Discovery Kyrgyzstan
Discovery Kyrgyzstan travel guide #10/2008

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TorugartThe Torugart Pass is a remote mountain border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China. In 1905 the British Consul in Kashgar, (George Macartney) discovered that the Russians had built a 27 foot wide road from At Bashi in Kyrgyzstan to Torugart and for about half a mile into China itself. A major player in "The Great Game" between the British and Russian Empires both of which were seeking influence in Central Asia, he reported to his superiors that the road could easily be "made good" and should Russia choose to annex all or part of Xinjiang province, then this was the route along which their troops would come. In 1906, the Chinese government gave in to Russian pressure and agreed to complete the road using a loan from a Russian bank - recouping the money by levying tolls - and Russian merchants were given a monopoly of trade along the route. The Chinese, however, were not happy at this arrangement and set the tolls so high that the road soon fell into disuse and disrepair.

Now you can travel the modern road, though truth to tell, it is not yet very modern (although many sections are not tarmac some of it is - indeed, part of it near At Bashi once served as an emergency airstrip in case of Chinese invasion). The Chinese erected an archway on the border itself, but this was removed in 2002 - a pity, because it made a nice photo opportunity.

Most foreign tourists cross Torugart as part of a Silk-Road Tour. Many people, however, prefer to travel independently rather than take an organized tour. For them Torugart presents many problems. Technically, it is closed to all but citizens of Kyrgyzstan and The People's Republic of China - but it is possible to obtain special permission to cross the border here from the Regional authorities in Urumqui.

The special regulations and the remoteness of the border post can make this one a daunting experience for the unwary independent traveller. Travellers have often been turned back for not having the right documents. On the contrary, some travellers with no documents seem to have breezed through, breaking all the supposedly inflexible regulations on the way. It is highly unpredictable but we do not suggest that you take any risks. It can all be done in a reliable fashion! A word of Warning … the regulations and the remoteness mean that Torugart is NOT a simple or a cheap border crossing - but we think that it is worth it!.

TorugartThe road is mainly asphalt - it being the main road between Bishkek and Kashgar (China). There is one stretch before Naryn, which is gravel - over the Dolon Pass - but even this is quite good. Unfortunately, however, the road surface can be uneven which can make for a bit of bumping around.

The road heads East from Bishkek along the Chui valley with mountains in the distance on the right hand side. There are two possibilities - the "old" road, which passes through a number of villages - and the "new" road - built sometime in the 1960s, which bypasses the many villages. It is dual carriageway and runs parallel to the Chu River, which forms the border with Kazakhstan for much of its length. (In fact, at one point you cross the river into Kazakhstan - but only for a short distance and you don't need a visa). After the town of Kemin you enter Boom Gorge - meandering between steep sided cliffs alongside the Chu River - climbing up towards Balykchi and Lake Issyk Kul.

From Issyk-Kyl the road undulates until it reaches Kochkor - then climbs steadily to the Dolon Pass. The Naryn side of the Dolon Pass passes through a narrow gorge before opening out onto a plain at Ottuk, about 30-40km before Naryn. Then it drops quite steeply into the town itself. (About 10km out there is a fork in the road - The left fork leads to the eastern end of town and the right fork to the western end).

The road to China is at the eastern end of town - and climbs up over the ridge that forms the southern wall of the narrow valley in which the town nestles. Eventually it emerges and after At Bashi it follows a long, wide, river valley. This part might be a bit boring - but you pass over a stretch of road designed as an emergency runway in the time of conflict/crisis. (It was never used, although the Chinese did cross the border once in the 1960s.)

Just past this section is the turn off to Tash Rabat - and we strongly suggest that you think about including it if you decide on crossing Torugart. You have to ford a stream … and the road is not asphalt - but it is not bad. There are yurts in the valley during the summer months.

At the end of the valley the road swings Eastwards around the southern tip of the At Bashi range and climbs towards Torugart. This is where the asphalt runs out and a stone road, which goes on for 60km starts. The scenery on the Kyrgyz side is quite varied - on the Chinese side you descend through another gorge past a number of small "Kyrgyz" villages … until you reach the border post …most of it is not asphalt. The road to Kashgar is then a fairly easy ride.

Discovery Kyrgyzstan #6

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