So I have a decent commute to school (about 45 minutes) and I have been studying the fine art of riding public buses in Almaty. They cost 50 tenge (approx. 34 cents) unless you’re going somewhere particularly far like Medey (the outdoor ice rink in the mountains). I like to put 50 tenge my pocket before I go anywhere so I am not messing around with my wallet in the bus. I am told pick-pockets are pretty common and fairly adept at stealing things in an undetectable manner. Fortunately, I don’t have personal experience yet with such issues and I’d like to keep it that way. Also if you need change, best to head over to the assistant a little before your stop so you can get proper change before you’re corralled off the bus.
For anyone studying in Almaty who gets official student status you’re supposed to be able to take the buses for free with your student ID. Unfortunately my program doesn’t give me full-fledged student status so I don’t get the necessary ID. I think this is a major shortcoming in my program, but that’s an issue to broach in another blog post.
Regarding buses, you want to avoid the morning and even rush hours like the plague. From what I can tell these occur from about 7-9 a.m. and 5:30-7:30 p.m. At these times people are basically crammed into the buses like cattle: prepare to be elbowed, groped and so on. Do not harbor any expectation at all of getting a seat. Also bear in mind that the buses that run to Almaty’s main bazaars: The Green Bazar and Barakholka are packed with people all day on Sunday and also fairly regularly throughout the week – except that Barakholka is closed on Mondays. Best to avoid the bazaar buses whenever possible.
Buses are staffed by a driver and an assistant. The assistant’s job is to yell out the bus route to entice people onto the bus and also to call out the next stop as we approach. They also collect money and, during rush hours, yell at people to stand closer together and not crowd around the two doors – one in the front by the driver and one in the middle. Occasionally I find the bus assistants to be extremely annoying – I have one female assistant in particular in mind who works Bus Route 35. During rush hours she will literally push people to get them to stand closer together in the bus, and argue with and insult them. I am not a fan and will generally avoid her buses if possible.
Backpacks are definitely a pain in the neck on crowded buses (and probably easy to unzip without you noticing to take stuff out of). I have actually gotten yelled at on buses to take mine off a couple of times. I usually wear it on my chest or set it on the floor between my legs. Also, on a related note, backpacks are frowned upon in stores because they suspect you will steal something. Some stores have lockers you can put your bag in, but even for other places without lockers don’t be surprised if an employee comes up to you and yells at you for having a backpack in the store. They may even accuse you of trying to steal something.
Seat culture on Almaty buses is somewhat interesting. Basically when I get in a bus where there are still free seats I look for the worst seat possible – usually one on top of a wheel well. The worse the seat is the less likely some old lady will come up ask me for my seat. From what I can tell, the pecking order for seat priority is 1) elderly people and pregnant women and women with a baby/infant, 2) middle-aged women, 3) middle-aged men , 4) young women (especially those in heals and dressy clothes), and 5) then everybody else. Sometimes people lower in this chain don’t even bother to sit when there is empty seat because the chance is often short-lived. This could also perhaps be interpreted as show of toughness and/or politeness. An exception to the “young people usually don’t get seats” rule is the back row of seats, which requires a step up as this row of seats sits on a trunk-like area of the bus. This row of seats is usually full of young guys and girls. I don’t like to sit here unless I will be on the bus for a while. This is because it takes a while to push through the throngs of people to get off the bus from these seats.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a seat and a person nearby is without a seat and has a heavy load the proper thing to do is to offer to hold that person’s stuff on your lap. I do this sometimes if the load looks fairly innocuous and the person seems pretty clean cut. I am all for being polite, but I don’t want to end up holding anyone’s contraband.
Finally, a surprising difference for me between the bus-riding culture in Almaty, as compared to that in Baku (where I lived for four years), is that men have no problem crowding right in next to women even when we are literally squished together like sardines. This is a little weird as with the stop and go rhythm of traffic we all practically end up bumping and grinding together. I guess just don’t be surprised…
So now that you know how to ride a bus in Almaty, I hope you come here and give it a shot! 🙂