Driving through Astana or Almaty, every once in a while you’ll see a person standing by the side of the road with their hand out. Take note: they’re hailing informal taxis, a practice that could come in handy if you ever find yourself stranded (or just tired).
Waving a hand can get you an official taxi, a driver who wants to earn some extra money or just someone heading in the same direction. In addition to getting a lift, you’ll also often get a story. Every person you meet on the road has a unique story, different points of view and their own reason for becoming, for that moment, your taxi driver.
I have been living in Astana since 2008 and I have to say, it was strange in the beginning to see people flagging down cars. In other cities of Kazakhstan, people call official cab companies and make orders. But I got used to it, and now it is part of my life, as it must be for other people who move to the capital. Some say that everyone in Astana is a taxi driver. I think there’s some truth to this. People in Kazakhstan usually call cars that stop for strangers on the side of the road “poputka ” (Russian for a hitched car). The practice is like hitchhiking, but inside the city, and it’s understood that riders expect to pay. And despite the rise of InDriver, an app that allows riders to name their price for a ride, many people still prefer the convenience of getting a car by the side of the road.
I have tried both sides of this enterprise – rider and driver. While studying at university, I tried a few times to pick someone up to earn a bit of extra money for myself. I was never successful. The first time I tried, I had seen a young lady raise her hand and decided to give it a try. I stopped and opened a window. I did not even have a chance to ask where she was heading before I heard loud and clear, “NO!” I just closed my window and went by. I still don’t know the reason. It could have been because women are the butt of many jokes in Kazakhstan about being bad drivers.
I decided to try one more time. This time I stopped for a young man standing by the road, but we couldn’t agree on a price. Maybe he named an unreasonable price on purpose out of the same prejudice – I’ll never know.
Price negotiations are an important part of any ride. You always have to offer a price lower than you expect your ride to be, because usually drivers will name a price higher than they’re willing to accept. You will agree on something in the middle. Even though I haven’t been successful as a driver yet, I’m going to keep trying, not even for the money, but for the experience.
Every person in a big city ends up needing a cab at some point – to go the airport, to go partying, to get somewhere in a hurry. When I’ve had to take an informal taxi, I’ve always met really interesting people, from students who work at night as taxi drivers to old men who were bored and wanted a way to entertain themselves.
For this story, I went hitchhiking in Astana to interview interesting personalities and to find out details of the business.
My first trip was from left bank near House of Ministries to the right bank near the Radisson Hotel. The first car that stopped had two men sitting in front and I never hop into a car with two men, especially when I am alone. Even though Kazakhstan is very safe, it is still best to use common sense. I continued waving my hand and a grey Japanese car stopped. It had the sign of a taxi company and the driver was an old man with a kind look to his face. We agreed on 700 tenge (US$2) for the journey.
Sixty-two-year-old Islam Dosekeyev has been working as a taxi driver for more than a year. He said he gets orders by phone but he also picks people up on the roadside.
“I cannot say I enjoy my work, but it is not difficult. Soon I will be retired and I need retirement savings. Usually I pick people up from the airport or railway station, Khan Shatyr entertainment center, Keruen mall and others,” said Dosekeyev.
Born in Taraz, he moved to Astana around three years ago. He said even though he does not speak English, he communicates with foreigners with gestures. He is honest in his work, and once found a charger for a dead phone a woman left in his car so he could track her down and return it. He does not talk a lot, which is probably a good quality in a taxi driver. My short trip ended and he was kind enough to allow me to take a picture.
Next, I traveled from the Radisson Hotel to the new Khazret Sultan Mosque. A young man in a new black car stopped for me, but wouldn’t agree to be interviewed or photographed, so I waved him on. Next came 60-year-old Kadyrbai Imanaliyev, from southern Kazakhstan, who has been working as a driver for almost his whole working life. Imanaliyev is a true romantic who came to Astana following his wife, who could not find a job in their town and now works as a pastry-cook in Keruen mall’s supermarket.
“I came from Turkestan. I have been working as a driver for 30 years. I enjoy my work. If I meet people on the roads, I pick them up, if not, I just keep going,” he said. “Everyone in Astana does it,” he told me about working as an unofficial driver. He also told me that the practice is popular in his home town of Turkestan, which surprised me.
“I have a few years before I can collect my pension. I have five children and this work helps bring in some money,” he stated. In few years he plans to go back to Turkestan. He is homesick, and says Astana is too cold for him.
He gave me a ride for 1,000 tenge (US$2.86). After he left me at the mosque, I raised my hand again. A young man stopped and agreed to take me to the House of Ministries for 600 tenge (US$1.72), which is a great deal. On our way, he asked if it was okay if we picked up another man, something that is not uncommon. I wasn’t in a hurry, so I said yes.
This driver was Murat Akhmetov, 25 years old. He has been working as an unofficial taxi driver for three years now. “It is a way to earn money to live. Earnings differ; they’re around 4,000–5,000 tenge [US$11.46–14.33] per day,” he said.
Akhmetov said this is temporary work for him. For now, he rides all day long to find clients. He came from Almaty region nine years ago. “Most of the people I pick up need a ride in the mornings and evenings, when going and returning from work, as well was on weekend nights,” he said. He, too, let me take a photo.
After Akhmetov dropped me off, I encountered a series of shy or suspicious drivers, some of whom said they didn’t want to be interviewed for fear I was a representative of some tax authority.
Finally, at the end of the day, a young couple stopped. They were students, Nurbol and Aizhan, who had just started dating, and preferred not to give their last names. They told me driving is how they spend their evenings, sometime giving rides to different people and earning some money to go to cinemas and cafes. “My parents bought me my car, and I think it is a good, easy way to get some cash,” said Nurbol. “I am still a student and I cannot work full time. But I want to take my girlfriend to different places, and also it is a good way to spend our evenings,” he added.
According to them, many of their friends and acquaintances do the same. At the end of the trip, I paid them 700 tenge (US$2).
Everyone in Astana may be a taxi driver, but each driver has his own motivation, dream and story. Hitchhiking in Astana combines entrepreneurship and openness to possibilities, as well as communication and sometimes an unusual way to see into other people’s lives.