AutoDuel: Driving In Almaty

So after living in Kazakhstan for seven years, I'm now doing something I always said I'd never do here: driving a car every day in Almaty.

The reasons for not doing so earlier have changed over the years. Typically, employers provided a company car with driver, and personal drivers were always available as well. In addition, Almaty has quite an extensive system of public transportation, including buses, minibuses (called marshutkas) electric trolley buses, and two electric tram lines. Besides all of that, until the past two or three years just about every private car on the road was potentially available for hire as a taxi to go anywhere in the city for a few dollars.

Things have changed since then. In 1999, there were far fewer cars on the road. Most cars were of Soviet make: Zhiguli sedans, Niva jeeps. There were also quite a few decade-old German or Japanese sedans. A late-model foreign car was something to stop and stare at.

In the past couple of years, all that has changed. The number of cars in the city has absolutely skyrocketed. Almaty now has legitimate traffic jams. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a Porsche Cayenne SUV or something far more expensive, and those driving BMWs and Mercedes sedans from the 1990s are beginning to feel like they're slumming it a bit.

Everywhere you turn, there's a teenage girl driving a right-hand-drive jeep brought in from Japan via Dubai.

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License For Sale
The one thing that hasn't changed since 1999 is that drivers' licenses are basically for sale. There are many auto schools that teach driving with an approach that combines classroom sessions, simulator time and actual in-car driving, but attending one isn't mandatory. You just have to pass the driving test, and nearly everybody guarantees you will pass the test as long as you grease the skids a bit. In fact, it's been said that it is actually impossible to past the test legitimately, that it is rigged to fail you regardless of how well you perform, unless you do grease the skids. Those who have visited Almaty will probably see that this is quite likely the case.

What's bad about that is that the majority of the city's new drivers have received no formal instruction whatsoever, and have largely improvised the loose system of rules and traditions that now comprise the experience of driving in Almaty. Some of them are even more sensible than the official rules of the road in some particular locations. However, most of the time they pander to a boy racer mentality, the idea that the more expensive car gets the right of way in all cases, and the sort of lack of respect for personal space that you'll see anyplace where people in Almaty line up for anything.

What I thought I would do would be illustrate some of the more interesting behaviors of drivers in Almaty.

Right Foot Red, Go
Drivers back in states, keen to get off first at a stoplight, would watch the traffic light for drivers on the intersecting road, waiting for their yellow signal, that would tell him when to get ready to go. That way, rather than waiting to see his own green signal, he could time how long it would take his signal to turn green, and have his foot on the accelerator as soon as it happened, saving a few fractions of a second.

It's the kind of thing that teenage boys like to try and learn, in that stage where every stoplight seems like an invitation to see how fast you can do the quarter mile.

Almaty drivers take this quite a few steps further. It is not at all unusual, and is probably in fact the norm, for drivers to start moving on the opposing drivers' yellow signal. It is common for the first driver in line at a stoplight to actually be entirely across the intesection before he ever gets a green signal.

Furthermore, if you do not follow suit, you will very likely have drivers behind you beep their horns at you, wondering why you are also not going. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that some signals even go through a second flashing yellow cycle before they turn green, meaning drivers don't even have to watch a second signal, as theirs goes from red, to flashing yellow, to green-- and everyone goes at flashing yellow.

Conversely, drivers are only slightly less likely to run through a yellow light than their American counterparts. Traffic accidents at intersections are commonplace; it is not unusual for me to personally see the results of 2-3 within a ten-block radius in the course of a single day's driving, which usually totals less than 30-40 minutes.

This Lane Is My Lane, That Lane Is Your Lane
The idea of a "lane" is very flexible in the mind of the average Almaty driver. Lines, solid, dotted, or otherwise, tend to be treated as mere suggestions rather than rules of the road. I'd say that drivers are lax in properly changing lanes, but even the phrase "changing lanes" doesn't really describe what goes on, as traffic is a very fluid thing nearly all the time. Drivers don't stay in a single lane. It is common to see cars straddling a dotted line on a multi-lane road, merely because they might want to move to one side or the other in the near future. You'll see the same thing in the supermarket; people don't commit to getting in one checkout lane or the other, they'll hang around between two of them in a big mass, looking for some advantage to one or the other, at which point they'll try to push their way in to that side.

Drivers do the same thing. Unsure of which lane they want to be in, and unwilling to let cars pass them on either side, cars will simply drive right on top of a lane marker. Beeping at them does no good as they sincerely don't see anything wrong with what they are doing.

Of course, even where drivers do stick to one lane, eventually there will be some obstacle that will present itself, and a driver will want to be in your lane instead. In typical Communist fashion, the need of your comrade on the road to keep moving and avoid that obstacle (a bus, a pedestrian, a car making a turn) instaneously creates a corresponding obligation on your part to make room for him. This can be good, as it keeps traffic moving and flowing, and spreads the burden of such obstacles over a whole lane of traffic, rather than making one driver sit and wait behind something for someone nice to let him over.

It can also be bad, as such manuevers are nearly always unsignaled and abrupt. Drivers also have no compunction about making such a maneuver over a solid double center line.

Boys Don't Make Passes At Girls Who Wear Glasses
Of course, to some drivers, every vehicle on the road but his is an obstacle to be avoided, since no one is going nearly as fast as he would like to go. Regardless of lines, there are some drivers that are always seeking a way to go around you to pass, even where it is specifically prohibited. You will see drivers cross a solid double center line to perform a passing maneuver while doing twice the posted speed limit. You will see it often. This happens especially on the road from Almaty to the airport, only a small portion of which has a lower speed limit and is routinely patrolled by road police.

You will see this behavior even under the most dangerous and extreme conditions. You will see it while going uphill in the snow on a mountain road, as ordinary rear-wheel-drive cars will attempt to pass you on the way to the Chimbulak ski resort. There are many accidents on this road each winter, not surprisingly.

Where Three Rights Don't Make A Left
The main north-south street in Almaty, Furmanov Street, presents a typical conundrum. In most intersections, left turns are prohibited. On the few streets where these turns are permitted, the left of the two lanes chokes with cars waiting to take a left turn. Typically, no drivers are able to make that turn until their light is already yellow or red, meaning only three or four cars each cycle will make it through. Of course, not every car in that lane wants to turn, so while those cars are waiting to turn left, others are trying to fight their way back into the right lane so they can go straight.

Why don't they all get in the right lane earlier? Because the right lane is where all the buses are, because all the bus stops are along the right hand side, and Furmanov has only two lanes. So at Almaty's three busiest intersections, you have a choice: wait behind the turners in the left lane, or behind the buses in the right.

There are only a few intersections in the city that have lanes specially marked only for left turns, with their corresponding special traffic lights. Most of these are on Abai; however, even they don't do that much good because most drivers don't seem to understand them. Sometimes drivers in the left lane will go when the green to go straight is signalled, and not understand why everyone both in front or behind them is beeping their horns. Others will fail to go when their left arrow is signalled, with similar results.

Where there is no such turning lane, sometimes drivers will improvise it, creating a third "go straight" lane just to the right of the left-turn lane. Of course, that requires all the right-hand lane people to move over, and if you don't, people aren't going to understand why you won't, and will likely beep at you for that.

Stay Between The Lines
Even when no one is turning, it is likely that if there is space available, someone will improvise an additional lane so they can get the jump on other drivers when the light changes. Recently Kurmangazy Street was repaved, and new lines painted. In most locations, the road is four lanes, two in each direction, with a solid double center line. However, in certain places before the lines were painted, it was usual to see as many as four cars line up horizontally to go in one direction. Cars arriving at the intersection traveling in the other direction would find other cars directly facing them when their light turned green, and then the four cars would drag race each other across the intersection in order to see who would be forced to slow down and merge into two lanes.

Stop lines and crosswalks are also treated with similar disregard. If you stop at a stoplight just at the stopline, to leave room forward of that line for the crosswalk, you can nearly always be sure that if you are there for more than a few moments, a car will come around you from behind and stop in front of you, occupying the crosswalk, in order to get ahead of you.

Typically, this is a driver who would have been ten or even twenty places in line behind you, but that crossed the center line and literally drove down the wrong side of the road until reaching the light so they could sit in front of you.

It is not terribly unusual, after such a display, to see such a driver make a left turn against a traffic light, just because a small hole appeared in traffic that made it possible.

Tooting Their Own Horns
Almaty drivers like their horns, and even complete novices will use them freely.

The use of car horns is actually prohibited within the city limits of Almaty, excepting cases of accident prevention. In certain areas, such as near schools, a special prohibition is posted.

None of this seems to matter at all to the average Almaty driver. You can and will hear drivers using their horn for any one or more of the following reasons:

  • To signal to a pedestrian that it is safe to cross
  • To signal to a pedestrian that it is unsafe to cross
  • To say hello to pedestrians the driver knows
  • To say hello to pedestrians the driver would like to know
  • To tell you your light is green
  • To tell you your light is red, but will be green soon so you might as well just go now
  • To tell you your light is red, so why the heck are you going
  • To request permission to go in front of you
  • To deny a request to go in front of him
  • To tell you that you're in big trouble because they are best friends with someone in the KNB

That last one might be a stretch, but not nearly as much of one as you might think.