Something Borrowed

An electric bus in downtown Almaty

The Almaty subway system (for now, just one line) has opened! It actually opened sometime in December, but that was after I first wrote about it and I haven’t found a chance to return to the subject until now. Interestingly, despite what is being reported in the Western Imperialist Media (thank you Brandon), I am sad to say that the stations are no more “glorious” than those in Beijing, people are complaining about the wait for the trains; and there is hardly a “carnival-like” atmosphere in the system. In fact, the general consensus is that while it is good for Almaty’s image that it now has a subway system, it will not become useful until more lines are constructed and it reaches further.

Part of the reason people aren’t riding the subway is that the aboveground transportation options are quite sufficient for travel within the city center. The preferred form is the “black taxi,” i.e. anyone’s car. It is common practice in Almaty to stand at the side of the road and stick out one’s hand in order to flag down a car; before long a car – sometimes nice, sometimes not – will pull up and roll down the passenger-side window. One states one’s destination and a price. The driver, always male, either grunts in agreement or grunts a rejection.

My biggest problem with riding in “taxis” is that since I am self-evidently not from round these parts, the driver almost always begins to grill me: where are you from? How long have you been here? What do you do? How much do you earn? Are you married? No matter what I answer to this last question, the next question is: Why don’t you have a Kazakh girlfriend? And before long, I’m also asked why I only speak Russian and not Kazakh. The whole thing is repetitive, exhausting and not worth it.

Interior of a typical Almaty tram

Especially since Almaty’s public transportation infrastructure, besides the subway, is impressive. There are three “levels,” if you will: diesel buses, electric buses and trams. The first are the most popular because they run the most useful routes, but they are the least comfortable. As far as I can tell, the buses are run by private businesses. Each bus is manned by two “staff,” the driver and a cash-collector, and they appear to have complete control over what route they drive, how long they stay at each station, and how many passengers they pack in. Since they only accept cash and don’t give receipts, they have incentive to take as many people as possible; being relatively unregulated, they also seem to have the autonomy to decide when they don’t care to drive or when they decide to knock off work. The bus schedule is therefore highly erratic and, on bad whether days, unreliable.

More reliable are the electric buses and trams. These rely on overhead wires and, in the case of the latter, embedded tracks, both of which are municipal infrastructural. Correspondingly, these are more “official:” there are ticket machines that give receipts, and the drivers wear uniforms. That such a developed municipal transport system exists is undoubtedly a hold-over from Almaty’s time as the capital of a Soviet Socialist Republic. This was one area in which the Soviet state invested.

"Halt!" reads the sign in this Almaty tram

My favorite are the trams, for two reasons. First, I think the trams are seen as an “uncool” and backwards form of transport because the only people who ever seem to ride them (except during inclement weather) are children and pensioners. There are always free seats. Second, the old trams are the single biggest clue about the Soviet origins of the transport system: they are rickety and old. In one I saw the date “1970” in faded, formerly-sparkly numbers – as if from New Year’s Eve – stuck firm to the roof. Furthermore, many of the trams are clearly recycled trains from East Germany. Much of the signage on the trains is in German. This reveals something about how the Soviet system of inter-republican trade and reallocation worked: Kazakhstan sent grain and coal to Berlin, and East Germany returned tramcars to Almaty. Consider this. Only recently did manufacturing and production become as delocalized and “globalized” in the West as it was in the post-War USSR. It’s hardly a wonder that Soviet central planning couldn’t keep up.

But besides the trundling Soviet trams, the transportation system also reflects the changing times. Although some of the electric buses are old Soviet models, I increasingly see Yutong brand buses. Yutong (宇通), a Chinese manufacturer, provides most of the municipal buses in Beijing, and now they are selling to the Almaty government. It’s hard for me to say to what extent this really reflects the shift in trade towards China and away from the former Soviet bloc countries, but it is certainly suggestive of this much-discussed change. Who knew I could learn so much from riding the buses here?

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