Day 110 to 116 – Sary-Tash to Sost via China

Chilly start to the day but we were all up and excited like it was Christmas in our little house in Sary-Tash. Everyone was ready and packed sharpish, a quick breakfast then we were on the road. A couple of hours easy riding to the Kyrgyzstan border to start the exit process, stunning views of the Pamir mountains all the way along. We got processed fairly quickly for the exit, handed over customs papers and got our passports stamped, then all stood around chatting and spending the last of our Kyrgyz cash in the duty free shop.

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Everyone nearly ready to roll for the border

We started to get a little worried though when there was no go ahead from the guard for the Italian bike. Turns out there was some trouble with the paperwork, the bike was imported into the country inside a truck, and the paperwork wasn’t in place to let it leave without being in that same truck. Balls. We waited around for 2 hours, getting more and more worried. The guards were saying we had to return to Osh, a day’s ride away, to sort the paperwork out. We didn’t know what effect this would have on us crossing China, mabey we could delay by a day,  could we enter today without Cristiano and he can catch us up a couple of days later.

We had to leave him to it though, they were shutting the border down for lunch and we had to exit toward China while he had to stay put. We made plans to try and keep in touch, we would go and find our Chinese guide at the border post and see what our options were. That didn’t go very well either though, the Chinese border was closed for lunch too, big black iron gates baring the way, they told us it would open in 2 hours. The Swiss guys got some water boiling in their van and we made some pasta for lunch, too a nap, played some guitar, and just killed time any way we could.

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Waiting for the border gates to open, for 2 hours

When they opened up we shot down toward the border compound, about 10 minutes ride down heavily fenced and camera covered road. We found our guide waiting for us, he was expecting us at about 11am, now at 4pm we were surprised he was still there at all. He told us in no uncertain terms that our situation was not good. We had to all cross at the same time or not at all, if the group changed at all, he’d need at least a few days to get all the paperwork changed. We could enter the country without one of the group, but the bikes couldn’t, so if Cristiano didn’t make it back in time, we’d be stuck in China without our bikes.

There was still 90 minutes before the border closed for the day and our last chance to cross without much fuss. We decided to just wait until the last second in case Cristiano managed to fix it. I rode back up to the gates alone to wait for word from him, where my phone could reach some internet from the Kyrgyzstan cell towers. The border guys weren’t happy about me being there at first, you’re either supposed to be crossing the border or not be there at all, and suddenly they had a foreigner just sitting around outside a military building playing on his phone. Eventually I convinced them to let me just sit around for a while, they didn’t speak any English but I think they understood in the end, though they kept asking me aggressively if I’d taken any photos.

An hour passed without hearing anything from Cristiano. I was getting pally with some of the border guys, listening to music and showing them pictures while they tried to use Google Translate to ask me questions. Xenia rode up with about 20 minutes until the border closed, saying they were kicking us for closing and we had to leave. We’d have to ride back and try and re-enter Kyrgyzstan, just camp near the border somewhere. We were pondering how cold it would be camping this high when we heard a bike engine, turned around and there was Cristiano riding up the road. We both squealed a bit. I shot straight back down to the border compound to make sure the guide didn’t leave and they didn’t close.

None of us could quite believe we were actually being processed in to China, the relief was palpable. The farce that is China wore off some of the relief though. We had to get all the bags off the bikes and carry them inside so they could be manually searched. The guards actually did a better job than I was expecting given the stories I’d read. They methodically took everything out of one bag, then put it back in it’s place, or would let me do it, rather than just throwing stuff everywhere like I’d read. Then the bikes had to be parked in a gigantic X-Ray machine for trucks, presumably to check for immigrants in the petrol tank or something…

Then a couple of hours ride to the official border house, making it 9pm by the time we got there, 11pm local time. Thankfully they knew we were coming and had stayed open for us. They stamped us into the country and we all did a tiny tired cheer. We had to ride the bikes around the building and leave them in the customs compound overnight, they wouldn’t be processed until the next day. We all chucked our bodies and our bags into a van to take us to a hotel in the border town. We were all looking forward to a shower and sleep after such a long day, mostly spent standing around waiting and worrying. All the hotels were either closed or full in the town though, so it was another 2 hour drive cramped in a taxi to get to Kashgar.

We were very surprised though when we pulled up to the fanciest looking hotel I’ve ever stayed in, we all did another tired little cheer. We unpacked the van found our rooms and agreed to head out to find some food before bed. We all headed out for a little food, it was pretty awful since it was the only place open at midnight, we were just happy to have made it here at all.

Up bright and early in the morning to pack up and drive 2 hours back to the customs compound to start processing the bikes through. We sat around for 3 hours there, just staring at the bikes waiting, slowly loosing our minds from more waiting. Lunch rolled around and the guide was almost surprised when we said we were hungry. We were basically prisoners in the compound, we couldn’t leave and there was no stores, only one of us even had local currency. We left the bikes and drove out to town. Our spirits were lifted a bit by an amazing lunch, 9 huge dishes of great food between us all and we were stuffed.

The guide decided it’d be a good idea for us to go do something useful for the afternoon while he finished clearing the bikes from customs. So we headed over to Shiptons Arch, one of the sights we’d booked to see on our little tour through. We were all still in bike gear though, not at all ready for a few miles walking. Thankfully we’d bought all our luggage with us, so we all got changed in the car park. Classy. A scrambling 40 minute walk up a river bed, nearly getting killed by goats throwing rocks on our heads from 100 feet up, and a steep stair climb to the top. Worth it though, the view was incredible looking through a ginormous stone archway. Hard to believe it even formed naturally and is still standing.

We got back to the cars to some bad news though, the bikes wouldn’t be released from customs today and we’d be heading straight back to Kashgar, that meant they wouldn’t be ready until Monday. We had to protest quite a bit to get back to the bikes and van. Most of us still had things stored there we needed if we were going to spend all weekend in Kashgar. We were all getting pretty pissed at the guide by this point, multiple times we had no idea what was going on and were just flitting from decision to decision with no planning. We told him we needed to chat properly in the morning, with the whole group and get a plan laid out, and backup plans. We knew things would go wrong, but at least we wouldn’t be left in the lurch again.

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Moving hotels is not simple. This is only for 3 people

Since customs was closed over the weekend we would have a couple of days to explore Kashgar ourselves, which hadn’t been in the plan. It was very annoying we were delayed, but it was partly our groups fault for arriving late on the day of the crossing anyway, and I was quite happy to have a couple of free days wandering. The old town is very pretty, some of it looks like a movie set. It has been preserved and rebuilt by the government for tourism, that’s clear in a lot of places, but it sort of doesn’t matter, because people are still living and working there so it doesn’t feel fake.

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It does however feel terrifying to me at times. It’s illegal to take photos of anything related to government, military or police, which is the case in a lot of the world, but in Kashgar there were cameras everywhere you couldn’t take a picture of a street that didn’t have a camera in it somewhere. The amount of surveillance is creepy. Couple that with the amount of security too, supermarkets have X-Ray machines and metal detectors with 3 guards on the door. Our hotel had the same treatment, it is a hotel for foreigners but being searched and prodded every time you enter your hotel gets creepy after a while. I can’t imagine what life there would be like, you can almost feel the giant authoritarian thumb pressing down on you the whole time, you have zero power, and we only had freedom because of the protection of our foreign passports.

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Wave for the cameras

That doesn’t mean I was terrified of the place though. After a couple of days walking around I really started to love it. The people were friendly when they wanted to be, and totally ignored you if they didn’t, which works perfectly for me. The food was great everywhere, and I usually only judge by what is available as cheap as possible. It got a little boring eating the same thing, noodles, tomato with pepper and kebab, but everything was freshly made when you ordered, noodles, meat everything. Upping the budget a bit would have gotten some good variety.

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Movie magic

Walking around Kashgar at night was a crazy experience too. It felt like a movie, through a closed outdoor mall, neon lights blinking around with rain falling and smoke rising from street food sellers and covering the street. Scooters scurrying about in their dedicated lanes next to the pavement, fenced off from the road with lines drawn for pedestrians to cross. So many rules and laws but it still felt like chaos.

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Finally got the bikes and Van back. Riding in China for the first time!

We waited around on Day 104, Monday morning, waiting for the call from the guide that the bikes had been cleared. It came at about 11am and we all geared up as fast we could and got to the taxis. It was all in vain though, we sat around with the bikes waiting for another 4 hours at the compound. We all nearly went insane, then finally at 5pm the bikes were cleared and we could leave. The first stop was for petrol, filling up using 8 litre kettles since bikes aren’t allowed inside the station, walking them back and forth from the pumps to our bikes 50m away. We got to back to Kashgar, accidentally using the Highway all the way back, we have no idea if we were supposed to or not, but we had no trouble at either toll booth. We all headed out for a little feast at an Uyghur to celebrate our last night in Kashgar.

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Uyghur food and music for our last night

We geared up and got on the road early on Day 105, heading for Tashkurgan, the border town with Pakistan. We said our goodbyes to our guide, he was leaving us in the hands of a colleague. A frustrating start though, a speed limit of 40kph (25mph) for about 3 hours of riding. Stopping for lunch was welcome break for all of us, it’s so boring riding that slowly it’s hard to even stay focused, nothing changes quick enough to even keep your attention. We fueled up from giant kettles again, to more amazement and selfies from the guards and attendants. We are complete aliens to them, not only do they not see many foreigners, they don’t see big bikes at all.

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Waiting to fill up from the kettles, my bike nearly got stolen by a brazen local

The afternoon ride got way more interesting though. We had been riding with a new guide in a taxi ahead of us, following him along through the restricted areas and through all the checkpoints. I asked him when the next stop was so we could prepare better. He said around 110km, and he agrees we could ride on ahead and take more photos. I asked him what the speed limit was and he said “No limit really, just be careful”. A huge grin spread over my face. Sweet. Mountain road, stunning scenery, a clear road and no speed limit. The afternoon was much more fun.

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Xenia kneeling in the road to get the perfect shot of Martin

We got to Tashkurgen and headed to drop the bikes at a customs compound ready for processing in the morning. A bit of a farce getting them in, they had to be weighed, but for some reason with only one wheel actually on the scales. This baffled us, but we were too tired to try and argue with a stubborn guide and customs guards who didn’t speak English. We headed out for some dinner and then an early night. We knew it was going to be a long day tomorrow, crossing borders always is, let alone one this complicated.

It was an odd feeling knowing I’d be crossing to Pakistan in the morning. I can remember being nervous just before crossing to Turkey, entering a new country and culture, new currency and food. I’ve gotten progressively less apprehensive with each border. Now with a literally, and figuratively, huge border coming up, I didn’t feel nervous at all. In fact, when I started doing my mental “new country checklist” I realised I was probably the least prepared for a new country I’ve ever been on the trip. I had no local currency and no idea where I’d get it. I had enough fuel to get to a decent sized town, but I didn’t know what I’d find there. I didn’t know any of the language, or even have a translator for it, hoping the locals English would get me by. I didn’t even have an onward visa, no way out of the country to India, that would be obtained in Islamabad, I hoped. I think I’m getting used to this travelling lark, knowing that I’ll survive and just become accustomed to whatever it throws at me. Unless it all goes wrong, then I’m just an Idiot who failed to prepare. “Fail to Prepare. Prepare to Fail” that stupid sign still sticks in my head from Mrs Kay’s maths lessons when I was 13. Still annoys me too.

No matter how much I had prepared though, nothing would have prepared me for the mental torture that was Day 106. I’d read a lot of horror stories about Chinese border crossing, but it hadn’t sunk in quite how bad or trying they could be. I’m glad it hadn’t because if I’d known what was in store I might not have bothered getting out of bed. To begin the day, they wouldn’t let the bikes out of the customs compound because the weights didn’t match, likely because they were now weighing them with the other wheel on the scales. Not both wheel, just the other wheel. They solved this by standing on the scales until the numbers matched. Mental.

Then there was a problem with the paperwork, quite a big one by the serious looks and 3 way phone calls. After 2 hours of Oki badgering them every 5 minutes for updates in what little Chinese she knew we were somehow free. We headed over to the border house to get the bikes signed out of the country. But of course, they went to lunch. For 3 hours. We were gobsmacked. We’d heard that we could only exit China before lunch time, since any time after and you wouldn’t have enough time to make it to the Pakistan border in Sost 200km away, and it was illegal to sleep in between, since you weren’t technically in a country at all. This meant their 3 hour lunch put us in jeopardy of not being able to leave China at all. We headed out for some lunch too, since there was nothing else we could do and we were being kicked out of the compound.

After a 90 minutes sitting in a cafe trying to do a crossword with 3 non-native English speakers (very entertaining, can recommend), we told our guide we were going to head back to the compound to see if they would open up. He told us this was a stupid idea but couldn’t think of a reason not to try. Surprise surprise the compound was open and we walked in. The customs border guys were waiting for us, asking where we’d got to. For Fuck’s Sake. Our guide hadn’t listened to them, they were ready and waiting while we sat up the road. We got the papers signed and the bikes were cleared to leave! Oki’s bike celebrated too hard at this news, drained the last of it’s battery and refused to start. Thankfully Martin had some jumper cables and we could shock it back to life, we all got to have a little test ride on it around the compound just to get some charge back in the battery.

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I did get to join the exclusive bunny club while waiting though

Our guide then told us to park up and wait for the immigration officers to fetch us to do all the passport stamps. We weren’t buying this though so we started poking around. Oki spoke to the customs guys and they laughed in disbelief, came outside and told us to go around the front of the building and ask for them, nobody was coming for us. The guide was now officially dead to us. He wasn’t just useless, he seemed to be actively working against us. Immigration officers arrived 30 minutes later and got us stamped out of the country. More checking of all our bags and belongings before they’d let us leave though, no idea what they thought we might be smuggling out, since you can’t even buy a chocolate bar without being searched in this part of China.

An army dude hoped in the Swiss Van as our “escort” and we were instructed not to stop on the road to the border, it was illegal. Sure… you try riding a bike for 2 hours without stopping for anything, it can be done, but with 6 riders, it wasn’t likely, someone would need to pee, or change to warmer gloves, or put rain gear on, we were heading up to the highest border crossing in the world after all. About half way to the border, we stopped anyway, everyone shot off to the side of the road for a pee, got some warmer gear on and a little snack. It was about 5pm by now so we were keen to crack on, riding in the dark is not just no fun, it’s dangerous, motorbikes have notoriously bad headlights.

We pulled up at the last China checkpoint, they would check our passports and bike paperwork before allowing us to leave the country. When the guard said “Computer problem. Wait” our collective groan nearly knocked him over. We started to explain our day in broken English and how much we just wanted to leave China. They were a funny bunch of guys up there and trying to be helpful, but it was all out of their hands. I got the guitar out for a little jam session, hoping my terrible playing might persuade them to push it along. Another very strange place to be playing guitar, especially doing a little singalong with Oki and Xenia too.

30 minutes of waiting and they finally let us go, we shot off as fast up the remainder of the pass to the border/friendship monument, marking the highest point of the pass at 4700m (15,000ft). A padlocked gate greeted us, but the border guards were in a van behind with the keys. He jumped out and then struggled with the lock for a couple of minutes. When he turned round to look us and said “broken” we all nearly fell off our bikes laughing. It was the last straw in a ridiculous day. To come through all the bureaucracy of the day and be held up at the final 10 meters of China by a broken padlock was beyond believable, we were all in hysterics. I jumped off the bike to try and help, warm the lock up, jiggle the key, I even got my WD40 out to try and free it up. We found another padlock on a pedestrian gate and it turned out they’d just bought the wrong key entirely. He drove back down to the base to fetch the other, leaving us to take pictures and watch the last light of the day fade over the mountains. It would usually be beautiful, but watching the light fade meant we’d be riding down the Khunjerab pass in the dark, not a nice prospect.

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The last hurdle

Another half an hour later and we riding under the monument. A very weird feeling. I’d seen countless photos of people posing in front of this border monument over the last 18 months planning the trip. It’s a marker for a lot of peoples trips and a destination in its own right as the highest in the world. Now I was sitting underneath it. All I wanted to do was ride though, we had to use what little light we had left. The first thing to do was retrain my brain to ride on the left again, not 2 seconds into Pakistan Oki was riding on the right again and I had to undertake her blaring the horn as a reminder. It’s not so easy for the German, Swiss and Italian guys, they’ve almost never ridden on the left.

Me and Oki took off riding as hard as we dared, she easily had the worst headlights of all of us so wanted to make as much ground as possible and I had the best bike for these roads, so I could ride ahead much easier. The first checkpoint was 20 minutes along, a proper greeting, handshake and a welcome from the guy manning it. He seemed so happy to see us and such a genuine guy, it took us by surprise after the relative coldness of Chinese officials. We had no time to chat though and shot off again. An hour later it was pitch black on the road, the mountains don’t let in any twilight at all. A couple more border crossing to break up the ride, which was good, because it was hard. I think the hardest riding I’ve ever done. The road surface was generally good, winding through the mountains following the river, but at some point half the road would just disappear into the river, or a goat would just be stood in the road around in a bend in the pitch dark. At one point people were working on the side of the road with zero lighting, I caught a glimpse of one and flicked my full beam on, illuminating 3 people standing in our lane, minding their own business. Trying to concentrate so hard on spotting things on the road, while still figuring out which way it even turns, after such a long day, takes it toll.

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Not a nice view from here

We made it to Sost eventually, and the guy manning the barrier made a phone call. Some guys came and opened up the border compound for us, just an office on the edge of town. After the ridiculousness of China’s borders, this place was utter border heaven. We all got stamped in and customs finished within an hour, including a lot of chatting and laughing with the officers there. They were such nice guys, especially considering they’d had to open the entire place up just for us to come through.

About 100m from the border compound we spotted a hotel and basically fell into it. They had decent prices and could cook us some food so we were sold straight away. We just stared into space while we ate. 15 hours after we started packing our things at the hotel, we were finally in another hotel, and in Pakistan.

17/08/2017 to 23/08/2017

Day 110 to 116.PNG

 

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