One of the most apparent proofs that you have been thrown face first into a different culture is when you attempt to move outside your front door. This is so incredibly true in Kyrgyzstan, it’s almost not true…What? Anyways, no need for philosophical paradoxes, especially when you’re talking about the physical (and mental) nuances of transportation in Kyrgyzstan. Because travel in Kyrgyzstan really is all about the journey, and rarely the destination.
Travel in Kyrgyzstan
The Kyrgyz Marshrutka
Generally, transportation in Kyrgyzstan is accomplished in one basic form of machinery: A marshrutka. The marshrutkas in this country vary in quality from “Wow, this is nice, and the seats have padding” to “I can see the pavement below me”. And while I have no issue in seeing the pavement below me while moving at high speeds (my car, Suzy, in Australia had holes in the floor of both the drivers and passenger seats), it is rather indicative of the overall wellbeing of the contraption.
A marshrutka is for all intensive purposes a passenger van. The driver sits on the left hand side, and the front right side door opens to allow people entry. Most local marshrutkas have sitting room for around 12 to 16 people, and then standing room for 30. Seriously. Seat belts are obviously not things, and really when you’re on a crowded marshrutka, even if the marshrutka was to take flight, your body couldn’t move anywhere anyways, that’s how crowded it gets! Getting around Kyrgyzstan is a lesson in body contact and zero personal space.
Transportation in Osh Kyrgyzstan
Here in [intlink id=”970″ type=”post”]Osh[/intlink] I take a few different marshrutka routes to get to and from my house, to the bazaar, to my favorite cafes etc. Every route has it’s own characteristics. The 112 for example, always has a ton of students on it. And because the start is near my house, I normally get a seat. The 124 on the other hand starts 5 miles past my house in a small village, and by the time it gets to me, is packed with eje’s (old ladies with legitimate [intlink id=”1071″ type=”post”]Super Powers[/intlink]), meaning the chance of me breathing easily, much less sitting in a seat, would be a dream in the Kyrgyz dreamland of dreams.
In Osh, marshrutka rides are 10som, so about 2 cents. You pay the driver when you get off, and he can give you change if you need it. But do not pay with a 100som note, or gasp, even higher. You might get yelled at. And, if someone visibly older than you gets on, you give up your seat. It is better to do this voluntarily, because getting pitched by an eje is embarrassing.
Travel Safety and Comfort in Kyrgyzstan- Question Mark?
Riding on a marshrutka, and travel in Kyrgyzstan in general, is almost always an adventure. Maybe because you don’t know when marshrutkas are coming, so you may get one right away, or wait for 20 minutes. Maybe the marshrutka is so packed that when the door opens there is a body right there, but hey, I’m sure my body can fit in there too! A few days ago I got into one, and was crunched up against the door, knowing full well that it had not latched fully when I had tried to close said door. The reality of flying out of a marshrutka is a wholly possible one. You might also end up sitting beside someone kind of awesome, like a small child who is being quiet and really cute, or someone maybe not so awesome, like the drunk dude who stared at Dana and I last week, then he passed out.
Another feature of crowded marshrutka travel is the temperature. Less potent now, but in the summer, the ongoing struggle to breathe on a marshrutka was reality. Kyrgyz people have an idea that wind, or really air of any kind, makes a person sick. Now I’m no scientist, but I feel like my body works better when it gets oxygen, and is not hot to the touch. This anti-air cultural ideal means that if a marshrutka does actually have windows that open, giving a slight reprieve to the stifling, stale heat inside the sweat-box, that window will probably be closed. It’s like being on a life raft in the middle of the ocean and not being able to drink. Or breathe.
Now that the weather has turned, the temperature issue is less than it was, though still I don’t care how cold it is outside, when you have 7 people so close to you that you can feel all of their outward breathing on your face, an open window would still be great. The seasons make a big impact on travel in Kyrgyzstan.
Something I just found out recently is that marshrutkas actually have reinforced floors, there are steel rods going down the length of them, as a precaution. So it is nice to know that someone looked at a marshrutka with 45 people in it and thought “Hmm, this van as made in 1979 by some Soviet factory somewhere, and it’s riding really low to the ground. I wonder how strong those floor boards are…” So thanks to that guy, very perceptive, and forward thinking. Safety first! Transportation in Kyrgyzstan takes a step towards the bubblewrap generation, albeight a very tiny step.
Marshrutkas can also be tricky in regards to time. Most of the routes stop at dark. So in the summer you can be out until 9ish. In the winter…well yesterday I got home at about 6 and I may have caught the last marshrutka. Some volunteers are in villages where marshrutkas from the rayon centre to their village only run in the morning, or there are no marshrutkas at all, only taxis, or hitching.
Buses in Kyrgyzstan
City buses exist in Osh and Bishkek (and one in Naryn, I rode it!). I like riding the buses, they are generally less crowded, more airy, and slightly cheaper (8com, bargain!). That being said, the buses in Osh move at the speed of molasses, so time is not of the essence.
Taxis in Kyrgyzstan
There are a million ‘taxis’ in Osh as well. In reality there are maybe only 100 legitimate ones, but then anybody with a car and a bit of spare gas can become a taxi. Especially if he goes to the bazaar and buys a plastic car top accessory that says TAXI on it. I might buy one for myself and make some cash back in Canada…
Long Distance Travel in Kyrgyzstan
Now of course, there is a difference between local marshrutkas and long distance marshrutkas, and this is a key concept in understanding transportation in Kyrgyzstan. I have had quite a few trips around the country, so have run the gambit of long distance marshrutkas already. To go anywhere outside of the city, and especially outside of the oblast, you take marshrutkas that are somewhat bigger, with more seats, and where standees are generally not allowed. So you will have a seat, and nobody will be getting on along the road to pitch you from that seat. I am a fan of long distance road travel, I like driving (I’m like my Grandpa in that way!), and I like being a passenger. I can stare out the window for quite the time, especially if I’m comfortable. Which may not be the case.
When Monica and I went to Naryn, which is about a 6-hour trip from Bishkek, the marshrutka we were on going there was great, really comfy seats, lots of leg room, very nice. On the way back, it seemed like the seats were just slightly too thin, meaning thanks to our ladylike curves, we were less likely to stay on said seats when the road curved. And looking around, it didn’t seem like anybody had this problem except Monica and I!
To get from city to city in some places, you take ‘taxis’. Which is again a catch all word for any manner of automobile that is smaller than a marshrutka. It may just be someone with a car and they happen to be going in the same direction as you. It may be a 7-seater Step Wagon. Again, regardless of the form it takes, taxis will often also be tight squeezes and air-less. Like when I grabbed a [intlink id=”1018″ type=”post”]taxi into Talas[/intlink]…
Flying in Kyrgyzstan
The last form transportation in Kyrgyzstan is the airplane. Now, the only reason I have flown domestic in Kyrgyzstan is because [intlink id=”1129″ type=”post”]Osh is a 12-14 hour drive from Bishkek[/intlink], and [intlink id=”1044″ type=”post”]Peace Corps[/intlink] pays for my flights. And really flying in KG is a breeze! I have shown up at Osh International Airport 15 minutes before my flight, got through ‘security’ and check-in in about 90 seconds (it helps that queue culture here is loose at best; get those elbows swinging), and been in the air on time. The flight to Bishkek is about 40 minutes, so I can normally get a few Sudokus done, though less if there is turbulence and I have to take a time out to have a panic attack. If you’re on a high-end domestic carrier you will get a cup of tea or a glass of water mid-flight. High end is another term used loosely.
That all being said, Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have the greatest safety record for air travel…something I try to not think about during aforementioned turbulence induced panic attacks. Or when it just seems like those pretty mountain peaks are shockingly close to scraping the undercarriage of the airplane.
Hitch Hiking in Kyrgyzstan
Hitch hiking doesn’t happen here. Ha, no, that’s a lie. It happens a lot outside of the cities and is a main vessel of transportation in Kyrgyzstan. You can flag a car, and then pay the driver for what the cost of the marshrutka or taxi would have been. Of course there is a bit of a risk doing something like this, but really everybody does it, and if everybody else is jumping off that bridge well…..
But that’s transportation in Kyrgyzstan, makes you all want to come right?!?!?! Really, travel here is almost always a question, but it’s cheap, and it normally gets you where you want/need to go, so really, it does the job. Just don’t be a princess!
Life in Osh Kyrgyzstan
I adore my cat and the kitten. The cat is named Geeta and I named the kitten Ron Weasely. They are the world’s most adorable animals. Until the day I heard some weird noises on the front stoop: Geeta was standing proudly, with a still alive mouse flailing from her mouth and Ron was batting at it like a pinata. Just having a gay old time. I couldn’t watch. They were being such animals!!! And then they only ate half of it. Thanks for the front door decor.
I have started Kyrgyz dance lessons. Taught by my 8 year old sister Akmaral. We Peace Corps Volunteers casually refer to the traditional Kyrgyz dancing as shoulder dancing (cue sarcastic comments about how sexy and alluring shoulders are). Maral and I have had several after dinner dance sessions, in which we dance Kyrgyz for a few songs, and then I get tired of it and put on Carly Rae Jepson and flail around, which is the way I dance in private and in public. And she then follows my lead, thinking it is ‘Canadian style dancing’. Oh cultural exchange.
I have moved my bedroom furniture so that my desk is right in front of the window, making it a wonderful place to sit and write, or Facebook. The heater is as close to my chair as possible without burning it, or me.
The bulb for my bedside lamp went out. Today I got off the bus early to go to the lighting store. The power was out. In a lighting store!!!!
At the start of October, we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving in Osh. Twas a magical night, especially for the Americans and Kyrgyz people who attended to be sure. We had stuffing, roast squash, mashed potatoes, apple sauce, and stewed carrots. We did not have a turkey, as there were none to be found, so Tori and I went and bought two rotisserie chickens from the lady on the street. Awesome.
Not that anybody has asked, but I do have a mailing address. If anybody wants to send me anything, maybe a card for my birthday or Christmas, or maybe a 25lb package full of yummy food and warm clothing, that would be lovely. Shoot me a message or a comment and I’ll send you my address, especially if you are a knitter….
I recently celebrated Halloween in the Naryn Oblast with a bunch of other volunteers. I dressed up as a slaughtered sheep.
This happened today while I was eating dinner with my little sister Akmaral:
Akmaral: “Emily, Do you have mermaids in Canada?”
It’s starting to get cold. I am regularly wearing leggings underneath my pants, and right now I am in thermal socks, slippers, two pairs of leggings, a tank top, a thermal long sleeved shirt, a fleece zip up and with a wool, fleece lined head band around my ears. And I’m wrapped up in a fleece blanket. And the electric heater is right beside me. And yes, I’m inside.
I think that’s all for me, thanks for reading and may you all have many children and deep outhouses, but most importantly, big tractors.
Are you interested in travelling to Kyrgyzstan? I lived there for 18 months, so check out the rest of my travel blogs from the [intlink id=”50″ type=”category”]unique country of Kyrgyzstan[/intlink].