We tried to cross the border from China into Kazakhstan at Korghos; it didn't work out at all like we thought it would. To explain why and to explain for other travellers, this post will be in two sections: our story, and suggestions from our experience. It may be a bit more logistical than our other posts, but hopefully it can help those of you who will try something like this in the future –and at least entertain those who wont.
This post is a bit long. For those who don’t want to read the full story, in essence the experience goes like this:
We get denied at the border; we are told its impossible to get the bikes out of China; we have a miserable couple days where we spend the whole day talking to border officials; we think the trip might have to change completely and come up with a bunch of other plans; we are sad; we get a phone call randomly one morning and then ??? we can leave.
I promise it’s more interesting than just that, so I’ll try to explain as best as I can.
The border at Khorgos opens at 10:30 Beijing time; we woke up early on Monday to try to get there as close to opening as we could, not knowing how long the crossing would take. China is notoriously strict on vehicle crossings, and especially with motorcycles: we knew since the inception of this trip that getting out of China would be our biggest border challenge. When planning, we combed blogs like our own trying to figure out what had worked in the past, emailing those who had made it out about what that actually did (and you can email us too!). We chose Khorgos based on the successful attempts of two groups friends who crossed here on motorcycles, (Blog 1, Blog 2) essentially tailoring our route through Xinjiang based on an exit here (despite wanting to go through Kashgar to Irkesham Pass or Tourgart –the latter much harder than the former). Nevertheless, we were both still nervous.
Khorgos is very much a border town, one that has boomed in the wake of massive ($2 billion USD) investments by the Chinese government to create a “New Silk Road.” Shoppers from both countries line the streets around the border where duty-free malls, cheap goods, and unofficial money traders –the only way to exchange RMB for Kazak Tenge in town— abound. Weirdly, the border itself is officially a “national scenic spot,” full of Chinese tourists taking pictures at the gate before they’re shooed away by over-cautious guards.
Not knowing where exactly to go, we were first directed by a policeman to pull up to the edge of the border gate, go through a coned-off pedestrian shopping plaza, and park our bikes to then push them to the border building where we would then be escorted to the other side. Perfect. This sounded exactly like what we’d heard in the past and went off to do just that. Unfortunately, when we got to the gate the soldier on duty, a skittish new recruit, didn’t want to let us in. After a bit of back and forth and radioing in to somebody in charge, we were sent to the gate next-door where busses bound for Kazakhstan stop and get checked.
Here, there was also a gate, where we were stopped again (although we weren’t stopped the next times we went through here) and were told by a guard who l didn’t relly know what we were supposed to do to pull to the side and wait or go talk to customs. Much to our (what turned out to be bad) luck, a customs (haiguan 海关) official happened to walk over as we were walking in. He didn’t know what we were supposed to do either - are you sensing a theme here? - and then made a call to another official who then made a call to the main office (about 1 km away back in town). He asked for our documents and informed us that we need to make a customs declaration (even though we told him the bikes were not going to come back into China). He smiled as we left and gave us his phone number, “it should only take a bit, they’re there right now.” We left a bit annoyed, but feeling alright.
At the customs building, they had no idea what we were supposed to do. We definitely couldn’t get a declaration (for some reason that escapes me now) and when we tried to bring up our friends that had crossed in the past, we were told they must have done it illegally –a claim which elicited a less than happy reaction from me. They even related the most recent story they knew about foreigners crossing to us, saying that two Americans tried to cross with motorcycles two weeks before us and were turned back at the Kazakh side after “making a break for it” at the Chinese side.
(Still no details on this from anyone else or any websites we can find. If you are these people, let us know. What happened??)
Finally, after a bit of asking around, the customs official (let's call him Ming) laid out our options:
“You can go back to where you bought your bikes, cancel your license plates, come back here and export the motorcycle as an exportable good,” he said, maybe even reflecting on how ridiculous that process sounded, “or your other, and maybe the best option, is to just sell the bikes in China and get new ones in Kazakhstan,” adding, “do you really need to ride these bikes?”
Needless to say, we left the building fairly upset.
It felt like this was it. There goes the whole trip.
Luckily though, with some inspiration from a really close friend of ours –Jebb, who is also on a motorcycle trip through South America and waited at the border for a whole month before finally coming to a solution— we were able to re-adjust and bounce back after ten minutes of extremely deep despair. We started making calls to everyone we knew that could possibly help.
Ming walked by us on the curb we were sitting on. Feeling regretful that I had been so upset with him –in the end he’s only doing his job— I decided to go over and apologize. He was receptive and understanding, “I get it. It’s not only you who’s feeling bad, I don’t want to be the one to end your trip, we want to you succeed too.” Jie came over and shared our Chinese version of the blog, a public account on Wechat (the most popular social media platform in China), with him before we went to lunch, saying half-heartedly “if we figure something out you can check out where we end.”
At a very average lunch, we played phone tag with a series of border officials and customs agents around Khorgos, who gave us some new ideas. We decided it was best to go back to the customs office try our luck again. Extremely hesitantly, we made our way back in. One by one, each idea was relayed, checked by phone, and denied. But something was different. Halfway through, in a lull in conversation, one of the girls behind the desk approached us. “I hope you can figure something out, we all looked at your blog and we think what you’re doing is really cool. We’re rooting for you too!” In an hour, the entire front end of the customs office, all young and extremely friendly, went from being bureaucratic obstacles to overcome, to friends working with us to help us navigate bureaucracy.
Talking with them was also one of the first times I’ve felt that this trip is actual having an impact on other people we meet. A lot of Chinese people have expressed to us how much they’d like to do something like this, but that life in China is so much pressure, and there are so many responsibilities from all sides of society –family, friends, work, school— that make them feel like they are stuck in the life they’re in.
This same topic came up in an expected way in Khorgos too. One night we asked the three officers we were closest to to write us a note in a book we carry as a means of remembering them (they said work wouldn’t let them take a picture). They agreed and about an hour later handed us back a nice collection of notes, and an extremely intricate picture of a motorcycle. Of course, I was intrigued.
“Who drew this?" I asked, “This is awesome”
It turns out that one of the girls now working as a customs officer had always wanted to go to art school and had dreams of being an architect. But in the end she decided to study politics and take the government exam because her, and everyone around her, thought it was a better choice. Now, after two years in Khorgos (which I know I couldn’t do) she was feeling really lost in life.
“I just wish I could do something different, I wish I could change,” she told me, almost on the verge of tears. “I don’t want to do this, but I don’t know what to do instead.”
I tried to explain to her as best as I could, that although our circumstances, backgrounds, and experiences are vastly different, it’s never too late to change, never too late to try; just because we’re early doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with being late. I explained to her that I’d actually studied politics too, and yet somehow ended up on a winding path that led me here. She see’s me now as doing something different, but she didn’t see me then. Of course this is a massive oversimplification, but it almost seemed like it was the first time anyone had said something like this to her. That it would be ok.
I hope that our meeting, or especially her getting to meet someone like Jie, a Chinese guy who knows and understands those pressures better than I ever could, can maybe in some way give her an example that doing something unconventional can work too. I don’t think she’ll go on a long distance motorcycle trip (I can only hope!), but maybe she’ll take more time to draw. I’ve had so many people in my life encourage me to be the way I am –my family, my friends, my teachers— and I want most from this is to be that encouragement for someone else.
Anyways, back to the story.
Despite an entire afternoon of phone calls and paging through books, they there was still no solution. We tried driving to the next closest border crossing 100km to the south, but it was closed closed for Eid al-Fitr. We then drove back to the Khorgos crossing again (hoping that they have changed shifts and we would meet more favorable officers), and got stopped immediately. They said that they had no provision in the law that matched our situation, and a stern female army officer told us through a customs window, “there is no way we are letting you through.” Great. Our despair sinking in even further, we went to sleep completely defeated.
The next day was much of the same, but this time on the suggestion of one of the officers we went to explain our situation to the head of the customs office (let's call him Kang). In Chinese bureaucracy sometime the only way for a decision to get made is to go as high as you can. Nobody is willing to tell you something without being approved by the higher-ups. Nobody wants to lose their job for you (fair enough) and more importantly they don’t want to lose the pensions and benefits that come with working for the government. However, if you talk to someone in charge, maybe something can actually be done. Kang was initially skeptical, but we explain our reasoning to him:
“A big part of this trip is that we use these particular motorcycles,” I say, “they’re Chinese-made and we bought them in China. We’re a team of a Chinese guy and an American living in China, both leaving from China. China is a big part of our identity. It means a lot to us. We’re leaving from here for a reason, a reason that I hope you can understand too.”
Maybe Kang could see that we actually care, or maybe it’s the patriot in him, but he told his second-in-command to do everything she can to help us get out. It’s the first real chance we’ve had, but we tempered our optimism in hopes of not being disappointed again. After waiting for 6 hours while she checked through all the legal books the end of the day brings no good news. “We all really want you to get out,” she says after we’ve been sitting in her officer listening to her on the phone arguing with the border guards through technicalities as she reads line by line through the official laws.
It seems that customs are fine with letting us through, but the border guards were saying they couldn’t let us through. By this time, everybody knew who we were.
Staying late at night talking to ur only friends in Khorgos, the young customs officials, we saw the head of the border guards (let's call him Zang). Zang told us the same thing we heard the day before: “I want to help you but literally there is nothing we can do, there’s no way.”
We tried to pitch our case to him again and explained all the strategies we could think of.
“If there is any possible way we can get through, we are willing to try. Please,” we almost begged him as he left.
Again we went to bed defeated. This time switching hotels literally on the suggestion of a security guard at the border who said the owner of the other hotel had connections in the government and maybe could help us through. At least he was able to make us laugh trying to guess where I was from:
“What race are you?” He asks me after I told him that we still couldn’t get out.
Im not sure how to answer. “White? I don’t know –I’m American”
“What is ‘white’?” He asks back staring at me “Are white people the same as Han people?”
Before I can say something he adds, “I thought you must be from Iraq, you must be Islamic,” he says staring at me, “Only bin laden has this kind of beard.”
Suddenly the other guard comes up behind to clarify, “No, he said he’s American.” He puts his hands around my face and rubs my beard from behind “Look at this beautiful beard – a beautiful American beard.”
The next day we woke up late - there was really no motivation to do anything, no real end, or even start, in sight. Suddenly, Jie got a text from Ming: “You should go to the border right away. They want to talk to you.”
We packed everything immediately and drove over. There, the head of the border from the night before sat us in his office, not smiling, nor excited, but concise
“I talked to Beijing, and we’ve decided to let you go.”
We couldn’t believe it, but hid our excitement, wary that he might suddenly change his mind.
After explaining the process he leaves us with a stern warning.
“There is no way the Kazak side is going to let you in,” his eyes shifting a bit “but no matter how you do it, or what ‘fee’ you have to pay, you cannot get turned back. If you get turned back, I don’t know what will happen to you.”
With this ominous proclamation lingering heavy on our minds, it was hard to be fully happy. Next thing we knew we were through the customs line, a younger officer from bianjian shaking our hands and wishing us good luck. The other officers more curious about how and why we chose our bikes that whether or not we could get through.
We drove the winding twenty minutes it takes to get to the Kazak side and waited to be let in. We were greeting by young Kazak soldiers with gold teeth who literally stretched out their arms for hearty handshakes as we arrived. We were directed to an inspections terminal, and asked for our passports and the documents for the motorcycles –getting help in translation from Chinese Kazaks who were crossing at the same time. After explaining our trip and convincing the guards that we were not going to sell the bikes in Kazakhstan, we were given a form stating that the bikes were allowed in and should be taken out.
In the main terminal for passengers, we waited in line for about an hour, talking with friendly Kazakhstani guys our age who worked in China and spoke Chinese. Once through the line we got our passports stamped and the motorcycles registered with them in a matter of minutes –a process the Kazak customs officials weren’t sure how to do but smiled and joked with us as they tried to figure it out. After getting stamped three more times at inspection, and having all the items in and on our bikes looked at (more out of curiosity it than an actual check up –what kind of security check makes you show them how every different attachment of a sport camera works) we were sent on our way.
As we passed out of the border through three sections of border guards that waved us through, we were literally screaming in our helmets.
We actually made it; I cant believe we made it
Documents we had and used:
- Blue & Green books (registration) for the motorcycles, originals. Stamped translations in Russian and English. We showed the blue book and translation to Kazak customs when they asked for a “Motorcycle passport” and it worked fine.
- All receipts for the original purchase and for insurance. We used this at Kazak customs to prove that we had bought the bikes and were living in China
We didn’t use, nor did we show, but had:
- Notarized power of attorney documents in English Chinese and Russian saying that even though the bikes were not purchased in our name that we have been given the power of ownership for them. This can be gotten at a notary in Beijing or Shanghai. Email us if you're wondering how
Some suggestions no matter what border you try to leave China from:
Try your best to not get involved with goods customs (haiguan 海关). China’s borders are monitored by three government
organizations: haiguan海关, bianjian 边检, and guojian 国检. Haiguan is responsible for goods, and therefore will classify your motorcycle as "goods" rather than a mode of transport
(because their job is to monitor goods) and will try to scramble to figure out what possible paperwork you need to declare it. Bianjian and Guojian are responsible for your person, and
therefore there is less (to perhaps no) issue. How you can avoid them is debatable, but do not directly seek them out
- Honestly, and unfortunately, if you are not Chinese it might be better to just speak English. We felt like we got caught in more issues because everyone knew we understood what they we’re trying to explain to us. A sad but perhaps true reality
There seems to be no actual legislation for foreigners riding Chinese motorcycles out of China (we literally sat there while
customs tried to go through their book of relevant laws), so like in other places in China don’t underestimate the power of suggestion, whether it is for different solutions or the
“suggestion” that you know what you are doing and have done your research.
- It never hurts to call the exact border beforehand to ask what you need. According to the head of the border guards in Khorgos, he always answers calls and can help you find what you need. If you’ve ever tried calling a government office (maybe anywhere in the world) you can do a good estimate of how this might go, although it is worth a try.
If you are interested in using an agent, it was suggested that we first try in places like Beijing and Shanghai, not Urumqi. Xinjiang is more tightly controlled and has way more rules than bigger, eastern Chinese cities. This was told to us about the ATA (more below),
Notes & suggestions about Khorgos:
- People in the past have been successful here with absolutely no issues, both this year (May, 2015) and last year (2014). Although in the two examples they crossed in very different ways, both seemed to run into the right people at the right time (or not run into the wrong people). After this, people might be more aware of motorcycle crossings, but this could be both a blessing and a curse. In the end a lot might come down to literally just luck
- Korghos issues no documents or “confirmation” that the bikes were ok, only a stamp for your person when you cross the border.
If you want to cross the border with paperwork that will apparently satisfy customs, below are a few options that officers at Khorgos suggested at different times:
1. ATA Carnet issued in China
According to customs, if you present them with an ATA Carnet, they will let you through immediately. Technically, the ATA is meant for goods (such as expensive machines, equipment, art... etc) and not meant for modes of transport (vehicles such as cars, motorcycles). Vehicles should fall under the Carnet du Passage; unfortunately, China does not recognize the Carnet du Passage for vehicles, so the work-around is to call vehicles "goods" and get them issued under the ATA. While this allows you to leave China, we do not know whether you would be able to enter Carnet du Passage countries.
Unfortunately again, an ATA in China (we have been told on the phone) can only be issued to mainland Chinese citizens (not even Hong Kong or Macau citizens), whose name will appear in the ATA booklet. They may even to be there to sign off on a piece of paper when you cross the border. A possible work-around could be to notarize a Power of Attorney letter (available in all major Chinese cities) stating that the owner of the ATA grants you power to sign for them at the border; however, again, we do not know if this will work. How it is implemented is unclear
If you want go the ATA route, here are the contact details on the official Chinese ATA website. According to the people we talked to on the phone, the fee for the ATA is only 25RMB but the amount you need to pu tup as a deposit differs for each country you are planning on going to (for example 250% of what your receipt for the bike states if you are going to Iran). For motorcycles, the Shanghai office was the only one that would issue an ATA, all the other offices refused. If you are traveling by car, you can call any of the offices, though Beijing (the head office) and Shanghai might be faster.
2. Tourist Agency
Another process “suggested” to us by customs, was to go through a travel agency. This is very expensive and time consuming, but could be very effective. We asked one agency for the fee to cross at Tourgart pass in Kyrgyzstan and were quoted 30,000 RMB (10,000 RMB deposit per bike, non-refundable if you don’t bring the bikes back to China, and around a 10,000 RMB processing fee) --definitely not cheap. It would take around three weeks to process. The travel agency essentially vouches for you and the bikes and makes the process much easier; however, if your bike does not return to the country, the travel agency risks getting its license revoked and so make sure your ideas or plans are clear when working with them
again if you have questions, we will try to help where we can, just send us an email or leave a comment!