Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Aug 11- 12: CN to KG

We got an early start, and we the first ones at breakfast. As we were finishing, we saw 25 or so UC Berkeley alums who had taken an eclipse trip, seeing in it the Altai region of Xinjiang (almost to Russia). They had also gone over the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan and come back and done other fascinating things. They reported that as they came back into China, the Chinese had gone through their cameras and deleted those pictures they didn't think that the visitor should have taken. So, as a precaution, Mike changed the card in the camera, and put the other card in his backpack.

We got to the International Bus Station at 9:15 AM BT (7:15 AM XT and KT (Kyrgyzstan Time)). The bus was scheduled to leave at 10 AM BT (8 AM KT). There waiting were our 2 Italian friends from Hotan, and 4 French friends whom we had briefly met at John's Information Cafe in Kashgar. The rest of the bus filled up with Chinese going to Kyrgyzstan and carrying large amounts of baggage. Also a few Kyrgyz going home.

The bus took off at 9 AM XT after taking all sorts of cargo, including 4 exceedingly heavy small metal wheels, which the porters struggled to load.

Although we had purchased upper beds, many nice guys switched with us, and we ended up on lower bed. Carol had a center bed with a VCR monitor. It was never switched on, however.

20 minutes down the road, the bus pulled off, and along came a pickup truck loaded with vegetables, melons, and bottled water. Amazingly, it all got on the bus, with heavy boxes packed on top of cauliflower, chinese broccoli stuffed into crevises, etc. The whole back of the bus was filled up with this cargo.

There was a stop about 100 km in for lunch, and we bought a plate of laghman for 6 RMB, and then went down the road for 1.5 kg of grapes. On to the border on good roads in reasonable weather. We had good views of a 6300 m mountain on the Chinese-Kyrgyz border.

We arrived at Chinese customs at about 2:30 pm. Near this facility we saw a cafe offering "Ancient Uighur Fast Food." Unfortunately, our bus did not stop there.

It took us 3+ hours to clear Chinese customs. After we had all of our passports stamped, we had to reload the bus. One of the passengers on the bus was in charge of loading, and was demanding 5 RMB per bag to get your bag back on the bus. No money, no bag. The Chinese and the French paid. The Italians and the Fromans took care of this and carried our bags into the passenger area of the bus, where they sat amid the melons and cabbages. With all of the luggage loaded back on the bus, the Chinese officials collected the passports again, and held them until we actually cleared the border 10 km or so further on, through no-man's land. Only then did we finally have our passports. There were lines of trucks in both directions for what seemed to be miles.

We crossed over into Kyrgyzstan after 6 pm. Our driver greeted the customs guys warmly, took out 3 boxes, and presented these to them. Mike could see that one of the boxes contained a set of dinnerware. Our bus, filled with goods, did not get searched very thoroughly; later we did see our driver hand over armfuls of vegetables to selected customs personnel.

It took us about 1 hour to clear Kyrgyz customs, and we were on our way at about 7:15 pm.

The whole trip is 520 km - slightly less than one half on the Chinese side. 520 km is 320 miles - roughly the distance from Seattle to Portland or Boston to Philadelphia, or Denver to Durango. In America it takes 5 hours to drive this.

The scheduled trip from Kashgar to Osh takes at least 24 hours (we were actually told 28 hours). From the border toward Osh is on some of the worst roadbed in the world for "paved" roads - it is pitted, rutted, washboarded, etc. It goes over several mountain passes, and has many hairpin curves.

We saw a spectacular sunset, as we bounced and jounced into the darkness. At times the driver was doing less than 10 mph. Carol pretended that this was a boat and that we were experiencing was the slapping of waves instead of tires meeting rocks and ruts.

After 100 km of this the road, it apparently got smoother. We, amazingly, got to Osh in only 11 hours from the border. That works out to about 15 mph.

As we were approaching Osh, the driver made an angry phone call, and before long, we had pulled into a commercial parking area, where 3 small pickups carried off all of the vegetables and water.

We finally arrived in Osh a little after 6 am. We and the Italians decided to share a taxi. However, we had a standoff with the taxi driver who wanted to charge us 50 Kyrgyz som apiece (34.91 som to the USD) instead of the standard 50 som for this short ride. Finally, we settled on 80 som and we were in the hotel area.

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