You’re running late to meet with a friend – you’re always running late. So you tromp through the snow to the edge of the road, stuffing your woolen gloves into the pocket of your giant parka.
You’ve learned that a street taxi (aka gypsy cab) is the quickest way across the city. Astana is the new and icy capital of Kazakhstan, built ten years ago on the south-Siberian steppe. Someone here with a car is looking to make some money, and you’re looking for a ride; it’s a perfect match. So you hold out your hand towards the raod.
A bus pushes by, blowing exhaust in your scarf-wrapped face. The dusty car behind it grinds to a halt. The driver tips open his door. Bayterek, you say, mentioning the famous monument to a fabled tree of riches. The driver nods briefly…
Четыре сто — “Chetyire-stoh”
Four hundred, you announce. Locals only pay 300, but you’ve said that one word in a slight accent, so he knows you’re a foreigner. And there’s really not much difference. You could go two blocks, or around the city, but your price always ends up around 500 Kazakhstan Tenge ($3.50).
Пятьсот — “Peet-sot”
Five hundred, he responds to your offer. Or perhaps “shest-sot” (шестьсот, six hundred). Whatever. That’s $4 and you’re running late for your $6 coffee and gossip.
Ладно — “Ladnah”
Alright, you agree. You run through your mental checklist. Never get in a car with two guys. Never get in if he doesn’t know where he’s going, or seems belligerent, or the car smells of alcohol. An older guy in a big hat and shabby overcoat is probably friendly. A thin-coated businessman in a Lexus will want more money. A guy flipping through the radio and his bored girlfriend on her smartphone are fine, but they won’t talk with you. Young men drive too fast. Women never drive, or perhaps never stop for passengers.
All seems well. You cross your fingers, open the back door, and hop in the back, setting your gloves on the seat. Don’t forget those.
Погода холодная — “Pogoda holod-naya”
The weather’s cold, you say. If it’s warm (as in, no identifiable sleet or biting winds), that’s тепло/“teplo.” Either way, it’s a signal you want to try out your faltering Russian. Usually he’s open to it. You introduce yourselves as he races past the Anvar Supermarket, through a set of flashing red lights, and alongside the night-shrouded domes of a white-and-gold Russian Orthodox Church.
Откуда вы? — “Otkuda vwi?”
Where are you from? He asks. It doesn’t matter where in the city you found this street taxi. It’s clear from your accent, as well as how you dress: you’re a foreigner. You lack the black leggings as trousers under a short fur coat, the teetering heeled boots on ice, the high voice that tells him to “turn right, stop there, just get to Mega mall!” a few minutes quicker.
Я из Америки. — “Ya iz Ameriki.”
You’re from America, so say it. He smiles. He has a cousin in America, or maybe in Europe. His daughter went to study abroad, and never came back. Now she works somewhere, vaguely in the Paris area, and comes home in fashionable clothes. This reminds him that you’re also a young lady. There’s a crucial qusetion here.
Вы замужем? — “Vwi zamuzhem?”
Are you married? He asks. Every taxi driver asks this one, and they all look terribly surprised when you’re not. It hasn’t changed since thirty minutes ago when the last driver asked, so go ahead and respond:
Нет — “Nyet”
No, you respond with a smile and a shrug. He looks ahead into the snowstorm. “You should get married,” he tells you, “to a Kazakh jigit (young man).” You shrug back. It’s possible.
The conversation pauses, and you look out the window at the giant Soviet statue of the Defender of the Motherland, a bronze woman with a bowl of grain that watches over the river, now being cleared for winter ice-skating.
Вам нравиться? — “Vam neravits’ya?”
Do you like it? He asks. You glance again out the window. Maybe he’s asking about the bone-chilling weather, the rapidly growing city, your job, or this amazingly wide country, taken as a whole.
Yes is the only appropriate answer. You love it. It’s growing on you every day. He smiles, pleased. He almost runs over a pedestrian, and swerves to the right. He complains about the car in front of you, drivers these days, no clue how to operate a motor vehicle. He curses a little, and speeds up. You check your seat belt, and pray to God or Allah that the Astana roads would be safe this evening. You consider a quick shout-out to ancestral road-gods as well. The government promises they’re working on road safety, so you throw in a prayer for them, too.
Здесь — “Zdes’”
Here, you say. He’s almost slid past the restaurant, but he’s amazing on ice. A line of cars swerves behind you as he backs up the car and stops exactly in front of the door. You hand him 500 tenge in coins or a bill; he likely won’t have change, or won’t want to give it out. He says you should call him anywhere, anytime. You smile, but don’t take his number, unless he’s got a card already written down.
Спасибо — “Spasiba”
Thanks, you say, and
Да Свидания — “Das-vee-danya”
Goodbye. You hop out onto the pressed-snow sidewalk, grabbing your gloves. He pauses for another pedestrian, then swerves away from the curb. You walk inside where Nastia is anxiously waiting for you, cell phone in one hand and coffee menu in the other. You have a long chat, then catch another cab home. The next day you meet with Lyuba. Cab. Rinse. Repeat.
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Celia Emmelhainz is a librarian and anthropologist who studies peoples and cultures across Eurasia. Previously, she's spent time with migrants in Mongolia, librarians in Kazakhstan, and tourism providers in Kyrgyzstan. She now works in Astana, Kazakhstan, and writes for online travel and sociological mags. Read more here.