MiR 072 – My Life in Russia – Episode 4 – Public Transport


You’re listening to the Mark in Russia broadcast # 072, and I’m Mark.

Today I’m going to continue with my Life in Russia series and I’ll concentrate mainly on public transportation.

You really should go to my website at: www.markinrussia.com to listen to this, or at least open the page to read the show notes, regardless of where you are listening to this. The reason for this is because the show notes also include several photos to help you get a better idea about what I’m talking about.

I came to Chelyabinsk more than 11 years ago, so therefore I’ve ridden public transport here for 11 years, which I guess makes me a foreign expert on the subject. First of all, I’m not going to be drawing a direct comparison between public transport here vs. in the US. I can’t do this because I’m really not too familiar with public transport in the US. There I didn’t live in a city and I pretty much drove my car everywhere I went on a daily basis.

A lot has changed here in Chelyabinsk concerning public transport in the past 11 years, as I can say for almost every aspect of life here, more often than not for the better. One aspect of public transport that has gotten worse is the time that it takes to get somewhere; this has roughly doubled and even tripled, depending upon the time of day and the traffic.

When I first came here I lived on a section of a main thoroughfare, which was served almost exclusively by buses. At that time there were really only three buses which served this route, numbers 20, 71 and the infamous 64. Of these three, numbers 71 and 64 still service this area, but there are many other options now, which I’ll speak of later.

I’m going to describe my experiences on bus #64 as a microcosm of transport at that time.

Before I start in with this, I want to mention a positive point, because in the following story, there will be pretty much nothing positive to talk about. The positive thing I’d like to say is that even 11 years ago, public transport was a viable means of getting around. Having to wait even 10 minutes was unusual, it was usually less time.

All of the bus #64s back then were made by a Hungarian company called Ikarus, and trust me, they were really old before they were ever put into service in Chelyabinsk. I believe that a lot, to most of them came from the former East Germany after reunification. They did not meet either the ecological or safety standards of the new reunified Germany, and therefore were sold off

Flexible Ikarus Bus

Flexible Ikarus Bus

Like many things produced in communist countries during the times of the USSR, I can’t even begin to make sense of the name. For those of you that remember your Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of Daedalus. Daedalus made them both wings which were bird feathers attached to their arms by means of wax. You see, they were prisoners on the Isle of Crete and they wanted to escape. Icarus was told to not fly too close to the sun ( as in giant hot orb in the sky) or the wax would melt, which of course is exactly what happened, causing Icarus to fall a great distance from the sky into the sea, promptly drowning.

Here’s my point; you have an idiot son who doesn’t listen to his father and as a result of his idiocy he falls into the sea and drowns. Now maybe some of you can see a good reason to name your bus company after this idiot boy, but personally, I don’t.

Anyhow, back to the bus. I have never in my life experienced such packed transport as I did back in the days of bus 64. If you’ve looked at the photos already, you’ll see that it was actually a bus made of two segments, connected by a sort of flexible section. So, it would bend when it was turning. OK, here I am back in 2001 waiting for the bus. I see it come from a side road and turn onto the main road where I’m waiting. The sucker is listing quite a bit toward one side because the packed people inside are not evenly distributed. As it comes to the bus stop and the accordion type doors open (there are actually three entrances), people are popping out of the bus. This isn’t because they want to get off, it’s because there are so many people on board, plus people desperately pushing in order to make it to the exit. Now, I do at time exaggerate a bit to make a story more interesting, but this is not an exaggeration at all.

As the people who “popped’ out of the bus try to squeeze back in, there are also about 15 new people who want on also. I was not one of them; I’ll wait.

The “packing of the bus” was rather interesting to watch if you were fortunate enough to not be one of the “packees”. A fair percentage of the riders were either older pensioners or younger, perhaps university students, although all ages were represented. These old grandmothers, or “Babushkas” are real scrappers and don’t mind a fight I think. They would be the absolute worst when it came to pushing and shoving their way onto the bus. It really isn’t a flattering sight and frankly, in 11 years this has not changed. I would see young girls dressed up like some sort of a model, with stiletto high heeled shoes. They could scrap like the best of them though. Seriously, looking from the outside it would look as if the only way that more could fit in that bus is if, like at some rock concert, the girls started to “crowd dive” and the other riders would move them in the air above their heads. It really became fun when it came time for the doors to shut. They couldn’t. Repeatedly the doors would attempt to close, only to be blocked by several bodies standing on the bus stairs. Now, you would think at this point that the person who can’t possibly fit on the bus and because of them, the doors can’t close, would admit defeat and simply get off, but no, somehow through some sort of acrobatic contortions, they manage to clear the door and the bus continues to the next stop, where the whole process was repeated.

I mentioned that I would not get on the bus. Fortunately, I had a very flexible work schedule and would then just wait until a bus 64 came that wasn’t quite so packed. This could take an hour or more of waiting sometimes. Finally, I decided that if young girls and Babushkas can manage somehow to get on, then I, as a strong middle aged man, could also do this. I became a “packee”. In the winter months this was especially memorable, and I don’t mean in a good way. First of all, you had just as many people who needed to ride the bus, but with the thick winter clothes required here; after all, it can get cold as hell here, the same number of people consumed about 125% of the room that was required in summer due to the clothes. You just need to find a place to stand and a place to hold onto. Forget about getting a place to sit, that just wasn’t going to happen. Sitting were the Babushkas, which you might think, “well, that’s the way it should be”, until it dawns on you, “wait, it’s 7:30 in the morning and there is no logical reason for these pensioners to even be on transport at this hour. The outdoor markets are still closed and so are the post offices. These are the only two places that these pensioners go to, so why the hell are they taking up space on this crowded bus?” The reason is as follows; truthfully, there is no attempt here to have activities for older people to be involved with. Being a pensioner here sucks, at least it looks that way to me. The only thing that they do get is a free transport pass and because they are old, they don’t sleep much anyhow, so they tend to get up early and ride on the buses for entertainment. Seriously man, I’m not pulling your leg. Well, back to the bus ride. You would think that living in a very cold country that Russians would be experts at heating things, which they are not. Russian homes are hot enough to breed sheep in, I mean you have to strip down to shorts and it can still be hotter than hades. But, Russian cars and public transport are always cold as can be, especially the buses named after that idiot Greek boy. Even when the bus is packed to the gills, your breath, and everyone else’s breath is fogging out of you like a dragon. It sucks breathing in your neighbor’s foggy breath. However, the windows of the bus, even on the inside are at about -35 C and all of this “dragon breath” is forming a thick, white, impenetrable frost, which makes it all but impossible to see out the windows. This created a problem for me, but I think for natives also. You see; without sight, it was very difficult to know when you came to your stop to get off. Well, there was, and still is, an intercom system where the driver announces the bus stop where you had stopped and also the name of the next bus stop, this seems like a pretty good system unless the intercom system sounded like crap, as most do. It sounded something like this:……………………………………………………… I feel certain, and I have verified this before, that even Russians can’t understand it. So, I had to come up with a system to know where I was and when to get off.

I actually had two systems. The first system was simply knowing that I had to travel 9 bus stops to my destination. Knowing the names of the stops meant nothing due to the faulty intercom system on the bus, so instead, I would count the number of times that the door opened (the bus stops at all stops and opens the doors whether or not there are people waiting to get on or off). After the eight door opening, I would start to assault my way towards the bus doors in order to get off at the ninth stop.

The only drawback to this first method was that sometimes your mind wanders and you lose track of the number of times the doors have cycled, that’s when I would employ my second method. Because this was an Ikarus bus, made of two sections which flexed where they joined, one part of the bus would be turning while the other wasn’t for the first part of a turn. On my way to work in the morning we would make a right turn at some point, followed shortly after that by a left turn, a few stops later by another right turn and when the bus made another left turn, my stop was coming right up. So, I would stare toward the front of the bus and determine where we were by the flexing of the bus.

On a very rare occasion you might actually get a seat, a window seat being the best in these occasions for two reasons; the first reason being that when you were sitting in an aisle seat, you felt more obligated to give up your seat to an angry Babushka, whereas if you are next to the window you can’t do this easily. But the big “winter Plus” of the window seat is that you could scrape through the frost and see where you were. The most comfortable method was to carry your internet card with you (you had to buy a card and you paid for time used on the internet) and use it as a scraper to scrape a small hole to look out of. Those without an internet card had to use other methods such as taking off a glove and kind of melting a little porthole with the heat from your fingers, then looking out the porthole. By the way, these “portholes” had a limited life of about 5 minutes due to the frost that was constantly building up on the windows. Truthfully though, there were many times in the middle of the day when I might get on the bus and there were some seats available. In my opinion though, it was still better to just stand. Within 2 or 3 stops there was a large outdoor market and the bus would fill up with babushkas there, all laden with bags of food. If you had been sitting, you would give up your seat at this point anyhow.

Well, I’ve talked a lot longer than I intended to about some of the bus experiences I had 11 years ago, I guess that this will have to be a two-part episode in order to fit in all of the info I wanted to speak about. I will save you the suspense and tell you that the situation has improved a lot on that street. The trolleybus line was extended to go up past where I used to live and although one of the buses that used to travel there has stopped, there is another one that now goes on that route. Additionally, there are literally hundreds of “marshrutkee” that now travel than road and next episode I’ll explain what these are.

Well, I hope that you’ve enjoyed my little story about my early experiences riding public transport in Russia. Remember to go to my website at: www.markinrussia.com in order to read the show notes and especially see the pictures meant to accompany this story.

Well, come back and come back often, but until that time, GoodBye!

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