Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Neil Matthews

“I’m going to kill Huw,” Helen muttered, repeatedly and with increasing venom.  “Mmm,” I replied non-commitally, “If we ever get back.”  For the moment, all I wanted was to get to sleep.  Perhaps I could dream our predicament out of existence.  We were halfway to heaven in a nowhere world of white, with only two men called Alex for company.

Huw, the travel agent with whom we had planned our trip, had described the Torugart Pass as “one of the grandest overland journeys in central Asia”.  Sitting in his comfortable office in rural Oxfordshire some months before, we had eventually agreed after much discussion to include it in our itinerary.  Huw said the views would be stupendous and the experience unforgettable.  He was half right.

We made an early morning start from Kashgar in a 4WD, with our Kashgar guide Ali, a slim moustachioed Uighur, and our tall, burly Chinese driver, Mr Gao.  The drive was quiet, as Mr Gao couldn’t say a word of English and Ali wouldn’t.  In some ways this was welcome: the previous two weeks of the (mostly) official Chinese view of everything had been wearying at times.  But Ali’s total silence disconcerted me.

The merciless heat and sun of Kashgar were a memory by the time we reached the cold isolation of a Chinese customs post.  Ali’s silence now turned from a social quirk into a definite hindrance.  We asked what we were supposed to do; he said nothing.  We had to look into a camera – for a “health check”, allegedly – and then to show our visas to Chinese officials while waiting for customs officers to turn up.  To pass the time, I showed the photos on my digital camera to an official, who seemed suitably fascinated.  Maybe the sights of Beijing and Xian were more foreign to him than to us.

Finally a customs officer arrived and switched on the X-ray machine. He wanted to see our ‘book’ (the itinerary) and then a cloisonné plate Helen had bought, with the receipt.  There are heavy fines for attempting to export out of China illegally.  The customs room suddenly seemed very small and menacing.  Eventually, the official smiled and let us pack the plate away and proceed.

So it was back into the dirty 4WD and a further climb into the mountains, during which it began to snow.  We arrived at what seemed to be the border and parked.  An hour or so passed, in silence.  There was nothing to see, and nothing to do except to eat the grapes we had bought in Turpan.  The snow was thickening and closing in.

Finally, Mr Gao let a small exclamation pass his lips, opened his door and leapt out of the van.  A few seconds later, he gestured for us to do likewise.  I landed in the ankle-deep snow and realised, just too late, that I had forgotten to change my trainers for something more sensible.  After farewell handshakes with Mr Gao (smiles, firm handshake, tip) and Ali (no smiles, limp handshake, no tip), we shuffled over with our luggage to meet our new guide – a short young man with Far Eastern features. 

“Hi, I’m Alex,” he said.  “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan.”

He led us to a second, even dirtier 4WD, in which we would journey on.  The driver looked like a mafia heavy from every thriller film ever made: tall, heavily-built, blue eyes, brown hair.  Confusingly, his name was Alex.  As the 4WD drove further into the mountains, we found out that short Alex was a Korean Christian, but a Kyrgyz citizen, with an Uzbek father and a Tajik mother.  Tall Alex, on the other hand, was Russian, just to add to the Cold War atmosphere of this strange day.

For the next few hours, we bumped and scraped and slalomed along.  Frequently, we had to slow or stop, to allow one lorry after another to creep by in the opposite direction, carrying electrical goods (we assumed) into China. 

The van’s rear and side windows were caked with snow and dirt.  The view through the windscreen was an expanse of white.  The majestic mountain views Huw had promised were probably out there, somewhere.

We came to a Kyrgyz customs point, where tall Alex had to drive the van into a shed and over an “inspection pit”.  It looked like it went a long way down – as far as I could tell, standing back from the edge with a hand over my eyes.  A queue and a conversation with a greatcoat later, we got back in the van.

“Now we’re going to the border,” said short Alex.

This confused us.  Where were we?

“Between China and Kyrgyzstan,” said short Alex.

So this was no man’s land.  It certainly felt like it.  The 4WD resumed its slow, grinding, bumping, sliding odyssey through the whiteness.  I can sleep through car, coach or train trips in almost any circumstances.  This time, my body perversely refused to relax into sleep, even though there was nothing to see.  Helen amused herself by thinking up, loudly, a variety of demises for Huw.

Two precarious hours later, we reached another checkpoint – the real border.

“Welcome to Kyrgyzstan,” said short Alex, this time with an even wider smile.

We put our watches back two hours, to Krygyz time, wiping out some of our time in no man’s land.  We still had several hours to travel, out of the mountains to our overnight stay in Naryn, during which the road quality improved and vast, beautiful, empty grasslands replaced the snow.  But the worst was over.  We had come out from the other side of the white nowhere.