After an early wake-up, unsuccessful haggling with a taxi driver, and a high-speed cruise, We’d somehow managed to make it to Jarkent, a bustling town about 40 kilometres from the border with China. It was time for us to check out of Kazakhstan, and out of Central Asia.
At the bus station, we were charged 1,500 tenge (€6.60) each for a marshrutka ticket that would take us all the way across the border to Khorgas, in China. Coincidentally, that was all the remaining Kazakh money we had in our wallets. It felt almost cleansing to be able to sever our financial ties and be taken care of all the way across the border.
The minibus filled up quickly. We were the only Westerners, and the rest of the passengers ignored us while they chatted in either Kazakh or Uygher. An old man at the front with a fur hat, gold teeth, and tanned face led the conversation while the others chuckled.
The ride was short and we were soon at the first gate. A border guard kitted up for a blizzard climbed in and checked our passports, then waved us through. As soon as we passed the gates, beyond the trees we could see the tops of towering buildings, and as we drove closer to the main immigration building, the tower blocks grew and multiplied into glass-and-brick office towers and a giant shopping mall. Just two kilometres of no-man’s land stood between the rusty Kazakhstan immigration office and booming Chinese development.
Everyone hopped out of the marshrutka and ran into the building. We rushed alongside them, not wanting to get left behind because our immigration procedures took longer. But the green and greying Soviet-era hallways inside were empty, and we were the only group waiting to go through. We all formed something of a queue behind the immigration booths, but ten minutes passed and no one came to check our passports. Finally a young border guard, also dressed for the dead of winter, came over to tell us that the border was closed for lunch. The locals groaned and sat down on nearby benches while Mook and I took it as our opportunity to move towards the front of the queue.
The young border guard wanted to chat, so he tried out his basic English and we passed the time telling him about out trip and asking questions about his family. Other border officials were wandering back and forth talking to the locals on our marshrutka, sometimes laughing and putting their arms around each other’s shoulders. It was definitely the most casual of our four Kazakhstan border crossings.
Lunchtime was over, and two immigration officials jumped into their booths and began checking passports. Everyone was through quickly, but on the other side stood our border guard friend with an excitable young sniffer dog. The dog had already flagged down two passengers on our bus, but as Mook passed by the border guard casually tossed the dog’s ball into the other side of the room. He smiled at Mook as the dog went off to chase it.
After everyone had cleared through immigration (the flagged passengers had their bags searched but nothing came up) we piled back into the marshrutka and set off on the seven-kilometre drive through the no-man’s land that separates Central and East Asia. We drove through a stretch of desert cluttered with abandoned government vehicles, unmarked buildings, and what looked like an electrical substation. As the view of rural, dusty Kazakhstan grew smaller, we got a better glimpse of what China had in store. Over the fence lay a modern city, with tall, new buildings, a shopping mall plastered with giant posters of Western models, and even a few structures with red Chinese-style facades. After about two months rambling around Islamic republics, hermit dictatorships and former Soviet colonies, it was definitely different.
The Chinese immigration building was amazing. It looked and felt just like an airport—unlike any of the other border crossings we’ve done. We put our bags through an X-ray machine and queued up. The young border officers jumped at the chance to practice their English, asking about our trip, our jobs and our Zodiac signs, and giving us tips on what to do in Xinjang. Mook and I were the only two passengers left in the hall, and the mood was lighthearted as they joked around with each other. There wasn’t a soldier or a gun in sight. When the immigration officer finished with our passports, a little panel at the front of the desk even chirped in English at us, some cute little character asking us to push a button and rate the service.
We were finally in East Asia.
Once more through a metal detector and X-ray machine and we were out, into a land that looked 5,000 kilometres away from where we had woken up that morning. Outside of the terminal was a wide street that the police had blocked off at the end, lined with black market money changers and vendors selling souvenirs. We kept walking straight and into the Khorgas city centre, and with the help of some friendly locals we found an ATM, found the bus terminal, and bought two tickets to the next leg of our journey.