Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Driving a Car in Astana

The big recent news is that I bought a car. I've spent nearly three years here, and do feel quite comfortable getting around the city, in good and bad weather, without a car. I can use the buses, walk, bike, and take taxis. The buses on my side of town run infrequently, some of them come every 20 – 30 minutes, and there is no set schedule. And there aren't as many buses. Not having a car is doable, but everything takes so much longer.

Two teachers at my school were offered and accepted jobs in Almaty, and they decided to sell their car. At first, I said I wanted it if I had to move far from the school. At the time, it was looking like I would have to, as it was impossible to find an apartment near the school that allowed pets. But then, as soon as I said I wanted it, we found an apartment in my same building that allows pets, and suddenly I had to decide, did I want the car?

Everyone who knows about buying cars in Kazakhstan said it was a good deal. Everyone used to buying cars in the US wanted to know what was I thinking. It's a 1993 Suburu, a basic 4-door car, nothing special. For $5000. My mom researched it and said in the US it'd be $1500. The crazy thing about cars here is that they don't really go down in price as they get older. Which can be good for a foreigner—you buy a car and two years later, when you leave, you can sell it for the same price you bought it (or even more, if you put money into repairing it!)

I decided to take the car, and on the last day of school (23rd June) it was transferred to me. The whole process was amazingly easy. The school owns the car, so I didn't have to buy it. In Kazakhstan, only the owner can drive a car; everyone else needs a power of attorney document, and they need a new one each month. The secretary can print those out, and usually has several to do every month. So on that day, she printed that document for me. I also needed insurance, but I could just keep the insurance that was already on the car; the school would take the money out of my salary. Another secretary translated my driver's license into Russian. The previous owner handed me the keys. I made sure all the documents were in the glove compartment, to be handed over to a police officer should I be pulled over. And voila! I had a car!

(Payment was easy too. The school put $5000 directly into the previous owner's school account, and took $5000 from me, making my school account go negative. I signed a form, agreeing to pay back within a year, which will be easy enough.)

Suddenly, I had keys to a car, and it was time to drive home. In a city where drivers are more aggressive than those in the US, in a city where left turns are rarely allowed, in a city where police officers routinely pull people over. I must admit I was quite nervous! I hadn't driven at all in two years. I had to figure out how to get home, since the roads are so weird—Astana has several super-large roads, like highways, and tons of tiny roads, like alleyways, and few left turns outside of intersections (and really long blocks!) To get home I had to back-track a bit and drive through a mall parking lot.

I was also out of gas, and had to go get gas. Luckily, I'd thought to ask about that. There aren't too many gas stations, but the principal recommended one that's a bit out of the way, but a direct route from my apartment, which she likes because it's rarely crowded. I get gas number 92, and an attendant fills it up, and I pay inside. It worked.

Over the next few days, I got more comfortable with driving in Astana. A big thing is just being aware—the drivers are aggressive, and the police are ready to pull you over if you forget some tiny detail. Also, pedestrians love to walk in the road anywhere they want. Especially by bus stops, so you have to be really careful when you're near a bus stop, people might run out in front of you. There are crosswalks here and there where you have to stop. I've learned to drive more slowly when I near them, and to look for people on the sidewalk near the crosswalk, to try to predict if I'll have to stop for someone.

I have to plan routes ahead of time, trying to avoid going out of my way because I can't turn left. Also I try to avoid bad intersections. I've also learned that rush hour can be bad, so I have to figure out what roads to avoid at what times. Blocks are long, so if you're stuck on Turan Avenue (my street) heading from the Radisson towards my apartment, over a kilometer away, you can be stuck in a traffic jam that whole time with nowhere to turn, unless you want to park in the park or drive into the river.  (Update:  After being driven from the airport in Chicago to my brother's place north of Chicago, I realize that Astana rush hour isn't so bad!)

The city shrinks when you have a car. Suddenly, places that used to take close to one hour to get to are just minutes away. (Except during rush hours!)

The other day we left a cafe with 40 minutes to get my friend's daughter to her ice skating lessons. That distance wouldn't take far when it's not rush hour, but we ended up late. (Part of the time was taken walking from the cafe to the car.) On the way, my friend taught me about driving here. If you want in a lane, you don't wait patiently with your signal on. (In what big city does that work, anyways?) You can just be aggressive and push yourself in, but the best way is to make eye contact! Roll down your window, wave at the driver you want to get in front of, even ask him to let you in. I managed to change lanes on very crowded streets by having my friend or her daughter politely ask other drivers to let us in. And indeed I have noticed since then, other drivers waving at me to ask me to let me in front of them.

So, I'm getting the hang of it. And I haven't been pulled over yet. I've been told that technically they can't give you a ticket if you don't understand, but that they'll try their best to either give you a ticket or get a bribe from you.

I also have an indoor parking spot. The garage is not heated, so I'll still need to buy something for the car, one of those devices that automatically turns on the car when it gets below -20ยบ Celsius. I'll also need a remote device, for turning it on from my apartment, so that it can be warmed up by the time I get to it. Which makes me a bit nervous, turning on your car when you can't even see it, but in this weather, that's pretty much necessary.

It's amazing how fast it can change your life. We were at the grocery store the other day, and I bought 8 liters of juice, stocking up so that when we return from summer vacation, we'll have plenty. I could never carry that much home, but I could drive it home. It'll definitely make a difference in shopping.
Sophia's thrilled too, of course. She's quite happy to no longer be forced to walk and take the bus everywhere.

My biggest concern is that we'll grow to rely on it too much, and won't take the longer, healthier, more environmentally friendly route. We'll see!

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