29 June 2013

How to Drive in Astana

A lot of people ask about the driving in Astana so, following on from my recent posts on public transport and buying a car in Astana I thought I would write a little about driving.

Driving in Astana can be divided between driving in the old town, on the Right Bank, and driving in the new centre on the Left Bank.  The main roads are broad and well maintained throughout the city but there is significantly more traffic on the Right Bank, particularly during the evening rush hour.  Driving is on the right, European style, and many signs such as the orange diamond are familiar and mean broadly the same thing.

Some countries have very strange rules, or none at all.  In the UK drivers are only required to switch on their headlights when visibility is low which can be very disconcerting, I even knew someone who disabled the automatic on switch for his Volvo headlights.  In Maracaibo (Venezuela) you are not allowed to turn left at junctions so a a driver’s eye map of the city consists of indirect routes calling for three right turns just to get around the corner.  When we were living in Nigeria the rules of the road did not exist, I recall coming up to a roundabout and seeing people driving  clockwise and widdershins simultaneously while some people just gave up and drove across the middle.  Compared to this driving in Astana is very intuitive, some rules are different, however, and it pays to ask a local or a long term expat to talk you through the rules of the road before you drive.  The highway code is available to buy but, unless you read Russian or Kazakh it will take a long time to digest. 

Right and left turns are allowed at junctions but it is not possible to turn left across the road unless there is a gap in the central dividing line.  You have to watch out for this though because in some places the lines can be worn away during the winter and you can end up making an illegal turn by accident.  It pays not to turn left unless you know for a fact it is legal. U turns are legal at most junctions and at gaps in the central line.  This can leave you stumped when a car will slam on the breaks and thrown a U turn in front of your car and drivers turning right at a junction must give priority to cars throwing a U turn. 

Cars pass on both the right and the left.  Undertaking is not allowed or practiced in any country I have driven in (we had a driver in Nigeria) and for the first few forays in the car my nerves jangled every time someone passed on the inside, I have learned to accept it now although I cannot bring myself to undertake a car in front.  Drivers here use the horn both loudly and regularly, woe betide someone who does not move off as soon as the traffic lights change, many drivers also use them in place of indicators to signal lane changes.  Lanes can be a fluid concept, particularly at traffic lights.

The roads are heavily policed and at certain times junctions can be put under police control.  I have asked many people why this is but no-one can say, it does slow the traffic down and perhaps this is the reason.  The road  (Жол) police  carry a fluorescent baton and they have an array of gestures to tell drivers when to go, where to go and when to stop, it must take nerves of steel to stand in the middle of the junction (there are no plinths or roundabouts to protect them).  Fines for infractions are heavy – if you are stopped ask for the paper detailing the fine to be handed over.  This can then be taken to a police station for payment.  Speeds in the city are low – 60kph on most roads and 40kph in front of school buildings.  Speed trap cameras are all over the city, particularly, for some reason, the bridges.

All drivers must carry the car papers including technical certification, car licence and insurance details at all times together with an international drivers licence.  Once you learn these basic rules driving is actually both easy and pleasant here in the summer.

Things change in the winter.  There is no requirement to change to winter tyres (either stud or sticky) but they are a worthwhile investment.  We drove all last winter on our summer tyres and there were a few times that we felt the lack. The city runs a fantastic and constant road clearing operation 24 hours a day during the winter.  As a result at least one or two lanes in the main roads are usually clear and safe.  Ice and surface snow is pushed to the right hand lane from where it is collected and put in landfill.  The more minor or less used roads can become dangerous,however so it is worth being conversant with ice driving skills.  Even the main roads can get a covering of black ice (Гололёд) in places so drivers are advised to engine break where possible and anticipate traffic light changes so there is no need to break suddenly.  It is not uncommon to see a large number of low speed crashes at junctions during the winter. 

Other winter driving delights include condensed exhaust fumes that create a nasty fog from the car in front and the odd blizzard that reduces visibility to practically nothing and road speeds to a crawl.  Parked cars should have the wipers lifted when parked because they will freeze to the screen.  If you don’t lift them the chances are you will forget to wait for the car to warm before using them and rip your wiper off.  The transitional seasons create the most dangerous driving conditions because when the temperatures come close to freezing point we get liquid water on the roads that refreezes at night making them slick, dirty and dangerous.

The winter is hard on cars.  Temperatures get very low so most people have  good engine insulation and a remote starter installed.  This means that you can turn your car on to heat from the comfort of your home.  In the depths of winter the engine on an un-garaged car should be turned over and left to run for at least five  minutes every two hours (day and night) and this is much more pleasant with a remote start.  Our remote start does not work at the moment, luckily it is garaged at night but when we go out in the winter to a restaurant or friend's house one of us has to suit up and sit in the car, it is a cold and unpleasant job.  Don’t even try to drive until the car has warmed properly, it is bad for the car, dangerous and the hydraulics get very mushy and the car unresponsive.  Surprisingly plug in chargers, so common throughout Canada, do not seem to be popular here, the only place I have seen them is in the visitors car park of the US Embassy.   Many people also like to use the remote start in the summer to get the air-conditioning to reduce the internal temperature of the car so it has a year round benefit.  It can be a little disconcerting, however, to see cars start themselves as you walk along the street. 

Driving outside of the city is very different.  While Astana is fairly orderly I understand from friends that Almaty has a very different, somewhat aggressive driving culture.  Some of the motorways, most notably the road from Astana to Borovoye are modern three lane highways in fantastic condition with rest stops and petrol stations at reasonable distances.  The road to Karaganda is an older one lane highway with a lot of truck traffic and in need of extension.  Once you leave the highways behind the roads can be in very poor condition, often unmetalled or with large potholes.  Last year, following a visit to Malinovka, my sister and I returned to Astana over the steppe roads.  The journey  out took us 45 minutes by motorway, on the way back we drove much slower, with speeds reduced to 20kmph at times.  It would not be a comfortable road to drive on in winter.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

18 June 2013

How to buy a car in Astana

Following on from my recent post on using public transport in Astana I thought it might be useful to write about our experience of buying a car in Astana.

Unlike the expatriates that come to Astana with the large international companies we do not benefit from  a car and driver.  We decided very early on in our time here that we needed to rent or buy a vehicle to make travel in the city as safe as possible for the children.  Rental costs are prohibitive long term so we decided to buy.  This was easier said than done, we spent our first weekend in Astana (in August) at a car mart but did not actually manage to buy a car until June the following year.

The car mart is on the city ring road and a kind friend took us out to take a look round.  Leaving the city behind gave us our first view of the steppe, Astana sits on the middle of the plain and as soon as you leave the city limits it stretches flat as far as the eye can see.  A token fee gives entrance to purchasers and vendors alike.  Cars for sale have a price, in Dollars, and basic details in the windscreen.  Prospective purchasers wander up and down the lines looking for a suitable vehicle and enjoying a snack from the many food stalls.  A quick look told us that our budget, calculated on what it would cost to buy a basic 8 year old Japanese 4x4 in the UK, would buy us nothing at all, the cars we were looking at were on sale for $15,000.  We tried to negotiate on the price by picking up on defects but, unlike any other market I have ever been in, there was no movement. 

We found a car that we liked, at the upper end of our budget and 5 years older than we had hoped for.  We asked our friend how we could arrange a test drive only to be told that this was not possible.  Purchasers do not drive the car before they buy it, rather it is taken to a garage (of the purchaser’s choice) and they check for defects.  We decided not to buy that particular car when we found out that the computer port had been disabled and there was no way for the garage to obtain a readout on the engine.

We carried on the search online, http://kolesa.kz/ (wheels) lists second hand cars for sale.  We had a couple of false starts (cars of a different model from the advertisement) before we found a suitable vehicle, a 15 year old Nissan that we bought for the cost of a 4 year old model in the UK.  The car is no match for the beautiful new Lexus/Toyota behemoths that parade around the city but it is comfortable, practical and large enough to protect us in a smash.  The 4x4 means that we can drive it anywhere, even hunting on the steppe should we choose to go.  The prices are high because of the steep import charge.  Diplomatic cars (with distinctive red plates) are cheap because they are not charged the import fee but the ordinary Kazakhs and expats buying local cars are stung by this.  That said cars do not depreciate as rapidly here, they are seen as a long term investment, so we do not expect to loose too much on resale.  

Buying the car proved to be only the first hurdle as we had to get it through the technical check and register it to our name.  Registration plates do not pass with the car as they do in the UK but rather with the individual, as in Switzerland.  I was away when the car was registered so it was put in my husband’s name.  When driving we must carry all the registration and insurance details together with an International Driving Licence.  A few weeks ago we were told that my husband’s informal permission is not enough to allow me to drive the car and I need a separate, notarised authority.  This paperwork is time-consuming to arrange but once it is in place there are no hurdles to driving the car and exploring the nooks and crannies of the city or enjoying a picnic out on the steppe.

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Ersatz Expat

12 June 2013

How to get around Astana

Unlike the families who are here with the large international firms we do not have access to a car and driver but this is not really a problem here.  Astana is a relatively easy city to get around and driverless expats are left with several options.

There are very good bus routes, prices are cheap and you can get just about anywhere.  The problem is that you have to know where you are going and when to get off, bus drivers and passengers are very friendly but expect you to know what you want.  When you have just arrived in the city and have only very basic Russian, this can lead to some interesting journeys.  The other problem with buses is that they run to their own timetable and not yours. This can be fine in the summer but waiting at a bus stop in -35 for a bus that is running late because the engine block froze is not a pleasant experience.

Hire taxis are available outside all the main malls and to call by telephone.  Ordering a taxi can be very very confusing for new arrivals.  Firstly all numbers are advertised without the city code so you must make sure that you know it (7172), you then need to be able to tell the dispatcher where you are, where you want to go and your telephone number.  Once the taxi is at your door they will call you with the details of the car – usually the colour and the number-plate.  This rigmarole is designed to make sure that you do not have to stand outside hoping the taxi will be there at the appointed time but it does pre-suppose that you can speak Russian well enough to understand rapid instructions.  If you do get a taxi from a rank be prepared to be quoted some astronomical figure.  The airport taxis usually ask for some exorbitant fee to take you the 30 minutes into the city.  A quick discussion usually sees this brought down to a more reasonable price.

Ordering taxis is generally safest if you need to be somewhere at a defined time (ie get to the airport for a flight) or you are a woman travelling alone late at night.  For the rest of the time it is easier to get a street hire or gypsy cab.  It is not at all uncommon to see people from all walks of life hitchhiking around the city.  All you need to do is find somewhere where cars can pull to the side safely and hold out your arm and hand (extend the hand do not hold your fist with your thumb up).  People will pull over and will offer you a lift if you are going in their general direction.  Of course the usual rules apply,  lone women should decline a lift from a car with two or more men in and  don’t get in if the driver appears to be drunk or to have an unhealthy addition to texting while driving. 500tg (£2) is the standard fare, some drivers ask for more but I usually decline these offers of a lift and wait for another to come along, they always do.

The quality of the lift can vary, sometimes you have a very smart car, sometimes it is falling to pieces.  We try not to get lifts with obvious problem cars but sometimes things only come to light as you are driving along, then all you can do is pray!  Be prepared to give directions as not all drivers have a good grasp of the geography of the city.  It is not unusual for gypsy cabs to take completely bizzarre routes, not for any nefarious reason but because they may not know the shorter routes, they are generally happy to go the way you ask them. 

Most drivers are very friendly, even garrulous.  They usually want to know where you are from, how long you have lived in Astana and what you think of the city.    Some drivers will give you their card in the hope of getting more business from you and some really go all out to convince you that you cannot manage to live in Astana without their help and support.  Last winter we had a lift from a driver from Uzbekistan who entertained us with stories about how he had lived in Germany for five months working as a taxi driver (the mind boggles).  He asked if we spoke German and was over the moon when we said we understood a few words.  He had a firm belief in his linguistic abilities and started sprouting phrases that made no sense in Russian or German, we were reduced to nodding along and making sympathetic noises while we prayed that the scraping sound that we heard was just the exhaust dragging along the road and not something more vital to the successful completion of the journey.  When we arrived at our destination we were handed his card and asked if we wanted to employ him as a full time driver, after all he had such a high quality car and where else could we get a driver that we could understand!  He was very surprised that we would not hand out our numbers and seemed a little put out when we came out with the time honoured ‘don’t call us we’ll call you’. 

Gypsy cabs and taxis rarely have working seatbelts in the back seats (they are there but the parks are often tucked out of reach behind the cushions), this means that they are not the best option for travelling with children.  There are rules here about drinking and driving, texting or ‘phoning while driving and wearing seatbelts but these are not always observed by all drivers.  Luckily traffic is speed restricted in the city so the cars rarely move fast meaning that the inevitable accidents are generally not too bad.  Nevertheless, because of the lack of seatbelts and the long wait for the bus in the winter we decided to take the plunge and buy our own car but that is a whole other ball game.

Click the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

4 June 2013

Expat Friendships. Here today - still here tomorrow?

Some friends of ours are leaving Astana at the end of this week and it started me thinking about the transience of expat life and the nature of the friendships we make.

We come to a posting full of questions and trepidation.  Will we be able to settle in the new posting?  Will there be a school for the children?  Social clubs for non working family members? Comfortable homes?  Easy access to groceries and countless other little worries.  One of the biggest concerns most expatriates have is whether they will be able to find a supportive friendship circle. 

Most people manage to settle in very quickly and meet friends both local and expatriate.  Of course such friendships are destined to be fairly transient – locals will stay behind when you move to the next posting and other expatriates will be on a different moving schedule to you.  When I was a child we moved around very regularly and friendships would wax and wane depending on where we were.  Once people left our host country we could write but typically we would find the friendship suspended  on an amicable basis – left to be picked up again from where we left off when our  paths managed to cross again.  We moved within a single company so this happened on a reasonably regular basis and it was always a pleasure to catch up.  Over the years I have babysat for the children of my old babysitters and been introduced to my parents’ best man.

In the old days there was always the danger of letters getting lost in the post or forgetting a new address so when friends moved on to a new posting there was always a feeling of loss.  This is not unreasonable because it is, of course, a bereavement of sorts.  Friends that you have built your life around depart and leave a void.  Luckily unlike a real bereavement you can fill it with new friends and, with the convenience of social media and skype, still keep in touch.

The reality is that many of the friendships formed through the lens of expat life are based on the over-riding shared experiences of living and working in your host country.  Once those experiences are no longer shared don’t be surprised if the friendship slackens a little and you become friendly acquaintances reduced to the odd ‘like’ on Facebook.  That does not mean that the friendships are not important and valuable while you are on posting.  Most people find that the ability to talk through the experiences of expat life with people who understand the context plays a vital part in enjoying the time abroad.  It is important to cultivate a large circle of friends and welcome new arrivals so that when people leave the support network remains intact.
Every so often, of course, you meet someone who becomes a genuinely good friend and no amount of distance will dull that.  Some years ago many family friends who had settled in Europe came to support us on the sad day when we buried my mother.  The same friends came to help celebrate my father’s second wedding.   

So with all this in mind we will say goodbye to our friends.  We will keep in touch and hopefully catch up again in the future.  In the meantime we will also enjoy a get together with some people who arrived just a month or so ago.  

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Ersatz Expat