The Irkeshtam pass is the easy border crossing between Kyrgyzstan (Osh – Sary Tash) and China (Kashgar), and really, it’s not that easy (the landscape is spectacular though). The other border crossing from Kyrgyzstan into China is the Torugart pass. Tajikistan’s crossing with China, the Qolma Pass, is still closed to foreigners.
Many people manage to cross between Kashgar and Osh in one long day, but it is not certain, so stock up on food (there are some dining options at the border, though). The Irkeshtam pass is busy year-round. An early start is recommended. Reports and questions can be read and posted here for China to Kyrgyzstan, and here for Kyrgyzstan to China.
Opening hours and border closures
The border operates year-round, but with long closures during Chinese and Kyrgyz public holidays. All info regarding Chinese border closures is being gathered here.
The Kyrgyz checkpoint at the pass operates officially from 9am to 11am and 2pm to 6pm, Monday to Friday, but it is said they let people in round the clock.
The Chinese borders – the Ulugqat one as well as the factual one – work from 10:00 to 19:45 with a break from 13:00 to 16:30. Note that the hours on the Chinese side are in Beijing time, not Xinjiang time. It’s the summer schedule, and the winter one differs a little bit.
In China, the new immigration checkpoint is 143km inland at Wuqia/Uluqqat 乌恰. A map showing the correct immigration building (use satellite imagery and ignore the route, which is offset quite a bit as Chinese maps tend to be). The immigration building is called customs clearance area / 口岸 / kou an. All your documents and luggage are checked at the actual border. The process of passport checks seems to have been streamlined now, so there is less time-wasting, but from the mountain top border to Wuqia, several checks to show your passport are normal. Guards are generally friendly on both sides.
The whole road from Osh to Kashgar has been rebuilt in 2013 and is in a good state. You can exchange RMB into som or US$ and vice versa at the border.
If you do not have your own wheels, a shared taxi is the best way to go, as detailed below.
There is now a flight between Kashgar and Bishkek, operated by Air Manas.
It’s quicker and cheaper to do the route by shared taxi. Actually, it’s your only option at the moment: the Osh-Kashgar direct bus has been discontinued. Updates welcome in the Osh-Kashgar bus forum topic.
From Kyrgyzstan to China
On the Kyrgyz side, it’s a long journey from Osh to Sary Tash (6 hours) and onwards to Irkeshtam (2 hours). There is little infrastructure along the way. Be sure to bring enough food, you never know how long you might get stuck, and food is scarce once you leave Osh. Some people do it in 2 days with a stop in Sary Tash, while others do it in 1 long day.
After the first checkpoint on the Chinese side of the border, there is an extra checkpoint at Uluqqat, the main immigration point since December 2011. It is closed from 12am to 4pm!
There is a direct bus from Osh to Kashgar. Private transport is available through travel agents or shared taxis. Alternatively, finding a ride from Sary Tash early in the morning is not difficult. In this case, you will be put on a truck after the border onwards to the immigration service at Uluqqat, or you will be forced to take a taxi for 100-200RMB per person.
Since we are not sure what the schedule for the Kashgar bus is: a bus from Osh leaves daily for Sary Tash for 250som (not in winter). The bus goes onwards to Sary Mogul. It is easy to hitchhike from Sary Tash to the old Chinese immigration. Between the old and new Chinese borders you are only allowed to take organized taxis.
Between Osh and Sary Tash you can also get 4WD taxis for 400 som per seat.
From China to Kyrgyzstan
Kashgar – Osh will take a whole day, start early enough in Kashgar to arrive before the lunch break at Wuqia (12 to 16!). By taxi is much cheaper, quicker and more comfortable than by bus. There are a lot of passport checks on the way.
Outside of the summer months, the bus is your only option if you are traveling solo on a budget. There are not enough tourists making the crossing out of season to pool together for shared taxis and you will have to pay for the whole taxi yourself if you are alone.
Kashgar – Wuqia/Ulugqat: Leaves from local long distance bus station (喀什汽车客运站) near the train station. Do NOT confuse it with the international bus station, which is in the middle of nowhere. You simply buy a seat on a shared taxi to Wuqia at the ticket counter for 33 yuan. Before 9am Beijing time the place is dead. 1,5h drive to the center of Wuqia 乌恰 (ulugqat). Center of Wuqia to customs (it’s really far from the center): taxi costs 30 RMB. Customs in Chinese is 口岸 (kou an).
Alternatively, a solo taxi from Kashgar straight to customs: 150 RMB.
At the immigration, you need to get in a car to Kyrgyz immigration: 400-500 RMB for the whole car, which can be split amongst 4 passengers (100RMB/passenger). It’s 2 hours to the Kyrgyz border (there is a canteen if you need to wait). Once you clear all the passport checks, you need to catch a transport towards Sary Tash or Osh. Wait for a free lift or pay for a seat in a shared taxi (100 yuan/1000 som/15$ to Sary Tash, 200 yuan/2000 som/ 30$ to Osh). You will arrive in Osh in the evening 7-10pm.
September 2017: the bus has been discontinued until further notice.
Previously, tickets could be bought 3 days in advance from the international bus station: 570 yuan/90$ one way. The beds were tiny, there was no heating in winter. You arrived in the dead of night. The bus was crappy, packed, and everyone ignored bed/seat allocations. No toilet, no hot water. No food.
Accommodation and food
There is a hotel in Wuqia near the bus stop if you arrive late. Reviews are welcome.
In Sary Tash, you can find plenty of accommodation. There is a small guest house and cafe in Irkeshtam next to the Kyrgyz check point where one can spend the night.
At the border control, there is now food being served on both sides (the chicken gets good reviews). There is also a mini market on the Chinese side to spend your last RMB. Money exchange is there as well.
The only place to stay in Irkeshtam is a super dingy hotel without running water for 200 som/night. It reeks of frying oil and is frequented by night owl truckers who have drunken conversations that continue late into the night. It at least has an outlet to charge your phone. The upside to staying in Irkeshtam is that you can be the first to cross the border to avoid the Beijing Time lunch
Cycling Irkeshtam Pass
Petrol for a fuel stove (benzin) can be bought in a small village in Kyrgyzstan a few km before the border (in Xinjiang this is difficult to come by). All updates in the cycling Irkeshtam forum topic.
October 2014: Just passed through Irkeshtam from Sary Tash to Kashgar by bicycle. The pass was very cold, icy, windy and exposed to Irkeshtam when I left but rideable in one day. Crossing the next morning was very straight forward. The road improves massively when you cross into China. The Chinese guards are very friendly but the process is very slow.
When through the first Chinese check point expect to be put on an already waiting taxi/pick up truck for 100 Yuan including bicycle. Hitching on a lorry is no longer permitted. There are two other Chinese check points to pass through with the final one at Uluggat. This is again a lengthy if friendly process. From here one can either stay on the taxi or ride the brand new mostly down hill, approx 80km 4 lane highway to Kashgar. Whilst in Sary Tash I met other travellers who went on to complete the same journey easily via Mini Bus from Osh to Sary Tash and Taxi from Sary Tash to the border and when in China be placed on a taxi to Kashgar.
July 2014: China to Kyrgyzstan. At Chinese customs, had to take a taxi, 150 RMB per person + bike, hitching a truck not allowed. Once at the border we were made to wait an hour, then aloud to unpack our bikes and cycle the 5km to the Kyrgyzstan border.
August 2013: going from China to Kyrgyzstan. Border crossing still closed on Saturday and Sunday. After Uluqqat you are not allowed to cycle anymore. Chinese immigration don’t let you pass until you have booked a taxi or until you got some other transportation. Have been lucky, could join a tourist group. Put my bicycle into the bus and got my exit stamp. As soon as you are in Kyrgyzstan you can continue cycling.
August 2013: from Kyrgyzstan to China. All our documents and luggage were checked and at the actual border. Arrive there before lunch and the guards will organise a truck for you to put you bike on. They were really friendly and helpful and chatty. We think the truck driver was ordered to take us but take us he did. The road is dire and it took 6 hours to do 143km with our bikes bouncing around the truck. Try and get a big truck as the bounce around less.
We arrived after the new border had closed and we had to wait at the army check point whilst they brought staff in to work overtime. The guards were again helpful and friendly and gave us watermelon. The new border is quick and efficient and we were through within half an hour including baggage search.[/su_spoiler]
To get into Kyrgyzstan from somewhere else, see the other Kyrgyz border crossings.