I thought Americans liked to travel in comfort. I don’t know why you take a marshrutka.
You should take the marshrutka. There you will meet the real people.
— Two competing local views on whether or not we should subject ourselves to long-distance rides on marshrutka minivans, the dominant form of public transport in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
So there we were. Dan was eating his knees again, sitting on a plastic stool inches off the floor of a packed minivan in the middle of Kyrgyzstan and absorbing looks from a perplexed and curious crowd. Audrey was trying to brush off the drunken advances of yet another admirer.
Moments before, the late afternoon autumn sun was speeding towards the horizon and we had been trying to flag down transport- any transport – for over an hour. When a marshrutka stopped, we were thankful to squeeze into the last two slivers of space remaining inside. We were headed home for the night after all.
Scenes like this played themselves out repeatedly over the course of our journey through the Caucasus and Central Asia. As a result, we cultivated a love-hate relationship with public transportation. On one hand, it’s the most inexpensive option going. On the other hand, it can be cramped to the point of discomfort. More importantly, however, public transport is the way most people get around. If one hopes to meet locals, a public bus or – even better – an intimate (i.e., cramped) minivan is the place to do it, as it literally offers an up-close and personal means of connecting with real people.
Marshrutka and its Meaning
We have often used the word marshrutka in our previous posts from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Loosely defined in English as a minivan taxi, its literal meaning in Russian is something akin to “planned path.” It's a minivan that follows a route, picking up and dropping off passengers at fixed and ad hoc stops along the way.
As long as there is breathing room in the marshrutka, the driver will stop to let someone in, which often means collecting passengers at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. We were those lost passengers on several occasions and were repeatedly thankful for the existence of an informal and efficient system that allowed us to safely flag down a ride just about anywhere.
While we enjoy the flow and rhythm of marshrutkas, the journeys that they embark on can sometimes prove physically challenging: lack of space, uncomfortable temperatures, and long distances are the norm. The discomfort can often be compensated for by enlightening and humorous interactions with local people. Fascination with the exotic runs both ways and shyness often yields to curiosity, resulting in some unusual conversations. Locals always get a kick out of seeing some big westerners climb into their marshrutka with backpacks half their size.
But since this is a public experience, a shared experience, the story goes beyond “people are what they drive.” Marshrutkas know an etiquette, protocol and narrative all their own. They fit to the culture. In Georgia, for example, the hospitality for which the country is renowned naturally fills the marshrutka; strangers there almost always fed us snacks or gave us their better seats. In Kyrgyzstan, family-centric culture emerges as other female passengers assist boarding mothers with their children, scooping them up and having them sit on their laps until the mother settles in. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, politics and disputed regions often dominate the cramped airwaves.
Highlights and Lowlights
We've already written about some of our favorite marshrutka or shared taxi experiences; Zugdidi to Mestia in Georgia and Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan stand out as cultural highlights. On the other hand, we’ve also had some trying journeys, including one that we thought we wouldn't survive (Mestia to Tbilisi in Georgia) and another that we thought would never end (Bishkek to Osh in Kyrgyzstan).
In our marshrutka experiences, it was not unusual for a woman or group of women to adopt us at the beginning of the journey and play guardian to the disoriented tourists. They’d ask us where we were headed and would ensure that the driver dropped us off at our desired destination. Particularly since we were often unfamiliar with where we were headed, it was nice to be taken care of. Our guardians would often ply us with fruit and other snacks and the questions they asked us would serve to connect us to other curious passengers. Several women gave us their phone numbers just in case we ran into trouble and needed help. We even had an entire marshrutka singing traditional songs for us. We were rarely ever bored.
One word of advice about traveling on a marshrutka: if you happen to end up next to a drunk man whose eyes are glazed over with three layers of cheap vodka in the middle of the afternoon and he decides to become overly friendly, look for the nearest grandmother and ask for help. She'll give the man a good verbal lashing and he'll normally sink back into his seat or skulk off the bus at the next opportunity. Not only can Audrey confirm that this method is tried and true, but we later learned that it's also outlined in Kyrgyzstan Peace Corps Training for new arrivals. Based on our experience, finding a grandmother or older woman wherever and whenever you are in trouble is a good rule of thumb.
Overland Ideology and Reflection
There are myriad reasons for the presence of an “overland ideology” in long-term and adventure travel. Eschewing airplanes, overlanders not only seek to claim a victory over the challenges of the landscape by traveling continuously over it, but many of them seek to witness “the clicks” or changes – sometimes abrupt, often gradual – that cultures, people and land undergo as one travels on the ground.
There are endless levels at which to engage with a culture. The choice you make regarding your style of travel will obviously influence the type of experiences you'll have and the types of people you'll meet. We are not masochists, but the interactive benefits of marshrutkas make the hours of knee-eating or seat-sharing with a stinking sack of pickled vegetables nearby worthwhile. If you fly over or drive through a place by your own private transport, what you may gain in comfort, you may sacrifice in richness and granularity of cultural experience.
Unfortunately, “marshrutka advisor” is not a highly sought-after experience these days, but maybe we can position our newfound ability of securing the best seat and fitting in with a group of singing Kyrgyz families as some sort of cross-cultural expertise. It's all how you spin it, right?