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The Marshrutka to Nowhere, pt. 1

December 21, 2010

Of all the modes of getting hither to thither in the town of Bishkek, the marshrutnoye taxi offers the most local flavor, and the most bang for your buck. They’re usually called marshrutkas because they’re not really taxis at all, but small Mercedes vans that follow a fixed itinerary (hence the fairly transparent Russian phrasing, marsh-rut – imagine a marching route for a commie parade). Unlike buses, though, they can be hailed down wherever you may be, and you can get them to stop anywhere, too, if you know the magic words – Ostanoveetye Zdyes! They are a beautiful hybrid, fit for the masses – at 8 som a ride (around 15 cents), you can get damn near anywhere in the city.

I was itching for adventure, so I planned to take advantage of their ubiquity. I’d hop on a marshrutka and see where it took me, march along the route to who-knows-where, throw my fate to the gods of public transport. In theory it’s possible to determine the final destination, but one can never really understand the posted itinerary, it’s so full of local geographical slang. (I later decoded some of this with the help of my local slang expert – B/B is the corner of Belinskaya and Bokonbaevo; “TETs” is the pleasant acronym for the not-so-pleasant smokestacks belching smoke on the horizon). Even if you did have some idea of where you were going, you’d never really know that you were going the right way. Most often, it’s standing-room only, and unless you have eyes on your belt the most you can see is the moustache on your neighbor, looming uncomfortably close. No, scratch that. If you crane your neck, you can see the pavement – I have a theory that Bishkekers must have memorized the various gravel densities on the city’s roadways, since they always seem to know when they have arrived at their street just by staring hard enough at the asphalt.

So what could be more fun that jumping into one of these rolling disorientation machines in a post-Soviet wasteland and seeing where it spit you out? The possibilities were endless. I ate some lunch and got on board, ready for anything.

Before I even closed the door the driver lurched forward, zooming to our next stop. I grabbed the bar hanging above me, installed for unsteady foreigners and those without adhesive on their soles. Once steadied, I took note of my surroundings. Part of the marshrutka’s charm is the various ways the drivers will pimp them out to their liking. There are hundreds of vans all over the city, but no two are alike. Some will have plaid curtains on the windows, others satiny maroon; some will have vinyl flooring and others faux-wood. Most variable of all is the driver’s domain. The gearshift might be coated in fur or topped with a crystal ball. The rearview mirror might support Islamic charms with amulets knotted in green, orthodox crosses with saints from obscurity, air fresheners or eagle claws. They like to add little knobs on the steering wheel so they can just grab that and cruise, one-handed, rolling along in their home on wheels.

I held out my hand with currency enclosed and the driver held out his palm like a dish, without so much as looking my direction.  There was a magnet glued to the dashboard, and he tosses the coins its way. In a miracle of numismatic composition, the coins here are engineered to stick. There are no cash registers on these babies, or machines that lick up your dollar, so each driver has his own cashflow management system. A lot of drivers like to roll up bills in denominations commonly given as change and stick them in the heating vents. Others throw their bills over the speedometer and reach blindly into the multi-colored money-pile, reliably retrieving exactly what they need. Some of the busier ones, or less-talented, have a buddy sitting to their right, giving coins and taking coins and talking away like that’s what they’re getting paid for. You can pay when you go through the door or after you sit down – the money will be pass over heads and shoulders to the driver and crowd-surf its way back. You will never lose a dime.

My deathgrip on the rail above me, I marveled at the intimacy I was sharing with the people around me. We were anonymous lovers in transit, body parts brushing, eyes averted. A woman’s head would be pressed into my chest and in my head I would try to isolate that image from the barrage around us, trying not to smirk at its casual impropriety. With the coming of cold weather there was a new dynamic, as winterwear ballooned our boundaries and you had to dig through fur and fleece just to find your way to a seat. For now, I had to remain standing. If a seat opened up, I would get glares for going for it – a strict hierarchy said that the old and the female sat first. Men should buck up and stay standing, hugging strangers in the front. A beard, preferably white, might give you a free pass.

Slowly the mob thinned out until there was an appropriate opportunity to sit and breathe.  I sat next to a Kyrgyz kid in a Christmas hat. He stared at my scribbles as they went down in my notebook. “You probably can’t read this,” I wrote. Even if he could, he stayed silent and brooding. An older fellow sat across the aisle, his fingers tatted up with blurry prison script – one, nine, five, seven, a number on each finger. The year he was born? What had he done, where had he gone, where were we going? I didn’t have the answers, so I looked out the window and thought. Kyrgyz music from the radio lulled me into daydream. We rolled forward, into the abyss.

The next installment is here: where will I end up? As you wait in anticipation, lull your own self into daydreams with the sample I recorded.

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