections where the heavy trucks that form most of its traffic had made a mess of it in the mere two years since its last major construction.
As we drove we talked with Petty a bit about the surroundings, (almost all of the inhabitants in this area were Kyrgyz), language (including the similarities between Uighur, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Kazakh and Turkish, which form a [to greater or lesser degrees] mutually intelligible continuum across the continent and the relationship between Uighurs and the Chinese government. As noted before, it’s not an entirely happy one. He explained that one of the major complaints is that it’s very difficult for Uighurs to get many of the more significant benefits provided by the government to Han Chinese without relinquishing their religion and almost entirely assimilating into Han Chinese society. This applied to everything from government jobs to passports. A few years before, Petty had tried to get a passport and had spent 20,000RMB on the process, only to have his application rejected in the end. Another major problem was corruption, both petty and grand, within the government, though he was quick to say that this wasn’t a particularly Uighur complaint and was something that they had in common with many ordinary Chinese throughout the country. As we drove we saw several army trucks and military helicopters passing in the opposite direction. We queried Petty about these and he explained that they were probably particularly active because something (he didn’t know exactly what, just something) had been up with the Uighur population of Hotan to the southeast of Kashgar in the previous few days. So it seems that the difficulties in China’s west are not going away any time soon.
Our drive eventually took us up and out of the end of the river valley, by which point we were sharing the road with a mix of Kyrgyz and Chinese heavy trucks. The ones heading towards Kyrgyzstan were filled with every imaginable consumer good, while those on their way to China were either empty or filled with scrap metal, which says something about state of the economies of, or at least the state of trade between, the two nations.
The row of dozens upon dozens of trucks waiting for inspection at the Chinese customs post just below the border. It looked like a tough place to spend ones working days. Rubbish was strewn everywhere alongside the muddy road, and feral dogs barked and fought outside the van as we stopped to have our paperwork checked here
At the very top of the pass we were above the treeline. It was cloudy, so we could see little of the mountain peaks around us (sad, because the Torugart is supposed to be quite an impressive pass) however we were clearly a long way up, as there were patches of snow covering many parts of the hillsides. There were also Chinese observation posts on hilltops on the Chinese side of the border. In the past nomads could freely roam across the frontiers, but with advances in technology their centuries old wandering ways had been brought to a halt.
We could cross with no problem however, and after Petty showed some paperwork to the Chinese guards at gateway to the country we removed our luggage, walked across the border and were introduced to our driver for the second leg of the trip. The vehicle this time was a bit less flashy, a 10 or 12 year old Audi sedan with soft, over-reclined seats, but it would serve to get us where we were going.
Our first stop in Kyrgyzstan was a group of concrete and sheet metal buildings a few km down from the pass where we were ushered into a run-down looking waiting hall (with no one waiting in it) decorated with signs in Russian (or at least in the Cyrillic alphabet… unlike Uighur which uses Arabic script, Kyrgyz is written in Cyrillic.) We got our entry stamps quickly and after a moment’s confusion when we couldn’t find them in our passports (they were on the visa itself) we headed back outside.
The Kyrgyz border post
The toilets at the Kyrgyz border post. We realized shortly after using this one that there was actually a much nicer (not snow-encrusted) indoor one immediately next door
As we left the neighbourhood we presented our passports to the police manning a barrier across the road. “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!” they said, smiling. Floundering for the tiny bits of Russian I knew, but wanting to thank the man in (one of) the local language(s) I replied “Nosdrovya!” It was only a few minutes later when I realized, with embarrassment, that instead of thanking him I’d made a drinking toast. I now wonder if he’d expected me to produce a flask of vodka from my coat
The Kyrgyz side of the border was much more scenic and impressive than the Chinese side. Though the clouds still obscured the tops of the mountains, we could see that they extended far off into the distance and rose well above the road. We also passed by a beautiful (if rather stark in the cold, cloudy environment) alpine lake. The land we passed was greener, wilder and emptier. Sheep, goats and horses dotted the landscape off in the distance, and we saw the white, cone shaped outlines of our first Kyrgyz yurts out amongst them as well. Along the way we stopped at a remote Kyrgyz army checkpoint, a few low buildings stuck way out in the middle of nowhere (trying to prevent smuggling I think.) The guards there looked at our passports, smiled and welcomed us to the country once again. They asked if we had any souvenirs from Canada or NZ, and since they’d been so friendly and helpful after a bit of thought I dug a few Canadian coins out of my pack in the trunk of the car, to which they smiled again and waved us on our way.
Snow on the mountains just after we crossed the Torugart
Sometimes it’s tough taking photos out the moving windows of the car. High up on the pass spring greenery was just beginning to return to the land
A few hours driving through this dramatic high alpine landscape and we began to descend, passing from green pasture to red rock of narrow canyons that wound their way down from the plateau. Even under the cloudy skies the sandstone canyons were brilliantly coloured and brightly accented by healthy green trees. They looked as though they belonged in southern Utah or northern Arizona in the southern USA.
Starting the descent into the red rock canyons just outside of Naryn
Finally we passed the sign on which I just managed to pick out the Cyrillic characters giving the name of our destination: Naryn.
On arriving we were met by the driver’s agent who thankfully gave us some advice on where we might stay, how to move on, and how much transport should cost when we did.
We checked in to the Ala Too hotel, a Soviet era place of lodging. We rather expected it to be grim, grubby and uninspiring. Perhaps it was because of our low expectations, but we actually found it cozy and comfortable. After a bit of recovery from the day’s drive we went out for a bit of a look around the town.
The rooms in the hotel were rather brighter and more pleasant than the hallway
Our first impression of a Kyrgyzstani town up close was surprise at how European it seemed. We wandered down the tree lined street, marvelling at the wooden houses with simple peaked roofs. Old Ladas and Audis were the major brands of car on the road (the former making up most of the private vehicles, the latter most of the taxis.) We’d travelled only a couple of hundred km from China, but this place looked more like a little town in Poland somewhere than it did ANYWHERE else we’d ever seen in Asia.
You’re not in China anymore… The view from our hotel room window in the Kyrgyz town of Naryn
During this we had our first non-commercial interaction with a Kyrgyz citizen. He was a thin young man in his mid-twenties, and though he spoke virtually no English, was anxious to talk with us. And talk we did. We’d point at various things, trading English and Russian words for them as we walked up the single major street in Naryn (the town was about 15km long, though only a few hundred metres wide at the most.) As we did, the sky which had been threatening rain all day opened up and began to pour down.
We went in to a shop and our friend, who seemed to have changed his mind several times about where he was going, followed us right in. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why, but despite his outward helpfulness, something seemed not quite right about him. It took a while, but as we purchased our food for the evening, it finally dawned on us that he was tremendously drunk. This seemed in keeping with the wall full of vodka bottles in the shop…
The sense of European-ness continued during shopping. Bread, cheese (plain, off white, slightly yellow cow’s milk cheese!) smoked fish, European sweets, sausages, cold beer… It all combined to make the lace look like a deli back in Canada.
We made our way back to the hotel, bidding him adieu. He turned to go, but then changed his mind, indicating that he might like to sleep at the Ala Too that night as well. He followed us up to the third floor where our room was, but as he started to wander around a bit and eventually got lost we finally made good our escape and secured ourselves in our room.
That evening we enjoyed our meal of bread! and CHEESE! Good bread! GOOD CHEESE! Before getting to sleep nice and earlier in our surprisingly comfy Soviet beds.
Mmm… Bready cheesy goodness!
Our introduction to Kyrgyz culture had been slightly inauspicious, but the next morning was another day. It was sunny out and we could see the green mountainsides and patchy snow-capped tops around the town.
Ladas, Audis and trolley buses passed us as we headed down the street to the bus station. Once there we were met by a horde of taxi drivers anxious to take us on to our next destination. For a brief moment we thought “oh no, here we go again with the taxi drivers,” but quickly discovered it wasn’t as unpleasant as all that. The drivers original fare quote was only 15% over the price we’d been told to expect, and they agreed to lower it without much fuss. The drivers sat and joked with eachother, the one English speaker in the bunch grinning and making disparaging comments about the others’ cars to us until they finally caught on and amiably argued and roughhoused with him. We made a deal with a driver who already had one passenger headed in our direction, piled our packs into the trunk and waited less than another ten minutes before another passenger showed up filling the car and sending us on our way.
Electric trolley buses (albeit archaic ones) in a town were an unusual sight in a town of less than 50,000
The ride to the town of Balykckhy first took us through more of the striking red rock canyons of the day before. We wound our way through them, past caravans and yurts, some far off in the distance surrounded by herds of sheep, others nearer, with horses all around. These had signs advertising Kymyz (fermented mare’s milk) and other pastoral goods for sale.
Vehicles stopped in a valley do some shopping at the roadside shacks and yurts. In addition to kymyz Honey was another good regularly offered for sale
We climbed out of the canyons, up over another towering mountain pass, then slowly back down onto the plains where we passed more small Kyrgyz towns. Again, they looked wildly different to the same sorts of towns in China. In fact the shape of the homes, the organization of the towns and the general feel of the places seemed much closer to NZ than to their mud brick Asian relatives just across the border. The most unusual thing about these places was the cemeteries, which looked like little towns of their own, complete with metal yurt frames, domed mosque-like structures and dozens of slender towers 3-5m high.
Descending from the mountain pass on our way towards Balykchy
The plain continued smooth and flat and soon Issyk Kul was in sight. This huge, slightly saline, alpine lake (182km long and 630m deep) is the second largest alpine lake (and the second largest saline lake) in the world. When it first came into view its shallower areas were a brilliant teal colour, while its deeps shone sapphire in the bright sun. It was ringed on all sides by snow capped peaks with puffy cumulus clouds growing over their tops.
We changed vehicles in Balykchy, again with the help of very friendly share taxi drivers. When we said we wanted to take a bus to Karakol, they didn’t try to convince us otherwise, just asked (with sweeping arm motions) whether we wanted to take the north shore or south shore route and directed us to the correct minibus.
The bus station in Balykchy where we changed vehicles
As with our share taxi, it was almost full when we arrived, so there was very little waiting. We joined the eclectic mix of Kyrgyz and Russians, ranging from 8 months to 80 years in age and set out towards Karakol. The villages on the south shore of Issyk Kul were little different than those we’d seen on the mountain plains earlier in the day, though the landscape was markedly so. The mountains were much closer here, 4500m peaks scrunching right up to within a few km of the lake shore. The beaches were, of course, a novelty as well, some golden but most red sand, with several families out for picnics on the sand and swimmers out in the water.
The trip was a bit slow, with the bus pulling over every five to ten minutes to pick up or drop off passengers, and making a length stop in a market town set back from the water, but after about 2.5 hours we arrived in Karakol, our first real stop in Kyrgyzstan.
Tags: China, Issyk Kul, Kashgar, Kyrgyzstan, Llew Bardecki, Naryn, Torgat, Torugart, Travel, Xinjiang