With the guide regulations in Myanmar and Thailand on one side and the border between Nepal and China still closed after the devastating 2015 earthquake, the Indian Subcontinent has basically become a dead end for vehicle dependent overlanders. We wanted to explore Central Asia in summer. Going back around war stricken Afghanistan was not really an option, either. The financial advantage is small (even considering cheap Iranian fuel) and it takes way longer. Not to mention the get-it-or-not lottery for the Turkmen visa. Therefore, we chose to transit China from Pakistan to Kyrgyzstan in late April 2017.
Before you go
As you probably know, crossing China is neither easy nor cheap. You need local license plates, driver’s license and a guide. Forming a group of vehicles greatly reduces your cost. We started looking for travel companions about six months in advance. Good resources to find fellow overlanders include the HUBB and the location specific Overland Sphere facebook groups. Even some tour companies will hook you up with other travelers, once you ask them for a quotation.
Finding a tour company
After a short time, our group was complete. 5 vehicles in total – 4 cars, 1 motorcycle. Quickly, we had agreed upon the route from Khunjerab to Torugart Pass, a date and that we all wanted to do it in four days. Then, we inquired different tour agencies. We cannot remember the exact number, but it was somewhere between seven and ten. The price difference was ridiculous. The most expensive agency quoted more than twice the price of the cheapest agency. One member of our group, Mathias, had good experiences with http://adventuretourchina.com/ on another crossing. And it happened, that they also quoted the lowest price. US$ 900 per vehicle including hotel rooms and the customs deposit. All in all an easy decision for all of us.
Obtaining a Chinese visa
This turned out to be very difficult for some people in our group. Many Chinese embassies have very strict regulations about issuing tourist visas now. We did it in Kathmandu and that turned out to be very easy. We did not have to submit hotel nor flight bookings. The LOI from our tour company was enough.
Approaching the Chinese border from Pakistan
Immigration and customs offices on Pakistani side are both in Sost. Just opposite the PTDC motel, where our whole group stayed the night before crossing the Chinese border. The offices open at 9 am and it is advisable to be the first in line. The officers are as friendly as anywhere else in Pakistan and in less than one hour, all five vehicles and nine passengers were checked out and ready to go.
From Sost it is a 85 kilometer and roughly two hour drive to Khunjerab pass top. On the way there are two more police check points and you have to pay the fee for Khunjerab National Park. 800 rupees or US$ 8 per person. The scenery along the way is beautiful. When we reached the top, there was still quite some snow, which proved to be difficult, especially for the motorcycle in our group. This was April 24 and we had to push the bike for several hundred meters through 20 to 30 centimeters of snow with a thick layer of ice underneath. Also, there were minibuses and trucks skipping the line just to get stuck right in front of us. Making it even more difficult for us.
But we had time anyways. We arrived at the border just before noon Pakistani time, which is 3 pm Beijing time. That meant, we had to wait for two hours on 4600 meters until the Chinese lunch break was over and the gate opened.
Where’s the “Welcome to China?”
Do not expect a “Welcome to China!” here. You are most likely to be greeted with a “Hurry, hurry!”. Which just makes complete sense after two hours of waiting… So you drive down a couple of kilometers to the Chinese border security check point, where the odyssey through Chinese bureaucracy starts. One vehicle at a time, all passengers had to step out and present a bag of luggage for inspection. If your stuff is all in drawers and cupboards, you just have to pack a back. Pack something innocuous like clothes, hiking or kitchen equipment. No laptops or cameras, as they will want to go through all your photos.
The Chinese border check point
They checked our visa in the building and kept the drivers’ passports. They went through all the luggage, we presented them. The search took much longer for people that brought laptops and cameras. They were checking four people at a time. At the end of this – give or take – 20 minute per person procedure, there is a body scan.
Now you have to wait for your turn at the vehicle x-ray machine. One driver after another had to bring his vehicle to the machine. When the scan was finished, the five officers wanted to search our vehicle. Suddenly, different officers started opening different doors, peeking into our stuff and one even started to climb the roof. So Heiner had to run rings around them. He made clear that the guy has no business on the roof and that nothing is being opened or looked through without Heiner watching. The guys did not speak a lot of English, but they must have understood the commanding tone.
So Heiner removed the boxes from the roof and gave them a detailed tour through our lubricant and camping gear section. When the boxes where back on the roof, there was not a lot of time left. Keeping all the drawers open for two seconds while reciting parts of the content, randomly showing spices, pots or shampoo bottles sufficed.
Waiting for the “Go!”
Then, we had to wait until all foreign passengers and vehicles had been inspected. Not only the ones in our group, but also the three Pakistani minibuses. We think, the general idea is to send everybody down in one big convoy. An officer, carrying all the driver’s passports went in one of the latter vehicles. Just a measure to make sure that nobody gets lost or immigrates illegally (who would do that, by the way?).
Anyways, when we were allowed to roll, it was 7 pm Pakistani (10 pm Beijing time). Five hours after arriving at the check post. The sun had already settled. So the motorcyclist in our group not only had to deal with his symptoms of altitude sickness (he had already passed out at the vehicle x-ray machine), -5°C, and snowfall, but also darkness. If you ask us, the Chinese officials acted quite reckless in that aspect. At least approving some kind of harm to the physical integrity of our friend.
The whole procedure seemed more like a demonstration of power than a real contribution to law and order. It took a long time, but was not executed thoroughly. Except for maybe a pet, we could have brought almost anything into the country. Another side note: there are no toilets up there. When we asked, the officials sent us into the snow field.
Immigration in Tashkurgan
130 kilometers and two hours later, we arrived at the immigration office in Tashkurgan. Here we met our guide. Once again we had to put one bag into a x-ray machine. Nobody was watching the screen, but please do not question the process! It was past midnight, Beijing time, but the officers in the immigration post were not tired to tell us to form a proper line and not talk to each other while waiting for being stamped in (the hall was empty expect for us and some officers…). Half an hour later, the customer feedback button on the counter with the label “Waiting time too long” had been pushed nine times and we were all through the process.
The customs office was already closed. Therefore, we had to bring the vehicles to a customs parking lot. This cost us another half an hour. Thankfully our guide was quick in arranging transport to our (honestly nice) hotel and just as quick in arranging food and beer once we had arrived there in the middle of the night.
Customs in Tashkurgan
The next morning, our guide and the five drivers went to the customs parking lot at 10 am. After an 1.5 hour wait, our guide told us the bad news. The customs documents in Kashgar were not ready yet and we had to come back after lunch break, at 5 pm. At least they allowed us to go to our vehicles real quick. So we could take out some necessities and our laptops. Preventing further inspections and excessive boredom for the ones who stayed in the hotel.
We suddenly had some time to walk around the city, see Chinese “exercise” in the streets and grab some food.
Back at the customs parking lot, we had to wait for 1.5 hours for a 10 minute process step: weighting the five vehicles. Due to a broken x-ray machine and a one hour dinner break (hey, it had already been three hours since the three hour lunch break!), it took another three hours to x-ray our vehicles. Unfortunately, they did not allow us to take a look on the x-ray images. We are still very curious how Willie’s x-ray looks like!
No further inspection of our vehicles followed. It was already dark when we arrived back at the hotel. Time for beers and food. We had already convinced our guide that we would rather want to drive to Kashgar the next day than the same day as actually planned. So he had already arranged the hotel bookings in that way.
One day of leisure time during our China crossing
It is a nice four hour drive from Tashkurgan to Kashgar through beautiful mountain scenery. So we count it as leisure time. On the way we stopped several times to take some pictures. That also included a longer photo session at Lake Karakul. A wonderful mountain lake.
We arrived in Kashgar in the early afternoon and spent the rest of the day exploring the city individually. We only had a couple of hours, but it seemed like an interesting place to stick around for some days. On one hand, a modern Chinese city as we had imagined, on the other hand, remainders of a chaotic old town. Plus an interesting mix of people. Over 70 % Uyghur, roughly a quarter Han Chinese completed by a wild Central Asian mixture.
Kashgar being the only Chinese city we have ever visited so far, probably drew a very strange picture of China in our heads.
Our group met in the hotel lobby and we all went for dinner on Kashgar’s night market together. The range of food reassured us that we were in China.
Across Torugart Pass to Kyrgyzstan
The last day of our China crossing had arrived and it turned out to be the most exciting day. A different guide waited for us in the hotel lobby. Apparently, the other one liked dealing with officials as much as we did. Too bad, we could not sneak out as easily.
Now, the era of delays began. First, the hotel lost one guy’s papers. Then, it took us an hour to fuel up three of the vehicles. But the last 1.5 hours delay were our fault. We could not start Willie because of our stupid aftermarket anti-theft-system. Literally the only electronic component of the vehicle and it failed.
The rest of the group had already left. Hardly any local understood us and the ones that did, did not want to tow us. No more signs of the hospitality and kindness that we had gotten used to on our trip. Finally Mathias came back, gave us a push start and we were ready to roll again. Everybody was in a tense mood. We had to be on the customs post in time to make it across the border the same day.
Finally off towards the border
After skipping the line of a police check point en route, we arrived at the Torugart customs and immigration post literally a minute before their closing time. The new guide proofed to be a good development in the plot. He knew the officers and convinced them to process us before calling it a day. Customs did not bother at all and half an hour later, we were all stamped out.
The officers left the building in file for their well deserved break while we drove off the grounds. Two more checkpoints and some beautiful scenery along the way, before we arrived at the final check point just below Torugart top. And guess when we arrived! Just a minute after they had finished their lunch break. So it turned out that although we almost missed the chance to leave China that day, we could not have entered Kyrgyzstan a minute earlier.
Just in front of the country gate on Torugart top, the relief was visible in our guide’s face when he gave us our Chinese number plates and driver’s licenses and waved us goodbye. Yes, you got it right. Hundreds of dollars for papers that are nothing else but a souvenir. Long live bureaucracy!
Welcome to Kyrgyzstan
Immigration was quick and painless. It took around one hour until all the papers for our vehicles were ready. There was a 1000 som or US$ 20 eco tax. Vehicle inspection was close to non-existent.
The scenery was just stunning. Reflections of afternoon sunlight in the endless snow covered plains of the Tian Shan range. Our group spent one more night together at Tash Rabat, an old caravanserai and highly recommended meeting spot for any group of overlanders going into or coming out of China.
Some final remarks
Do we want to go to China again with our own vehicle? – Hell no!
Do we want to go to explore more of China without Willie one day? – YES
Can we recommend our tour agency? – Yes. The price was alright, that makes up for some smaller imperfections.
What else? – It is probably a good idea to cross Khunjerab Pass not earlier than May. Less snow and Chinese offices switching to their summer working times should make everything easier.
We have used some photos in this post that were taken by some of our friends in our group. Check out their websites as well!
David and Josephine traveled from the Netherlands to India and back in their Land Rover Dox.
Bert and Catharina from Sweden did kind of the same route, except for their home country, obviously :).