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Torugart Pass

As well as being the most spectacular route into or out of Central Asia (and worth a visit in its own right), the Torugart pass is the most direct route to Kashgar, arguably the most interesting corner of Xinjiang province and ideally placed for onward travel either south to Pakistan (along the Karakorum Highway) or east into China. The journey through Kyrgyzstan to the Torugart pass, whether from Bishkek or Osh, neatly encapsulates the country's scenic and cultural highlights: the caravanserai at Tash Rabat, nomadic life, the excellent display of felt handicrafts and carpets at Naryn museum and, of course, some beautiful and dramatic mountain scenery.

Finally, there's the added attraction of following a branch of the Silk Route, which wound its way from Kashgar to the Fergana valley (though it is thought that the major route crossed the modern border via Kok Art to the south).

The route over the 3,752m Torugart Pass is one of just two roads into China from Kyrgyzstan, the other being the route via Irkeshtam further south in Osh Province.

Despite so many must-visits Torugart is one of Asia’s most unpredictable border posts. Torugart pass is one of those rare beasts in Kyrgyzstan around which absolutely no flexibility exists. Even the most painstaking arrangements can be thwarted by logistical gridlock on the Chinese side or by unpredictable border closures (eg for holidays, snow or heaven knows what else). From the Kyrgyzstan customs and immigration station it is 6.8km to the summit. Below this, about 5km away, is a checkpoint, though the main Chinese customs and immigration post is another 70km away.

The Torugart Pass is normally snow-free from late May through to September. The crossing is theoretically kept open all year, but is icy and dangerous in winter. The customs and immigration facilities are open from 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday, but in reality you must cross between 9am and noon. There is a spartan state ‘hotel’ here, though most people who stay do so in basic caravans 1km before the customs area. 

Planning a crossing To cross the Torugart Pass requires a certain degree of pre-arrangement. It is best organised in advance in Bishkek, with a travel company who will make all the necessary arrangements once a firm date has been established. Because it is fairly expensive, currently around US$250-300 per vehicle from Bishkek to the Torugart Pass (half this from Naryn), most independent travellers either try to find other travellers to join them for the journey, or allow an agency to assemble a group for them. Groups usually consist of four travellers, although some agencies will only allow three because they say that they need room in the car for spare fuel and tyres.

Because an exact entry date needs to be arranged, an organised Torugart passage will slightly restrict the way you spend the rest of your time in Kyrgyzstan, as it is vital that you show up on the prescribed date. Choosing a date on which to cross is an important consideration, particularly the day of the week that is selected. Many travellers, wishing to arrive in Kashgar in time for the Sunday market, choose to travel on a Friday. The problem with this is that if anything goes wrong with the crossing on the Friday then there will be a delay of another 3 days, as the border is firmly closed on weekends (it can be firmly closed at other times too, but more of this later). Because of this, a mid-week crossing is probably a safer bet.

Another very important consideration is to avoid public holidays on either the Kyrgyz or Chinese side, as anything that vaguely resembles a holiday will result in one or both of the customs posts shutting up shop. In theory, the border is supposed to be open all year round, but because of holidays it is likely to be closed on the following dates: 1 January (New Year's Day), 7 January (Orthodox Christmas) and 29-31 January; 1-4 February and 23 February (Army Day); 8 March (International Women's Day), 21 March (Nooruz) and 24 March (Anniversary of the March 2004 revolution); 1 May (Labour Day), 5 May (Constitution Day) and 9 May (Victory Day) - it is best to avoid the first 10 days of May altogether; 1 August and 31 August (Kyrgyz Independence Day); 1 October and 7 October (again, best to avoid the first 10 days of October altogether); and 7 November (Anniversary of the October Revolution).

Also be aware that those holidays that fall on weekends are normally taken on a Monday or Friday instead. China has holidays on 29 January-4 February, 1-7 May, 1 June, 1 July, 1-2 August, 12 September and 1-7 October. There are also the moveable holidays like Chinese New Year, Orozo Ait (Day of Sacrifice) and Kurban Ait (feast at the end of Ramadan). As well as holidays and weekends, bad weather and deep snow can close the pass at any time, even in July or August. Political events may also take their toll: the border was closed in October 2001 for a period as a result of the political situation in Afghanistan.

The precise timing of the crossing, as in the hour of the day, is also crucial as the two customs posts operate on different time zones, with Chinese time being 2 hours (3 in winter, October-March) later than Kyrgyz time. This is official Chinese time, or Beijing time - much of far western China operates on unofficial Xinjiang time, 2 hours earlier, but the customs post observes the Beijing convention. Because of this, and because of the slow bureaucratic proceedings at customs and the distances to be covered, it is important to arrive at the Kyrgyz post as early as possible - it opens at 09.30 and closes at 17.00; the Chinese post is open, in theory at least, between 10.00-17.00 (Beijing time). Both posts observe a 2-hour lunch break when very little is likely to happen. It is 100km from the border to the Chinese immigration post and there are bound to be delays so start early!

As well as documentation proving that onward Chinese transport has been arranged, a Chinese visa will also be required. This is not available at the border. Chinese visas can be obtained in Bishkek, but they are better applied for well in advance in your country of origin, as the Bishkek Embassy will probably insist on an invitation from a Xinjiang travel company, which entails more expense and hassle and takes at least a week - in your own country you can simply apply by post. On the application form do not mention Torugart, Xinjiang, Tibet or any overtly politically sensitive areas; just write Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and other obvious non-controversial destinations in eastern China - these will not be mentioned on the visa that is subsequently issued. Once again, this involves some advance planning as you will need to know the date on which you plan to enter China from Torugart.

Normally, Chinese visas are issued for a period of 1 month, so as long as the visa has become valid by the time the Torugart is crossed there will be no problem. Border permits are not required providing that the Torugart Pass is approached directly from Naryn (allowing a side trip to Tash Rabat).

Red Tape - Crossing into China via the Torugart Pass is made difficult by a combination of paperwork, random decision-making and official intransigence. This is not to say it cannot be done - it can - but it is prudent to be aware that there arc a lot of factors that may go wrong, and sometimes they do. Having said all of this, the general trend appears to be one of matters easing slightly of late: long delays and turnings-back are less frequent than they were a few years ago and, with the correct paperwork and a fair wind, you should be able to arrive in Kashgar the same day as leaving Tash Rabat or Naryn. What is indisputable is the need for a degree of flexibility as well as patience and a certain spirit of adventure, but if you did not possess these last two qualities then you probably would not be in Kyrgyzstan in the first place.

Essentially many of the difficulties crossing the pass boil down to Torugart being classified by the Chinese as a ‘Class 2’ border crossing and, therefore, technically closed to all but nationals of Kyrgyzstan and the People's Republic of China (mostly traders). The special permission (and ensuing bureaucracy) that foreigners need in order to cross the pass makes a tidy income for immigration and, especially, customs officials who are always on the lookout for irregularities. To avoid being sent back, you just have to stick to the rules. However, the situation is very fluid so check information in advance.

For example, foreigners aren’t allowed to take the weekly bus that runs between Kashgar and Kyrgyzstan. The bottom line is that you must have onward Chinese transport arranged and waiting for you on the Chinese side to be allowed past the Kyrgyz border post.

Kyrgyz border officials are insistent on written confirmation of this onward transport into China, and detain visitors until their transport arrives at the summit from Kashgar. The best thing to have is a fax from an accredited Chinese tour agency, who will come and meet you. No special endorsement is required on your Chinese visa.

The three-point border – two border controls 12km apart and a security station in between – makes for further confusion. You are not allowed to walk or cycle on the Chinese side of the border in no-man’s-land. It is therefore essential that your Kyrgyz transport continues past the custom post to the actual border to meet your prearranged Chinese onward transport. Only drivers with a Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry special permit can go this far. Normally the Chinese guards at the arch radio to Kyrgyz immigration when your transport arrives and only then are you allowed to leave the Kyrgyz border post. 

Cycling - It is possible to cycle from Naryn to the border (or in the reverse direction) but once you cross into China you’ll have to load your bike onto pre-arranged transport for the last leg to Kashgar.

Kyrgyzstan - When both sides of the border finally open, you and your driver show confirmation of onward transport and then wait until the radio call comes from the Chinese side that your onward transport has arrived. After this you’ll go through customs and immigration while your vehicle is being strip-searched in a garage next door. After inspection you jump back into your vehicle and continue 7km to the border. If you don’t have transport for this section, this is where your headache begins, as you’ll have to negotiate with a driver to give you a lift and with the officials to let you pass. In the border zone, roughly halfway between the two customs and immigration stations, permitted vehicles are allowed, but apparently no pedestrians. At the summit, your new driver and some Chinese soldiers will be waiting for the transfer. Big handshakes all around. Don’t forget to take a look at the beautiful pass, which you just fought so hard to cross.

China - Another 5km later you will arrive at the original Chinese border post where your luggage will be inspected and passport checked. It’s surprising how the climate and landscape change when you cross the pass. The Chinese side is abruptly drier, more desolate and treeless, with little physical development other than adobe Kyrgyz settlements. The 100km of road closest to the border is a miserable washboard surface, spine-shattering to travel along and choked with dust. At the junction of the Torugart and Irkeshtam roads is the spanking new Chinese customs and immigration station. Chinese immigration is open from 1pm to 5pm Beijing time but officers will wait for you if you are late. Here you fill out entry forms and get your passport stamped, both relatively painless. The post has a Bank of China branch, a couple of simple noodle shops and a small guesthouse, though travellers in either direction are discouraged from staying. From here to Kashgar it’s 60km of paved road. The whole Torugart to Kashgar trip is 160km, a 3Ѕ- to four-hour 4WD trip.