I have reached the Irkeshtam Pass, a high and lonely border crossing at China’s western edge. I am leaving China, one of Asia’s most promising nations, and entering Kyrgyzstan, one of its least. The differences are stark. The paved road on the Chinese side gives way to frozen packed earth, and the border post is nothing more than a shack. The air is sharp and cold, and a thin layer of fresh snow dusts the ground. One of the three people who crossed the border with me, a migrant labourer, decides to spend the night here with friends; the road is too dangerous to continue tonight, he says. The rest of us hire a battered minivan taxi to take us to Osh.
The sky is already fading into dusk as we set out across the mountains. Before leaving, the driver purchases gasoline from a woman on the side of the road; she pours it from an old vegetable oil bottle into the gas tank using a plastic funnel. As we climb, the snow thickens, eventually covering the road entirely. Icy fog rolls across the road, and huge banks of snow suddenly give way to shear cliff edges. As daylight fades, it becomes difficult to distinguish the difference between road and sky. Sometimes the driver must pull the van over to the very edge of the road to allow lumbering transport trucks heading back towards the border to pass. Several times we are forced to reverse back down a hill until the minivan’s tires can regain traction on the ruts pressed into the snow by the trucks’ passing weight. At the approach to a particularly steep hill, we pause while one of the passengers trudges on foot through the snow to ask for advice from a trucker who is idling on the crest. Eventually he returns and gives the driver a nod; it’s safer to continue than to turn back.
The driver navigates slowly and skillfully, and after several white-knuckle hours I notice a level line of telephone poles following the road. I’m relieved to note that if we skid off the road now, at least we won’t plummet off a cliff. I spot a small house alone on the snowy plain, the first sign of habitation I’ve seen in hours. The driver pulls over and mimes that we are stopping to eat. Inside the house, the family serves basic food to people heading to and from the border. The tension of the drive drains away as we share bread, tea, and meat. I accidentally walk into the family’s living space while looking for the washroom, belatedly learning that they don’t have indoor plumbing in rural Kyrgyzstan.
Refreshed, we pile back into the minivan and continue the rest of the way to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city. The driver is unable to understand the map I show him from my guidebook, so he brings me to the only hotel he knows, a basic guesthouse in a flaking Soviet-era building. A tired-looking woman assigns me to a small room with a single bed, no bed sheets, and no central heat. I pay extra for the ensuite washroom. I bundle up, crawl under the provided polar fleece blanket, and fall asleep immediately.