To Irkeshtam & beyond
The east-bound road that leaves Osh for China climbs gently into the Alay Range via the Jiptik Pass (4185m) and the village of Gulcha. The road, that had initially followed the Taldyk River, now follows the Gulcho as it climbs – this time in earnest – the steeper but lower Taldyk Pass (3615m) to the surprisingly open Alay Valley and Sary Tash. The drive from Osh to Sary Tash takes five hours. While it is possible to leave Osh at 1am to arrive at Irkeshtam Pass by 9am you’ll end up travelling in the dark and miss much of the stunning scenery. Instead consider starting later and overnighting in Sary Tash and then continuing at 5am the following day to the border controls at Irkeshtam.
From Sary Tash the road rapidly deteriorates into a corrugated dirt track that guarantees to rattle your teeth from your skull. To travel the 90km takes between two and three hours depending on how recently it has rained. At the time of research the road was being upgraded and with luck could be paved by 2012. About 3km before the border is the hamlet of Nur-a, a village that has built up a reputation for drunkenness and theft. You’re better off heading straight to the border.
The road to Irkeshtam is being upgraded as part of an important Uzbek- Kyrgyz-China project to restore the traditional and natural trade routes between Xinjiang and the Fergana valley. This modern Silk Road would make an ideal Kyrgyzstan to China route for travellers. Even now, though, the landscape of Pamir grassland and Arizona-like rock landscapes and canyons on route to the Irkeshtam pass makes it worth a side trip from Sary Tash. There is no public transport along this road so the only option for the 180-kilometre round trip is to hire a four-wheel drive vehicle in Sary Tash.
The Border - Crossing the border (9am-noon & 2-4.30pm Mon-Fri) can be a time-consuming affair. Ten kilometres before the border is the first of two checkpoints. Here everyone is required to show their passport so names can be matched to a master list of bus passengers. Assuming nobody had a last-minute name change the bus is allowed to continue to the second checkpoint and luggage inspection. Finally, you can expect to spend between 1,5 to 2,5 hours at the border itself, depending on how many trucks are waiting before you.
If you are hitching, ask the border-post army officers to put you on a truck to cross the 7km of no-man’s-land to Chinese immigration (closed 11am to 2pm Kyrgyz time). Unlike the Torugart, no permits are required to get through this border point. Note that the border is closed on Kyrgyz and Chinese holidays, on weekends and May 1 to 10.