This is post number two in a two-part series. Click here to read part one.
“I don’t have tenge,” I told the Kazakh driver in Kyrgyz.
“You can get some,” he assured me.
And with that, we were off. Sure, nearly five hours had passed by that point since I’d left my house en route to the border. Sure, my friend had been denied crossing at the border. Sure it was getting dark and raining and long stretches of two-lane highway still lay before us. But we were moving. And I was pretty sure we were moving in the direction of Almaty, my destination. Things were good.
So there we were: a Kazakh woman who didn’t speak Kazakh, a middle-aged Turkish man who spoke Kazakh with a Turkish accent and I’m pretty sure with a whole slew of Turkish words mixed in, two Kazakh young men (one of whom was the driver, neither of whom could have been older than 25), and me, the American who spoke Kyrgyz. Eat your heart out, P.T. Barnam. We would have packed the house.
I wish I could say that after a few short hours, we arrived in Almaty, wish being the key word in that sentence. Apparently, it wasn’t meant to be. Before too long the driver pulled the car over to the side of the road.
We’re stopping? I thought. Oh, come on.
I was trying to absorb myself in my phone, so I didn’t realize for a couple of seconds that the driver and his three other passengers were trying to get my attention. The Russian woman in the front seat pointed out the window across the street and spouted off a string of words I didn’t understand. I guess since we had gotten in the car together, the others looked to her to talk with me.
I looked out the window and saw a currency exchange place. The four of them eventually communicated the idea. They wanted me to go across the street and exchange soms (what they use in Kyrgyzstan) for tenge (what they use in Kazakhstan). Then I’d be able to pay the taxi.
“OK,” I said, opening the door. Out I got into the rain.
A puddle the size of Lake Michigan separated me from the street I had to cross to get to the currency exchange place. I took a leap of faith. Let’s just say I’m not a jumper. I landed somewhere in the middle of the puddle and splashed dirty water up my left leg.
I hurried across the street during a break in the traffic and made my way up the steps into the small currency exchange office. All told I got over 9000 tenge in exchange for 2000 soms.
I ran back across the street and got into the car, and we were on our way. Again. I dove back into my phone and just hoped the time would pass quickly.
At some point the Turkish man started up an interesting conversation with the driver. Kazakh is close enough to Kyrgyz that I could follow along for the most part, despite his Turkish accent. He was saying something about how his car was broken down and he needed a new part. I didn’t like where this was going. Before too long the driver pulled off to the side of the road again and then pulled back on the road but heading in the complete opposite direction. Apparently the taxi driver was going to help this man buy the car part he needed. Yup. That happened. I swear I’m not making this stuff up. I’m not that creative.
We drove for a while before the driver stopped in front of a small store. He and the Turkish guy jumped out and went inside. The remaining Kazakh young man explained in Russian what was going on to the woman in the front seat. Yup. “Car.” “Not working.” Something about him needing something and that his car was sitting somewhere. Several minutes later the two were back, but they had returned empty handed. I guess they couldn’t find their part. I’ll never know for sure. Then we were back on the road.
A few minutes later we stopped again, but I even now I don’t understand why right then and right there. It was too dark and the windows were too fogged over for me to see where we were exactly. The driver and the other passengers said it was time to pay.
“How about I pay when we get there?” I said.
“No, that’s not how it works,” the Kazakh passenger said.
“Well, are we actually going to Almaty?” I asked. “We’re not going to stop again, are we?”
“Of course we’re going to Almaty.”
“That’s not what it’s seemed like so far.”
“We’re going, we’re going. Just calm down.”
I pulled out my wallet and handed the driver a 5000 tenge bill. When he only gave me 1500 in change, I was about to get indignant.
“Just a minute,” the driver said and jumped out of the car.
Soon he was back and handed me another 1000 tenge bill. Because I couldn’t really see out the windows, I assume he had entered some small store to get change. Then we were on our way. Surely for good this time. Next stop: Almaty. I just had to endure a couple hours in the back of this taxi and before I knew it, I’d be there. If I didn’t die in a head-on collision, of course. I tried to put those images out of my mind. On we screamed into the night down a dark two-lane highway.
Then something truly special happened. There are some moments in life during which you’re left scrambling to understand how what you’re witnessing unfolding right before your very eyes can truly be. What happened next was definitely one of those moments.
Mere minutes after we stopped to pay the taxi driver, there was a soft boom, and the taxi surged toward the shoulder of the highway.
You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought.
Oh, this was a joke to be sure, but not one you’d read off a Laffy Taffy wrapper. If only. We had a flat tire. Just wait though. It gets better.
Just like the good, strong men we were, the driver and the three of us guys in the back seat jumped out and walked over to the back passenger side tire. It was completely flat. The driver popped the trunk, and I grabbed my bag to get it out of his way.
OK, OK, I thought, trying to get a grip. No big deal. He’ll put the spare on, drive to the next city, and we’ll do something about the flat.
Great idea, but there was a small problem. There was no spare tire.
The driver pulled out his phone, and the other two guys and the woman pulled out their cigarettes. I pulled up my hood. I looked up and down the stretch of two-lane highway where we’d stopped. The head lights of speeding traffic split the rain. Cars and trucks thundered by. I heard the driver talking in Kazakh to what seemed to be a friend of his. He described the situation and where we were. Seemed like he was convincing this guy to bring him a new tire.
We waited in the taxi, car running, heat on high, until, sure enough, probably 20 minutes later, a car pulled up behind us, and all of us men like studs got back out into the rain, they with their cigarettes, I with my hood.
The guy who brought the tire (complete with rim) went to work right away putting on the new one. The rest of us, including the driver, like bosses, merely observed. Then the bringer of the tire told us we could wait in his car. I took him up on his offer and watched through the front windshield as they worked to get the lug nuts tightened. I didn’t see any money exchange hands, so I wondered what the relationship was between the driver and the mysterious bringer of the tire. Yet another piece of the puzzle I’m left to guess about.
We got back into the taxi and started off toward Almaty. It was 8:50 PM by that point. I’d started the trip over six hours before, and according to the map, I’d only traveled some 50 kilometers. I’d lost count how many times we’d started and stopped, but all four wheels were turning in the same direction in what they told me was the direction of Almaty, so barring an accident, it was only a matter of time.
And what’s a car ride without a little music for accompaniment? At one point a woman sang her heart out in English claiming to be the “key to my paradise.” Somehow she wasn’t very convincing. Then there was a song in Spanish in which a woman was singing about her “papito bonito” (which translates more or less to “hot daddy”) and how she wanted him to give her his soul. Some verses from Proverbs about such women came to mind, but I doubted if her papito would have been open to my advice. I was struck by the irony that I was the only person in the car who had understood either song. That was followed by a song in Russian about how much someone liked either someone else or something else. That was all I understood. That was followed by another song in Russian I could have sworn was something about chocolate milk. But who really knows. It had been a long day.
On and on we spend down the highway, with reckless abandon pulling out into oncoming traffic to pass small caravans of slow cars and semis. Somehow we didn’t die. I kept glued to my phone.
At one point we stopped for a bathroom break. The two Kazakh guys entered a small shop and bought some white drink they said was locally made. I declined to try it. Sensitive stomach, you know. I headed for the bathroom, which was basically three and a half walls around a big pit out back. I didn’t make it inside though. Not with my sensitive stomach. So, since it was dark, in the back, and no one else was around, I did the only natural thing and took a leak on the side of the outhouse. The Russian-speaking woman remained outside the car the whole time. Bladder of steel. All four passengers enjoyed another cigarette. At least it had stopped raining by that point. We got back in the car. Again. We were off. Again.
By 11:30 or so signs of city began to appear. We dropped off the Turkish guy under a bridge (no joke) and then dropped off the woman at what looked like a bus station. I asked the driver if he’d drive me the whole way to the hotel, and I showed him on my phone where it was. I didn’t have any idea what was a reasonable amount to pay a taxi driver in the city. I’d paid 2500 from the border to the city, a drive that, had we not waited and gotten a flat tire, would have been maybe three hours.
The last passenger besides me wanted to be dropped off on the side of the road not too far from the bus station. I asked him how much was reasonable to pay the driver to take me to the city. He whispered I should offer him 1000. That still sounded too high. Once the he got out of the car, the negotiations began.
“How much?” I asked the driver.
“Well, it’s really far, you know?”
It wasn’t that far.
“I’ll give you 500,” I said.
“No way. It’s a long way. Plus there’s traffic.”
Traffic? Really? At 11:30 at night? Come on.
“It will be 2000,” he said.
“That’s way too much. I paid you 2500 to get all the way here,” I told him.
“Long way. Traffic.”
It wasn’t that far, and there wasn’t bad traffic.
Seemed like he was willing to let me think it over. In the meantime, he pulled out onto the road and began driving. I noticed it was in the opposite direction as the hotel. A few minutes later, he stopped on the side of the road again. He pulled out his phone and had a conversation I didn’t follow at all.
“I’ll give you 1500,” I told him.
I figured there was nothing I could do. If I got out of his car, how could I be sure the next guy would be any more honest? How could I be sure I’d find a taxi at all?
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll give you the 2000. Can we go?”
“I’m waiting for someone to come to meet me here.” He said he had something in his trunk that he had to give to someone. He said this other guy would be there in 15 minutes.
“I’m not waiting. You drove around with the Turkish guy looking for a car part, and then we had a flat tire. I’ve already waited a long time. We need to go.”
“Just 15 minutes.”
“No. I need to go now.”
“He’ll be here soon.”
“No. I won’t wait.”
I opened the door and got out of the car. He followed me to the trunk and opened it so I could get my bag. Parked behind us a ways back was another car. The taxi driver and I walked over to the car, and the driver got out. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t even a taxi driver, but I’d heard about this sort of thing, how in Almaty random people will drive you somewhere if you give them money. Kind of like Uber but without the app.
The taxi driver who’d gotten me to the city had a quick tongue: “This guy wants to go to his hotel.” He told him the name and where it was. “It’ll be 2000 tenge.”
I can negotiate my own fare, thank you very much, I thought.
Though the reality seemed to be that I couldn’t in fact negotiate my own fare. The guy agreed, and I got in his car. So I’d be ripped off, but at least I wouldn’t have to wait. I showed the guy the location of the hotel on my phone, and we were on our way.
It was probably a fifteen minute drive. I felt positive they were over charging me. I figured that when we pulled up to the hotel, I’d try bargaining one more time, and if it didn’t work, I’d pay the guy whatever as long as he had gotten me to the right place. We stopped, and I entered negotiation mode.
“Are you sure 2000 is right?” I asked the driver. “It seems high.”
“I don’t know. That’s what the other guy said.”
“You don’t think it’s too much?”
“I don’t know.”
I didn’t want to argue. Whatever, I thought.
“You have change for a 5000?”
He did. I thanked him and got out of the car.
It turned out I had actually arrived at the right hotel. The young woman at the desk greeted me, and I nearly gave her a hug when she found my reservation and gave me a room key.
Pushing midnight, nearly nine hours after I left my house to begin the journey, I finally found my room. Number 34 on the second floor and to the left. I hadn’t been that content to reach a hotel room in a long time.
And that’s how you travel from one city to another in Central Asia.