Torugart, China-Kyrgyzstan Border
Our day of exiting China was, if anything, more troublesome than our path into the country. Ahead of us lay the Torugart pass, billed as one of the most logistically difficult border crossings in the world. In Kashgar, we said our farewells to codename Yasmin, who was tearful to see us depart (with tears of joy, I expect). She handed us on to Mr Akbar (codename Admiral) and things went downhill rapidly from there. Being in a large group always attracts more attention and scrutiny than a lone traveller, so very quickly we were stopped and searched en route. This is when they went through everyone’s phones and deleted photos they didn’t like. This was also when they triumphantly found our knives and confiscated them.
Already at the limit of my patience with these ‘authorities’, and knowing that logic did not enter into any conversation with them, I turned to Admiral Akbar and told him he was going to have a very long day. I explained I wasn’t going anywhere until they returned our belongings and that it was his responsibility to sort it out. We’d carried these knives through every search and checkpoint in each Chinese town we’d travelled through. We were trying to leave the country and now they wanted to seize them!
On a group visa, of course, one person staying put means everyone stays put. So we approached the next police station chief to unravel the mess. This is where we learned of our guide’s failings. He could speak the local language but not Chinese, and not much English either. He’d also never led a group out of this border before. Great! He then submitted all of our passports unnecessarily at this second police station. The police failed to process the passports so we turned up very late and during the lunch hours at the actual border complex. His negotiations failed to free the knives from captivity. They were only returned to us after Prashant explained gently that his knife was a gift from a friend in Nepal.
This was the good news. But we still had to wait hours for customs to finish their lunch break. Then, mid-afternoon, our vehicles were emptied and VIN numbers were checked. Then we had to drive through a massive rail gantry-based X-ray machine. With customs and immigration complete, we were now free. Free to travel 500m to the next Chinese checkpoint. Then free to travel 21km to the next Chinese military checkpoint. Officially out of the country, but still being searched. Each one was a variation on the same thing: guns, passport checks and needless inconvenience. And repeat for three more checkpoints until, 100km after originally having had our passports stamped, we sat shivering at nearly 4,000m on top of the Torugart pass. China was finally at an end and dusk was upon us. It had taken us over 13 hours to exit this extremely uptight part of the country and we just wished the day would end!
This time we were truly free…and things could only get better. We were heading towards the only democratic country in the region; Kyrgyzstan.