February 3, 2009
From the “That Only Happens in the Movies” Department
Almost every trip I take to Bishkek includes some kind of drama. I've told you most of them, but here's another from a while back. In November, on my way to Bishkek for a meeting with AUCA folks, my taxi was at the apex of one of the mountain ranges when I felt the front tires shimmy. Now, I don't know a piston from a petunia, but I knew this didn't feel right. In order for the shimmying to stop we had to slow down to about 5 mph. I envisioned my 4 hour trip extending to two days. After stops and starts with this malfunction, I determined we weren't going to make it to Bishkek unless the wheels or axle or something was fixed. But, where? We were 10,000 feet above sea level, not exactly a place with a service station around every hairpin turn. Resigned to whatever the universe had in store, I returned to reading my book. About ten minutes later, after traveling what seemed like a hundred feet, our driver pulled into what looked like an abandoned maintenance facility from the Soviet era. And that's exactly what it was. I didn't know if he knew it was there or not and I didn't care. (He probably did.) The fact that it existed was amazing enough. I mean we were literally in the middle of nowhere. And to top it off, of the four bays in the garage, the one on the far right was an oil change bay. We pulled in. The driver took the only wrench in his little tool kit and proceeded to walk under the car where he began tightening all things loose. Twenty minutes later we were back on the road, zooming around every bend like a Grand Prix race car. What are the odds we find an oil change bay in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan to fix our car? Maybe better than I thought, but it still seemed like something out a movie to me.
Most drunk taxi drivers made city runs. I know because I saw them drinking and playing cards while waiting for fares. Talas is not a big city and many people walked instead of opting for a taxi unless they had bags to carry or the weather was poor, so the drivers had a LOT of downtime. These city runs started at the bazaar and ended at the vauxhall, the long distance bus station, but with sedans and minivans instead. The trip took less than two minutes and cost twenty-five cents (10 soms). Most of the ride took place on the main road of the city, which was a residential highway through town, not a shopping district, and the drivers treated it like a drag strip. My favorite saying was, “They’re all in a big hurry to go nowhere.” I heard a little girl was run over a year before I arrived.
Also in the book: more information on long distance drivers; Sasha, the driver who would shop for you in Bishkek.