In Kazakhstan, the Gypsy Cab is King
Kazakhstan, Central Asia
Getting around Kazakhstan is not always that easy. The ninth largest country in the world, but with an ever-decreasing population of around 14 million, cities and places of interest tend to be somewhat spread out. A train ride between the two largest cities, Almaty and Astana, will take up about twenty hours of your time. Wherever you might end up though in Kazakhstan, the gypsy cab is king, as it seems virtually anyone with a car in Central Asia is a potential taxi, willing to barter a good price to take you to your final destination.
If you just stand by the edge of the road with your arm out someone will eventually stop. In fact usually about three cars will line up in the hope you don’t finalize a good price with the first. Once you haggle over a suitable deal they will take you almost anywhere. There are some exceptions to this rule, but in general you can get a pretty good deal. For example, if you waive down a gypsy cab to take you to the airport in Almaty, even as a foreigner it should only cost you about 300-500 Tenge (US$2-3.50). However, if you try to take one back from the airport to the centre of town, the price jumps up to a minimum of 1500 Tenge (if you have the strength to barter) up to about 5000 Tenge (if you haven’t).
Gypsy cabs are on the whole a great way of getting around and they work not just in town, but between towns as well. It’s a comfortable way of traveling, particularly if you get a nice car, and on occasions people who work in one town will hang around a train station trying to pick up fares so they can take a full carload back to their home town. The most popular cars in Kazakhstan and indeed in Central Asia are naturally enough the old Soviet models. The Niva and the Lada are often ridiculed in the west, but are perfect for the rough Central Asian roads, full of pot holes, manholes missing their covers and dead things. However, pretty much every car I traveled in had two things in common. Firstly, there would be at least one crack through the front windscreen and secondly, either the seatbelts were broken or looked as if they had never existed. Even if you were lucky enough to find a car with a seat belt that worked, when you made an attempt to wear it, the driver would look at you as if you were making some sort of comment on his driving. It’s amazing how quickly you get out of the mindset of wearing a seatbelt. During my three years in Central Asia, I didn’t wear a seatbelt once. First day back in the west I got into my friend’s car and an alarm went off because I hadn’t buckled up.
The only other thing you really have to look out for when driving with a Kazakh is that he doesn’t fall asleep behind the wheel. This did actually happen to me twice, but luckily I had learnt enough Russian by that time to wake the guy up. The problem here is that taxi driving is not just a way of making some gas money, but can be a serious wage earner. Quite often villagers who owned cars would drive into Almaty on a Friday night and work solidly through till Sunday evening earning fares. If you think New York is the city that never sleeps, central Almaty during a weekend comes a close second, and a driver can earn enough money during that time to keep his extended family in food and vodka for the rest of the week. It’s a pretty good business.
Once you’re actually in the car, the very fact that you are a foreigner usually means that you are going to have to have a conversation. In Central Asia, this usually follows a set pattern and even if language is a problem, it needn’t matter and doesn’t usually stop the driver from trying. There are generally four questions, which seem to be incredibly important to anyone you may come across and they are as follows.
1. Are you married? If not, why not?
2. Do you have children? If not, why not?
3. How much do you earn?
4. Do you like our Kazakh women?
Ok, so let’s deal with these questions individually. The answer to the first is obviously easy. However, because I was answering in the negative, the response is also easily predictable. Central Asians get married young and if someone, particularly a woman, remains single until her mid twenties, she is considered by many to be past marrying age. This becomes a big worry to many young women that if they can’t find a husband by then, they never will. I guess that it is also not a coincidence therefore that the former Soviet republics have one of the highest divorce rates around. One of the reactions I got when I said I was single was a sudden rundown on the speakers’ available family members. This can be a bit scary at first, particularly if photos start coming out. The next question inevitably would follow. I don’t have children, so at first I would again always answer in the negative. This is something that most Kazakhs just don’t understand. Why would someone not have children? There simply must be a reason! A British female colleague was once asked this question and when she said “No!” the speaker looked at her very pityingly while resting their hand on her stomach and asked “Is there something wrong with your ovaries?” Can you imagine being asked that by a complete stranger in the west?
I was once on a train journey between Astana and Pavlodar and such was the disbelief at my answer that I actually ended up inventing a couple of children just to keep the peace. I made up a son and a daughter who I’d left behind in Britain and hadn’t seen for a year. For some reason it was fine for me to have been a bad father, just as long as I was one.
To answer the third question is equally problematic. Wages are generally low in Central Asia. The average wage is about US$100 a month, with most people, particularly in rural areas earning much less. Teachers for example earn about US$50 a month and quite often have to take second jobs to make ends meet. One of the strangest experiences I had was stopping at a train station in the middle of nowhere to buy some food from the hawkers there. One girl came up to me and started speaking in perfect English. She told me that the only way she could afford to live was by selling food she cooked to train passengers, because her main job as an English teacher didn’t pay her enough. It’s truly a sad state of affairs when your teachers, the guardians of your children’s education and the future of your country, have to take a second job just to survive.
The average wage figure is a bit of a misnomer as many Kazakhs, or “New Kazakhs” as they have become known, now find themselves capable of earning big money. Usually, they are the ones employed by the oil companies or Ministries or foreign businesses and they will potentially earn between US$1000 upwards a month, sometimes significantly higher. This may not sound much by western standards, but makes for a comfortable life if you can get it in Central Asia. As a volunteer I was paid US$200 a month, plus accommodation and some money for interpretation and translation. All in all this equates to a good local wage. In cites like Almaty and Astana, there is enough to spend your money on that this goes quickly, particularly if your job involves travel as well. I still managed to quite often end up out of pocket. So when you are asked, “How much do you earn?” the question is slightly loaded. If you say 200 dollars a month to the wrong person, you risk upsetting them because they think that is high and you are just another foreigner exploiting them. Others assume all foreigners are earning thousands as indeed most of the expat population seem to in Central Asia, and simply don’t believe you when you tell them the truth. The bottom line is that you are a foreigner and for whatever reason you are there in Kazakhstan, you can afford to be there. I always tried to dodge this question by saying I was just paid my apartment and living costs.
The last question was always easy to answer and was usually delivered with a sly nudge and a wink, especially from a taxi driver. Well to be honest there is really only one answer you can give in a situation like this and you are hardly likely to say no! Generally, I would just smile and answer that, “I like all women!” Trust me. That can end you up in all sorts of trouble too.