Irkeshtam Pass, Kyrgyzstan

Irkeshtam is most easily accessed from Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, in the South of the country. The road travels south along the valley of the Taldyk and Gulcho river gorges to the village of Sary Tash ("Yellow Stone" in Kyrgyz), which sits at a crossroad. To the West lies the road to Dushanbe in Tajikistan through the Kyzyl-Suu valley; to the South lies the road over the Kyzyl Art pass into the Gorno Badakshan region of Tajikistan and Murgab; to the east, heading into the mountains, lies the road to Irkeshtam and the Chinese border.
This stretch of road is infamous for road accidents. On the Chinese side, the road to Kashgar is better, but still difficult.

As the shortest route to China from the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan there has been a lot of interest in repairing the road - which would take about 6 years to complete - including a TACIS funded project. The work came to a halt after armed insurgents threatened the stability of the region in 1999. As of 2007-8 reconstruction of the road was underway, with Chinese companies performing the work, and was scheduled to be completed to Gulcho in 2009.

In Soviet times, China was seen as a real threat and this was reflected on the border. Now the two countries are allies and relationships between the respective border troops are friendly. The border post is named in honor of a frontier border guard, Andrei Bescennov, who was killed in a clash with the Basmachi rebels in 1931. Until the end of 1999 it was manned by Russian troops - who apparently took all their equipment when they left. The post is now manned by border guards from Osh province. It is not an easy posting. By all accounts, the guards are not fed well … but no one has died of hunger. However, a year's service here is counted as equal to two years' military service elsewhere.

In this mountainous region, as in Kyrgyzstan generally, horses play an important role in daily life. The lack of roads means that soldiers who patrol the border ride a local breed of Kyrgyz pony which are renowned for being sturdy and well suited to this sort of terrain. The post also boasts a number of dogs, including German shepherds and a number of mongrels.

For years, Irkeshtam pass was open only to commercial goods traffic for a limited period each month, although for many years there were plans to open it for passenger traffic, which finally came to fruition in the summer of 2002. Technically, no special permission is needed to cross the border here, but it is still a sensitive border zone. Also, it's remoteness means that transport has to be arranged on both sides of the border - which means that, once again, it is not a cheap border crossing. There is talk of a bus service - but this is not yet in operation.

The Chinese immigration post is housed in a large, new, purpose built building, three kilometers from the border - and it is another three kilometers to the Kyrgyz post. As with the Torugart Pass, you are not allowed to walk across this "no-man's land".

The hours of operation are restricted and there is a long luchbreak (three hours).