The Silk Road which was used to transport goods between China and Europe was not a single road, but rather a complex network of routes. Some of these passed through the mountains which now form the backbone of the newly independent country the Kyrgyz Republic.
The mountains formed a considerable barrier but there were a number of passes which were used by traders as they passed between Kashgar and the West. Only two of them, however, are currently open as border crossing points Torugart and Irkeshtam.
The Torugart Pass (3752 m) lies to the South of Naryn. In 1905 the then British Consul in Kashgar, (George Macartney), discovered that the Russians had built a 27 foot wide road from At Bashi in Kyrgyzstan to Torugart and for about half a mile into China itself. A major player in "The Great Game" between the British and Russian Empires, (both of which were seeking influence in Central Asia), he reported to his superiors that the road could easily be "made good" and should Russia choose to annex all or part of Xinjiang province, then this was the route along which their troops would come. In 1906, the Chinese government gave in to Russian pressure and agreed to complete the road using a loan from a Russian bank - recouping the money by levying tolls - and Russian merchants were given a monopoly of trade along the route. The Chinese, however, were not happy at this arrangement and set the tolls so high that the road soon fell into disuse and disrepair. There used to be an arch standing at the actual border but it was removed in 2002 which is a pity because it made a nice photo opportunity. Technically, the pass is closed to all but citizens of Kyrgyzstan and The People's Republic of China - but it is possible to obtain special permission to cross the border here from the Regional authorities in Urumqui.
The Irkeshtam Pass (2841 m) - For a long time this pass was open only for commercial goods traffic for a limited period each month, although for several years there were plans to open it for passenger traffic and these finally came to fruition in the summer of 2002. Technically, no permissions are needed to cross the border here but it is still a sensitive border zone.
Also, in the past there were:
- The Bedel Pass (4284 m) lies to the south of Lake Issyk Kul further East from Torugart. It is approached by the road from Barskoon, which passes up the Barskoon valley, (the A364).
- The Terek Bawan Pass lies to the West of Osh, is in Kyrgyzstan on one of the approaches to the Irkeshtam pass, not actually on the border itself. It was used, for example, in 1915, by Percy Sykes and his sister Ella as they travelled to Kashgar where he was to take up the post of British Consul. Having arrived by train in Andijan (Uzbekistan) they were joined in Osh by some of their staff from the consulate in Kashgar and began the final leg of their journey a 260 kilometre trek over the mountains. En route they met a large number of people merchants bringing goods to trade.
- The Talgyy Pass (3668m) lies between Torugart and Irkeshtam at the head of the Oy Tal river valley (one of the tributaries of the Kara Darya River which flows through the ancient Silk Road city of Uzgen.
by Ian Claytor