The Torugart Pass

After cleaning up and getting a good night's sleep in Karakol, we immediately needed to move on to our next destinations, the Torugart Pass and Kashgar, China. We would then cross back over another pass to the last mountain valley on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. This roundabout route would get us to the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan without going through the troubled southern Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabad.

The Torugart Pass is legendary among Central Asian travelers, mostly because it can be very tricky to get across. Chinese bureaucracy says that the pass is only for local traffic, but they allow foreigners through provided they have prearranged transport on both sides of the pass. And the pass is closed on weekends and Chinese holidays, of which there are many in this season. So if we didn't get across on Tuesday the 21st, it would be almost a week before we would get another chance.

We spent most of Monday the 20th waiting for our Kyrgyzstan visa extensions. Without an extension, our one-month visas would expire on September 28. If all goes well, we will enter Tajikistan on that day, but it is unwise to assume all will go well in this part of the world. And it is even more unwise to overstay a visa, giving the corrupt police a reason to harass and demand bribes. So we applied and what should have been a ten-minute operation took most of the working day.

We finally got on the road at 4pm for the five-hour drive to Naryn, an overnight waypoint in the very center of Kyrgyzstan. Our route took us along the south short of Lake Issyk-Kol, the huge mountain lake that we had driven by on the way to Karakol. In addition to the lake, we passed many fine mountains and elaborate Kyrgyz cemeteries. The weather was superb this time, but it unfortunately got dark for the last mountainous stretch into Naryn.

We rose at 6 the next morning to drive to the pass. This part of Kyrgyzstan is high-desert basin-and-range country with broad valleys not unlike Nevada's. We passed but did not have time to visit the 15th-century caravansarai of Tash Rabat.

Kyrgyz exit formalities were straightforward, but the meeting at the pass was not. Neither Kyrgyz nor Chinese cars can cross the border, so both cars come to the pass and the foreigners walk across with their bags.

That's assuming both cars arrive. It was snowing and about 50 trucks were trying to cross the one-lane pass in both directions. The resulting gridlock shut down all movement for several hours. Our Chinese driver was stuck in the snow downhill.

I finally managed to call the Chinese driver on my cell phone and learned that he was ten minutes away. Once he arrived, we went immediately downhill towards Kashgar.

The Chinese border police chose my backpack to search. They gave me some trouble about my large collection of medicines, but ultimately had fun joking with me about the elementary Chinese books they found.

By the early evening we were in Kashgar.

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