Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Driving in -40º C (Driving a Car in Astana part 2)

Miraculously, my car got fixed right before -40º weather hit.  (-40º C = -40º F, by the way.)  We had a week in which the high never got above -30º C, and it got below -40º the day after school got out for winter vacation.  (Local schools close at some temperature in the -20s or -30s; we don't get out until it's below -40 at 6 in the morning, when our school buses start running.)

I was excited to have a car, and drove over 150 km in one weekend.  Rather unsure how I did that...

I haven't yet bought the system to remotely turn on the car, so it takes about 10 minutes to warm up.  Which is about how long it takes to walk to school.  So we had to leave extra early in order to drive to school!  The car garage for my apartment is not connected to the building, so we had to get all bundled up just to walk to the car, and by the time I got there, my fingers felt like ice!  I learned that I need to wear my liner gloves plus my sheepskin gloves, even for short distances in -40.

The day my car was fixed, I left it in front of the school for several hours, and then it wouldn't turn on.  My friend who'd fixed it told me to press the gas pedal several times and then try to turn it on.  This worked, thankfully.  He'd also bought a new, nicer battery, and upped the voltage or something like that, so he said it should turn on in cold weather.

On Saturday, I turned on the car, waited 10 minutes, and then drove Sophia to a friend's house, and then all of them to another home.  My friend had been trying to get a taxi, since she doesn't like to drive in this weather, but none were available, due to the weather.

It was a hazy -40, and I can't quite remember if all -40 weather is like this.  But it was so hard to see!  The smoke coming out of each and every car was immense, and when cars started after a light changed to green, you couldn't see--it was like being lost in thick, thick fog. I inched my car along, so slowly and so carefully, careful, too, because of the layer of ice that was on the roads (I do have winter tires, luckily!)  My car's shock absorbers don't work well, and so we bounced a lot, because the roads were rather bumpy, with ice patches and all.

I inched the car to the other house and went inside with my friend and the kids.  After a short while, I got back in, to drive to Khan Shatyr (the tent-like mall) to meet another friend to lunch.  Again, it was hard to see due to the haze and smoke.

At Khan Shatyr, I circled the entire building before finding the entrance for indoor parking--it seemed to be closed, and cars were lining up waiting to get in.  My guess was that it was full.  I called my friend, who said my car should be fine parked outside, as long as I turned it on every 90 minutes or so.

After lunch, I went back to the car, waited for 10 minutes while it warmed up, and then went back inside the mall to do grocery shopping.  Then I went to get gas (having read somewhere that in this weather you should keep your tank as close as possible to full).  Then I met my friend and the kids at another mall (they'd found and taken a taxi).  We stayed less than two hours, and huddled together in my car for another 10 minutes while it warmed up. I took my friend home, Sophia to a sleepover, then drove to the other side of town to visit with a friend.  I was getting my driving practice!

Driving at nighttime was even scarier than driving in daytime.  It was harder to see, everything was haze and darkness with bright lights here and there.  Lanes are hard enough to see normally, and cars often make their own lanes, and I'm still figuring out the traffic lights here (they're not all located in the same spot; and if there is a left turn signal and it's not on, you can't turn left--but if it's not on, it's hard to tell if there normally is one, because if there isn't a left turn signal, then you can turn left on a regular green....)  Again, I drove slowly and carefully--and safely, luckily!

The next day I picked Sophia up from the sleepover, and drove a friend home--back to the other side of town!  I went inside and had tea with the friend's mother while the girls played.   She has a car, a remote for turning it on, but no garage.  So in this weather she has to turn it on every two hours!  Luckily she can do this from inside her apartment.  She has a 5-month old baby, who wakes up every two hours, so when the baby wakes up, she turns on the car.  Convenient, if tiresome, schedule.

Another friend had told me about her first year in Astana, three years ago, when she had a car but no garage or remote system.  Every two hours in the freezing weather, she would wake up and go outside and sit in her car for 10 to 15 minutes for it to warm up.  She's grateful now to have both a remote system and indoor parking!

What dedication you must have to have a car in Astana winter!

However, as I drove around on this -40 weekend, scared because of the limited visibility, scared because of the ice, scared because of how frigid it was outside, I was so incredibly grateful to have a car, work and all.  Yes, it took months to fix, yes it still needs lots of repairs, yes, it takes 10 minutes to get started in the mornings, and yes, I have to go outside to warm it up every two hours (if it's parked outside), but it was -40 outside and I was warm inside my car.  I was able to get around Astana, not cooped up in my apartment or reliant on others.  I wasn't outside for more than several minutes at a time.

A car is hard work, lots of money, and bad for the environment.  But in -40 I think it's worth it.

Update:  One thing I hadn't mentioned...  The snow, of course, covers the roads and turns to ice, but the snow plows do a good job of clearing it up... Except often they don't clear the far right lane very much.  So usually the roads become one lane smaller during the winter, and the far right lanes are used just when turning or for taxis.
My previous post on driving in Astana is here.

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