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


  1. Hi there,

    I'm writing a story about expats in Astana and I came across your blog. I'd love to ask you a few questions about your experience here. If you're free to email or talk, please write me at mmariewitte@gmail.com

    Thanks! Great blog!


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