Because Nobody in Bishkek has Money (?)

Or, “How we bought our third car for 65% of the price we paid for our first, and how we almost bought a VIP Mercedes”

We’re now on our third car in Bishkek.  [For the basic process of buying a car, and why we switched from our first to our second, see my 2015 blog “Buying a Car in Bishkek”.] Our last car was Bishkek’s (Kyrgyzstan’s…) only Audi S4.  My husband loved it and put his spare time and pocket money into fixing it up until there wasn’t a rim left to shine.  After two years it became a bit like my mother’s gardens: at every property where we resided while I was growing up, my mother would garden and garden until there was no more yard save paths through the flower beds, and I alwasy joked with her that we were moving to a new house not because she couldn’t decide if she wanted to live in town or country, but because she had literally run out of new places to garden (and new house projects to plan and commence).  Similarily, we might have sold our old car because it was getting a bit old and because my husband wanted a safer and more comfortable (read: we can actually fit the baby’s carseat in without a struggle) car, or because he had fixed everything in the car and had run out of spare parts to order or parts of the engine to fine-tune.  I mean, it was a 12 year old car, and came back from the shop with a certified maintenance rating of 99%.

So, what do we buy?  If you’ve perused my previous post (written when we bought the aforementioned car), you’ll know that it’s not easy to find a decent car in Bishkek.  Since writing that post, however, the car market has rather changed – prices have plummeted and the market has a glut of automobiles.  If you drive by any of the car bazaars, big or small, you can see row upon row of Lexuses and other SUVs.  It’s not like 2013, when my husband purchased his first car in Bishkek – a 2002 Audi A6 – and it was literally the only [relatively] newer Audi in the entire car bazaar. Cars abound in Kyrgyzstan.  And, as noted in the post heading, it seems nobody has cash. A buyer’s (and swapper’s) market it is.

We put or car on, where it sat and sat as the odd offers rolled in.  Swap my car for your car, swap my car for your car plus I’ll give you $2000, swap your car for my piece of land ready to build a house.  Plenty of people wanted out car – but it seemed none of them had the cash to buy it.

This is a theme that’s come up againand again in Kyrgyzstan: with salaries so low, where does money come from?  Everywhere we see new[ish] cars, new apartment buildings, new boutique shops selling overpriced things from the West, a run of copy-cat IKEAs, restaurants and cafes full every evening.  But when it comes down to cash to buy a car, few people seem to have it (unless they take a loan from the bank).  But let’s leave that question aside for the moment, as I’m sure a social economist could write an entire dissertation on the subject.

So, we didn’t initially have much success in selling our car, despite getting a number of offers. This brings me to the rather odd central story of his piece…

The Turkish manager of a concrete company who knows my husband through work connections and heard through the grapevine that we were looking for a new car called us up and told us that he had a 2008 Mercedes S350 in prime condition that the company wanted to sell for $15,000. Now, mind you, this wasn’t his personal car – nor really the company’s.  They had received it from a construction company, as payment for concrete delivered for a project.  For apparently, just as people don’t have cash, neither do companies, at least in the construction industry.  They trade cars as currency.  So someone – it must have been a VIP someone, for the car had not a scratch and bore the license plate number S5000 – gave the construction company this car for full or partial payment for construction, and the construction company gave it in payment of oncrete to the concrete company, and the concrete company would have otherwise given it to the cement company.  It was a nice car – S-line Mercedes are top-tier cars.  The thing even had built-in seat massage.  But 1) my husband hates Mercedes, 2) the construction or cement (honestly, can’t remember which) company valued our car at $5,000, which is far lower than it was worth and 3) have you seen the roads in Bishkek?

[What’s even more absurd (a Turkey sidenote) is that this year of this car goes for 190,000 TL in Turkey (at the time that was over $60,000), an here it’s going for the same price E’s brother paid for his boring family Peugeot.]

So the back-massage-giving Mercedes we did not buy.  But in the process one of my husband’s co-workers (read: someone with a dependable non-local salary) decided he wanted to buy our car, so we did the paperwork and bankwork and signed it off to him before spending a week in taxis. Maybe we didn’t really need a car?  After all, we now live a 5 minute walk away from my husband’s office and Bishkek does have (what seemed like) a bounty of taxis.  But it turns out those taxis don’t always come on time, if at all (that’s you, namba taxi…).  So after several times waiting over an hour for a cab, and thinking about how we spend our weekends, we decided that, yes, it really was worth it to have a car.

Within a week of selling our car, our husband found another Audi (is there a theme here?) – a 2004 A6 in near-perfect condition that had just been imported from Lithuania.  And why was someone selling a car in such good condition?  Because they had lent money to someone else who had then not paid them back.  However, the second person had bought and was importing a car, and when this was discovered, the car was seized upon arrival in Kyrgyzstan and given to the man to whom he owed his debts.  Because, again, it seems like nobody has money in Bishkek.  Or they do, but they…don’t?


Our First Bishkek Car “Crash”

My husband has driven in Bishkek for over three years without a single accident – until yesterday.  Looking at how locals drive, a lot of expats (at least those of us from the states) tend to wonder how we don’t see more car accidents.  Because there is that 20% of local drivers who seem to have taken their driving test with a bumper car purloined from one of the soviet-era amusement parks. But probabilities aside, last night saw our first actual car accident.

It happened when we were on our way to dinner at Cyclone.  We had turned off of Chuy onto Logvinenko, which is a one way street.  The car in front of us was stopped waiting for another car to back out of a parking spot and, after we too had been waiting about five seconds we heard a crunch! and felt a little jolt.

For, lo and behold, someone illegally parked between in the few feet the crosswalk and the street, had suddenly started backing out – without seeing us at all.  So yes, we were hit while stopped by a car backing out of a parking spot.

minor crash

We jumped out; the driver of the other vehicle jumped out.  Thankfully he was a rather amiable fellow and not a bear (despite his rather appalling driving habits).  Instead of ensuing in the shouting match that usually follows Kyrgyzstan car crashes we shook hands, introduced ourselves, and called the insurance company. The driver was an older, genial-looking government worker of some rank high enough to justify his glossy black Toyota Land Cruiser and assurance of self exhibited in flaunting traffic laws right across the street from the seat of state (It later turned out he’s a member of parliament…I only hope his colleagues have more hindsight).  Apparently he hadn’t seen us in his mirrors and didn’t have parking sensors?  Anyway, after about 10 minutes of looking at the damage (a mere scratch and barely visible crack on our rear right door, a huge gash in his bumper hanging like a broken arm), the insurance agent arrived, looked at the damage, told the other driver how much he would have to pay, took his info, and told us to send the car the next day. We parked and went on to dinner; the other driver hopped back in his car and sped off…the wrong way down the one way followed by a very illegal left turn onto Chuy…

Lessons to take away:

  • Get insurance (I would recommend the one we have).  Not only does it cover accidents that you cause, it also eliminates the entire hassle of arguing with other drivers about who owes who so much, actually extracting compensation from the other driver, and finding a reliable mechanic. And at around $200 a year (that’s $17 a month) it’s really not going to make a dent in your budget.
  • Don’t buy a Toyota. One would think that the much larger SUV (at 5,815 pounds) would have suffered less damage than out car (a mere 3,825 pounds), but an audi is like a bull and I bet he wished he had our insurance. Just because your car is bigger doesn’t mean it’s less impervious to damage.  I’ll now feel much more secure driving around town.
  • Don’t assume other drivers are actually aware of the cars around them, or actually look before backing up.  This isn’t the first time this has happened – on Wednesday afternoon I was driving through our apartment parking lot when a car almost backed into me coming out of a parking space just as I was driving past.  He didn’t stop until I honked – obviously wasn’t looking or using parking sensors.  Not long ago in the Beta 2 parking lot a girl almost backed into our car three times in a row while maneuvering out of a bad parking spot. Because she too just drove straight backwards without looking. So look around you and always be alert – simply being a good driver won’t shield you from all accidents.

Alas, another saga to add to Driving in Bishkek.


Look Both Ways…Or All Four

Being a pedestrian in Bishkek is a perilous sport.

I’ve been almost run over by drivers rushing the red-turning light, almost run over by drivers sped by impatience for that coming flicker of green, almost run over by drivers turning left or right onto the street that I’m crossing, almost run over by drivers humping the shoulders.  But today was the first time I was almost run over by  driver running the middle of the red light (ten seconds from turning red, ten seconds left until green) on a main thoroughfare (Manas/Mira) right between two popular cop-spots (crossing Ayni).

I always wait for the light, I always cross at the crosswalks, even if it means doubling back half a block, simply because I don’t trust that 5% of drivers.

So today around 11:40 am I waited for the green light and was nearly halfway across the street – striding in front of the patient marshrutkas and long line of lunchtime commuters – when I saw a car heading towards me, still some 50 yards off from the opposite side of the street.  They had enough space to stop, and I assumed they would.  The screech and stop is, after all, not an uncommon phenomenon. It wasn’t until they had crossed the pedestrian walk on the other side of Manas/Ayni and were driving across the middle of the street that I realized they were headed straight towards me.  No swerving, no brakes, just heading straight at me with a steady pace, as if they literally could not see me (or the red light, or the cars from Ayni that had swerved out of their way, or the traffic police at the junction ahead). As is we were all invisible. I quickened two steps, just enough to be half a pace away when the car passed and turn around to take a look at the plates.

Two young male Kyrgyz, age 22-25, driving a light tan Toyota Camry, probably 2002-2004 model (newish, but not new enough to have those modern curves), licence plates 2133SK, no visible markings on the car.

Believing that nothing would come out of it, I still called E and asked him to have his secretary (a local fluent in both Kyrgyz and Russian, and accustomed to dealing with government offices) call in and report the car. They might not have hit me, but they will eventually hit someone if they keep blindly running red lights [especially on main streets with heavy traffic and at a juncture flanked by no less than three major universities with students streaming out during the breaks…]. Basically asshole behavior that somebody should curb and reprimand.

But Kyrgyzstan isn’t a transparent democracy, of the people for the people.  The first time G called no one answered.  Government hard at work at their lunch break.  The second time – she found out that it was a car registered to an unidentified government office, and thus no complaint could be lodged, no counter action would the state talk.  Because government cars are covered by complete immunity, even when they’re taken for a joyride by some low official’s son and his friend.  So…another reason to check all four directions again…and again…and again every time you cross the street (sadly, the same applies for one-way streets too).  Or just buy a jet-propelled titanium suit for your interblock adventures.  Because nobody is there to protect you, or hold up your rights be you crossing a street or shopping for a cellphone or (as happened to a dear local friend) watch on CCTV as your co-worker steals your phone off your desk and have your boss refuse to report and the cops refuse to search or arrest…until you give a kickback.

Rules of the Road: Bishkek

I biked even owned a moped in three of China’s biggest cities. Biking in China was exhilarating.

Driving in Bishkek is terrifying.  Here’s why:

There are three guiding “Rules of the Road” in Bishkek: 1) All Rules are Relative; 2) He with the Biggest Vehicle/Greatest Audacity has Right of Way; and 3) (as a fellow American co-worker …and legal specialist… put it), Attempting to Stick to The Road Rules is A Terribly Dangerous Thing to Do.

  1. All Rules are Relative: An exception: most people do stop at traffic lights, usually.  Unless they’re rushing through in the last seconds of marigold orange.  But everything else is a mere suggestion: parking spaces? Why stay in the lines when that requires you to take time out of your day and park with precision? Cars don’t stop at crosswalks, and pedestrians often cross in the middle of the street (even if there’s a crosswalk 20 feet from where they’re standing). Even if you’re on a crosswalk, any car approaching while wildly honking it’s horn will not stop.  Two lanes turn into three, and cars will sometimes even jump over the middle line in an attempt to drive to the front of a back up – facing down cars driving in the opposite direction. While it is rare to see cars driving on the sidewalks as an alternative to street (unlike, for example, Foshan, where I was regularly honked at while driving down the bike lane carved out of the elevated sidewalk), yesterday a number of drivers tired of waiting at a backed up stoplight decided instead to steer their vehicles down the rough patch of dirt between road and railway track.  So – lines, lanes, right of way – eh…
  2. Right of Way Is the Right of the (Wo)Man with the Greatest Audacity and Biggest Vehicle: In practice this often means Marshrutka drivers, which my former students at Manas deplored as “the worst drivers in Bishkek and cause of most of the city’s traffic woes”. While I wouldn’t single out just the marshrutka drivers, they certainly do sometimes push and budge and switch lanes and drive on the wrong side of the road with apparent disregard for any of the other vehicles on the road.  Certain ‘status SUV drivers’ will do the same – just push their way in and expect everyone to move over, or drive headlong down the wrong side of the road and expect everyone who would otherwise smash into them to switch lanes. And most of the time it works, which is why the behavior continues. When challenged, pedestrians and other drivers usually don’t assert themselves.  Last week I was crossing Chuy on Sovietskaya when a red land rover that had tried to jump ahead by driving left of the middle line was faced with oncoming traffic; the driver suddenly started to drive into my lane (meaning I’d either have to switch over the the right lane – occupied by a marshrutka – or slow down and risk being tapped from behind). When I honked at his dangerous driving he turned and started yelling at me. Because apparently I’m the one at fault here for not accompanying his audacious behavior (and sense of self-importance).
  3. Attempting to Stick to The Road Rules is A Terribly Dangerous Thing to Do: Unfortunately the legal-expert expat is pretty accurate with this one.  Due to everything mentioned above, trying to stay in one lane, cross at the crosswalks (or sometimes even stop for pedestrians who would like to use the crosswalks) or follow many of the other myriad road rules quite simply isn’t safe, because it puts you at odds with the general traffic flow.  For while the road might at first (second, third, forty-seventh…) glance seem like utter chaos, there actually is a system to the way people drive.  It just doesn’t fully align with the official traffic regulations that are supposed to define the way people drive.

The two underlying issues – and why I feel less secure behind the wheel of a car in Bishkek than I do perched atop a bike in China – is that there isn’t just anticipation of the law, and there’s very low sense of community commitment.  The de-facto driving culture that does exist is still quite dangerous and inefficient; if more people had sufficient motivation to follow the actual road rules (and assurances that others would also comply), then the situation would be much different.  But where people don’t feel they will be punished for acting like an ass or endangering others on the road, and where drivers don’t expect most other drivers to keep everybody’s interests and safety in mind – the situation isn’t going to get any better.  And unless I have to take the car somewhere, I honestly prefer to take the bus.

Also, interesting note: scanning over the Traffic Regulations of Kyrgyzstan: any official who stops your vehicle and asks to see your documents and licence must comply if you ask to first see their official identification (2.4). I’ve never seen a policeman here show an actual ID before asking for documents.

Buying a Car in Bishkek

…And how we ended up with the country’s only Audi S4.

If you’ve been in Bishkek for more than a week, you may have noticed something rather peculiar: there are no car dealerships in or around the city (in fact, I think the nearest dealership is in Almaty, Kazakhstan).  So how do you buy a car? And how do you know it’s good to drive?  Unfortunately it can be a rather tricky and drawn-out process.

First, I would not recommend unless you meet all of the following three conditions:

  • You do not live and work in the city center, or you need a car for work
  • You will stay in Kyrgyzstan for 2+ years
  • You speak Russian/Kyrgyz well, are very familiar with cars and mechanics, and have a trusted mechanic in Bishkek, or you have a trusted associate who knows cars and Kyrgyz/Russian.

Why? Besides the matter of driving in Bishkek (corrupt traffic cops, insane traffic habits, inexpensive taxis), it can be quite difficult to locate a quality car. All cars in Kyrgyzstan are imported (at some point).  There are almost no new (or nearly new) cars in the country, and none of the in-country cars come with garage histories.  Finding a car that you are absolutely sure has no major problems and making sure you have all the right legal paperwork is often a rather long and stressful process. Selling a car can also be difficult, as most people want to trade cars rather than giving cash.

Where to find a car:

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It’s a bad day for Bishkek.


First, let’s notice the 51 degree drop in temperature yesterday. No, that’s not a typo. Fifty-one degrees, from gorgeous sunny “I’m just going to take a light sweater” weather to arctic cold and sticking snow. Let me just misplace my keys until the snow melts next March))

Second, coming back from the grocery store today I started across the street as I had a green light, saw a guy driving through the red light several second after it turned, motioned for him to stop and continued walking across the crosswalk (after of course making sure I wasn’t going to get mowed down) only for the grunchy forty-something Kyrgyz driver to roll down his window and shout “Whore!” across the street.
Here’s one day when I wish the bribe-happy police were at this corner. But, seriously? What could be less effective? Like, “Oh no, some stranger in a beat-up car doesn’t like the idea of me because I follow traffic rules! If I walk across the street when I have a green light people are going to think I sell my body! I give up! I’m never going outside or asserting my rights in front of drivers again!” Nope, I’m pretty sure I’m going to continue walking across crosswalks when I have a green light. Some days I truly wish for paint ball grenades to chuck at people’s cars. Or just polite drivers and actually enforced traffic laws.
Kyrgyzstan, I hope you do yourself better tomorrow.