This car crash happened on Wednesday the 9th of July, 2021. There will be some gross generalizations about driving in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan, but these have been my experiences so far. Some things in Kyrgyzstan are fantastic, while others are crap. Today was crap. And writing is how I process shit.
Getting a Yandex Taxi
After getting our Sinopharm vaccines translated and notarized at Big Ben Translation, we wanted to go celebrate this. We wanted to go to Craft Bar nearby the Ala-Too square. But first, we made a little detour into the Vefa Center shopping mall. I really wanted to let someone laminate our COVID-19 vaccine cards; we can then use them out in the real world. But there weren’t any copyshops or similar businesses, so we left. I looked up the proper word for such a shop, which is типография and found one nearby. But, pushing 18:00, this tipografia had already closed.
We shortly considered going to a place called German Pub we’d passed on foot, but eventually decided to go to Craft Bar. Jonas ordered a Yandex to our location. The taxi got a little lost and it parked far away from the spot we called it to. When we found it I saw the driver wearing a light-pink shirt walk away from the car and into a building. Yandex drivers also need to pee, so I assumed he’d come back soon. He returned a few minutes later while we were standing near the car a little bored. He told me he had to get money from one of the places here. Okay.
We got into the small light blue car and drove off westward down Gorky Street.
The Cars and their Modifications Aren’t Great
We had made this trip to Big Ben and back twice this day. Traffic had been horrible all day for some unexplained reason. It was a hot day, some 34°C and nobody has air conditioning in their cars. At least not in the Yandex cars. Having the windows open only helps when you’re driving really fast, which is why most drivers speed up very rapidly.
After our first visit to Big Ben in the morning, our taxi driver had also decided that he was done being stuck in traffic while actively contributing to traffic; he made a U-turn on the road and took a different route to drop us off at our home. That was a little uncomfortable for us in the back; it was unexpected and we didn’t have seatbelts to diminish our bodies being subject to G-forces.
Jonas and I share the opinion that wearing a seatbelt is the simplest thing to do to reduce bodily harm in the case of a car crash. We always check every car for seat belts and we are very disappointed when they’re not there or have been made inaccessible by a blanket or seat covers. Seatbelts not being accessible is the rule, not the exception in Kyrgyzstan.
Fellow travelers love to repeat that in some countries, drivers are offended when you wear a seatbelt. The reasoning behind this is that you don’t trust their driving when you buckle up. Though I abided by this nonsense back when I was hitchhiking in Armenia and the like in 2014, my older self says nay to this shit. No more indulging someone’s fragile masculinity. Especially not when we’re paying customers.
Also, for some reason I have yet to discover, most cars have their steering wheel on the right side of the car. In Kyrgyzstan, they drive on the right, which means that the steering wheel should be on the left. Sometimes people literally can’t see what they’re doing in the time-space continuum.
Gross Generalization Time: Bishkek is a Recipe for Car Crashes
At the same time – here come the gross generalizations – the driving style and skills in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan have been abysmal. In and outside of the city, drivers do everything to overtake one another for a nonexistent benefit. There’s bullying behavior on the roads outside of the city. People ‘take revenge’ for previous driving errors or aggressions by cutting each other off or not letting the other overtake.
And inside Bishkek, the roads are usually wide avenues with two lanes in each direction, encouraging speeding. There are sections with potholes, which the drivers will also dodge by jerking their steering wheel to the left, entering the opposite lane. At traffic lights, drivers making a left turn will often make it unnecessarily tight so they will again end up in the opposite lane. No one uses their mirrors for anything and often the back shelf has been stuffed with crap because the driver will not use it for visual checks anyway.
The size of cars has probably grown a lot over the recent decades. There are these small, reasonably-sized city cars like our Yandex taxis mixed in with these shiny beasts of the aggressively upper-middle class. They’re not using them to drive into the mountains or to restock their farm, but just as a lifestyle object and to show wealth.
Big car or small car, control over the vehicles people are driving is, again, abysmal. You can regularly notice with the car clowns in their SUVs that they have no idea how to effectively get their machine in or out of one of the small spaces between the apartment blocks. Our small car drivers often speed up then brake hard because they always react too late and can’t find that middle ground with the pedal. This makes for an extremely unpleasant drive for us and our necks, but also an extremely stressful gig for them.
I’ve seen virtually only two types of drivers: the ones that are in a constant state of panic while participating in traffic and those that are confident but incompetent. I think this comes down to a lack of driving education and people receiving their driver’s licenses after too few classes—if any.
Jonas and I had already seen several car crashes inside and outside of Bishkek. We had also said to each other that it was so unlikely that we hadn’t been in a car crash yet.
Short Intro to ‘Fuckery’
The driving style and the lack of seatbelts are two things part of the same category – traffic – that is really getting to us in Bishkek. We’d had several conversations about this before. There’s always this thing we call the ‘fuckery’ of a place.
‘Fuckery’ is something that you can tolerate from a continent, country, city, or home for a certain amount of time. Till it gets to you. All over Latin America, the fuckery was people saying here is dangerous, there is dangerous, everywhere is dangerous. In Cabo Verde, the fuckery was negotiating a yasi. In Lisbon in January, the fuckery was the lack of insulation in our Airbnb. And in the Netherlands, it was the constant complaining and sucking the joy out of every moment.
But most of the time, worldwide, the real fuckery has something to do with walkability or traffic.
‘Fuckery’ is also extremely personal. My fuckery is not the same as yours—you may find it ‘liberating’ to not wear a seatbelt. Jonas and I don’t always agree on things that bug us. Sometimes I have a higher tolerance for fuckery. At other times I have none and need to walk away from a situation or let Jonas deal with it.
The thing about fuckery is that you can only change the fuckery by changing your situation, but you can never escape it. Fuckery morphs.
Anyway, back to the Yandex taxi ride.
What The Actual Fuck?
We were slowly driving westward on Gorky street. I was on my phone looking up other print shops in Bishkek. We had not driven 400 meters till we were stuck in traffic. And though it was a bit of a wait, there would be movement at the next green light. As always, we the customers, are not in a hurry. Some space opened up and we drove a little forward before coming to a standstill once again.
Suddenly, our driver starts driving in reverse. I thought for a second that he had accidentally put his car in reverse and would discover his error soon because the alternative was too hard to believe. Then he starts driving backward even faster. Jonas and I look over our shoulder to see the white Mercedes by now three meters from us and Jonas yells “STOP!” to him while I say “WHAT THE FUCK” with a crescendo. I turn my head back to face forward and we slam into the car behind us.
My head bounces back and forth, but straight and not twisted. From my peripheral vision, I see Jonas’ head do the same and it scares me. Intuitively, I grab my noggin’ immediately and check for damage. I ask if Jonas is alright and he’s like “yeah yeah” and I urge him to get out of the car with me. The driver isn’t in shock or anything but storms out of the car and with these ambiguous emotions, I was afraid he was going for the driver of the other car not to talk to him but to beat him up.
It doesn’t get that absurd, but I do want to leave ASAP. I urge Jonas out of the car and we walk onto the sidewalk a good five meters away from our driver. I snap photos of the situation so that we have proof to send to Yandex later. The driver of the Mercedes steps out of the car and the men do this talking thing they do. Jonas says something about the Mercedes being an expensive car. I’m still stuck with my head in the thought whether it was caused by a lack of vehicle control or whether it was intentional and this guy has gone amok. I wasn’t sure.
The Mercedes is a much wider car than this taxi. How on earth did he not see it? Why would anyone go into reverse without checking? Why would anyone accidentally reversing not immediately stop? We’d driven more than five meters back into this car and it must have been an un-fucking-believable sight for the driver of the Mercedes as well.
The drivers are taking notes and shit but I’m ready to leave.
Jonas and I walk to the corner of Gorky and Panfilov Street and he cancels the crashed ride and books a new Yandex. I look up the word for car crash/accident in Russian (дорожная авария). Jonas receives a phone call from the service center and he passes his phone to me. I say in Russian that I don’t speak a lot of Russian but that we’d just been in a car crash. The lady on the other end says we can switch to English so we do that. I ramble on that this guy shouldn’t be driving for Yandex because he’s a menace and Jonas laughs about it. I give the phone to him so he can do the talking. She asks if we’re okay and Jonas confirms we’re physically fine, just shook. We receive a refund (less than €2) for the ride.
To add insult to injury, the weather changes rapidly while we’re waiting for the next ride. The wind in Bishkek is no joke and after such a dry and hot day, it kicks up a lot of dust that’s racing towards my eyeballs. It looks like it will rain soon as well and I wonder if we should put our notarized documents in the dry bag. The taxi shows up and we go to Craft Bar after all.
What a fucking mess.
Will This Be Our Last Car Crash in Bishkek? Stay Tuned…
I’ve never been in an actual car crash before. In Cabo Verde, once the Hiace driver forgot to put the handbrake on when parking and the car rolled back 1.5 meters till it gently hit a tree that functioned as a buffer stop. Sucks for the car owner, but no biggie for us. An honest mistake and the guy was embarrassed.
Today’s car crash, however, was really fucked up. We will definitely continue using Yandex taxis, but maybe we’ll try to limit it to non-peak times on cooler days. That’ll probably not work out in the end, though, and we are a little dependent on them.
I have a feeling that this will not be our last car crash in Bishkek. Let’s hope the next one will also not fuck us up.