UZBEKISTAN: The Little Green Running Man and Why Are All the Cars White?
Then I moved to Tashkent.
Tashkent’s roads are either huge boulevards with at least six lanes of traffic going each way or small crater and pot hole filled streets with variously made and sized speed bumps. I once made a mistake of riding in a friend’s car on my husband’s lap and by the end of the 5-minute trip my head probably bumped out a new shape in the car’s roof.
The first week my husband and I were in Tashkent, we needed to cross a wide boulevard, or yo’li in Uzbek. We found what resembled a crossing, which meant a break in the cement block barrier that separated the traffic directions. We could have braved the non-official crossings and crawl over the barriers like the locals; however, we decided for what we thought was a safer approach.
We stood at the edge of the road, cars whizzing by at what appeared to be highway speed. Suddenly all tiny cars braked to a halt, their drivers leaning forward with the momentum, their rearview mirror decorations swinging violently. We glanced up to the semaphore and saw the familiar green man implying we should walk. We briskly crossed the first half of the road and stepped on to the second half. This was only about 6 seconds into the green man appearing.
Suddenly, the green man started rapidly moving his LED legs. We were about half way through the second half of the road. Abruptly, the little green running man disappeared. At the same exact moment, all tiny white cars lunged forward, their drivers’ wild dark eyes reflecting their faraway destination.
We found ourselves stuck with three more lanes of traffic to cross. Cars were accelerating all around us, swerving, honking. For a moment, we just stood there stunned, not sure if we should run back to the middle or push forward. We instinctively grabbed each others’ elbows and jumped and weaved our way across the three remaining lanes.
There were some streets where the little green man ran from the start. If we saw that, we knew we had less than 10 seconds to cross the road.
Sometimes the semaphores didn’t work at all. I learned that with my friend on our way to the gym. We needed to cross a busy road right next to a large traffic circle. We approached, and to our horror saw, that the light was broken. We stood indecisively at the edge of the road as the cars hurried by.
Suddenly, a car in a lane closest to us slowed down and stopped. The driver honked and was furiously waving his hand for us to cross. This was nerve-wracking because we weren’t sure drivers in other lanes were going to follow suit. Nonetheless, we needed to cross the street so we stepped in. The only condolence was that we knew that Uzbek law said that if a vehicle hits a pedestrian, it is always the vehicle’s fault. We managed to run across the street safely.
Two months of doing this and now I am not as scared and go into traffic like the locals. The cars will stop or veer around. I hope.
Veering brings me to another interesting observation. Apparently, traffic lanes are not something to be followed here in Tashkent. The way the traffic flows is the way of least resistance. Meaning that if there is a spot, you take it. If that means driving ON the line, it’s fine. If that means passing a car with an inch or two to spare, it’s fine. If that means honking and pushing your way to a place you want to be, it’s fine. I dread the day I sit behind the wheel here. Unless I am in a tank and can disappear in case of an accident.
I already mentioned the metro police a couple times. Now that I have been here longer, I have been checked more times than I can count. It is always a combination of backpack or a bag search, followed by an inquiry if I am a tourist, followed by a request for a passport. If the police feel extra bored, they follow up with questions about where I am from and verifying my name. But it’s all good because I have nothing to hide besides my stinky gym sneakers and a sports bra. And they salute me in the end.
Finally, one last interesting thing on the traffic theme is the almost complete lack of colored cars. I would say 90% of the cars are white and are a Chevy Spark. At first I was perplexed and thought that maybe the government only allows certain colors but then I was educated that white is the cheapest color and you can’t see dust on it as much as on colored cars. That’s not to say there aren’t any hued vehicles. The Russian car Lada comes in all sorts of colors from pea green to deep blue to yellow and orange, beautiful red or brown. It kind of reminds me of this Noam Chomsky quote:
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
In other words, if you want a colored car, you will only be given Lada, but hey, you can have ANY color you want.
On that note, having grown up riding in one, I hope I never ever have to drive it here. Stay tuned for more from Tashkent, Uzbekistan.