Torugart Pass

Here are some of the answers to the questions we are most frequently asked about Torugart. Most of what is written here is based on crossing from Kyrgyzstan to China . The order is not necessarily logical, but we hope you will find the answers to your questions here. If you have a question which isn't answered in the following then please feel free to ask. We'll do our best to answer.

1. Why do foreigners have so much trouble trying to cross the Torugart Pass ?

Technically the crossing is closed to all except citizens of Kyrgyzstan or The People's Republic of China, but Foreigners can get permission to cross from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Urumqui, but they have to be met at the border by a representative of a recognised travel company, and Foreigners are NOT allowed to take their own vehicles into China (without special advance permission which is expensive and takes at least 2 months to get) so the Chinese agency, which arranges the permission usually arranges transport to Kashgar as well.

Also, the crossing is classed as a “second grade” crossing. So it does not have full facilities and is governed by special regulations, e.g.: The border is closed on weekends and any Public Holiday, on either side of the border!

Although no “permissions” are needed from the Kyrgyz authorities to cross Torugart. The area surrounding Torugart is a border zone and permissions are, however, necessary if you want to stop by Lake Chatyr Kul or visit the Ak Sai valley. If you have a Chinese visa you are allowed to travel the road between the outer checkpost and the customs and Immigration post without a special “Border Zone Permit”. Therefore, it is still necessary, technically, for tourists to be taken through the border zone, for group lists to be prepared and the drivers/guides have to have special permits to enable them to travel here.

In 2003, an agreement between the Chinese and Kyrgyz governments imposed a visa regime for the citizens of each country to visit the other. As a result, technically, drivers and guides need a Chinese visa to pass through Immigration and Customs. In Torugart, there are currently (August 2003) special arrangements so that they can travel between the post and the border with tourists – but not at Irkeshtam.

2. Why is the border “closed” to foreigners?

For some time there was a tension between the Soviet Union and China including border disputes in this region. It was thought in the Soviet Union that China might send an army across the border and approach Kazakhstan either side of the Ala-Too mountains (just North of Issyk Kul) and parts of Kyrgyzstan were also militarily sensitive. Kyrgyzstan itself was a restricted area for foreigners and travel in the border zones were strictly controlled in both countries – even locals needed to have special stamps in their passports to allow travel in the region. Since the break up of the USSR , tensions have eased and the border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and China resolved, but some restrictions and regulations still remain. Until 1999, nearly a decade after independence, the border guards were all Russian frontier troops, but they are now being replaced with Kyrgyz guards.

3. When is it possible to cross – when is the border open/closed?

In theory the pass is open all year round except:

  • At weekends – every Saturday and Sunday
  • On public holidays: Jan 1, 7; Feb 2; Mar 8, 21; May 1, 4, 5, 9 (it is best to avoid the first 10 days of May altogether); Aug 1, 31, Oct 1, 2 (but is usually closes for the first 10 days of October); Nov 7 and the following moveable feasts – Chinese New Year; Kurman Ait, Orozo Ait (It is best to avoid days either side of holidays – and especially do, if the holiday falls on a weekend,)
  • For bad weather –
    • it can snow in any month of the year – in July 1999 and August 2000 the border closed for three days because a meter of snow fell and blocked the road
    • often in October and in twice in 2001 heavy rains washed away parts of the road on the Chinese side of the border.

You should be aware that, sometimes the border can be closed at very short notice for all sorts of reasons.

In October 2001 – the border was closed to foreigners for an unspecified period due to the situation in Afghanistan . In 2003 it was closed in response to SARS for an indefinite period in each case it was re-opened when the risks were deemed to have passed.

4. What alternatives are there?

Not many !!!

  • The other, Southern pass (Irkeshtam) opened to passenger traffic in the summer of 2002. Although permits from the border authorities in Urumqui are not necessary, the fact remains that the border zone is still a sensitive area – and you will probably need to arrange transport on both sides of the border if you don't use the bus service. There are other problems with crossing Irkeshtam. It is a very long journey, although it can be done in one day – it is better to arrange an overnight stop at Sary Tash or the Taldyk Pass.
  • There are flights from Bishkek to Urumqui – currently on Tuesdays and. From Urumqui there are flights, a train and buses to Kashgar.
  • It is possible to travel via Almaty to Urumqui by train or by bus – but this requires a Kazakh transit visa.

5. What documents do I need to have? (Please note; the following is mainly for independent travellers: with our help it will be easier in practice for tour groups where the company deals with all of this).

Going from Kyrgyzstan to China : the Kyrgyz officials will look for:

your Kyrgyz visa

your OVIR registration. If you are in transit from Almaty, or Tashkent and can show that you have been in the country for less than 3 days, there should be no problem. If you can't prove it there may well be a call for a suitable (financial) acknowledgment of their generosity in believing you anyway. OVIR registration is not difficult or expensive to get in Bishkek or Naryn or some other towns. (Citizens of some 28 countries are exempt from the need to register with OVIR – and there will be no problem for them because they don't have the OVIR stamp)

your Chinese permission to cross Torugart (the Kyrgyz may let you leave - but not always - but the Chinese may not let you go past their guard post a couple of km down the road and you may get sent back).

your Chinese Visa

They will ask you to fill in a customs form (maybe two) - The forms they have available will almost certainly be in Russian only.

Be prepared for problems if you are missing one of these. Without the permission/visa, they won't let you pass because you will be turned back by the Chinese. Without the OVIR registration they will probably try to extract a fine (“shtraf”).

The Chinese will require a visa and the permission to cross Torugart. Later you will have to fill in Customs, Immigration and Health Inspection forms. The forms are written in both Chinese and English but the compulsory Chinese guide will help you.

Going from China to Kyrgyzstan :

There is some debate about what the Chinese will require whereas many travellers have managed to cross without special permits, our partners (and every Chinese authority we have consulted) assure us that permission is required and you need to be escorted. You might say “Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?” but the translation of the permit that we have clearly refers to both Entry” and “Exit”. It may be that they are not as fussy about checking documents for those leaving China as those arriving.

The Kyrgyz authorities will look for your Kyrgyz Visa (it is planned to station a consular post at the crossing meaning that it will be possible to arrange to receive a visa on arrival), and you will be asked to complete a customs form. They also expect you to be met and conveyed through the border zone by a recognized tour company. We know of two cases (one where some students were trying to use the regular Kashgar-Bishkek bus service – see below) where the border authorities “arrested” the travellers for not having such an arrangement.

6. Why is it important when exactly I get to the border??

It is better to get to the border posts in the morning. If you arrive after lunch you are likely to have to overnight at the border post.

The Border Posts have definite opening hours. There is a 2 hour lunch break.

Going into China - you have to get to the Chinese Customs and Passport Control before it closes at 5:00pm Beijing time - that is, by 3:00pm local time in Kyrgyzstan/Xinjiang. There is a 100 km journey between the border and the Chinese Customs and Passport Control, which is at the end of the river valley, and on the way you will also be stopped at the army post a few kilometres over the border where they will check your passports and ask to see your luggage. This is NOT Customs and Passport Control (though it used to be, before the new one was established). We understand that, strictly speaking, they have no right to search your luggage - but they will ask, and can make it difficult for you to proceed if you argue.  It has been known for people arriving at the Kyrgyz Border Post after lunch to be refused permission to cross by the Kyrgyz Border Officials because they did not believe that the traveller could get to the Chinese post in time.  (We, without passengers, once did it in just over 2 hours but we had to use excessive speed).

7. Some guide books refer to a “Foreign Ministry Permit”, what is this?

The post is located in a sensitive border zone, and for entry to the zone a special permit is needed. Until 2003, a special stamp in the passport would usually suffice – but strictly speaking the permit is necessary – it is a small piece of paper – about A5 size, folded in half.

8. Why is it necessary to “hitch a lift” across “no man's land”?

This should not be an issue - If you are with a tour company then they will make arrangements to take to the border itself – across no-man's land.

Strictly speaking no-one is allowed to cross the “No-man's land” between the border post and the border itself on foot or by bicycle - although some people are reputed to have succeeded in doing so.

9. Is it possible to arrange a return trip to see the Sunday Market in Kashgar?.

Yes, it is certainly possible (and we arrange a quite-popular tour). But the are a few issues that need to be considered:

A return trip may involve travelling the same route for at least part if not most of the journey - though it does look different on the way back. Alternatively, you may travel over Torugart one way, Irkeshtam the other – or via Urumqi .

You would need a “Double entry” or a “Multiple Entry” visa for Kyrgyzstan . This may require special permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bishkek. A standard tourist visa is only valid for one entry and for one month.

10. What information does Advantour need to arrange permission - and how long does it take?

You need to give us full passport details, Number; Full Name; Nationality; Gender; Date and place of Birth; Date and place of issue of passport and date it expires and the issuing agency as well as details of your visa.

You also need to tell us what date you want to cross Torugart. This is important because it will appear on the permission. You are NOT allowed to bring this forward a day, although you can delay it if necessary (but please remember that the Chinese will need to know this!!!).

You will be met by the Chinese company at the border. They have to know when you are arriving. If they are not at the border to meet you, then you will be turned back!

It is true that some people are reputed to have crossed early, or to have proceeded without being met - but it is much more frequent for people to have been turned back!

It is possible to arrange permission at a few days notice even sometimes at one day's notice but the more notice we have the better.

11. How long does it take to travel to Torugart from Bishkek?

It is 550 km . Some people do it in one day. The bus takes two (travelling usually overnight through the most interesting bits, but not stopping at places like Tash Rabat), and we recommend two. We stop overnight in Naryn, where are guest houses.

12. Can we be sure that the Chinese will be there to be meet us?

There are stories in various books etc. of Chinese companies failing to turn up. Our partners have NEVER let us down! If you go in our vehicle, our drivers will not leave you at the border until you have transferred to the Chinese vehicle, which is meeting you.

(Unfortunately, there are also plenty of stories of tourists failing to turn up, and Chinese guides and drivers having a wasted journey and not getting paid.)

13. Can I get a Chinese visa in Bishkek?

Yes, but …

You will need an invitation, (you can often get a visa in Europe etc. without one) – we need to know your full passport details; your occupation; planned itinerary and dates when you want to visit China .

It usually takes a week, although if you/they have all the correct paperwork, for an extra fee it is possible to receive “express service” and get one the same day.

The consular department of the embassy is currently only open 9:15-12:00 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (assuming they are not holidays and the consular officials are there). There is usually quite a long queue, so you need to arrive early (take a book?) and it pays to make sure you reserve your place in the queue make sure you know who is in front of you and who arrives after you maybe talk to the policeman on duty. They normally issue documents before accepting applications – so you will have to wait – and that can confuse the question of your place in the queue.

Another little problem is that the Consul expects to receive a fax from the inviting company and sometimes claims it hasn't arrived entailing a delay while asking and waiting for the fax to be resent from China .

14. If I am not travelling from Bishkek, is it possible to arrange transport from somewhere else (for example: from Naryn)?

Yes, this is possible, but not necessarily any cheaper if the car has to travel the same distance there and back, although there are drivers in Naryn with the necessary paperwork.

15. What does it cost?

It is difficult to say because this depends on things like:

1. Itinerary

Bishkek-Naryn-Torugart-Kashgar (2 days);

Bishkek-Son Kul-Tash Rabat-Torugart-Kashgar (3 days);

Bishkek-Issyk Kul-Naryn-Torugart-Kashgar (??? days);

Naryn-Torugart;

2. Exactly what services you want (transport only, overnight accommodation, a visit to Tash Rabat).

3. How many people are travelling.

It won't be cheap – One tourist got a shock - who was trying to go from London to Beijing on USD1000 and (“knowing that Torugart was likely to be expensive”) had budgeted USD200 for the crossing - was horrified to learn that the Chinese would want USD255 just for their services because he was travelling alone and that he still had to get from Bishkek to Torugart.

For a group of 6 people it may be possible to arrange a crossing for about USD130-150 per person.

16. Why is it so expensive to cross at Torugart?

Torugart is quite remote ( 550 km from Bishkek and 180 km from Kashgar). Also, because of some of the regulations it can involve Agencies/Tour firms, which arrange permission and transfer from the border to/from the border in extra work. They have to cover their costs. For example, even if they do not cross to China , they have to pay for

Transport costs (in both directions);

the wages of both driver/guide;

accommodation and food costs;

the cost of faxes from this part of the world - e.g. faxing the permission to the client - is quite expensive - it costs us over $3 a page to fax our Chinese partners);

taxes (no small sum!) and official fees,

and (of course) make a profit.

17. Is it possible to do it yourselves more cheaply?

This is Central Asia and almost anything is possible however, you are likely still to need to arrange services with a Chinese company as a bare minimum and make your way to/from Torugart in Kyrgyzstan.

There is a bus service between Bishkek and Kashgar – but it is technically not available to foreigners although it may carry you part of the way. If you are travelling to China and have been able to buy a ticket (me mean feat in itself) you are likely to get as far as the border post – and will have to hitch a lift the last few kilometres to the border itself. If you are travelling from China – you may get all the way to Bishkek, but the Kyrgyz authorities have been known to detain foreigners who were not being met.

Even cyclists who make their own way up to the border zone may have trouble – especially with the last few kilometres.

The cheapest way of doing it is to get as large a group as possible together and share the transport costs. This may have some disadvantages – you may have to compromise on the date, the exact details of the itinerary and other matters. Several tour companies keep lists of prospective clients or you could use the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, e-groups like Oriental, to contact other people interested.

Some last words of advice, especially for the independent traveller:

Don't try to photograph anything that might be considered militarily sensitive. That includes the border post and any soldier in uniform!

Don't believe that you have made it until you are the other side of Customs and Passport Control on the Chinese side, on your way to Kashgar. You can be turned back at almost any point. Even the American Ambassador once got turned back. It may be possible to beat the system but it rarely happens.