Thursday, July 30: Kashgar, Xinjiang, China
8:40 After 10 weeks in the People’s Republic of China (before and after my Mongolia trip) it’s time to say goodbye to the country. Although I have enjoyed my time in this vast and amazing country, I’m not going to shed any tears when I cross the border. The government policy of blocking access to Facebook, my blog, my photo sharing site, and just about any site that one might want to visit has left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s only a 270 km drive to the town of Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan but ironically it’s in a technological backwater like Kyrgyzstan that I’ll be able to update this blog without using tricks to circumnavigate government sensors. In Tash Rabat we will stay with the local family who act as caretakers of the 9th century caravansary.
9:00 We leave Jason, our Chinese guide, at the hotel and pick up a local Uyghur guide, Karim, who will travel with us as far as the border. His role is to help us get across the border without unnecessary delays. Border officials strictly enforce rules that govern when and how overland trucks are allowed to enter and exit the country, what must be onboard, what parts of the truck can and cannot be changed while in the country, etc. Karim advises that we will need 9 to 11 hours to drive 270 km over good roads AND clear customs. It sounds like it will be tougher to leave China than it was to enter through Beijing airport where I sailed through customs in five minutes.
10:00 We have three new passengers joining this morning:
– Andy (actuarial, England)
– Claire (teacher, England)
– Bridie (teacher, Australia born but currently moving from Hong Kong to Moscow to teach in an International School)
10:50. We arrive at the first of many border inspection stations. I change 100 yuan into 700 com (pronounced “somme”). Everyone must get off the truck, carry all luggage inside where it will be scanned, then line up for visa inspections. The whole process takes a little more than an hour. This is good.
11:55 We drive a short distance to a second inspection point. Everyone must get off the truck and present their exit papers, visas, and passports.
12:15 An official boards the truck and inspects everyone’s passport for a third time. Once given the A-Ok we drive about 40 km to the actual border where the whole process will be repeated. The only issue is that border officials are on their lunch break and not expected back for about three hours. We get out the tables and chairs and make tuna salad sandwiches while we wait in a line of transport trucks.
13:45 A guard comes along and asks us to put away the tables and chairs so that the whole line can move up about 100 meters. We comply, as you tend to do in China.
16:24 An official boards the truck and checks the stamps in our passports and our exit papers one more time. He spends about a minute flipping through my passport, including a long look at my now expired visa for Brazil but he doesn’t actually look at the page containing my China visa. I have nothing to hide but opt to keep my mouth shut. It’s his problem if he can’t tell the difference between tourist visas issued by Brazil and China.
16:27 We are ushered out of the compound and will now drive a short distance to the actual border. Honest, this next one is the real border, not the fake border that we have crossed three times now. But first let’s have another passport check just for old time’s sake.
16:44 We appear to be out of China, although we have yet to come to the Kyrgyzstan immigration office. It’s got to be around here somewhere. We’re currently at 3790 meters above sea level.
17:05 We have to get off the truck at the Kyrgyzstan customs and immigration building but thankfully the process of checking, photo copying and stamping our passports takes less than 20 minutes for the whole truck. Photos are strictly prohibited at both borders so I keep my phone in my pocket. You don’t know how badly I want to take a photo of a guard who appears to have his boots on the wrong feet.
17:40 We make it through the Torugart Pass without incident and arrive at Tash Rabat which sits nestled in the mountains, about 3200 meters above sea level. The big attraction here is a stone caravansary.
Some guide books indicate that it was built in the 15th century but the caretaker and some noted historians believe that it was built as a Nestorian or Buddhist monastery in the 9th century, then abandoned and repurposed once traffic on the Silk Road picked up in the 14th century. Who knows which version is correct? Either way it’s a fascinating building that must have seen an awful lot in its day.
17:50 The family that looks after the caravansary were expecting us much earlier today so lunch is still on the table. We must eat soon as they are already preparing dinner.
22:00. I skip dinner in favour of finishing a book in bed. The others will be back soon and the yurt will get a little more crowded.