Crossing the border: China to Kyrgyzstan via Irkeshtam Pass


In Irkeshtam

Crossing the border from China into Kyrgyzstan via the Irkeshtam Pass was memorable.  From start to finish it took us 13 hours.  It was significantly harder to leave China than it was to enter it.  The day involved parents with baseball bats, a flat tyre, photo shoots and a lot of waiting.  The day ended with ruddy cheeks and relief.

We had anticipated it being a long day due to what we had read on the Caravanistan website, a great resource for anyone travelling in Central Asia.  We had also anticipated it being a day requiring a lot patience due to all of the bureaucratic hoops that it is necessary to jump through to cross the border at the Irkeshtam Pass.  There were six police checkpoints to navigate before the final barbed wire gate was opened and we were allowed to enter Kyrgyzstan.

The events of that day actually started the night beforehand.  Lying in our bunks at the somewhat dilapidated Old Town Youth Hostel in Kashgar, I checked our to-do list for the final time before preparing to switch off my light and go to sleep.

A couple of nights previously, Dom had been shown to our dorm room and we immediately noticed his Scottish accent and got talking.  Dom had been travelling for almost a year when we met, touring around former Soviet Union countries.  He started his adventure in Ukraine where he spent two months learning Russian.  We were all three pleased to learn that we were heading in the same direction and agreed to cross the border together on Monday, for the pass is closed at the weekend.

Dom was especially eager to get to Kyrgyzstan on Monday because it was the day his Chinese visa expired and he wasn't keen to learn what the consequences of overstaying his welcome would be.  Moreover, he had not overly enjoyed his time in the Xinjiang Province of China and was keen to leave the police state behind.  As such, Dom, willingly, did a lot of the leg work: he went to the tourist information centre in Kashgar and booked a taxi to take us to the main customs checkpoint at Uluqqat.

Our understanding is that cycling in the Xinjiang Province is possible, but incredibly difficult due to the near constant police stops and checks.  Therefore, we could, theoretically, have cycled the 140km from Kashgar to Uluqqat.  However, it is far more sensible and straightforward to get the first of two taxis that constitute the Irkeshtam Pass crossing experience.  Taxing a second taxi, which transports you 200km from Uluqqat to the actual border with Kyrgyzstan, is not optional.

So, Dom returned from the Sunday livestock market to tell us that he had booked a taxi: it would cost 650 RMB in total and would pick us up from the end of the road at 8.30 in the morning.  We would firstly have to go to the bus station for insurance registration.  Dom had been told that we should only pack a day bag for this insurance registration to avoid all of our luggage being checked.  We would then return to the hostel, pick up our remaining luggage and get on our way.

Therefore, mine and Olly's role was to simply be on time and have enough money to pay for our share of this taxi and the next one, which we had read usually costs 400 RMB (it did).  As I looked down our to-do list, I was pleased to see we had checked everything off it.  Everything, that is, except for 'withdraw cash'.  I called up to Olly, who always occupies the top bunk, and after some huffing and puffing on both of our parts, we decided to get out of bed, it was 22.30, and go and withdraw cash before we went to sleep.  That way, in the morning, we would be less rushed and less stressed and so would be able to pack up our remaining things calmly and have a relaxed breakfast.

We had passed several ATMs in Kashgar during our wanderings and knew there was an ABC (Agricultural Bank of China) cash point just around the corner from our hostel.  That was to be our first port of call.  Failing that, there were a couple of others on the main road that the supermarket was on that we had seen too.  We were confident it would all be fine.

It was not all fine.  Despite every bank and ATM displaying a 24/7 sign, none of the cash points were operational that evening.  We must have walked 5km and pressed our noses up against five or six bank doors before resigning ourselves to the fact that withdrawing cash was going to have to be a mission for the morning.  Many of the ATMs were in their own rooms, separate to the bank proper and accessible by their own door.  However, all of the doors were locked and then further secured with bike locks.  To enter these buildings you had to pass through an airport-style security scanner and, in addition, we moodily realised upon reflection as we dragged ourselves sleepily back to the hostel, they were all policed by a security officer.  Disappointed and ashamed, we set the alarm for half an hour earlier than originally planned before switching off the lights and dropping off into a fitful sleep.

We had fallen to sleep before Dom returned that night: he had gone to visit some people in Kashgar's other foreigner-friendly hostel, the Pamir Youth Hostel, which reportedly has better and more modern facilities.  However, all of us woke early and Olly and I were somewhat relieved to learn that Dom had been caught out by the 24/7 ATMs too: he was also in need of cash.  After a rushed breakfast, Olly and Dom went to withdraw some money and I finished packing, sorting and washing up.  Some fifteen minutes later, they both returned empty-handed.  The cash points were all still closed and 8.30 was rapidly approaching.

We picked up our day bags, promised the hostel we would be back to pay (they had taken a 100 RMB deposit from each of us anyway) and headed to the meeting point. We hoped the driver would be able to take us to an ATM. Just across the road from the hostel was a primary school. A song was playing loudly and small children wearing a uniform with red neck ties were running to school. Running. No dawdling. Facing the school gates, in a neat line, were lots of parents and each one was carrying a coloured baseball bat. It was deeply unnerving. If the aim of the rainbow colours was to detract from the menace of the bats the adults were carrying, it didn't work. Many of the parents were leaning on their bats and chatting to each other, none were yielding them threateningly. A few non-armed parents were urging the already running children to hurry into school. They children slowed at the gates and entered the school in a single file.

There was no taxi at the meeting point, but there was the man that Dom had booked the taxi with, Iskander. Dom had called Iskander the night before just to confirm that all arrangements we had made were in Beijing time and not Xinjiang time. (China, in all of its enormity, has just one time zone. With Beijing being in the east, it didn't get dark until 23.00/23.30 in Kashgar on the western frontier. In times gone by, Xinjing time was more closely aligned to Kyrgyz time which is two hours behind that of Beijing.) Iskander had confirmed that we were on Beijing time and so we ruled that out as a reason for his being there.

Iskander had come to tell us that we were no longer required to go to the bus station for insurance registration; we have no idea what this would have entailed. Instead, he said to be back at the meeting point with all our luggage at 9.15. As we walked with Iskander back to the hostel, we asked about the 24/7 cash points. "No", he said, rubbing his head and giving a little laugh. "No 24/7." He advised they would not open until at least 10.00 and he called the driver to advise we would need to frequent one.

Back at the hostel, adrenaline was coursing through our veins in the false-start-at-a-swimming-gala kind of way. It was as if we had plunged into the pool and were now struggling out of it and back onto the poolside, energy levels crashing despite the race still to be swum. We didn't have time to do much before we needed to head off again and I regretted how hurriedly I had wolfed down my breakfast before. I rummaged around and found out our camping mugs so that we could have one more cup of tea.

At 9.15 our taxi arrived and we piled all of our luggage into it. This posed no problem, even with the bikes, and we were all glad to close the doors, fasten our seat belts and be on our way. To an ATM, that is. We had wanted an early start because all of the checkpoints on the Chinese side of the border close between 13.30 and 16.30 for lunch. (I used to get an unpaid thirty minutes!) In addition, the actual border is some 350km from Kashgar and reportedly closes on the Chinese side between 20.00 and 20.45. We had done the maths and the outcome was the earlier the start the better.

It wasn't ideal, then, when we pulled away in the taxi and immediately heard that flap-flapping sound that indicates a flat tyre. We clambered back out of the taxi and stood watching as our driver expertly and efficiently changed the flat, back tyre. We had time, it was only 9.45 and the banks wouldn't open for another fifteen minutes.

It was third bank lucky. The Bank of China hadn't opened its doors by 10.05 and so the driver suggested we try another one. That was closed too. Eventually, running under the road via a subway and up the other side, Olly and Dom managed to withdraw the money they needed to fund our great escape. We whizzed back to the hostel to pay our dues and then, after stopping to drop off the flat tyre with a mechanic, we finally started to make our way out of Kashgar and towards the mountains of Central Asia. It was 10.30.

We soon settled into the journey.  I felt my body and eyes grow heavy and we all three gazed out of the windows watching the landscapes roll by.  Large, sandy hills and distant snow-capped mountains.  Few buildings and a road that stretched out before us as far as the eye could see.

We reached the first police checkpoint after about an hour on the road.  We were beckoned out of the car by the driver.  As soon as our feet touched the ground, the officers were upon us.  We were greeted kindly enough, ordered to take all of our luggage out of the car and bring it into the small, official building.  Dom grabbed his two backpacks and then started to help me and Olly with our panniers.  Although it feels like we are living very minimally, in situations like this we always feel we have far too much stuff.

Upon entering the building, we saw a scanner and were instructed to put our bags onto it.  The bags passed through without any issue (no alarms sounded, no doors slammed, no bars appeared at the windows) and fell off the conveyor belt and into a pile the other side.  We had hidden our knives inside other metal items that we have: my Leatherman tool was wrapped inside our cooker's windshield and Olly's Swiss army knife was tucked inside the lining of our insulating, pot cosy.  Fellow cyclists have reported having their knives confiscated at Chinese borders.  We had taken these precautions ahead of catching the train from Chengdu to Kashgar and remain glad that we did so.

However, our panniers were more thoroughly examined ahead of catching the train than they were in that official building in the middle of nowhere en route to the Irkeshtam Pass.  The men working at the freight luggage office had, in essence, tipped our panniers upside down and looked at everything that came out of them (explaining what my chamois cream was had been interesting).  At the freight office, our fuel bottles were sniffed, our cooker was considered and the Swiss army knife tucked inside the pot cosy was almost discovered.  We hid our knives inside other metal objects to lessen the chance of the scanners noticing them, but we would perhaps advise then stuffing them in a sock within a clothes bag or at the bottom of the sleeping bag too.  Everything was prodded and poked by the freight workers, but squishy things were quickly cast aside.

When the officer demanded, "open", I crouched down next to him as he looked through our bags.  He removed very little, instead just moving things aside and peering into the depths of our multi-coloured kit.  Occasionally he furtled around inside a pannier too.  We shared a smile - I think - when he asked if I had iron in my blue pannier: the blue pannier is the food pannier.  I laughed and opened it up, pulling out packets of vegetarian beef (still unsure how that tasted quite so good...) and spaghetti.  He waved his hand dismissively (I think) and smiled (I think).  

We are always obliging and smiling at border crossings.  However, as a tiny act of defiance, when asked, "do you have phone?", we both handed them over locked and we suddenly weren't so smiling.  We had read that it was likely that we would be asked to relinquish our phones and electronic devices, but still, when the moment came, it felt like what it was: an invasion of privacy.  I clung onto the fact that just a week beforehand we had been to the panda sanctuary and so I hoped that when the inevitable photograph examination came, they would soon tire of the thousand or more pictures of the black and white bears that we had.

When telling this part of the story to others, they have almost always cut in and said, "why didn't you just say 'no'?"  Sure, we considered it: "No, we don't have a mobile telephone, a camera or a laptop as we travel the world in 2019."  It didn't seem feasible and, stood in a small building in which there are two men with guns over their shoulders, it simply didn't seem like an option.  Admitting to having a phone, but not handing it over did not seem viable either.  If you're still not with me, as some haven't been, I simply ask that you get yourself to Kashgar (not easy), hop in a taxi (be sure to allow for at least an extra hour after the planned departure time for general faff) and, as you are trying, and wanting, to leave the country, defy the officers who are stood  about a metre away from you (did I mention their guns?).  Some that we have met have been indignant, saying "as a British/French/German/Australian citizen, I do not have to give them [the Chinese officials] my phone".  I smile and shrug, thinking "you simply won't be entering China via the Xinjiang Province then".  Of course, there have been times on the trip when I have questioned my moral fibre.  Almost the minute I do though, I remember Olly's uncle, Steve, quietly telling us to "pick our fights carefully" whilst we are away. 

And so, we handed over our phones.  We placed them through a small opening in a plastic window and immediately a female officer tapped the home button and looked at me.  I looked back.  She had a lollipop in her mouth and she moved it from one cheek to another using her tongue.  This has become the most ironic and insulting part of the entire day for me.  (Olly says I may have "fixated" on it slightly.)  I reached my hand through the opening and pressed my thumb onto the home button to unlock my phone.  Olly had already been through this process and was now watching as another female officer looked at the photos on his camera.

Lollipop lady proceeded to connect my phone to Wi-Fi and switch on Bluetooth.  She had another phone by her side and, after a few swipes, I noticed rows of Chinese code flashing across my phone screen.  Olly had his electronics back and was now conducting his own careful examination: he found nothing.  After no more than a couple of minutes, lollipop lady handed my phone back to me, my camera she didn't really bother with.  Behind me, I heard the guard who had searched my bags asking Dom, who for the entire time had been outside smoking and thus avoided all bar the bag searching, if he had a laptop.  Dom strategically replied that he did not, but didn't mention that we did.  I held my tongue.

Back in the taxi, after having been escorted to the toilet, I looked at my phone.  My heart lurched when I discovered a new, Chinese app on my phone.  I clicked on it.  It opened a programme called MClient and a big, grey button read "Start Checking".  After taking a couple of screenshots, I opted for the blue "Uninstall" button instead.  I have since read a couple of articles about this app and it is believed that it collects "texts messages, contacts and other information" (BBC).  The Guardian collaborated on this report.  We joked that Olly might not have even needed the app installing, what with his having a Huawei phone...

I found it ironic and insulting that spyware was installed on my phone whilst the official sucked on a lollipop.

We have listened as other travellers tell their tales and talk almost mythically about having an app installed on their phone at the Irkeshtam Pass: it is a popular border crossing with overlanders.  I must point out that we only experienced this at the Irkeshtam Pass.  When we entered China at Boten/Mohan, the guard, albeit unsmilingly and monotonously, did say, "welcome to China".  He didn't ask for my phone or have a lollipop.  But, we assure fellow travellers that what they have heard about Irkeshtam is true.

It was around 12.30 when the taxi driver asked for his fare.  We counted out the cash and were worried when we didn't have the exact amount that we might not get change.  It didn't come immediately, but we did get it and it was nice to experience that act of integrity.  Our driver was Uighur.  In light of paying of the driver, we assumed his part in our adventure must almost be over.  Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later we arrived in Uluqqat where the main customs checkpoint is.  The three of us, myself, Olly and Dom, very nearly high-fived each other seeing as we had made it to Uluqqat before 13.30 which marks start of the officials' three-hour lunch break.  If we could just get through customs and into a taxi on the other side, we would be on our way to Kyrgyzstan.

We unloaded the taxi and thanked our driver who wasted no time in spinning around and heading back to Kashgar presumably to spend some of the money he had just earned picking up a replacement spare tyre.  Much of the paperwork was being done on paper, but I noticed all of our information already on a mobile phone screen which appeared to then be cross-examined by this new set of border police.  Olly and Dom caused them some confusion, both being bearded men.  I like to think I played no part in that short confused episode.

I was a part of the next confused episode, however, which saw Dom get into a taxi and the driver turning me and Olly away.  We thought this might be goodbye and so we shook hands with Dom, thanked him for getting us to Uluqaat and wished him well for the rest of his trip.  The driver suddenly halted upon the instruction of one of the border officers.  The officer was, at most, our age and he seemed quite a jolly soul and spoke the best English of anyone we had so far met.  The officer told me and Olly to put our luggage into the taxi and then follow it.  We weren't really prepared to cycle very far, our front wheels weren't attached, neither were our seats, and I had a snack bag on the loose, but we did as we were told.  We shrugged when we caught Dom's eye, perhaps this wasn't goodbye after all.

The taxi did not wait for us and at that point we had no idea we were only going to cycle one kilometre.  We started dropping things, sweating and swearing as the taxi sped away and we were left behind.  The officer hailed down another car and we were told to follow it.  We did so and then two minutes later reached a building, the main customs building, and saw Dom dragging our panniers into it.  It was 13.00.  Half an hour to go.

We wheeled our bikes into the building and headed over to Dom for an update, acutely aware of the time.  Before we could speak to Dom, we were approached by a female border officer who asked to see our passports.  It was evident that this was some kind of gut-reaction to seeing a foreigner: she looked at the front of the passports and turned a few pages in them before handing them back.  I quickly lost count of how many times this happened.  Different officers, the same officer, all just handling our passports before giving them back ten seconds later.  There was no one else in the customs building which was huge and looked quite new.

The female officer started to tell us that we needed to get a taxi for the next leg of the journey and, already aware of this, we nodded enthusiastically and repeatedly said, "yes, no problem" excitedly.  The officer then started to talk into her phone, using a translation app to tell us the same thing.  We started to grow impatient.  A man in civvies joined our party and repeated the message about a taxi in good English and then using a very efficient translation app.  We asked him if we could book a taxi - now.  "Yes", he said.  We felt like champions.

At this point, we really thought we were on to a winner.  "This point" lasted all of about thirty seconds, before the man in civvies then told us that Dom could go, but that me and Olly would have to wait until after the lunch break.  The lunch break which ended three hours later at 16.30.  It was time to say a second goodbye to Dom.

As we moved our bikes in front of a security camera and prepared to walk the kilometre back up the road to the previous checkpoint where there was also a hotel with a restaurant, Dom shouldered his rucksack and walked towards the passport control desk.  Olly and I are protective of our bikes, but there was no one at all around and we were told the customs building would be locked during the officers' lunch break.  Still, the officer insisted that the bikes be placed underneath a camera and we realised how ingrained this thinking [that all must be surveyed] was in Xinjiang.

We left the customs building and reemerged into the cool and increasingly mountainous air. It was windy too. We watched as the border officials marched out of the customs building in a single file line, arms swinging in time with one another as if on parade. Was it for our benefit or did they do this every day? They then filed into a minibus and left. We're not sure where they went for three hours as from where we had sat in the taxi, there was nothing much for miles around.

The biggest surprise came when Dom appeared at the end of their line. His arms were not swinging in time and he certainly did not wear the same expresionless face. He wasn't able to cross the border before the lunch break either. The man in the civvies - who we decided must work as a translator for he spoke mandarin, Uighur and we think Kyrgyz as well as a bit of English - told Dom to return at 14.30 and that he would cross then. This was confusing for us all as the border wasn't set to reopen until the widely advertised 16.30. We debated it as we walked back to the previous police checkpoint and the hotel behind it where we hoped we might find at least some warmth if not some lunch. Dom was optimistic that he would pass through the customs building at 14.30. I wondered aloud whether the translator was operating on 'Xinjiang Time' or whether he had confused 14.30 with 4.30. 

Following a tasty and fairly priced lunch in the empty canteen, which we accessed via a huge, decadent and empty banqueting suite, Dom, having spied some other men walking towards the customs building, left at 14.30. We said goodbye again. We were jealous not to also be leaving and sad too that our adventure with Dom was over.  It was reassuring having someone else with us.

Olly and I ventured out of the hotel to the row of shops opposite where it seemed others were accumulating and waiting. We didn't last too long sat out in the cold air before we retreated into the hotel, placing our bags on the x-ray machine for a second time and passing through the body scanner for a second time in order to sit on some hard, metal chairs in the lobby.

We had inquired at the hotel reception about changing some money. The lady looked around sheepishly before nodding and saying, "OK". We asked if we could change 100 RMB and she repeated her nervous, "OK". She disappeared then and returned with a man with some keys who then swiftly disappeared himself. A couple of other hotel staff had joined us at reception and all seemed to watch in awe as the man with the keys slid a 1000 Kyrgyz Som note across the counter to us. Everyone was silent. Something felt off. We held the note up to the light, unsure what we were checking for, but keen to make a bit of display to discourage our being duped. The man with the keys pointed to a clearly visible watermark. We smiled and thanked him as the room seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

Finally, after a flask of tea and a whole packet of Oreos, it was 16.15: time to head back to the customs building. It was cold outside and we agreed that it would be a good idea to layer up before getting into the next taxi that would take us up 2950m and the top of the Irkeshtam Pass which forms the border between China and Kyrgyzstan. 

We passed through the checkpoint barrier where, hours before, Dom and our panniers had sped off in a taxi. We nodded to an officer sat in a chair and got about five metres further before the English-speaking officer ran after us and called us back. He told us we had to wait until 16.30. About eight minutes to go.

The English-speaking officer motioned us into the small, shed-like office which housed a desk with a computer, a couple of chairs, a fold-up bed and an airport-style body scanner. He gestured for us to sit in the chairs behind the desk and turned the radiator on behind us.

As our watches ticked over to 16.30, we got to our feet and made to leave. Plenty of guys had zipped through, we presume they were truck drivers, pointing to a number on the computer screen before disappearing out of the door that would remain closed to us for another half an hour. We have no idea why. At 16.45, Olly had shown his phone to the officer who had simply cooed at Olly's panda background before signalling to him to sit back down.

Finally, the officer said we could go. Nothing had changed to prompt this decision. Everything was the same as it had been ten minutes before and most likely would be ten minutes later. Still, we didn't hang around to bring this up and instead leapt at the chance to be on our way.

We hurried back down to the main customs building, sighing as we simultaneously brought up the fact that Dom would be well on his way to Osh by now. There was no sign of the numerous truck drivers who had gone ahead of us as we sat in front of the radiator. The building was deserted still, but for one familiar face.

There stood Dom, smoking and shaking his head as we approached, questions bursting forth from our lips faster than our brains could properly form them. "Wha... Why... How come...?" Dom said the translator, who had arrived back in the minibus with the other personnel just moments before we did, had mistaken 14.30 for 4.30 as we were worried he might have done. For two hours, Dom had been sat outside in the cold.

It was a day that just kept on giving and there was still more to come! By now it was about 17.10 and the three of us were keen to hurry proceedings along if we were to make it in to Kyrgyzstan before the border closed on the Chinese side. (The Kyrgyz side is almost always manned.) The female officer who had spoken with us before approached us again and asked to see our passports. Again. She pointlessly leafed through them before handing them back. About a minute later her colleague asked for our passports and incredulously we handed them over. Again.

We had wasted no time in asking the translator to organise a taxi for us and in a matter of minutes a driver in a small minivan arrived. We shook hands, agreed on the price of 400 RMB and prepared to get going. But then the driver disappeared and we were told to sit down.

The next time we saw the driver he was stood in front of Olly in the queue for passport control. He wasn't crossing the border and we couldn't believe what we were being made to do.

As we resumed our seats for no apparent reason, two guys with heaps of cameras and recording equipment walked into the new-looking customs building. I turned to Olly and jokingly said that I hoped the cameras weren't for our benefit.

The female officer came over to us and asked if we would have a photograph with her. Me, Olly and Dom were stumped. The officer was taping away on her phone and for a split-second I genuinely thought she wanted a selfie.

Another female officer joined us and told us we needed to fill in departure cards. We, all three, smugly plucked the completed departure cards from our passports; we hadn't spent almost four hours doing nothing! The officer shook her head and beckoned Olly over to a standing desk where we saw the cameras being set up. We were about to play the leading roles in a Chinese PR project.

Dom immediately, point-blank refused to go anywhere near a camera. Me and Olly initially dug our heels in too, but when we realised that playing along would take less time than resisting, we acquiesced.

Olly went to "fill in" another departure card as the second female officer did some pointing and "act natural" smiling.  Fortunately, this was over and done with quite quickly and the officers all then moved towards the passport control desk and beckoned us over.  "Yes!", we thought, "finally!".  We grabbed our panniers, which required two trips on both of our parts, and then went to wheel our bikes further into the building too, propping them up against a stationary, x-ray scanner.

All three of us joined the queue, passports clutched eagerly in our hands.  There were two men stood in front of Olly, who was stood in front of me and Dom was at the back of the queue.  It was when we noticed three officers gleefully watching us in the queue; one of them shaking their head and then motioning for the man in front of Olly to move behind him, that we recognised our taxi driver.  It was then that we realised we were still playing a part.

Dom left the queue instantly.  I stood behind Olly who had moved to the front of the queue, the two other men dismissed.  Olly was being told by a young, smiling officer to "act natural" and hand over his passport "and smile".  I moved out of the queue too.  The second female officer grabbed my arm and pushed me gently back towards Olly saying "please".  I said "no" and tugged my arm free.  I am not comfortable with this invasion of personal space.  We had played along with unusual antics and bureaucratic nonsense for too long; smiling politely and biting our tongues.  I looked at my watch, it was 18.00.  The border would close before 21.00 and we had a two-hour, 200km journey still to do.  Olly and I had planned to cycle away from the border and set up camp a few kilometres further on.  We had no fuel, though, and it was cold and the light would soon start to fade.

I utilised my assertive, angry, but not-yet-shouting, 'teacher voice', repeating the same words over and over: "we need to leave now, we want to cross the border".  This was followed by a melodramatic thrusting forwards of my left wrist to display my watch face.  I simply started to pick up panniers and walk out of the customs building.  Dom followed suit and Olly watched helplessly as he was told, once again, to "smile".  At this point, no official checking of anything had taken place in the customs building which is absolutely bewildering!  Me and Dom had almost finished transferring the luggage to the taxi - driver still MIA - when Olly came rushing out carrying the final bags.  He informed me and Dom that we had to go back to get our exit stamps.  The farce.

Back into the building and back into the queue.  The young, smiling officer spoke good English and  talked to me as if we had just arrived and had not, in fact, been embroiled in what felt like a Year 9 drama production for the last hour.  Four smiley faces lit up on the touch-screen in front of me asking me to rate my service today.  No prizes for guessing which "smiley" face we all opted for.  Once stamped, our passports fell into the hands of our driver.  At this stage in this border crossing process, all passports remain with the taxi driver.  Why?  I have no clue.  There is no where to run to and no where to hide.

Still, they must have thought us capable of something because our driver was given a GPS tracking device following a lengthy discussion with two more officers at the big, barbed-wire-topped gates a 30-second driver from the customs building.

A last-ditch effort had been made by the young, smiling officer to get us to pose for some pictures with him.  The three of us had loaded everything into the taxi, the driver was presumably collecting our passports, and we had closed the doors and strapped ourselves in; sending out a clear message to anyone watching.  There was no one, though presumably there were plenty of cameras.  We had watched the young, smiling officer walk towards us, the wind blowing his uniform jacket tails and long-on-the-top hair in all directions, rubbing his hands together nervously and talking to himself: it was clear he was rehearsing his speech.

He opened the door of the minivan taxi and we all kept our eyes forwards.  It was impolite, but by this point it was the only way to respond.  "Can you help me?", he asked.  "How?", I replied, risking glancing at him.  I could not start to sympathise now.  He wasn't talking to me or Dom, anyway.  It was Olly he was appealing to.  I did not turn to look at Olly, but I repeated "no" in my head and willed the art of telepathy to bestow itself upon me.  When the officer asked about the photographs, I am sure Dom snorted.  Olly simply said, "no".  The officer was not giving up easily, though he now adopted a pleading tone, realising that Olly was done.  Olly checked his watch, tapped it and said "we need to get to the border".  He also said, "I'm sorry".  It probably wasn't the young, smiling officer's doing after all, and he did look distraught as he walked away from us.

I suppose, if things ever return to normal, they'll use that old chestnut of a line: I was only following orders.  VOX, Christina Dalcher.
As the officer reentered the building, the taxi driver emerged from it.  After fifteen minutes spent debating something and then being given the GPS tracker, which looked like something from a Nintendo Super Mario Bros game: a plastic, beige box with a big, red button in the middle of it, we were finally on our way.  It was 18.30.

The next two hours disappeared as easily as they should have done.  The mountains rose and the skies darkened.  We were all glad to have put on extra clothes before leaving Uluqqat.  We didn't speak, just watched the empty landscape out of the window.  I wasn't especially nervous as I figured the Chinese authorities wouldn't let us roam around freely and so we would have to be "looked after" one way or another.  "Incredulous" is the word that best describes how I felt that day.

I was incredulous, for example, when we arrived at the final police checkpoint and the taxi driver was instructed to drive into a hanger by one officer only to immediately be instructed to reverse out of it by another.  Trucks were lined up facing the hanger, curtains already drawn across the small, cab windows.  It was 20.15 and, as the taxi driver pulled up outside of a small row of dingy shops, the three of us tentatively started to question what might happen if we weren't allowed across the border that evening.  We asked the driver about a toilet and he simply gestured to a mound of dirt and rubble a short distance from where we had parked.  Lovely.

It transpired that the border officers here were having their dinner.  It hadn't been that long since lunch!  We would be allowed to proceed after dinner.  We took turns to visit the mound and all commented on how cold it was.  I was shivering and my teeth were chattering and so I busied myself rummaging through panniers in search of my "big gloves".  Olly's brow was furrowed as he zoomed in and out of a digital map and Dom smoked outside of the van, staring blankly ahead.

It wasn't too long before the driver returned to the van and warm air blasted from the vents again.  It was a short drive through the barrier and past the officers who had waved us in and out of the hanger a few minutes before.  The driver stopped to enable the officers to check our passports which were then returned to us.  The driver continued a little further than we think is normally allowed: he stopped at a road block about 100m from the final fence.  The final fence was not very wide, it was a concertina gate with barbed wire along the top of it.  Through the gate, in no man's land, trucks were lined up nose to tail.  A Chinese flag had been drawn into the grass on the hill opposite the final checkpoint building and three dogs were walking towards us across the concrete basketball court that was in front of it.  Following the dogs came an older officer in camouflage, military clothing.

When the officer reached us the taxi driver must have explained our intention (should it not already have been quite clear) and the officer replied and then the taxi driver translated for us: "dinner", he said and pointed to the building.  It was an explanation not an invitation.  The driver then got back in the taxi, did a swift U-turn and left.  I then felt we were quite alone.  By now the official border closing time had passed.  It was half past eight in the evening.

After five minutes of standing in the cold, the door of the building opened and two young officers came out, laughing and joking with one another and barely even looking in our direction.  When they reached us, they asked for our passports, looked at them and then walked away.

Another five minutes passed before one of the men re-emerged from the building, this time carrying a set of keys.  We followed quickly behind him as he walked to the final fence.  The officer pushed open the final fence and we said a final xiexie as we finally exited China.

We had read that no man's land stretched for 3km before reaching the Kyrgyz border house.  Dom waved us ahead on our bikes, but we were so unaccustomed to cycling and, anyway, before going any further we decided to put on our waterproof trousers and overshoes as sleet was starting to fall.  It was not goodbye yet.

As we hurried into our wet-weather gear, a Kyrgyz officer appeared from no where.  He was fully kitted out in a big coat and boots; his hood was pulled up over a hat on his head and a gun was slung over his shoulder.  He smiled broadly at us, though clearly had not expected to see three travellers stumbling towards him at this time of night.  Dom greeted the officer in Russian who was taken aback by Dom's command of the language.  They started a lively conversation and the officer beckoned that we walk with him.  The officer pointed in the direction of a small building, the Kyrgyz border house was a short distance ahead.  He shook Dom's hand, nodded to us and set us on our way.  Dom was beaming: relieved to be out of China and back in a country he loved.  We felt excited too.

Olly and I freewheeled towards the checkpoint as Dom plodded steadily on behind.  A car sped towards us and stopped suddenly: a taxi asking if we wanted a lift.  Dom's plan had been to get to Osh, some three hours from Irkeshtam, and so we waved the driver in his direction.

As we pulled up at the checkpoint, an officer stepped out of the building, spread his arms wide, his smile even wider, and cried, "welcome to Kyrgyzstan!".  All of the weight - the tension, stress and nerves - that we had been carrying on our shoulders for the past twelve and a half hours lifted and we smiled back and said hello.

Just as we were stepping into the building to have our passports checked, Dom arrived in the taxi.  He quickly struck up a conversation with the friendly officer and translated for us.  Snow was coming and the officer did not advise going any further tonight.  We had read about being able to sleep in a container on the Kyrgyz side of the border if necessary and presumed this was what the officer was referring to when he told us to "aim for the canteen by the mosque".  Dom decided not to accept a lift from the 'taxi mafia' who operate at the border who had quoted him an extortionate sum to continue to Osh.  It was only 19.30 Kyrgyz time, but the sky was darkening - be it with the nighttime or snow - and so our adventure with Dom continued as we left the border house and pushed our bikes into Kyrgyzstan.  We had only been in this wonderfully welcoming country for fifteen minutes before being sent on our way.

We quickly spotted the tiny mosque whose roof was made from corrugated sheets of metal.  It was a 'makeshift mosque' and it was beautiful.  It contrasted with the ramshackle, one-storey building to the right of it which we presumed must be the canteen.  Dom went in to inquire about a place to sleep and quickly re-emerged followed by a lady in lots of layers and a colourful headscarf.  She showed Dom and Olly through a door to the room adjacent to the canteen (think cafe, not school hall) and they both came back out euphoric!  A small bunk room with three beds and a radiator for the equivalent of £2 each.  It was clearly meant to be.

We bundled everything into the warming room and I felt giddy with glee and relief.  The beds looked like they had been requisitioned from a soviet schoolhouse and they were piled high with blankets.  The bunk-beds that Olly and I took swayed dangerously as Olly clambered up onto the top bed following a leg-up from Dom.  The diamond-shaped springs then sagged frighteningly close to my face as Olly settled into position.  When we turned off the lights, however, Dom joking that it was good of Olly to offer, I quickly fell to sleep, the thought of being squashed by soviet springs clearly not preoccupying my mind.

Once we had installed ourselves and I'd taken a quick look around the small room, marvelling at the typewriter with its Cyrillic keys, we went next door and into the canteen.  The canteen, just a small, dark room with a mismatch of tables, chairs and cushions, was deliciously warm thanks to the coal-fired stove just by the door that a kettle stood on, steaming.  Dom ordered some bread and tea and after we peeled off all of the layers so recently flung on, the events of the day started to sink in.  We laughed as we each re-told parts of our border crossing story; we shook our heads in disbelief, but refused to get angry again.  The warmth; the chatter from the small number of truck drivers eating their supper; and the happiness we felt at being in Kyrgyzstan - Central Asia, the Pamirs, at last - was too great to dampen our spirits which had so quickly soared as the stamp had come down in our passports and we had crossed the border.

The lady brought over a hot, steaming pot of tea and warm bread which smelt of a spice I couldn't immediately place.  Cumin.  Our cheeks were flushed now from being so cold and then so warm and I felt almost drunk as I took my first sip of tea and mouthful of bread.  As we started to eat, a beautiful sound broke our comfortable silence and then filled the air.  It was the evening call to prayer from the makeshift mosque just outside and it was perfect.

The facilities

Long drop