Crossing the world’s highest border – to China we go

Crossing the Pakistan/China border is a long and interesting process.

We arrived at the bus ticket office 9am sharp as instructed. After a 10 minute wait one of the bus guys walked us down to Pakistan’s customs/immigration. There we waited outside a small hall for 20 minutes before being invited in to take a seat. We watched for another 10 minutes as 2 guys exporting carpets unpacked them 1 by 1 and the customs guys poked a huge number of holes in them before they were placed individually on the floor and had a sniffer dog ran over them. Finally they were painstakingly allowed to repack them in their original bags.

When we were invited to the counter our bags got a cursory glance and our passports checked. We were then told to leave our bags on the floor in a line ready for the dog to be passed over. The entire process from Sost in Pakistan to the point of being ‘set free’ in Tashgurkan, China can take up to 10 hours and with nowhere to buy food or drink on the way other travellers warn to bring your own. We were told not to put our snack bag in the line. The sniffer dog was a black lab.

We sat and waited for the rest of bus to do the same. Tests were mainly visual but the customs guys also felt and tapped and smelt items of interest. A young Pakistani guy had 2 bags of laundry powder taken off him. A policeman gave him some money for it.

Once the dog had been over the bags we took them outside and loaded them on the roof of a minivan before being gestured down to the other end of the building for immigration. The door was locked so we queued outside, when it opened we queued at one end for our passport to be checked – foreigners were put to the front – and then were sent down to queue at the other end where the formal immigration process took place and we got our exit stamp. We weren’t allowed to leave the hall until everyone inside had been cleared. The whole customs/immigration process took about 1.5hrs.

Finally we were off. The only other foreigner on our minibus was a Korean woman.  We’d also got talking during the processing to 2 young Pakistani guys, they were studying to be doctors in China so did the trip regularly. They made the men who had tried to bag the row behind the driver move so us and the Korean woman could take those seats – the benefits of being foreign women.

The road to the border goes through Khunjerab National Park. At the entrance, all passengers are forced to pay the entrance fee. For locals this is 100 rupees, for foreigners its 800 rupees. It’s a big traveller gripe as for this expensive fee we can’t even get out of the vehicle. One of the students was insistent he would pay our entry fee for us but we were equally insistent that our fee was very expensive so we couldn’t accept. He didn’t believe us that we had to pay a more expensive fee until he saw us pay it. Angry that the 2 tier system is unjust both because it is not equal nor a proper way to treat guests he had a rather heated debate with the Park guards. We stepped out and left them to it. The Park entrance has the only toilet stop in the whole journey, we weren’t going to miss the opportunity.

Before we left we had to go into a hut and get our passports scanned (the only place outside of immigration we encountered with a machine reader) and have our photos taken.

The scenery was stunning as the road wound higher and higher until finally we were at Khunjerab Pass, the highest road border crossing in the world, it sits at 4,700m. Amazingly they manage to keep it open for 8 months of the year.

At the top of the pass we were given chance to jump out and take a photo. The border gate is a tourist attraction in Pakistan so there were heaps of people there taking photos. Because we were going to be passing through it one of the soldiers allowed those of us in our minivan through the first barrier to take a photo. Another guard tried to shout us back, while the 2 guards had a debate we all took our photos in front of it as our minivan inched slowly forward. We were ordered back on and all promptly jumped back in.

After passing both the barriers our driver pulled over to the side and a Chinese soldier recorded the vehicles details. We were then given the all clear to drive under the arch to the Chinese customs building a few hundred meters behind. As we drove we looked out to our right and saw a 4 person Chinese foot patrol walking the fence line, one carrying a Chinese flag. It was clear to us that China was going to a very different experience.

Entering the Chinese customs building confirmed this.

Like a large warehouse, the roller shutter on the entry side had been opened for us. The exit side was closed and as we drove in the entry shutters were closed behind us. We all piled off and the driver got on the roof to pass our luggage down.

After getting our bags we were gestured by a guard into the room next to us and barked at by a soldier to sit down on the seats at the end of the room. One by one we were gestured up to the bag scan. Shoes had to be taken off and put through the bag scanner with our bags. In ill-fitting jandals provided to the right of the scanner we walked to the left of it and fed our passports into a machine reading gate, when it opened we walked through a metal detector and could retrieve our bag and shoes at the other side of the scanner. Then we were scooped up by another guard who took us to one of the five search benches to the left of the room. Jandals had to be placed back in the rack by the side of the scanner before heading to the table. Seems shoes had to be put on first. Marie’s guard wasn’t impressed when she casually went to follow him to the table in her socks.

The flow of people through the scanners was controlled by a guard and determined by there being an inspection bench free.

Emma was at the 1st table. Marie ended up on the 4th. We’d read the reports from other travellers of every item in your bag being thoroughly checked, particularly phones and laptops for photos. A process that could take some time. We’d watched a few of the others go through first. The guard searching the Korean woman was holding her phone flicking through each photo as we’d both gone through. We were braced for it.

They start by checking your passport stamps. Marie had got a new passport before this trip so this was fast and easy for her. Emma’s took longer and the guard found something in it (we think her Iranian visa) that saw her directed to the body scanner on the other side of the room. A conveyor belt type, Marie could see out of the corner of her eye Emma’s excitement about having to go through it. Of course they found nothing of interest so she was sent back to her inspection table.

After the passport Marie was directed to open her day bag, on seeing her camera kit the guard uninterestedly gestured for her to close it. Next was the side pockets on her rucksack, he didn’t reflect Marie’s pride as she pulled out her coil of 10m of paracord (a travel essential, it enables very creative washing lines). Marie’s rucksack has long side pockets and in the other lives our maps. These he was interested in, he opened and carefully studied each one; Sri Lanka and one covering the Karakorum Highway. Satisfied he gestured for her to open the main pocket. We use large dry bags as rucksack liners (in case of heavy rain) she took her wash bag off the top and as she opened the dry bag and pulled out a few clothes, the guard asked her “clothes?” she said yes and he gestured for her to close it back up. He had a cursory look over the wash bag and then indicated she could repack.

We split our technology but he never asked to see her phone. Then she was gestured to take her bag out of the door to side to the minivan which the driver had moved down after he had cleared customs. She passed her bag up to the driver on the roof and was gestured to take a seat at the other end of the room. Emma joined her 5 minutes later. She had started the process first but every item had been pulled out of her bag and the contents of the tablet had been inspected (her guard never found our hidden photo files).

When most of us were through we were gestured to get back in the van while the last of our passengers finished their bag inspections. As we waited guards going in and out of the room next door were sloppy in keeping the door closed. It was their control room, so we could see the bank of CCTV screens on the far side that were clearly beaming from cameras on/around the border arch into the Pakistan side. Green framed boxes were sweeping the Pakistan tourists taking photos, it was obviously facial recognition.

When finally we’d all been cleared and loaded back in the minivan a Chinese soldier got on and the exit shutters were raised. We immediately noticed we’d gone from driving on the left to driving on the right. The landscape had also instantly changed, the well-sealed road goes through open plains with sweeping mountain backdrops. We saw yurts, marmots, yaks. We’d read not to take photos so the camera stayed tucked away.

This long barren road in the middle of nowhere, with almost no traffic, had lampposts with cameras mounted on top every few hundred meters monitoring the road. It was quite surreal. The speed limit was 60. It was a straight road, and our driver was Pakistani, so this was clearly a challenge. The soldier kept shouting at the driver to slow down every time he realised we were going too fast, which meant our journey was regularly punctuated with his shouting.

As we passed rural farmers and soldiers someone in our minivan lit a cigarette. The Korean woman next to us was a heavy smoker and was a mixture of amazed and horrified as she asked “we can smoke on the bus?”, the Chinese woman in the front passenger seat replied “in China, no problem” the next minute the whole minivan had lit up, including the soldier. At that altitude only one lighter on the whole minivan would work so it had been passed down the rows of seats. The Korean woman still couldn’t work out if she was pleased or horrified.

Finally after a couple of hours we reached Tashkurgan. The driver blew his horn to be let into the immigration building compound. It was a big seemingly deserted building. The gate rolled back and we were told to close the windows, which we did just before we drove through disinfectant sprayers. We parked at the back of the building and after our bags were unloaded we were told nicely to put our bags in one line and to stand in another line. A woman checked our passports while a sniffer dog was walked down our bags. When they’d completed the line we were allowed in the building. We were directed to put our bags in a pile behind the immigration desks and then sent back to queue at the desk. It was a speedy modern affair. The slowest part was providing all biometric scans of all our fingers, then our thumbs, followed by a photo. Not a word was exchanged as we were processed. The students weren’t so lucky, they got a grilling.

We collected our bags but a final bag scanner stood between us and freedom. After we’d all been processed we had to wait half an hour before someone decided to switch the scanner on. Then it was 1 bag through at a time. We’d naturally positioned ourselves near the front and once placed on the belt we were allowed to walk through the last security scanner and scoop them up as the belt spat them onto the floor. We waited for the Korean woman, said goodbye to our student friends and headed out the door. There were no signs to the gate but we knew we’d come in the gate in the right corner of the empty yard outside so headed for the left corner. A final check of our passports and the guard opened the gate. We were finally free.

It had taken 7.5hrs to travel 290km, of that we spent 5.5 hours stamped out of Pakistan but not stamped into China. By far the largest no mans land we’ve ever been in.

Click on any image to enlarge and scroll through

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