The clock struck 10 just as I was stuffing the last bag of food into my backpack. After one exciting, adventurous week in Kazakhstan, it felt all too soon to say goodbye. But regardless, this was the reality of the situation and I was to journey over land across the border into my final country, Kyrgyzstan. My travel companions were two people I had met only a few days ago: Gautier, a tall French backpacker, and Stefan, a German guy who summitted a mountain with me just yesterday. Despite the time, it was already quite warm and sunny out, but thankfully, a soothing breeze provided some much needed comfort. All that was left to do was to wait for the taxi that our hostel owner, Shakir, had ordered. However... there was one problem. The taxi never came.
After a 20 minute wait, Shakir called the cab service to ask what was going on. "Oh yeah, you guys," said a voice on the other end in Russian. "Our driver couldn't find your place, so he gave up. You're on your own." Initially Shakir, trying to be a good host by protecting his guests, flared with anger. However, he knew getting mad would do nothing to solve the problem, so quickly, his anger turned to determination. "Follow me," he confidently said.
Curious to see what he meant, we obediently followed like dogs behind their owner. He walked out to the street and held up his thumb, and within two minutes, a middle aged man with short hair in a white sedan pulled over. Shakir asked if he could take the three of us to the bus station, and without any hesitation, the man agreed. We piled in. For the second time in my life, I was hitching a ride to catch a bus. First Ireland, no Kazakhstan. Since neither Stefan nor Gautier knew any Russian, I took the seat next to the driver. "Откудда вы?" (where are you from?) he asked while lighting a cigarette. I replied and his eyes lit up with excitement as neither French, Americans or Germans often travel to the country. He then stepped on the gas and we sped off into the distance.
The driver asked about my general impressions of Kazakhstan, wondered if it was similar at all to the States, while doing his best to teach me a few words in Kazakh. The whole ride took about 20 minutes and when it was over, he let us off at this station, crowded with cars, vans, and marshrutkas. "Рахмет"(Thank you) I replied with the one phrase in Kazakh that I remembered. Grabbing our bags, we exited the car, and were immediately faced with a another man in a sweaty gray shirt shouting "Bishkek! Bishkek!" Assuming he was the bus driver, we asked him the price, to which he replied, "2500 Tenge," (about $7). We agreed.
But as it turned out, this guy was not a bus driver. Nor did he even have a bus, just a minivan with three other people already inside. This seemed a bit odd, but since he was apparently the only one going to Bishkek, we got in anyway, assuming it was our only choice. Moments later, he put the key in the ignition, lit up a cigarette, and off we went. And by that, I mean we tore off into the distance like 1930s bank robbers trying to escape the police. Weaving in and out of traffic, on and off the road, we flew past any and everyone in our way, all the while outdated Russian glam-rock blared from the speakers. The cityscape that had once surrounded us quickly turned into open steppe as far as the eye could see.
On we cruised, never relenting all the way to the border (a supposedly 3.5 hour trip that took us about 2). Now it was time to cross the border, but suddenly, something unexpected happened. As we got out of the car, our driver said, "Now I head back to Almaty. You need to find another ride on the other side." I looked back wide-eyed.
"Yeah, it should only be 200 som ($3) each to get to Bishkek."
I protested, saying it was not what we initially agreed upon, but it was to no avail. Still determined, we decided to cross the border and see what we could find on the other side. The whole ordeal was pretty simple even though, to Stefan's dismay, the border guard felt it necessary to make several World War II comments while laughing and shouting, "Deutschland! Nein! Nein Nein!" after seeing his German passport. None the less, we were through in under 20 minutes, only to be greeted by a group of excessively aggressive men shouting, "Taxi! Bishkek!" And by aggressive, I mean literally the most aggressive taxi drivers I've ever seen. The second they saw us, they swarmed down from every direction like a cluster of starving mosquitoes upon a group of sweaty fat men. We unsuccessfully tried to escape, but soon it became apparent that they were the only means of transportation. I turned to a large man and asked the price, to which he said, "500 ($7) som, total." We agreed and off to Bishkek we went.
At first it all seemed simple. Our driver's heavy foot remained steadily down as we followed a single, not-so-well maintained road to the city. But then, we hit the city line and everything changed. The driver stopped, grumbling "Это Бишкек."(this is Bishkek) and motioned for us to get out. We all looked at each other, wondering if this guy was serious. Nothing stood around us, just a sign reading "Bishkek." We were still a good 10 minute drive from the center and our hostel. Stefan protested, "This is not Bishkek! Take us to the center, That's the agreement." But the driver refused, demanding more money. Damn, this guy was trying to grift us too.
We looked at each other then agreed among us, "Ok, first take us there, then we pay."
None of us knew the city at all, so instead of being dumped off in some random area, we decided to play this sly fool's game until we reached our destination. Granted, 300 som is just over $4, but it was the principle of it that mattered. However, just a few minutes later, we arrived, meaning it was time for the confrontation. The driver pulled the car over, and even before we had a chance to leave, he demanded we pay the extra money. Stefan quickly replied, "No" and got up to leave, but the guy wasn't having it. He began to shout louder, insisting we give him the extra 300. Shouts and retorts fired back and forth but finally we agreed upon 150 to finally get this guy off out backs. We were in Bishkek now. It was time for us to enjoy the city and see some mountains, not argue with sweaty cabbies.