Why You Should Ride a Marshrutka in Central Asia

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The first time I ever rode a marshrutka was in early February 2014. I was in Russia – St. Petersburg – and was on a mission to visit the famous Catherine Palace, with its Amber Room, as well as Alexander Palace. The latter is where Czar Nicholas II and his Romanov family were under house arrest until were shipped out to be shot by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg in 1918.

The staff at my favorite St. Petersburg hostel had explained exactly how I should get there: take the metro to Moskovskaya Station and take this numbered marshrutka. Get off at the end of the route. The only challenge was that I didn’t really have a clue where the end of the route was. This was not a hi-tech vehicle with the stops lighting up nor did any signs indicate the designated stops. Fortunately, when I was eventually the only person left on the marshrutka and the driver started talking to me in the Russian language I didn’t yet understand, I was able to hand him my destination written in Cyrillic. He promptly whipped the marshurtka around and dropped me off at a corner, pointing at the gold-lined, bright blue palace in the distance. I gave a cheerful “Spasibo!” (Thank you.) and marched off into the snow.

Almost exactly four years later, I would be in a marshrutka, heading for my first day of work in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. New colleagues told me they were shocked that I just didn’t take the $2.50 taxi to work. Thanks to my time in Russia, I guess I felt comfortable enough that I could just use the 2gis transport app in English and make it there alright. I did. In those four years in between, though I’d been to Russia three times, riding in a marshrutka with the help of friends, I knew and understood little about marshrutka culture in and around the former Soviet Union. I quickly learned.

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I’ve made it no secret before, both online through 24.kg Kyrgyz news profile of me in 2019 and in person. I. love. marshrutkas. But what exactly is a marshrutka? It’s a mini-bus, usually an old, converted 16-person Mercedes-Benz Sprinter or Volkswagen van that serves as an essential form of transport for people across Russia and its former Soviet republics. They are ubiquitous in Bishkek and are still definitely plentiful across the border in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Over time, for the pittance of $.15 USD for a ride anywhere in the city, I gradually got the hang of taking a marshrutka to work. I walked the 8 minutes to my most convenient stop, watched for the popular 215, and put my hand up to call it over when I spotted one. Anywhere from 20 to 50 people would wait with me and depending on the time and day, it often felt like that same number of people was somehow trying to get on the same marshrutka as me. Sometimes I simply waited for a less crowded one, if I wasn’t in a rush.

Once inside, I paid the few soms to the driver at the front and looked around for a spot. The space behind the driver was for standing only and then proper rows began with an aisle in between. Due to crowding and a lack of space, there wasn’t always time to pay the driver, so I had to pay by passing my money up to the front from wherever I ended up.

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This is when “marshrutka etiquette” really kicks in. If I take an open seat near the front, I must be ready to give it out for anyone who appears older than me or pregnant, for example. However, young boys in seats towards the front would readily give up their seats for me – because I was older than them and female. (Note the juxtaposition between men giving up their seats for women and the struggle for women’s rights in the country!) If you failed to do this, either everyone will stare at you until you do or they will blatantly say something to you. While I really appreciate the concern for other people – especially when compared to other cultures, this did make me feel paranoid and like I could never take a nap for a few minutes if my seat was anywhere near that front “danger” area. I had to be on high alert, right?

Upon explaining my thought process to Kyrgyz friends, they would laugh and laugh. Then, they revealed the best seat on the marshrutka: the center seat all the way in the back row. Why? Because it allowed for an easy exit and that far back, you knew you’d never have to give up your seat for someone else. But in my mind, there was a slight catch, in that row with five seats, what if a seat by the window was open? Wouldn’t it make sense to slide over to that side so that someone isn’t having to climb over you to get to it? NOPE, I was told. That middle seat was precious! Convinced, it became a game of mine to try and get that middle seat.

Whether I was seated or standing up, I had to be aware of the pickpockets I was warned about. This proved beneficial because I could then use this time to take in everything around me. The stops listed in red and blue on the outside of the mini-bus. The wood or cheap plastic paneling. The Christmas decorations. The hot snacks the driver would pull over for whenever he wanted. The brightly-colored wallpaper. The random Mariah Carey or Backstreet Boys music. I immediately thought that these marshrutka soundtracks rivaled that of my apartment building elevator where I often heard Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping” and the Spice Girls’ “Spice Up Your Life”.

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My favorite part of this experience was that it made me feel like I was a part of Kyrgyz society in Bishkek, instead of a bystander or visitor. As a Caucasian, I was often assumed to be Russian in Kyrgyzstan unless something like a book in English was observed on me. Here, I was treated like everyone else. Together, we witnessed the crazy traffic maneuvers, the simultaneous WhatsApp-ing and YouTube video watching of the driver, the shouting at other drivers, and the sudden braking. It was also a way to see parts of the city I probably would not have otherwise. I also saw students studying or watching out for their siblings. Mothers guiding their toddlers and elderly women bringing home groceries. Scenes that I would see in any country but here through the lens of Kyrgyz culture and Kyrgyzstan’s multiculturalism.

With all this organized chaos, it was important to pay attention to where we were in the city as I needed to know when to start moving from my spot towards the door – something made more difficult in a packed marshrutka. If standing, I’d let go of the handlebar up above and slowly squeeze my way though people. Just after the stop before mine, I would loudly say, “останови́те, пожалуйста” aka “Stop, please!”. This is the ONE Russian phrase to know if riding a marshrutka. so as not to miss my stop. Then, as I had watched so many locals do, as we approached my stop, I’d get very close to the front door – ready to get out – with my right foot on the lower step, my left foot propped up on the main floor of the vehicle, and my right hand on the door handle. Those drivers didn’t have time for anyone so it was on everyone to hustle out!

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Admittedly, my trips on marshrutkas decreased due to the longer time required and the colder weather I grew tired of fighting through. At the same time, I continued to ride them occasionally to help me feel connected to my then home and to my fellow residents. While I acknowledge that I had the luxury of choice to ride a marshrutka, most Kyrgyz do not and I was also conscious of taking up space from others who needed it more than I did. Each time was like a snapshot of Kyrgyz society and I seemingly finished each ride with a new observation about Kyrgyzstan and its people. These observations later sparked conversations with my local friends during which I could pepper them with questions to learn more.

Although it may be daunting to ride this form of transport without Russian or the local language, I strongly recommend it during any visit to Central Asia! You’ll expand your comfort zone, maybe make a mistake, and look at the driver with bewilderment, but gain a new window into the world of the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, etc. of today. You may also end up watching over a young child as her mother fusses with her makeup! Or bop along to ‘The Boy Is Mine’ by Brandy and Monica flowing through the speakers. Just be sure to download the 2gis app to figure out your route and you’ll be good to go.

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