After sitting around in Osh, Daniel (the Australian thrid of Team America—the name they made up for our three-person travel group in Tajikistan), flew into town and in a whirlwind I was on a bus to Kashgar. Because there was an actual bus we were pretty sure that the border was open. We never got a confirmation on the border re-opening date but we were on schedule to cross into China on the 9th.
Around 8pm, when the bus was supposed to leave, we began to get on board. Another passenger who was late tried to make me move to the back of the bus, where five beds were laid out, but I refused. I was not about to spend the night squished between four smelly Kyrgyz, Uzbek or Chinese men. You’d be surprised what shrugging your shoulders and shaking your head can do when traveling—it’s gotten me out of some uncomfortable situations.
Around 9:30, after negotiating the sell of the remaining beds and filling up with gas, we set off toward Sary Tash and the Chinese border. Neither of us slept much at all because the road is only technically paved and it’s pretty bumpy in most places.
Somewhere around 3am we stopped and I peed in a frozen ditch on top up a mountain pass surrounded by snow and illuminated by a nearly full moon.
At 4am the lights were suddenly flipped on and everyone arround me began to furiously devor loafs of bread and bottles of Fanta—fasting for Ramadan was about to begin. A little while later a bit of music was played to signify sun-up. I was glad Daniel suggested one Snickers was not enough, encouraging me to buy more. One Snickers is never enough in Central Asia.
Although every long-distance bus I take stops all the time, this one barely stopped at all. We didn’t stop to eat (because everyone else was fasting) and we didn’t have many toilet stops because the fasting even includes water. By 7:30am when we arrived at the first Kyrgyz border checkpoint I knew I should go to the bathroom but didn’t think a militray zone was the best place to go off along the road. We were stopped for an hour while the bus driver delieverd a huge stack of passports, each filled with a 500com bribe. Daniel and I refused to put a bribe in our passports. We waited.
The drive to the Kyrgyz border was only thirty more minutes and I was excited to get there so early. I nievely assumed that because we got to the border when it opened we would get through both borders before lunch. While we waited I ran off into the shanty town near the border to deliver photos of the local kids I had taken exactly two month earlier. People in Central Asia rarely have photos of themselves and family photos are cherised. But the town was nearly deserted and the trailer of the little girl who stars in my photos was padlocked. I found a woman nearby who seemed to agree to deliver the photos—the family had gone to Osh for the winter.
The border gate opened and we drove inside, only to be ushered into a shed to wait for passport control. A bus full of people can take a long time to cross a border and we waited for everyone to be checked. There is about 10km of “no-man’s land” before reaching the Chinese border where we were stopped at a Chinese checkpoint. Usually you just show your passport and are logged into a book but we were all required to get off the bus.
Looking back toward Kyrgyzstan, a Chinese tower with a bright red flag billowed in front of a panorama of white mountaintops. All of the passengers were lined up in single file and told to put their luggage in front of them. I joked to the man next to me that it looked like they were going to shoot us but he was busy taking all of the contents of his bag out and spreading them onto the pavement. Apparently we had been instructed to take everything out for inspection but I decided to play the foreigner card and leave my bag closed. Besides, I prefer not to advertise how many expensive things I carry with me.
The Chinese military guards moved down the line looking at everything. The man next to me had what looked like a jar of mayonaise. He has to take a tast of it for the guard. Another man to my right sat while the guard took everything apart, reading personal letters and even then notes from medicine packaging. When he came to me I opened the main compartment of my day bag and pointed to a few things and opened the lid of my camera bag. He pointed to my big backpack and I made a bid deal out of opening it up for him, like he was really requiring a lot of me. He looked at the bag at the top (my toiletries) and let me go. It was all for appearances.
We pulled up at the Chinese border around 11:30 local time (1:30 Beijing time) and filled out the required forms, proclaiming not to have SARS. Daniel got as far as passport control but as the officer began to lower the stamp to his passport he stopped and declared that the border was closed for the next two and a half hours. I tried to explain to the English-speaking offical that we were tired and hungry and that he should let us go. With that everyone in the building cleared out, leaving us sitting on our bags. Four Swiss bicyclists rode up and had to wait was well, jeapardizing their plans to make it 50k into China that day.
The time passed quickly. I wrote in my journal, tried to get the muslim women to eat grapes (aka contraband plant matter in China) and didn’t use the public toilet. When the time came to line up everyone pushed to the front and I was suddenly at the end of the line. I was a little worried that I would pass the temperature test because I had a bit of a cold lingering from Tajikistan. But when I looked into the 6 foot tall scanner my temperature was well under the required 38 degrees.
It took a while to x-ray and then load up everyone massive luggage and we waited in the sun to finally leave to Kashgar. It turned out that over half of the bus passengers decided to take taxis from the border to Kashgar, saving themselves an hour or so. It amazes me that these people decided to take the bus but then were able to afford guard bribes and Chinese taxis.
The rest of the ride to Kashgar was uneventful, aside from a Japanese man being repremanded for peeing on the side of the road in front of a Chinese border control post. Good thing I held out! The bus ride was expensive ($50) and quite a hassle. If I ever find myself crossing that border again I’m taking a taxi.