Four Wheels Good, Six wheels Better.
Three of the five vans are currently parked up behind a fine Jagson Oil filling station in Osh, Kyrgyzstan (40.559832°N 72.804313°E - Or just follow the trolly bus lines North) by kind permission of Mr. Arvind Mishra. The other two (Imp and OJ) are away being repaired and are expected back any time.
In 2002 we crossed the border between Kyrgyzstan and China at the Torugart pass, at that time a notoriously difficult border. However when we were in Osh we were told that the border crossing at Irkeshtam was open (or would be very soon) and that this would be a better crossing point in the future. So on this trip we decided to use this border. This may have been a mistake!
Although our maps showed a road due West from Kashi to Irkeshtam our guide took us North West (on the Torugart road). We had our passports checked at 39.768790°N 75.589620°E (this is the main customs and immigration point for those entering or leaving via the Torugart pass). From here the road forks left for Irkeshtam (Yrkeshtam) and right for Torugart. The road to the border was mostly reasonable tarmac with spectacular scenery. Note that you are unlikely to get fuel between Kashi and Osh (about 530km). The Chinese side of the border is a modern, white tiled building (39.714703°N 73.965690°E), and the officials are friendly. But the border is also disorganized (no electricity when we were there and their computers not working) and only open 14:00 to 16:00 local time (i.e. 16:00 to 18:00 Beijing time). A charge of 2 Yuan per vehicle is made for a completely fictitious disinfection.
The box containing our CB radios and satellite phone was inspected by customs, opened and the contents returned to us. In spite of our pleading we had to return our temporary Chinese number plates to our guide.
Because of the problems we had in 2002 on Kyrgyzstan side of the border Clive had arranged for us to be met by a "guide" from Edelweiss, 68/9 Usenbaev St, Bishkek, 720021, Kyrgyzstan. Phone : +996 312 28-07-88 or +996 312 28-42-54. E-Mail : email@example.com. This turned out to be a very good thing.
As soon as we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan our problems started. At a dilapidated garden shed beside a barbed wire fence an obnoxious official inspected our passports in minute detail. After 10 minutes he announced that two passports had "problems". One (Olwyn's) did not have the year of issue of the Kyrgyzstan visa (i.e. 2004) correctly completed, the other (belonging to a cyclist we had given a lift to) was not acceptable because the wording on the front of the passport was too worn! We were told that all the vehicles, except OJ, must go on to the next check point. Presumably so that he could apply more pressure on Olwyn and John to $olve the "problem". K-Nine, Imp and Speed stayed with OJ and Mog went on to the next check point to find our guide. (It should be noted that there is no viable GSM phone signal at the border and even in Kashi we were unable to telephone Kyrgyzstan for reasons unknown).
By the time Mog had contacted our guide (Shavkat) OJ had been "released" and the remaining four vans were on their way. In view of the complete bemusement of all the officials on the Kyrgyzstan side of the border I think very few foreign vehicles have crossed this border. Our initial impression of Shavkat was not good, he spoke no English and did not seem to "do" anything. However over the next hour it became clear that he was actually very good. Initially customs wanted our "machina passport". They were however unhappy with both the International Certificate of Motor Vehicles and the Carnet de Passages en Douane. Eventually Shavkat helped them conclude they really did not need any documents, just our list of registration numbers, engine numbers, chassis numbers etc. Each vehicle was inspected in great detail, in some cases three times. They were, they said, looking for religious literature, pornography, antiques and souvenirs (for them). Eventually we were allowed to enter Kyrgyzstan. For the first time we were able to see the vehicle that Shavkat had chosen to bring to the border to meet us, a 6x6 Russian army Zil truck converted into an off-road bus that made Mog look delicate. This was a warning of what was to come!
On the night of 2004-06-01 we wild camped at a fine spot about 5km passed the border (39.650760°N 73.855988°E). In sign language Shavkat indicated that he thought OJ, Imp and K-Nine might not be entirely suitable for the road from the border to Sary Tash.
The first part of the road, whilst really only an unmade track was passable with care. However just as a false sense of security was creeping in we encountered a stretch of deeply rutted mud, 100 metres long and about 600mm deep. This was impossible for all but Mog and possibly Speed. There appeared to be a track around the worst of the mud but whilst inspecting this Mog became bogged down and had to be towed out (effortlessly!) by the 6x6 Zil.
The only option was to drag each of the vans over the mud (and rocks). We plotted a route thru the mud very carefully (On top of the ruts would do least damage, but there was a real risk of sliding off the edge of the road and rolling over. In the bottom of the ruts, and the wheels would not touch the ground most of the time, this would mean a risk of serious damage to the underside of the van).
K-Nine volunteered to be first, and opted for Mog to tow him (believing, rightly as it turned out, that Mog would be more gentle than the Zil). Rather to everybody's surprise both Mog and K-Nine made it across without significant damage (although Pat and Ann both closed their eyes at times!).
Next came Imp, who was slightly less successful at staying on top of the ruts, but nevertheless made it thru without to much damage.
Speed (with greater ground clearance than Imp and K-Nine and four wheel drive) tried next under his own power. Unfortunately the ruts, made by large trucks, were too deep and he ground to a halt. Again the Zil came to the rescue.
Finally in a show of bravado the Zil, towing backwards, dragged OJ over a different part of the mud (damaging some guards underneath, pulling the silencer (muffler) off its mounting and removing part of one of the corner steadies!). But we were all across.
Shavkat indicated there were another eight or nine sections like this one to go. Luckily on this occasion he was wrong. Although there were several other long muddy sections none of them came down to the standard of the first one. Only OJ (with front wheel drive) required more towing. We took 11 hours for the 69km from near the border to Sary Tash, with most of the route above 3200 metres.
Shavkat left us at Sary Tash (to drive back to Osh that night!) and we finally camped by the road side a few kilometres further on in the rain and celebrated our survival and Ann's birthday with biscuits, nuts, an improvised "cake" and real wine.
The photograph shows Ann reading Maureen's card (left with Mog when Womble returned in Turkey!) A few tears were shed.
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