Road Stories #40: Hitchhiking the Kazakhstan-China border and the consequences of not registering in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan-China border crossing header

China. Where to begin? For so long it had loomed on the horizon, both storm cloud and siren, the tentacles of its influence drawing us closer. We were terrified and excited to be visiting as it would, in total, consume over a quarter of our whole trip, but it would also be the first country where English and Russian wouldn’t help and where we wouldn’t be able to read the alphabet and, in truth, it felt daunting.

A taste of China in the Kazakh town of Shelik

There was still 860km, and the prospect of hitchhiking across the Kazakhstan-China border, separating us in Almaty from Urumqi, the largest city in North-West China, however. So, we gave ourselves 3 days to reach our destination, a little optimistically, perhaps.

We again left Almaty, this time for good and this time heading east. The first people to pick us up were a youngish couple who were quite impressed with our exploits, enough to give us a pack of wet wipes :)

The next guy was a legend and would ensure us a bed for the night. He was an ethnic Uyghur (the Muslim inhabitants of North-West China) who was extremely happy to make our acquaintance. Bouncing along in his rusty old car, he insisted that we spend the night at his, and so we did. His wife and baby daughter were a little surprised to see us but that didn’t stop them laying on the kind of hospitality we had got so used to in Kazakhstan. Food was served, soft beds prepared and after some relaxing time in their banya, we spent the night extremely comfortable and full.

Sharyn Canyon, Kazakhstan

Sharyn Canyon, Kazakhstan by Jonas Satkauskas. Licensed under Attribution via Commons

Crossing the Kazakhstan – China border

Up early and back on the road. We first scored a lift with an old guy who drove us to where some old women were selling fruit on the road side. We unloaded the stuff, then he changed his mind, the bags were thrown back in and he drove us a little further down the road. A man and his wife who were on their way to Kyrgyzstan took us further and then an Uyghur family in a fast car took us through the Choryn Canyon. Another young guy took us to the town of Zharkent where we stopped for lunch and our final taste of Kazakhstan. Finally, a taxi driver took us to the border gate all from the kindness of his heart.

The border crossing certainly look a bit deserted. A wire fence, a few soldiers and not a lot else. We thought we were in the wrong place but after speaking to one of the troops, he explained that we would need to take a mini-bus to get to the customs building but we shouldn’t worry as one would be along soon. Crossing the Kazakh no-mans-land was a bit strange as there seemed to be a village on the way. Don’t ask me how or why!

It was when we approached the exit customs we learnt of our mistake.


We gave the border official our immigration cards we had filled in upon our entrance to Kazakhstan. Evidently, this was not what he was looking for.

‘No, registration please.’

‘What registration?’

Only then did I turn over the immigration card to see staring back at me.

All visitors to the Republic of Kazakhstan must register within 72hr of arrival.


Of course we hadn’t registered, we didn’t even think we needed to. How would we get out of this one?
The border guard deduced from our faces our situation.

‘You don’t have the registration? I must speak with my superior.’

It was no good crying over spilt milk and what had been done was done. We thought we would either have to pay a fine or a bribe or something, because there was no way they were going to let us off for our mistake. What happened next surprised us.

The border guard handed us some ice tea and smiled. The guard and his superior exchanged a few words, their tone sounded relaxed. Then the superior handed us some chocolate. Things were looking up!

‘Ok, give me your passports.’

And we were through. Bloody lovely Kazakhs, we would miss their friendliness so much.

Next, we jumped onto a sleeper bus, that took us across to the Chinese customs. We filled out immigration cards, showed visas, had our bags scanned and finally entered into China.

Kazakhstan-China border crossing 2

Kazakhstan-China border crossing – we are in China!

Hitchhiking a Chinese sleeper bus

The roads were definitely a lot better here. Everything was shining, we couldn’t understand a word of the adverts, adventure coursed once again through my veins.

We banked on the fact that, as we were so close to Russian speaking countries, we would be able to use Russian at least for the first few rides. We walked and walked across the border town until somebody stopped for us near its exit. He did speak some Russian but was only going 10km to home. He was a nice guy though and having driven 30km further we eventually convinced him that here would be fine and there was no need to keep going just for our sakes.

The next guy to stop definitely didn’t speak Russian and looked extremely confused by the whole thing. Still, it was another 10km further towards our destination.

When the next car stopped and said they were going to Urumqi we couldn’t believe our luck. Two guys, who spoke no English or Russian, but drove like they were being chased, started haring down the highway. The hazard lights were flashing (basically meaning I’m going really fast, watch out) and the countryside was a blur. Then we stopped…

The place to stop was a strange one, just in front of a tunnel where a group of people were waiting. It was very strange, weirder still however was the fact that our driver seemed to know them. 10, 20, 30 minutes passed and still we had no idea what was going on. Whenever we said Urumqi they nodded their head. Urumqi was still 500km away so how would they be getting their tonight? How did they know these people? Why was everybody waiting here?

Then a sleeper bus pulled up and things became clearer. We tried a stammering explanation that we had no money (we really didn’t as we had just arrived) but we were waved away. Our bags were thrown underneath and we were ushered onto a bed. If the guys we were hitchhiking with paid or the bus driver just let us on for free is something we would never find out.

So, on a freezing cold bus, we watched a huge lake fly past and darkness start to set. The thought that China was going to be a blast occupied my thoughts as sleep crept up on me.

Hitchhiking a sleeper bus to Urumqi, China

Hitchhiking a sleeper bus to Urumqi, China

written by: Jon

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