17 June 2012

Something to Love in Kyrgyzstan a Day: Marshrutkas

I wrote this in May of 2006:

The four of us hopped on the bus in Kashka Suu, about 20 km south of Bishkek. As usual, it was a minibus and had seats for 14, including the driver. Since we were so far out of town, the price to downtown Bishkek was 15 som each instead of the 5 som we pay in town.

We’d flagged him down a few hundred meters before the true beginning point for the route because he was looking for passengers. We waited at the official starting point for 10 minutes and were off to Bishkek with a total of 6 passengers on the bus.

The driver continued to look for passengers, waiting for several to run to the bus. Then we started to pick people up from the side of the road, as usual (you don’t see a lot of drivers waiting for passengers). When we were up to 17 people in the bus (the three children were on their respective parents’ laps), we picked up what looked like a soccer team of around 10 teenaged boys. They stayed crowded in the front of the bus and hopped off a few kilometers later in another town. We also picked up a few more people along the way and let off a couple of people.

We drove on for a few kilometers, picking up more people than we let off, including a woman with a baby and a toddler. Of course, one of the younger people in the front of the bus gave her his seat. As we turned onto what would became Manas street, we picked up around 10 little girls who had just spent the day at an amusement park south of town. They were all quite cheery a bouncing little rubber balls that lit up. They perched themselves around the bus wherever they could with a few passengers holding some.

At this point we counted about 30 people on the bus. We were sandwiched in the very back corner and were wondering how we were going to be able to get off on our street without disgorging all the passengers in front of us since it’s a lot easier to wriggle past 15 people when you’re not carrying two large bags and shepherding two children also. Luckily, the crew of cheery little girls was getting off on the same street we were and we quite effectively emptied the bus of all extra passengers and everyone sat down. And it went on its way for a few more minutes to Osh Bazaar.

Marshrutkas are still my preferred mode of transportation if I'm not walking. But hardly ever don't walk, so I haven't ridden them much this time around. My husband has switched to taxis, but I think it's mostly because most of the taxi drivers in front of our building are Uyghur and he loves talking to them. Here's another post from last year:
We don't ride marshrutkas much this time around in Kyrgyzstan because we can walk everywhere we need in Tokmok, but it's always fun to ride them when we go to Bishkek.  Riding public transportation in the US, especially long distance, can be a little dicey, but everyone rides a marshrutka sometime in Kyrgyzstan.

We nearly always find someone to talk to on the bus between Bishkek and Tokmok.  A few times we've sat with someone we know who happened to be on the same bus (that happens a lot in Kyrgyzstan) and even if we don't know anyone when we start, we usually do by the end.  An American family isn't the most common sight on the bus here and when people discover that my husband speak Kyrgyz and/or Uzbek, things move along nicely.  I'll never forget the expression on one man's face when he realized that he was speaking Kyrgyz.  Priceless.

Today's ride was with a very outgoing woman who gave me a history of Kyrgyzstan's revolutions, all the places we need to visit, and all the people she knows in Tokmok, all in Russian.  She also figured out that another man on the van works at the dentist's office next door to our house (our living in a house instead of a flat is also cause for surprise).  She's ready to take us all sorts of places.

We also met a refugee from Afghanistan a couple of months ago.  He lives in Kant, a town outside Bishkek.  His parents live in New York now as refugees.  I can't even quite imagine how it would be to leave Afghanistan as a refugee and end up in Kyrgyzstan during a revolution and the ethnic violence of last year.

And some trips we get to sit quietly and enjoy the ride.  I appreciate that because marshrutkas are a recipe for motion sickness for me, with their bumpy rides and stifling interiors. 

And my favorite marshrutka experience ever:

We were riding home on a marshrutka from Bishkek today when a car passed us with its passengers waving their arms at us.  So our driver pulled over to open the hood, checked the engine, and then hopped back in the marshrutka and turned around.  We drove back toward Bishkek for a few kilometers looking for something on the ground.  Finally one of the passengers in the front spotted the missing fan belt.

The driver pulled over again, got the fan belt and put it back on and dumped a couple of liters of water in the radiator and took off again.  We picked up a stray passenger in Kant and on the way out of Kant, it was clear the driver was looking for something new.  It turned out to be a car wash where he pulled in and asked them to fill up the radiator.  The car wash people had a good laugh along with all of us in the marshrutka.  I don't think they get asked that every day.

So we pulled out of the car wash and immediately there was a snapping sound.  Yes, it was the fan belt, but this time there was no way it was going back on.  This time the driver crossed the road and flagged down another marshrutka.  He hopped on that one and disappeared down the road.  By this time we were all pretty amused (what else can you do?) and we waited to see what would happen.

About five minutes later our driver appeared in yet another marshrutka and loaded us onto that one.  After asking where we wanted to go, we drove off to Tokmok. 

The best part really was the car wash part.  Marshrutkas don't often stop with a full load to get their car washed, let alone to fill the radiator.  The look on their faces (and ours too, probably) was priceless. 


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