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Car Sharing in Central Asia AKA Hitchhiking in Kazakhstan

7 Oct

“Don’t go, it’s dangerous.”

While those words may have sounded like my inner voice when I was originally told to develop Kazakhstan as a new market, this actual sentence was uttered by one of my clients in Almaty, the capital city of Kazakhstan.  A very petite, very pretty young blonde women, she would of course have to use caution when she traveled solo.

She was warning me away from Almaty’s fresh and local market, the Green Bazaar. “There are pickpockets there, you have to be careful, there’s nothing to see,” she pleaded with me.  But in all my travels — from Cambodia to Kiev — I’m become accustomed to locals who are perplexed that visitors would ever want to visit the local produce market, and who are further convinced that its simply a vicious den of thieves.

Be very, very careful…these grapes might be over ripe….

After getting over her strenuous objections to the (lack of) safety of my destination, we decided how I would get there.  Naturally, I should hitchhike.

Now Almaty is a big city, and while there are regular taxis, buses and a new metro system; subway stops are incredibly spread out, and regular taxis are few and far between.

So apparently while it could be considered the height of danger to go shopping at the local market (I had no problem there at all except I was sad to see all the horse meat on sale), no one is concerned about stepping into a speeding vehicle with a complete stranger.

If you have to ask what animal this comes from, you don’t want to know

So if you want to go hitchhiking in Kazakhstan, here’s how!

1)     Get your destination written in Russian (more people in Almaty speak Russian than Kazakh).

2)     Make sure you have small bills (100 bills are “small”) 100 = about $2.

3)     Flag down any driver on any street  your preferred standard taxi wave.

4)     Agree to a price – most destinations are between 300-500 KZD; use 3 fingers to signify 300, etc. Average people on the street are not going to try to gouge you, although the regular taxi drivers will.

5)     It was helpful a few time to ensure I had my destination programmed into Google Maps so I could give few prompts to drivers, if necessary.

6)     Wear your seatbelt.  In the 30 minutes total I logged on downtown Almaty’s roads, I saw about 8 accidents.

As someone who considers filling up the tank with gas before its sucking fumes the height of preventative car maintenance, I love the concept of car sharing.  In Toronto, I was a long time user of Autoshare, and I loved how someone else always magically changed the oil. But Kazakhstan (and in fact much of the former Soviet states) takes the simplicity of no car ownership to the next level – without membership, insurance or oppressive expectations to have the car on schedule for those of us who might be time-challenged. Best of all, it’s much safer than shopping at the market!