This article is going to tell you what you need to know before crossing the Irkeshtam border from Kyrgyzstan into China and to report our experience hourly. If you want more information about Xinjiang Province and what to expect when visiting its cities, see our articles ‘Xinjiang: The Dark Side of the Red Dragon’ and ‘Weird Things Happened in Far West China‘.
Everything You Need to Know Before Crossing Irkeshtam Border
- Crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan into China can be tricky due to different time zones: the Chinese borders use Beijing time which is 2 hours ahead of Kyrgyzstan. Also, once you are in the Chinese territory you will cross two borders: Irkeshtam pass or China Immigration Inspection, where your belongings will be checked and you will be asked questions, and Ulugqat-City border, where another control will be done and your passport will be stamped. Bear in mind that the two borders are 140 km far from each other.
- Both the Chinese Immigration Inspection (Irkeshtam) and the Chinese border (Ulugqat) have a lunch break from 13.30-16.30 in summer and 14.00-16.00 in winter (both Beijing time). Both borders are said to close at at 20.00 in summer and 19.30 in winter.
- It takes 1 hour and a half to go from Irkeshtam to Ulugqat. Open up your eyes while driving across that piece of land, you’ll see what the Chinese government is trying to hide to international media.
Having those timetables in mind,
- You should get to Irkeshtam before 11.30 (kirghiz time) otherwise you are stuck there till 14.30, that is 16.30 Beijing time.
- If you pass the control in Irkeshtam before the break but notice you won’t get Ulugqat before 13.30 or 14.00 (Beijing time), just stay there to have lunch in a café because at Ulugqat there is nothing! Also, even if you get to Ulugqat right before the break, they may let you in but won’t process your documents, so you’ll have to wait for 3 hours anyway.
- The price from Irkeshtam to Ulugqat is said to be fixed at 400 CNY/RMB. You can try to bargain if there is more than one taxi drivers around and you have time to spare. Also, in high season you can group up and save money. We were alone and paid the full price but we met some people in Kashgar who told us that they took a minibus because there were around 15 people there and paid 100 CNY each. They crossed the border two days before us, so it’s really a matter of luck.
- Leave Sary-Tash early in the morning, at 6 or 6.30 am, to try to get Ulugqat border before the break (but we don’t know if the Kirgyz border is open before 8am, probably it is; it opens officially at 8 am).
- We were told that there is a marshrutka that leaves from Osh at 14:00 and takes seven hours to get to Noura, before the Kyrgyz border. You can then sleep there and go to the border the day after. But we cannot guarantee it.
Our Experience in Details, with Timing, from Sary-Tash (Kyrgyzstan) to Kashgar (Xinjiang, China)
7.00 AM we left Sary Tash by taxi, we organized it the day before (1,000 som)
7.45 AM first Kirgyz checkpoint, passport control.
8:00 We passed Noura and saw a long line of trucks (35) but our driver told us we would have overtaken them.
8:15 We passed the Kirgyz border (passport stamped) and were told to get on a lorry (in Sary Tash we were told the border opens at 8am)
8:25 The truck left us at the “China border”, passport control from Kirgyz soldiers and then we had to walk uphill for 10 mins to the first Chinese registration point.
8:45 We arrived (again, walking) to the second Chinese registration point and got on another truck to get to the China Immigration Inspection (Irkeshtam pass). At 8:50 the truck stopped in line so we got off and walked pass 45 trucks till the office
9.05 / 11.05 We arrived at the China Immigration Inspection and were told to wait.
—- from now on times are given in Beijing time —
11.15 We were called on. Passport control, body scan, backpacks check. They asked about our jobs, our hotel reservation in Kashgar, our route in China, our next destination, if we had checked tourist attractions on the Internet – we denied saying that we were checking things on our Lonely Planet guide, they checked the pages about Kashgar. Then, they checked our backpacks (one was actually emptied) and our devices: the camera very quickly, one smartphone very carefully going through all the pics on google photo (till they loaded) asking for some sites and if I (the owner of the phone) was Muslim or interested in Islam – I denied saying I was Chatolic. Then, I was asked if I had contacts in China and my WhatsApp was also checked.
11.40 We were told to wait in the waiting room and that we must have taken a taxi to Ulugqat, no hitchhiking. The only taxi driver there asked us 400 CNY. The policeman told us that at Ulugqat they stop working at 19:30 with one hour lunch break (which is not true, see above). We exchanged money – very bad rate – and tried to bargain the price for the taxi… no way, we had to pay 400. We accepted and just at that moment our passports reappeared and were given to the taxi driver, who kept them till Ulugqat.
12.25 We stupidly left for Ulugqat. We should have waited up there, having lunch and then leave.
13.40 Checkpoint: passport control, face scan, pictures of us and passports.
14.05 We got to the closed gate at Ulugqat… our deceitful taxi driver did nothing to arrive on time and didn’t tell us there were no places for food over there…. The truck started getting in line at 14.30.
16:00 The gate was open and we got in. We had to fill in the custom card, told them about our itinerary using the Lonely Planet. They checked our cameras and then we started talking about rugby (we had some pics) and Italian football. Then, fingerprints scan and passport stamp! They quickly checked our luggage and we exit the high tech area of Ulugqat border.
16:35 We are now officially in China
16:40 Last passport registration
16:45 Lunch at a nearby restaurant
17.30 We were dropped off at the bus station and a young policeman helped us to buy the tickets to Kashgar (shared taxi, 33 yuan each) at the ticket office and to get on the right car (taxis are super organized and tourists highly controlled).
18.15 We left to Kashgar. After ten minutes, first police checkpoint (passport registration, face scan)
19.30 Police checkpoint to enter Kashgar (passport registration and hotel name)
20:00 We eventually arrived at the hostel!
That was one of the toughest borders we have crossed during our journey along the Silk Road. We have just road and mountain pictures about this experience, so no sensitive images, because our devices were checked several times. Despite the long hours, countless passport controls, and privacy violation, we are glad we did it. We saw things we have just read on the news and we are ready to report them with no fear. Read our article about Xinjiang to know more about it.