Silk Road Border Crossings
Most seasoned travellers have done it at least once, crossed a land border. Most people know it can be a dangerous, tense or downright nerve-racking experience and sometimes it’s a piece of cake. We’re sorry to say that the border crossings on the Silk Road are of the former rather than the later, hopefully this guide will give you some idea on what to expect on each border.
Please note that this guide has been written from the point of view of someone traveling west, traveling east and crossing borders in a different direction could be somewhat different. This guide aims to provide a general idea of what to expect from land border crossings in this area of the world and is not comprehensive.
Silk Road Border Crossings – General Advice
- Firstly, and it may seem like common sense, check that the border you want to cross is open. Check before you leave, and again a few days before you cross, things can change quickly in this part of the world.
- Check who the border is open for. Some borders in this region are only open for travellers from 3rd party countries, which unless you are a national from a country on either side is great for you as it means the border will most likely be quiet. The reverse can also be true though so be careful. The border could only be open for crossing for nationals of the countries which the border separates.
- The most important advice we can give, and this goes for any land border is shut up and smile. Don’t try to make jokes, don’t talk about contraband, don’t mention anything even remotely controversial and especially don’t argue with border guards and officials. If the Chinese guards at the border near Kashgar want to confiscate your shaving cream, let them! Don’t have an argument with them about it, it will just slow down the entire process and if they are on a power trip you could wind up in a very bad situation.
- Prescription medication – do your research! If you take any prescription medication, find out if it is in fact legal in the countries you are travelling to. Many countries on this route view pain killers and anti-depressants at opiates and they are therefore illegal. You may have these confiscated in places like Uzbekistan, sometimes a doctors note helps, sometimes it doesn’t help at all.
- No photos! I’m not kidding you will lose your camera!
- No matter how much you prepare, something is always going happen that will be unexpected – this is true when you’re a trip leader and have attempted these border crossings multiple times. Make sure you pack some tolerance and your sense of humour.
Border Crossing: Irkeshtem between China and Kyrgyzstan. (Rank: Slightly Terrifying)
- You will need help – there is no public transport to the border from Kashgar. You will need to organise transport to the border through a Chinese travel agency in Kashgar or find a taxi driver that will assist you – beware with this option as there are several check points, don’t allow the driver to ditch you at the first one, the border is still 150km away!
- 100km from Kashgar you will find the first check point, where you will have to get out of your vehicle and show your passport in a small building and then walk through some kind of scanner.
- Another 150km down the road is customs and passport control, here you will be stamped out of China and have all your belongings x-rayed and possibly searched.
- The actual border crossing is another 10km after passport control – you will probably collect a guard who will accompany you on this final leg. Note: This is the final place to use the bathroom!
- Leave really early or after 10am – up until the point above, all this nonsense would have taken you about 5 hours. The Chinese border guards have lunch between 12-2pm and at this time the border is closed, it also shuts at 5pm and opens at 9am. Hence the long queue of trucks you will see in both directions, some of which will have been waiting here for 3 days. If you leave later than 6am you will be stuck at the border for 2 hours just sitting around while the Chinese guards have their lunch and if you leave after 12pm you will be stuck here in the middle of nowhere overnight!
- Once you cross into no-man’s land you will see a white shack type building with guards on your right, there may or may not be a dodgy taxi to take you to the Kyrgyz side. Most of the time these dodgy taxi’s are only wanting to take you to Osh, the nearest big city – which is obviously a big fare for them. Be warned if you have to walk no-man’s land it’s 4km, with all your luggage, however it is some of the most spectacular scenery. You will literally be walking through a pass in the Tian Shen Mountains. Sometimes, if you’ve hired a guide to meet you on the other side they can talk the guards into letting them come pick you up. You will need to have a way of contacting said guide, so they know when you are at the actual border. Remember Whatsapp won’t work in China and a Chinese local SIM won’t be able to make international calls. For more information see our Guide to Travel Tech.
- Once you get to the Kyrgyz side everything gets easier, they don’t x-ray your luggage, they just stamp your passport, and you are on your way. The guards are a lot more easy going and the air of fear that is present on the Chinese side drops to nothing. They might ask you a few questions. These will usually only be basic information and possibly only because they are curious about you.
- Like the Chinese part of this border crossing, you will need help, there is no public transport. Last time we were there, two Japanese travellers had crossed from China and had been stuck at the border because they didn’t organise for someone to pick them up. The officials were trying to help them get a ride to the nearest town, they tried to palm them off on our group as we of course had our wonderful Kyrgyz local guide and mini-bus waiting for our group, however Inverted Atlas does not permit non-group members to travel with our groups due to safety concerns.
Border Crossing: Andijan between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (Rank: Annoying and Tedious)
- This border is located only 5km from Osh, so just take a taxi and get them to drop you off.
- Make sure you get rid of all your Kyrgyz Som at one of the money changers before the border crossing – you won’t be able to once you enter Uzbekistan
- The Kyrgyz side is again a piece of cake, they just smile and stamp your passport and off you go.
- No-man’s land here is only about 100m, and you can see the Uzbek customs building.
- You will be stamped into the country and then you will go through customs. The customs forms are frequently only in Russian. You can ask for an English form, sometimes they have one and sometimes they don’t. They have example forms filled out in the booths so you can copy. You will need to declare all sums of money and electronic items and fill the form out twice. They keep one and give one back – do not lose the form you will need it on your way out!
- If you have prescription medication, this is one of the border crossings on the route where there will most likely be a problem. Do not tell anyone you have it, there is no space on the form for it anyway and they usually do not ask. There is a bag search area at this border, however you don’t need to go over there to be searched unless asked by an official. This is the time at which point you should tell them you have prescription medication, and you should have a doctor’s letter. Do be aware that depending on the guards and whether they are border or having a bad day, that this medication may be confiscated.
- When you reach the Uzbek side it is a good idea to have someone waiting for you to take you onwards, there is no public transport and the only way you will be able to move on is to get a taxi into Andijan town where there is a major train station with a very infrequent train service to Tashkent.
- Smiling gets you a long way on this border. Generally, the men here will flirt with you if you are a woman. Just smile and if its not beneath you, flirt back. Trust us when we tell you this is not the time for righteous feminist indignation.
- WARNING: This is one of those border crossings that changes frequently. Sometimes it’s a 3rd party only border and sometimes it’s a free for all. If the rules allow crossing for all nationalities, it will be much busier.
Border Crossing: Bukhara between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (Rank: Ridiculous, time consuming and soul destroying)
- In reality its about 150km to the border from Bukhara, however it’s still in the territory of that city.
- You can take a taxi however be prepared it will be expensive and it is one of those border crossings that is in the middle of absolute nowhere in the desert. This means that if there is any kind of problem and you can’t cross you will be trapped out here. There is no public transport, and the roads are deserted.
- Be prepared this is going to take all day, we would suggest not planning any other activities for the day.
- After you go through the gate at the border (where you will need to show your passport), you will go into the customs building where you will need to fill out another customs form, identical to the one you filled out on the way in. You will need to present both forms to the officials after having your bags screened along with all the hotel registration slips you get everywhere you stay in Uzbekistan. (Do not loose these.) Your bags will be opened and they will no doubt question some silly souvenir you’ve bought just to hold you up and entertain themselves it seems.
- You then get stamped out of Uzbekistan and will need to walk a little way to a gate where there will be a minivan who will take you across the Uzbek side of no-man’s land (2km) to the first Turkmen check point, he charges $1USD so have some singles on you.
- When you reach the check point the guards will hand write your passport details into a book, if there are a lot of people you will be able to guess that this is going to take a long, long time. Make sure you have used the toilets at Uzbek customs before getting into the minivan. This checkpoint is just a shed in the desert and if you can not hold on and there is a line you will be going in the scrub.
- After they have written your passport details down, there is another minibus to get on that will take you to Turkmen customs and passport control, again about 2km and you will need another $1USD.
- Just before passport control is a medical exam, where they take your temperature with some weird device and then record your details, again by hand.
- When you reach passport control you should already have a visa, in which case they should just stamp it and you can move on to customs and have your stuff x-rayed. They will probably make some bizarre request or question something absolutely harmless just to annoy you. One of our trip leaders was once asked to fire up her laptop and show the guards all her photos – she had over 200gb and they eventually gave up on. FYI they are looking for pornography when they make these requests. Good to keep in mind that they could consider any kind of lewd photos pornography if they so desire. We’re talking about photos of yourself in swimmers so please be extra careful.
- Once you have crossed the border, again you will need help. To get into Turkmenistan and to get a visa you will need an invitation from a tour company, so you should already have someone waiting for you, who should take over all the nonsense when you arrive at passport control.
Border Crossing: Ashgabat between Turkmenistan and Iran (Rank: Mildly annoying)
- Located about 10 minutes outside Ashgabat this one of those border crossings that is easy enough to take a taxi to
- Get rid of all your Turkmen Manat before you leave, it is worthless in Iran (and everywhere else) and illegal to take out of Turkmenistan
- On arrival you will show your passport at the check point and then get on a rusty old bus, which will travel 50km through the mountains, past multiple scary watchtowers holding men with guns – you might even see the odd wolf
- This is one of those border crossings that will either be chaos or dead quiet, there is no in between. If it is chaos, don’t allow the locals to push you out of the way. Push them out of the way, as a tourist you are entitled to go first. This isn’t us being pushy, these are the actual rules.
- Your luggage will be x-rayed although they don’t seem to care half as much on the way out, you get stamped out of Turkmenistan and the walk about 50m into Iran.
- There is one check point where the guard will write your passport details in a little book and then you go into passport control and customs.
- Although no tour is required per-se in Iran, you will at least need a guide to collect you at the border to handle the formalities. They won’t allow you through with out one. The guide should come through the automatic doors to the waiting room to collect you and process your passport for you.
- Beware that your luck on the Turkmen side of the border may mean you are waiting a long time for your guide, who may assume the Turkmen side is chaos and arrange the pickup time accordingly. Make sure you have the guides number, you won’t be able to call them from your mobile, but if you ask nicely maybe the guards will let you call them so you can let them know you have arrived. People in Iran are generally very friendly and eager to help – even border guards. If you are unable to make contact and you have been lucky on the Turkmen side, you are probably in for an uneasy wait.
Border Crossing: Norduz between Iran and Armenia (Rank: Outdated but fairly easy)
- The nearest main town to the border is Tabriz and this is 250km away so you will need to make advanced preparations to get there. A taxi organised through your hotel would be the best way to go, make sure a price is agreed upon before setting off.
- The scenery on the drive is especially stunning and there are a couple of old Silk Road caravanserais on the way.
- The actual border is a piece of cake, they x-ray your stuff coming out of Iran, stamp your passport and then you walk about 1km into Armenia. There is a little shuttle that takes you to the first check point, but its really not worth the hassle.
- There is one check point on the bridge over the river where you will need to show your passport after that just veer to the right and into Armenian customs.
- You will need to buy a visa on arrival, so have some Armenian drams with you – you can exchange your left over rials at the border before leaving Iran (and do change them, because you won’t be able to anywhere else). After this you just have your passport stamped, luggage x-rayed and off you go.
- The border station on the Armenian side is quite outdated, so beware that one of the frequent power outages could leave you waiting for it to come back on so you can be processed. As with all of the above border crossings it is advisable to leave early.
- You should have someone meeting you at the other end, there are no taxis as cars are not allowed to loiter at the border. There is a little shuttle to take you away from the border, there may or may be a taxi where it stops, however this is a bit of a risk.
Border Crossing: Sadakhlo / Bagratashen between Armenia and Georgia (Rank: Easy)
- The biggest problem is getting there from where you are staying, you should ask your hotel about the best way to get there – again there is no public transport.
- This has to be one of the easiest border crossings on the route. You literally get stamped out, walk into Georgia and get stamped in, the entire process takes about 15 minutes.
- There is usually the odd taxi on the other side, however it’s probably cheaper to organise for someone to pick you up and take you to your next destination. Tbilisi is about an hour away.
Border Crossing: Vale between Georgia and Turkey (Rank: Mildly Annoying)
- Easily reached via taxi from Borjomi, which is about half an hour away.
- Georgian side is a piece of cake, the Turkish side is very, well Turkish. Anything remotely official in Turkey will be mildly (or completely) annoying, so this will be a good introduction for you.
- Passport control is usually a shambles with long lines of mostly Turkish truck drivers trying to cross into Georgia.
- After you make it through passport control, you will be forced through a building where they are supposed to scan your bags. The machine is broken and has been for as long as we can remember, but you still have to go through the building where they may or may not open your bag. Sometimes they open a small zipper and have a poke around, whatever they do will usually be useless.
- You can then walk into Turkey; this border really is in the middle of nowhere. There are no taxi’s and the nearest major town is Kars which is about 200km away. You should have someone to meet you here, planned in advance. From Kars you will be able to move on via train or bus to other cities in Turkey, including Ankara and the Istanbul.
Post COVID-19 the border situation is still extremely volatile. Inverted Atlas plans to have multi-country Central Asia and Silk Road trips available for purchase when the situation settles down a bit more. Now is a good time to explore the countries of Central Asia, along with Iran and the Caucuses extensively on single country trips.
Hopefully, this has been a helpful guide to crossing borders on the Silk Road, remember this is not extensive and anything can and will happen! This is central Asia after all! For any additional advice or for enquiries about our trips please call +61 (2) 7229 1926 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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