Day 16: Back over the Khunjerab Pass to China
We started the day in Sost knowing we had a long day ahead to get out of Pakistan, over the Khunjerab Pass, into China, and back to the town of Tashkurgan.
We were at the immigration post in Sost by 8:30am in time for its 9am opening. The first step was easy enough, a pretty basic inspection of our bags for drugs. The second step was a new one introduced just last month, as the health counter wanted to see a vaccination against polio – the Chinese side is demanding it as a requirement for entry, and the Pakistanis want to ensure no one heading across the border will get turned around and sent back down. Fortunately I had my WHO vaccination card on me, but the last polio vaccination I got was back in 2001. I wanted to avoid taking the oral vaccination they were giving out, so I managed to bullshit that the polio vaccination was actually written “2007” and therefore within the 10 year vaccination period. They bought my ruse and I was on to the final step in the process: immigration.
It was just our luck that they had implemented a new electronic immigration system two days beforehand (we had been issued handwritten visas when we arrived two weeks ago), and it was taking about 10 minutes to process each person. Apart from general computer illiteracy by the government officials – they even had their IT guy there to hold their hand – the bigger problem was the iffy power supply, which kept cutting out. When it did, all the immigration officials downed tools and went for a smoke outside to wait for the grid to come back online.
It was a good three hours before we were all done, and we piled into the minivans and started the drive to the border. The trip up to the pass seemed to fly by, with a few quick stops for the bathroom and a couple of security checkpoints, and before we knew it were were back at 4730m and standing at the border! It was a beautiful sunny day, but windier and colder than it had been two weeks ago.
When we first arrived at the pass we started posing for a few photos before a gruff Chinese soldier came up and started barking at us in Mandarin, clearly unhappy at us taking the pics. A couple of Pakistanis nearby came up and shouted back at him, noting that he was actually on Pakistani soil (we hadn’t yet passed the barbed wire that marked the border line) and should f#ck off back to China! Which he then did. I found the exchange to be quite entertaining…
Our Pakistani team had prepared a tasty biryani lunch for us at the pass with some Hunza apricots for dessert, and we quickly wolfed down some food and drink as we had to keep moving to get through the Chinese side. We said goodbye to our Pakistani friends and drove a couple of kilometres down the road to the Chinese border post.
The Chinese side was where the fun really started. No smiles here and lots of Chinese flags and men with guns. We were escorted in to a room where we passed all our bags through an X-ray machine. One at a time we were then directed to a table where a guy in uniform rummaged thoroughly through all our gear, even looking on cameras at iPads at photos and files. I didn’t have anything of concern to the officials, but a few of our group had some non-fiction books of a political nature (eg. History of Central Asia) confiscated. While we were being searched, our vehicles were being taken apart piece by piece as they looked for anything contraband.
Once that was all done we were ushered back to our vehicles via a bathroom stop, a gross reminder that we were back in China – the country that gets my vote for the worst toilets on earth. We weren’t allowed to leave however, as vehicles need to travel in convoy with a military escort from the border to Tashkurgan. We waited for probably an hour and a half in the vans while other vehicles arrived and were searched. Eventually we reached quorum with around eight vehicles, and with a bored-looking soldier on board one of the vans we drove together down to Tashkurgan some 120km away.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Tashkurgan, but we still needed to be processed through immigration into China. It was a fairly straightforward process, but still took over an hour to emerge out the other end of the building.
It was 10:30pm Beijing time (we had moved 3 hours forward going over the border) and dark by the time we limped in to the Crown Inn in Tashkurgan, and after a quick tasty dinner (more spice than Pakistan!) we all went to bed around midnight. Three days driving down, one more to the finish line in Kashgar tomorrow!