Reading the blogs and seeing the images sent in by Dan, our intrepid sales manager currently enjoying our Silk Road Odyssey tour, I was reminded of a few funny issues I had when running that tour for the first time, way back in 2004. Central Asia and in particular the offbeat routings it often throws up, was always going to be a challenge for crazy nascent tour operators looking to open up new routes. Call us naïve, call us bloody-minded, but the truth is in those days we simply didn’t know enough to shy away from such challenges, we just pushed headlong down the road dragging an ever-appreciative bunch of unsuspecting guinea pigs with us.
A year before running the Silk Road Odyssey tour we heard the Chinese were going to open a long-closed China Kyrgyzstan Border Crossing between Kashgar and Kyrgyzstan over the Irkishtam Pass, to tourist traffic. As the main route heading west out of China this was the principal Silk Road and therefore great news for any company like us looking to run a REAL Silk Road Odyssey from China to the West. We promptly put a trip together, raised a group of 9, and off we went. After a fabulous first week, travelling through the Kyrgyz Mountains of Heaven and enjoying the Kashgar Sunday Market, we headed for the border, confident we’d be the first westerners to cross in years.
The problem was, when we got there, we discovered no one had informed Chinese immigration of this important fact. After two hours convincing them it was okay for us to leave China this way we were stamped through and allowed out the other side. The other side of what? The forlorn and wind-swept immigration hut... Remember, this is the Irkishtam Pass, a dry and desolate spot in the middle of nowhere – even the Kyrgyz entry point, where our new transport awaited us, lay 7km away across a barren and broken landscape. Fine we thought, our minibus will take us.
But no. The Chinese would absolutely not let our Chinese vehicle pass. Okay, so although it’s a long way, we’ll walk I told the group… grab your bags, let’s go. No, again not allowed. Right, so what do we do I asked? Sit here? Not our problem, they told me.
At this stage we spotted a large Chinese truck coming through customs. Having delivered its cargo of scrap metal to the furnaces of Kashgar – there was a lot of scrap metal coming out of the former Soviet Union in those days – it was heading back empty. Quickly we stopped the driver, I put $50 in his hand and we all scrambled up into the back – with high sides it was not easy and I had to give half my group a leg up. Some locals followed suit.
But after a few angry words between the driver and the Chinese officials we were all told to get down – the driver couldn’t take us. He told us he’d be in too much trouble. Back to square one, in a heat of about 40 degrees, with little water and no food. Ah, the fun of adventure travel.
And then a savour. At just that moment the once weekly international bus between Kashgar and Tashkent came humming through immigration. This time I took $100 and told the driver if he took the 10 of us across no-man’s land he could collect his reward at the other end. He agreed and before any Chinese official could grasp what was happening I hurried my group aboard and off we drove.
Having never seen tourists cross the pass before it took a while to convince the Kyrgyz border guards to let us in, but eventually we made it – from China into Kyrgyzstan thus opening up a new route for tourists. Losing at least 6 hours meant we didn’t arrive into our yurt camp until gone three in the morning, but no one minded. Adventures like this are what adventure travel is made of… right?
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