The nature of Pakistan, of which I had huge expectations, turned out to be way, way more exciting than I ever could have dreamed of. To explain to someone what it was like and actually making the person you are talking to understand is virtually impossible. It is just too different. The only thing I can think of to compare with is to land on a different planet, say Mars, and go on a long drive with the space vehicle. What I mean by that is that you are inside of that experience 360 degrees, not standing at a platform looking at a scenery with some form of civilisation behind you. You live that experience, day after day after day and each day around every single bend your jaw drops in awe over what you have in front of you.
Our planet is so overwhelmingly beautiful and along Karakoram highway it doesn’t stop but keep on presenting new extraordinary pictures around every bend but there is an end to everything. Even though Karakoram Highway continues to Kashgar in China the magic stops at the China border. Not that the beauty of the nature doesn’t go on into China but the Chinese government is not too interested in having visitors in this part of the country and they are quite clear in telling you so.
The last outpost in Pakistan is the small town of Soest. Again, this is one of these border towns that have nothing going for it. Its ugly, everything is temporary or at least appears to be. Everybody is just passing through and cant wait to get out. At the eastern edge of town is a gate that opens at nine thirty in the morning. Even though there is another two hour drive to the Chinese border, this is the Pakistani checkpoint and customs. Having heard that the border crossing on the Chinese side could be tricky, I decided to be first in line to leave Pakistan A mission I accomplished by starting customs and border crossing procedure at 08.30. At 09.30 I said good bye to my friends at Karakoram bikers and headed towards China. The two hour drive to the border was if possible, even more beautiful. The mountains were even more steep and the stream running next to the road roaring wilder than before and even though I already was at a high altitude I started a serious climb. I went from 27 degrees heat up to zero degrees and snow. Up to the border crossing Kunjerab at 16.700 ft. As a border crossing it proved to mean absolutely nothing. It is just a monument showing the geographical border really. Once having arrived at the peak and the big arch it turned out to be closed for…………….lunch. Guess border staff needs a bit of food too huh and how could they know the Pakistani border opens at 09.30?
Waiting at this altitude, almost 5.000 meters makes you realise that climbing Mount Everest is not about climbing a mountain, it is about overcoming the conditions you are in. The mountain is the easy part. Even 5.000 meters makes all kinds of physical activity exhausting. One other experience you get from spending time at high altitude is that you sleep poorly and dream the weirdest kind of dreams. Lack of oxygen makes your body having difficulty getting into the really deep sleep and instead put you in a limbo where screwed up dreams flourish. Then you wake up and remember the whole thing and start questioning your own sanity.
Anyways, a two hour wait later the Chinese military came out smiling, well fed and opened the gate and let everybody through after a simple passport check.. This was a bit too easy, there has got to be more to it and, yes there was, of course there was. About 1km later was the next checkpoint, a big military one. After a long wait, maybe an hour, they decided it was my turn and they started to go through my luggage. Not one of those relatively thorough checks you get at some airports. No no, this was hard core, this was high end checking where they went through everything, and I mean everything. They spent at least 30 minutes just with my cell phone, to check all the apps and all my photos and of course the same with my camera and my laptop. Not impolite, not unfriendly in any way, just meticulous. Why do they need to look at all my photos. Even from years ago?
When I was done at the luggage inspection and got out to the parking lot where my bike was it had started snowing. It actually put a smile on my face because now I had experienced all kinds of weather on my trip. I was also relieved that it was time to move on. I was approved, or so I thought. An officer came up to me and said I need to have my bike scanned. He showed me the never ending line of trucks waiting to enter the scanner and told me to go to the back of the line. See when I arrived at the checkpoint the scanner staff were not yet in place so I just passed by. Consequence, go back and wait for at least three more hours, I would be last in line to get out of the check point. I went up there, talked to the police and asked if it really was necessary and finally found one who would say no. Probably because his English was bad and he didn’t really get what I was asking him. I went back to the parking lot was a assigned a spot by the military and was told to wait. we first had to wait an hour for the actual border to open and then wait until all vehicles from China had crossed into Pakistan which took a few hours and then they put me in a convoy with two cars to do the two and a half hour drive to the third checkpoint. Lovely!
The third checkpoint in Tashkorgan looks more like a regular border crossing without military. When we arrived they were not yet open, of course, we were told they were having dinner. Another hour of waiting and then the customs and passport people arrived. This place looked and functioned much more like a regular border crossing and was relatively efficient. Once through the gates my first thought was that now Im going to have something to eat and something to drink. After all it was 6.30PM. and I hadn’t had a anything to eat in almost 12 hours. But, they were not done with me, not in a longshot. They decided to impound my motorcycle for some document crosschecking which had to take place the following day. However, the actual administrative process with impounding the bike was tedious, to say the least. Paperwork, X-ray scanning weighing and a never ending discussion where it should be parked kept me with the customs until 21.45. They promised I would get my bike back in the morning providing my documents checked out ok. I went to my hotel which was only a five minute drive away and before checking in I ran into the restaurant, which was about to close since it was now passed 10.00 pm and begged them for a beer, water and some food. Some lovely people, who turned out to be the owners, presented me with the biggest tray of sweet and sour pork I have ever seen, I was suddenly in heaven. My day was without comparison the worst I had had so far on my trip but that tray of food and a beer just made my day.. Not physically but mentally it was on the verge of driving me nuts and I am actually used to cross China borders, something I have done at least once a month for the last 15 years but this was something else. Exhausted with a belly full of sweet and sour pork I made sure to call my wife and tell her I was OK. I do that every night so that she knows I’m OK. 30 seconds later I passed out, not in bed but on bed.
I got up at 08.00 and contacted the import agent, yes you need one of those to get anything across the China border, and asked them if I could go pick up my bike. Their response was of course, no, not yet. We will call you soon. At 14.00 they called and said it would take more time. At 16.00 I went to the customs and waited one hour before I got the message – Not today. Now I had had enough. I got seriously pissed off and said xxxxx xxzxxsx zssx! Well, that triggered them and evidently Chinese customs officials can get pissed off too. Eventually I said I will now leave the place, leave the bike and fly home to Hong Kong. Time was not really on my side since two days later they were starting a muslim festival which means the borders close for 5 days and I did not have 5 days. I had to get the bike out the same day. I started walking off the premises and by God it seemed to work. His face was still fuming red of anger but suddenly he started using up his entire arsenal of various chops on my documents and five minutes later my bike was released. Yippie.
It was now 19.00 and I was happy to leave. Well maybe not just yet…… I went to the gas station in this very odd city of Tashkorgan. It is quite modern but seems somehow desolated. Rather ugly, not much to see to be honest. Anyways, at the gas station I went up to the pump and was waiting for some help when a guy came and informed me that I can not buy petrol unless I have a petrol permit from the police. Now, that’s a new one isn’t it. Off to the police station, wait another 45 minutes for a permit and then back to the gas station where they after hesitation allowed me to buy one litre at a time. I could not fill at the pump. Had to do many runs. It was now 20.30 and I could finally leave for Kashgar. I had a long drive ahead of me, actually too long considering the hour but I really had no choice. 350 km approximately.
I arrived my hotel in Kashgar after midnight, exhausted and super hungry. Upside was it was a really nice Radisson hotel with 24 hour roomservice. I was in heaven. A shower, a bathrobe, a beer, a call to my wife, some food and a bit of TV and the knowledge of the day after being a day off, doing nothing but site seeing slowly turned my tired grumpy mood to a feeling of pride of what I had accomplished. Maybe, for the first time on my trip, did I reflect on what I had done and what I had seen. I now only had one more Visa country left on my trip, Russia, and no more bike permits were needed, that is provided they would let me out of China. You see, the reason behind my planned extra day of staying in Kashgar was actually for the processing of my exit documents. Getting in is tricky but once you are in they don’t want you to leave.
Day after I went went siteseeing in Kashgar which was a big surprise. Kashgar is very much influenced by Arabic culture, Arabic architecture and even Arabic language. Fact is, all public buildings have the name of the building in both Chinese as well as their own simplified version of Arabic and islam is probably the biggest religion. The old town of Kashgar is actually a very beatiful city. Lots of nice buildings, carfree streets and a level of cleanliness that is not far behind Singapore. Very unusual for Chinese cities which can be a lot of things but clean aint one of them. The only thing that I found a bit annoying on my otherwise wonderful stroll around the city is that the presence of police is extremely high. Every streetcorner, and I mean every streetcorner have two to three policemen on post. It touched me as absolutely ridiculous since the town is so quiet. They say it is not a stable part of the country. Separatists are supposed to be highly active in the area and that is the reason for all the security. As you know China have since long banned both Facebook and Youtube but in this area they have also banned Whatsapp. In 1934 in the battle of Kashgar the Hui army massacred a large number of Uyghurs (locals) and ever since there is some instability. As far as I know the last attack took place in 2015. In a sense I can absolutely understand that there is some tension though. It doesn’t feel like you are in China and to run a part of a country that is ethnically, culturally and religiously different must be extremely hard for the Chinese government.
I learned a lot that day, maybe more than anything else that China is a huge country, or actually it isn’t a country. It is a huge multi facetted area containing many cultures, ethnic groups, languages, religions etc.
In the afternoon I contacted my agent who declared that all paperwork had been done and that I could leave according to plan tomorrow. Thank God, I had to get out before the festival or my schedule would go out the window. Day after I get on my bike and head for the border. Im there when they open and it is completely empty, well almost empty. No other people are trying to cross, only me, but I do manage to find a few staff at customs and about an hour later all the paperwork is done. Im ready to head for Kyrgyzsthan, or thats what I thought. My papers are OK. Now it is all about letting my bike out. They send me over to another customs depot where the trucks gets declared and here I have to spend three hours before they finally say they wont let me leave. By that time I am so pissed off, pardon the language, that I tell them that Im leaving (this routine had worked before so might as well give it a go). I say I’m taking a taxi to the airport in Urumqi and will fly back to Hong Kong. I ask them to contact me when they are done. My bike is parked right in front of the border gate. I ask them to take of my bike and start walking away. I get about 300 – 400 meters when a car with 3 guys from the customs stop right in front of me and begs me to go back. They promise to process my paperwork. It takes roughly 2 minutes for them to process everything and less then five minutes later Im on my way to Kyrgyzstan. Im puzzled, what was it that was so hard and suddenly became so easy?
I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was extremely relieved to leave that part of China. I will never go back. It was made very clear that I was not wanted and they make your visit extremely painful. It is up to anybody to make their own decisions but knowing what I know now I would never take that route out of Pakistan. I love many parts of China, my family is partly Chinese and what I experienced on my drive in South China will be a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. Whereas the northern China part without doubt was the most hostile and uncomfortable experience I had on my trip.