Monday, March 13, 2017

Getting Around Town

For me, one of the highlights of this trip so far has been riding the marshrutka [muh-SHREWT-kuh] from our apartment to the downtown and back. This is truly an experience that cannot be fully captured by photo or video, so allow me to describe it to you.

The marshrutka is a repurposed van that acts as a mini-bus, running on a set route around town. The 10-12 seats come in different arrangements, and sometimes there is a pole installed for "standing" passengers. I put "standing" in quotation marks because it's a van, so if you're taller than 5'0" you can't actually fully stand. For about 10 rubles (less than 20 U.S. cents), you can ride as far as you'd like. The marshrutkas are used by people of all ages.

Most marshrutka drivers are young men who seem to have trained at the Fast and the Furious school of driving. They are heavy-footed, weave erratically around giant potholes, have little patience for pedestrians, and use the horn generously. Many set the soundtrack to a pulsing techno pop that gives the stifling, crowded, jostling ride a nice, surreal ambience.

There is a second marshrutka employee who sits just inside the sliding back door, which she opens and closes at all the stops. In addition to opening and closing the door, this woman is also responsible for collecting fares, calling out stops, and physically hauling you into the van if you are elderly, carrying a child, or a timid American who is not sure one more body can possibly fit.

Once the last passenger is in, the sliding door slams shut and the marshrutka takes off like a gunshot, so you'd better sit down fast if you don't want to be thrown into someone's lap. Not that it would matter, as any concept you have of "personal space" ceases to exist aboard the marshrutka. The tangle of bodies on a packed marshrutka feels what I imagine a championship game of Twister to be like.

It's really difficult to capture the "smush" on camera,
especially since I'm usually a part of it.

You don't pay as you're getting on, rather you take your seat and then hand your money to the door operator once the marshrutka gets moving. If you're seated in the back, you just pass your money up from passenger to passenger, and they pass your change back if needed.

*  *  *

Last Friday we boarded our marshrutka - the Number 12 - at a popular stop downtown. About 10 people got on ahead of us (in addition to the passengers who were already there), and when we stepped up to the door we weren't sure they could take two more people. As I turned to ask Ted if we should wait for the next van, the door operator emphatically waved me in. I stepped up and crouch-walked into an aisle space between two seats to "stand" for the 5-10 minute ride. Ted folded himself in half and climbed into the tight space left in the marshrutka doorway. Before I could even steel myself for the uncomfortable ride ahead, the door operator waved two more people into the van. I think I actually laughed out loud.

The woman next to me offered up a portion of her European-sized seat (read: not made for American-sized rear ends), on which I could fit exactly 1/16 of my right butt cheek so that I was essentially just wall-sitting against the side of her seat. The three people in the seat next to the door operator found a sliver of space for Ted to also lean his backside against. This opened up just enough space so that the girl who got on after us could pick her way through people's feet and bags to bend-stand in the middle of the van, and the guy who got on behind her climbed into the door well, also hunched over. This guy's forehead was approximately 2 inches from my forehead as I squatted in the aisle, and I'd say Ted's hand, pressing against his leg as he wall-sat, was even closer to this guy's private area. No matter. Like I said, "personal space" does not exist here.

The marshrutka took off, and I managed to get an armhold on a seat to the left and behind me in order to stay upright as we went around the traffic circles. The thought of us crashing and the ensuing dog-pile kept my mind off the muscles burning in my thighs, buttocks, and left arm, and I just kept praying that no one else would want to get on at the next stop, because surely this door operator would find a way to squeeze them in. I tried to take a headcount but couldn't see behind me for the 2-3 large male passengers who were hunched over in the aisle. I'm sure there were at least 20 people aboard.

There is one marshrutka van that is our favorite, for the no-nonsense but good-natured door operator. The first time we rode with her was another crowded marshrutka day. I didn't think we'd fit, but she hauled me in and sat me down next to her once she realized I didn't understand Russian and had no idea what she was directing me to do. Then she was trying to explain to Ted - who was again doubled over in the doorway - where to put his feet and hands. He wasn't getting it, so she went ahead and pushed and pulled his feet, legs, and body into the correct position (right foot in the door well, left butt cheek leaning against the handrail for stability). This lady is only half Ted's size, and I think it was pretty entertaining for everyone aboard (she would make a really good coxswain, Ted thinks).

My attempt to photograph Ted standing in the marshrutka doorway.

Anyway, she recognized us the next time we were waiting at a stop once she slid the marshrutka door open. She smiled in a way that told us, yes, they'd all had a good laugh about us after our last ride. We were able to talk to her a couple days later when the marshrutka was strangely empty (it was like we were in the Twighlight Zone), and she even let me photograph her:

That bit of cushion leftover on her seat is where she sat me down the first
day when all the other seats and standing room were full.That was the day
I learned it was okay to practically sit in someone's lap on the marshrutka.

I'm really enjoying these day-to-day interactions and experiences, especially since the people we see most often now recognize us and watch out for us (especially me since I speak no Russian!). We'll be writing about more of these kinds of experiences in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.


  1. You are now ready to ride the subways in Tokyo...

  2. Replies
    1. Yes, some of them have wood laminate stapled down inside and some have curtains!

    2. This reminds me of riding in a jeepney when I visited the Philippines last year. So fun!

  3. Very entertaining and vivid entry.

  4. Loved the story, reminded me of when 12 or 14 of us flew into Quito, SA and they piled us all in a van and put all the luggage and scuba gear on top. Before we were out of the parking lot we were bottoming out and it reminded me of the Beverly Hillbillies arriving in CA (OKAY - before your time).

  5. The exact opposite of our first taxi ride in Japan - woman driver, beautifully polished cab with doilies on the dashboard and seat arms, no tipping, smooth and beautiful ride. But the subway, a totally different story with "pushers" to push people in to close the doors. Loved today's's these little things that you're remember.