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


  1. Thanks for writing about this subject. We will be car-less when we arrive and I was wondering how to get around especially with a 2 and 6 year old. I have heard that some are able to walk to places even in the very cold weather, especially if you live near a mall. Is this also true?

    Thanks so much for the great blog!

    1. Hi Natalie

      Welcome to Astana. Do you know where you will be living? We like the area round the Baiterek because it is in walking distance of just about all the main places you will need to go. Some of our friends live in the old town/Samal area which has beautiful river views and is close to some amenities.

      Many expats like to live in Highvill because it has some of the best housing in the city but if you do not have a car you might find yourself isolated in the winter.

      Most car-less families manage just fine, we were certainly ok in our first winter.