The time had come to leave Kashgar and head for Kyrgyzstan.
The mission for today was simple. Ride about 110km on good bitumen to the new Chinese Customs and Immigration post at Ulagqat, clear Customs and Immigration, ride another 150km on bad dirt to the actual border at Irkeshtam Pass, enter Kyrgyzstan and ride 70km on good bitumen to the little town of Sary Tash.
At 7am I was packed and ready to go. Unfortunately, Abdul was running late and we didn’t get away until almost 8am. As there are no petrol stations in the centre of Kashgar, we had to stop at one of the large servos on the highway heading north. As I pulled up to the bowser, a woman in a staff uniform wildly waved me away from the bowser. I assumed this meant they had no petrol – something very unusual for China. I waited until Abdul finished a rather animated conversation with the crazy lady and he told me that we had to go to another large servo about 2-3km up the highway. I thought it was a bit odd but assumed there was some problem with the bowsers. Perhaps no electricity? Who knows?
We went to the second servo a few minutes up the road where I was met by the first crazy lady’s twin sister. As I rode up to the bowser Crazy Lady Mk II started waving wildly to stop me. Hmmm… there seems to be a pattern emerging here, I thought to myself. I got off the bike and asked Abdul to explain what on earth was going on.
This is one for the WH&SO storybook. Apparently, some of the major petrol companies had decided that it was dangerous (?) to fill up motorcycle petrol tanks at the bowser and had banned their staff from doing so.
And their solution to overcome this dangerous practice? Please read on.
I had parked the bike about 20m away from the bowser where Crazy Lady Mk II had pointed. After some more animated discussion, the new and improved safety procedure for filling motorcycle tanks was revealed to me in all its glorious lunacy.
STEP 1: The pump attendant filled up a vessel that resembled a very large, lidless teapot (complete with spout and about 8” of plastic hose) with 5L of fuel.
STEP 2: The oh, so safety conscious pump attendant then sloshed his way 20m across the concourse to my bike and poured what remained of the original 5L in the giant teapot somewhere in the approximate vicinity of the petrol cap, obviously hoping that the tank would suck in the spilt fuel by some miracle of osmosis.
STEP 3: Repeat STEPS 1 and 2 until tank is full or petrol station erupts in ball of flames, whichever comes first.
I was so glad that the Chinese petrol companies took the welfare of their motorcycling customers so seriously. And I’ve been filling up motorcycles at the bowser for years. Who knew? I’m lucky I haven’t spontaneously combusted.
Having been saved from almost certain death by bowser by Crazy Lady Mks I and II, I was ready to make a dash for the Kyrgyz border. The road to Ulagqat was not too bad. There was a fair bit of traffic but the main impediment was the large number of small villages along the way. Having to slow down every 10km for local market traffic was frustrating as we had already lost almost 2 hours just trying to get away from Kashgar.
I reached the Chinese Customs and Immigration post at Ulagqat just before 10:30am. It was truly a bizarre setup. The post was a massive complex in the middle of nowhere – like a small city where somebody had forgotten to invite the people.
I steeled myself for what sort of insanity the Chinese officials would inflict on me while trying to leave the country. Surprisingly, I managed to get through Immigration in about 30min. After unloading the bike and putting all the luggage (including the panniers) through the X-ray scanner, I was cleared by Customs in about 30min.
Or so I thought.
A second batch of Customs officials asked me to completely unpack both panniers. As I spread the contents of each pannier on the desk each item was inspected individually. Again my maps and Lonely Planet books attracted a disproportionate amount of attention. Finally convinced that I was not trying to smuggle the Terracotta Warriors out of China I was given the final OK from Customs.
So far, only one and a half hours. Things were looking promising.
Now I only had the bike to go. While I had been dealing with Immigration and Customs, Abdul had been dealing with the mountain of paperwork for the bike. This was part of what he was paid for. As I waited for Abdul to return, I thought that this might not be so bad after all.
Since Abdul had been here last, all the Customs officials for vehicle inspections had moved offices. He had been sent on several wild goose chases from one building to another in the vast complex in search of the right people and had achieved absolutely nothing while I was tied up in the main building. When he returned Abdul told me I had to take the bike to a new Customs inspection station about 1km away. After eventually finding the inspection station, some gate Nazi then stopped me from going in. Some discussion ensued and eventually I was allowed in to join the queue of dozens of huge container trucks waiting to leave China. There was one Customs Inspector! Abdul managed to convince him to do my bike next and after a very meaningless once-over I was told to go to a third office. However, on the way out, the gate Nazi stopped me from leaving the inspection station. After more petty arguments, I had to pay a “fee” to the gate Nazi. I headed for the third building in this absurd game where Abdul again tried to get the final clearance.
After more waiting for nothing we were told to return to the actual border post and present all documents to the final Customs officer on the gate. Thinking that this monumental farce must soon collapse under its own weight, we returned to the gate and Abdul presented the wad of documents to a grumpy face that belonged to the last man standing between me and salvation. After a cursory flick through the pile of paperwork Mr. Grumpy threw them back at Abdul, apparently claiming that some arcane piece of paper was missing.
By now even Abdul was unsure what the problem was. He had done this many times before and had never had this type of trouble. Many phone calls were made to people back in Kashgar as Abdul tried to find out exactly what the problem was. After receiving a phone from his superior Mr. Grumpy called Abdul back to the office where Abdul presented exactly the same pile of documents that he presented the first time. Miraculously, Mr Grumpy now found no fault with the paperwork, the boom-gate was raised and we were allowed to proceed to the actual border crossing at Irkeshtam Pass some 150km further west.
Just like at the Khunjerab Pass a week ago, it had taken 2-3 hours to satisfy the unfathomable requirements of the Chinese Immigration and Customs officials. But at least now I could just focus on riding to the border.
The estimate was 3hrs to cover the remaining 150km – tedious but at least something that was within my control. The road varied between OK and bloody terrible but at least the worst stretches only lasted 10-15km. The countryside gradually got higher and drier as we neared the pass. Near one of the dry riverbeds I saw some of the strange two-humped Bactrian camels in the wild for the first time. As I climbed further into the mountains, I came across an extraordinary sight- a spectacular two-tone river where the muddy brown silt of a small stream merged with the icy green glacial meltwater of the main river.
Finally about 3:30pm we reached the actual border gate where Abdul and the driver seemed just a little bit too keen to wave me goodbye. I was left in the hands of a bored teenage soldier who entered my passport details in yet another old logbook. And with that done I was free to leave China.
The Kyrgyz Customs and Immigration post was 7km down the road. And things couldn’t have been more different. After finding the tiny hole in the wall of the concrete bunker, I presented my passport and 10 minutes later I was in Kyrgyzstan. It took more time getting rid of the Commanding Officer who kept asking interminable questions about the bike. Still, he did have a semi-automatic rifle.
Likewise, the road was a dream compared to the Chinese side – perfect bitumen winding up and down through the hills with very little traffic. The 70km to the little town of Sary Tash was a joy to ride. The only thing that spoiled the ride was the brief but intense hail storm that swept over the mountains just short of Sary Tash. After the storm passed I swear the temperature dropped 10 degrees instantly.
By the time I arrived in Sary Tash it was getting late and the sun was throwing light but no heat. Sary Tash was not so much a little town as a few buildings gathered around a road junction. At the servo I was astounded to find three other overland motorcyclists getting petrol. They were the first that I had seen since Moritz in Lahore all those weeks ago. They were riding the latest and greatest BMWs and a KTM and looked like they had just stepped out of an advertising campaign. I felt decidedly “old-school”.
But there was little time to chat. They were keen to make it to Osh that night – still another 180km away! I thought they were either insane or robots. After my long day I was ready for bed.
My bed for the night in Sary Tash was at a local homestay. Homestays are the most common form of accommodation in many parts of Central Asia. You literally stay in someone’s home – a bit like a B&B in the west but much more … um … basic. Basic or not, the homestay offered a home-cooked meal and a warm bed – which was all I was after. But the view from the homestay was spectacular. It looked south to the endless chain of mountains of the Arka Alaj range.
However, my stay in Kyrgyzstan would be very brief – less than 24 hours in fact. Tomorrow I would have to cross that same Arka Alaj range via the Kyzyl Art Pass (the first of several passes over 4000m) into Tajikistan and my journey along the Pamir Highway would begin in earnest.