Kazakhstan: You Drinking - Other People Driving

By: Chris Merriman
Firstly, many thanks to those who commented on my last article (Kazakhstan - NOT Borat Land !!!). A few people noted that I had left out details of drinking and driving here in Kazakhstan. I should make clear that cars are NOT pulled by horses, despite how the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan portrays motor traffic.

If there is a chance you’ll be drinking, then it’s likely someone will want you to say a few words, when it comes to your turn in the toast making.

You don’t need to be Over The Top, but DO make sure you thank your hosts for the meal/drink/their time (especially true if it is 4am, and they have work in 3 hours!).

You can wax lyrical if you have enough to say, but don’t feel abashed at all if you just want to say something like:

“First I’d like to thank Mr & Mrs Jones for their hospitality; I really appreciate your thoughts (assuming they mentioned you in their toast ;>). I hope to enjoy my stay here, and look forward to seeing this…. etc. etc."

Back to driving. For those that ever sat in a car with me at the wheel, now is the time for you to admit it could have been so much worse...

I’m glad to say that in the last 5 years of visits to, and now living in, Kazakhstan, I’ve only been in a car once, that has been crashed into, but if this is going to be your first time driving/being driven off the continent, just remember one thing - loud screams/whimpers will distract the driver, and therefore increase the likelihood of a mishap.

I wouldn’t say people are necessarily bad drivers over here; it is just that they operate on a different logic & reasoning plane to 'Western' drivers.

If a driver is in a queue, wanting to turn at the next set of traffic lights, and is bored of waiting, then they’ll happily ‘create’ a new lane in the other direction’s stream of traffic.

If the road has 3 lanes marked out with paint, in each direction, it is quite normal to find a total of 8 or 9 lanes of traffic.

Use of the horn - if the light has turned green and you’ve not moved for more than 0.5 of a second, people will gladly call your attention to this fact. The horn will definitely wear out quicker over here, at times it seems as though everyone should just learn Morse code; with so much honking from every direction, it is sometimes difficult to understand who is beeping at whom, and for what purpose.

There used to be a roundabout between our flat and the in-law’s house. It was always interesting watching people use it, for two reasons; 1) Roundabouts are relatively unique, in Astana at least, so people didn’t always seem to use them in the same way as other drivers also present, and 2) The rules aren’t the same as back in the UK; If a major road meets a roundabout, the people already ON the roundabout have to give way to others joining the melee from the major road. It worked so well, they’ve now converted that particular roundabout back to a normal junction. It does at least now have pedestrian crossings, so you can be more morally indignant if you get run over.

Zebra crossings are one way to bring a little adrenaline into your bloodstream. If you try and cross them as you would back home, you WILL end up having a heart attack. The best way to approach them seems to be to wait for the least amount of traffic to be approaching the crossing, and try to figure out which cars are actually likely to slow down, let alone stop, for you. Some drivers will beep to let you know that they have no intention of slowing down; others have actually switched lanes, seemingly to increase the chance of a bone vs. metal match up.

Every time someone important decides to travel somewhere in Astana, police will close down the roads the VIPs intend to use, and some 5 - 10 minutes later, you’ll see the President/Government Minister/Foreign Valued Businessman shoot past, in a cavalcade of Limos, Jeeps and/or Hummers and occasionally police motorcycle out-riders.

Just because you are a pedestrian though, don’t assume this will have no impact; we’ve been waiting at a bus stop, next to a bus lay-by, and found ourselves moved BEHIND the bus shelter, for security reasons!Moving onto the more positive aspects of motor vehicles in Kazakhstan; the buses and mini-buses, whilst not particularly able to stick to their timetable due to the recent explosion in traffic volume, they are dirt cheap, at least if you’re spending Western wages.

The availability of taxis may not, at first, appear that great. Once you realise that a lot of ‘civilian’ drivers will happily stop and give you a lift for a quickly bartered fee, getting from one place to another seems a lot easier. HOWEVER, in the same way as hitch-hiking in the West, you DO need to be careful about personal safety. Don’t travel alone, and don’t get in the car if there is more than just the driver there. (Small children/grannies/granddads are possible exceptions). Basically, be aware of the situation you are placing yourself into.

If you want to read more about life in Kazakhstan, or ask questions, please do visit my blog at http://www.chrismerriman.com

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