Why do I love trains? It has to be the rails.
When exploring a new city, suburban trains are much easier than buses. There’s almost always a color-coded map of the system. Stops are clearly labeled, especially handy when you don’t know the local language (or sometimes the alphabet!). For longer trips, trains are more comfortable, too, sometimes featuring sleeping and dining cars.
Yet, invariably, a traveler will need to use a local or regional bus to get around. After all, train tracks don’t run everywhere.
While living in Kazakhstan for eight years, I had many chances to explore the bus system. I highly recommend it, especially for language and culture learning. Not a day goes by that one doesn’t come home with a good bus story.
Our first flat in Karaganda was right on the main bus line. It also had an electric trolleybus route, one of only two in the city. Not actually train, as there were no tracks, these are sometimes called trackless trolleys. We were warned by a neighbor not to use them.
“People don’t like the trolleybus. It is very old and dirty,” he said.
Usually, we take such local advice to heart. But on a freezing subzero morning, we grabbed the first available option. Especially when we hadn’t yet purchased boots worthy of surviving Siberian winters.
Surprisingly, we found the trolleybus had advantages. It was 30% cheaper than the regular bus. Because people avoided it, there was often more room. There were even a few newer trolleys with cozy warm heating systems.
We also found out why it was cheaper. Not only slower, the trolleybuses were also prone to mishaps along the six-kilometer trip downtown. Powered by a spring-tensioned rod that rolled along the overhead electric cable, the bus sometimes stalled when it slipped off the cable. The driver then had to pull on a heavy rope to reconnect it. More rarely, the electric power itself shut off, leaving the trolleybus stranded like a becalmed sailing ship.
One especially cold morning, the trolleybus was packed with people heading to work. The conductor, whose main job is to move up and down the aisle collecting fares, found herself blocked by the pressing crowds. She waited for the next stop and stepped out the front door, then headed for the rear entrance. Unfortunately, the driver didn’t wait. He shut the door, leaving his conductor frantically banging on the frosted glass panes!
I knew just enough Russian to help, screaming, “Conductor! In the street!” Others took up the chant until the driver skidded and slid to a screeching stop. While traumatic for the frazzled conductor, I was happy to register a minor victory in language learning.
Long-distance bus trips are not my favorite, but sometimes the only way to go. In 2013 we traveled to the scenic Bayanaul National Park, about four hours northeast of Karaganda. The fare was super affordable, and the bus itself was comfortable. The journey, on the other hand, was quite an adventure.
The Heat is On
It was August. The dust and heat were heavy. Opening the bus windows was necessary. Unfortunately, there is a real fear among people that crosswinds cause illness, especially for young children or a baby. The frequent cry of “Close it please, there’s a child aboard” struck fear into my bones.
Thankfully on this trip, my fellow travelers were merciful and opened their windows. That is, until we hit an unpaved stretch of road about halfway. Suddenly, the dust came pouring through the half-open windows, making our eyes water. Directly in front of me, a carsick boy retched into the aisle, covering my shoe with barf. His mother scolded him, asking why he didn’t say anything. “Mama, I suddenly vomited” was his nauseous reply. That phrase would become a comic saying in our family for years.
As we approached our destination, something very strange happened. The bus driver began shouting at everyone to close the curtains and hide on the floor. Were we being attacked? The bus began a slow and winding ascent of a steep hill. Before long, we crested the top, descending to the pretty little lakeside resort of Bayanaul.
An Unexpected Turn
After our relaxing holiday, we again boarded a bus for home. This time, though, the driver was insistent, ordering us to step outside and walk up the hill in the August heat. An elderly person and a pregnant woman were allowed to remain on board, but they had to scrunch down in the back to avoid being seen. To this day, I still haven’t figured out why we couldn’t ride the bus over that hill. Part of the adventure experience, I guess.
Afterward, a local friend asked me how I liked the trip. I loved everything about it, except for the unfinished road. I thought it would be better when the road was fully paved. He shook his head. From his perspective, that would bring an overflow of visitors and spoil the serenity of the lakeside resort. After trying to fall asleep to the sound of techno-pop disco music each night, I couldn’t quite understand his point. People are made different. And that’s good.