|< previous | next >Letters Home: Naj Wikoff in Ulan Ude, RussiaContents | NCPR Home|
"If you hit a cow, what would happen?" I said to Slava as we sat in his idling car waiting for the mass of cows to inch their way slowly off the road.
"Hit a cow?"
"Hit it and killed it. Say it was dusk. We came over a blind hill and ran right into some cows killing one. Then what?"
"But we didn't?"
"Pretend we did, then what would happen? What would the farmer expect?"
"Well if I killed the cow, of course I'd buy him a new one."
"That it? Just buy the farmer a cow and we are on our way?"
"Yes. What would happen in America?"
"He'd say you killed his best cow."
"He sue you for the value of all the milk it would have produced in its lifetime."
"Loss of income, plus he'd sue you for the value of the prize-winning calves it would have birthed and the milk they would have made."
"Then you'd sue the car manufacturer for faulty brakes and for a car that would kill the cow. You'd argue that there should be cow-airbags to prevent such deaths. Cows on roads are a normal part of life in Russia, thus the car should be built to handle such conditions. You'd also sue the farmer for not having a fence to keep the cows out of the roadway. The car manufacturer would probably join you in that suit as well as suing the highway department for not having fences. You'd get a fine for driving too fast for the conditions. Your lawyer would hire an investigator and learn that the cow actually produced the worst amount of milk of not only the herd, but of all herds in the region and would imply that the farmer had his way with sheep. His lawyer would counter sue for defamation of character. Your lawyer would try to get you off the speeding fine with either a failure to wear seatbelts or going through a stop sign."
"Not at all."
Aside from cow hazards, sheep hazards and yak hazards, there are horse hazards (often the worst as they can be discovered anytime day or night and will, at the last second, change directions invariably back in front of your swerving car). The animals are in the roadway because they are let out of people's stalls in the morning to search for food, thus they spend the whole day wandering around and crossing roads looking for something to eat or, at days end, heading home to be milked. There are no fences, as that would hamper their ability to forage. Horses tend to run wild, and, not needing to be milked, are more unpredictable.
In addition to animal hazards there are people hazards (people walking or bicycling in the dark on the highway without reflective clothing, indeed wearing black), motorcycle hazards (motorcycles traveling in the dark sans lights with an old lady, dog, load of fish or can of water in the side car), major potholes and frost heaves, and few road markings. The centerline is faint and fog lines on the edge of the road are a rare thing, rarer than guardrails or warning signs. Many drive very fast, pass on curves and have never heard of 'defensive driving.' A third of the cars, being manufactured in Japan for Japanese roads, have the steering wheel on the right, meaning a driver often has to pull nearly fully out into the passing lane to see if it is safe to pass or whip back in his lane with nanoseconds to spare to miss the on rushing truck or car you are in. Knowing where you are or where you are going is a challenge as there are no road numbers, road names and few, if any, directional signs such as when coming to fork in the road telling you which road goes where.
If in a city, like Ulan Ude, you have several public transportation options. If you are fortunate to live along their routes, the tramway is a popular option. They run from about 6:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M., come frequently, and, located on their own rails in the center of the roadway, avoid traffic jams. They cost six rubles. Once on the tram, a woman, who spends her time working her way back and forth the length of the tram between stops, will collect your fare and give you a torn ticket as a receipt. You can purchase a monthly pass as many students and commuters do. The price recently went from five to six rubles, nearly causing a riot. Tramways usually have a single row of seats along the length of one side and a double row along the other with open areas for standing across from the three sliding doors.
Mikrikis (micro vans), more commonly called Marshrutenies, or Route Vans (comes from the German word for army marching routes), travel throughout the city and beyond. Licensed by the city to private companies, they have regular routes and stopping points. You pull open the sliding door, seek a free seat (those by the door or up front with the driver being the most sought after) and pay your fare by passing it to the front and waiting for any change to be passed back. The fares range from seven to ten rubles in the city depending on the level of competition on the route and if it is after dark (add a ruble). If the van is full it will not stop unless you call out the name of your stop (Syannie in my case) or, in Russian, 'Next stop'. The vans all have the numbers of their route posted on the front window and often it is best to wave one down if you see the number you want otherwise it may continue by even it has some empty seats. Finding a route map is a tricky thing. They are sometimes sold at kiosks and bookstores, but they don't last long. Mine was passed down from Justine, a Fulbright-Hays scholar, and her husband Roberto, with the understanding I'd pass it along to another new arrival on my departure.
Buses, featuring that rounded look of the Fifties and often appearing so aged, some owned by the city and some by private firms, also serve many of the major routes. They tend to be a ruble cheaper than the marchutenies and, like the tramways, have a person who collects fares. Where buses are a bit different is that you pay your fare getting off the bus rather than when getting on. Taxis are an option. Prices are negotiated. There is no fixed price by distance, time or number of passengers. Simply, make your best deal. If you feel it is too high, make a lower offer or try another cab. Expect to pay fifty to one hundred rubles. More if you are going out of the city. I recommend having a Russian with you when negotiating with cab drivers. Between communities there are regular vans, buses, and between cities, the railroad. Some people attempt to flag down any passing car and negotiate a price for wherever they wish to go. Such transportation is used primarily after 11, on the outskirts of town or traveling between communities. Many, in rural areas and city suburbs, ride horses or walk (becoming people hazards at night).
"So Slava, what if a cow walked onto a railroad tracks and was hit by a train?" I said as we continued waiting.
"Trains don't stop."
"Bad for the cow."
"No new cow for the farmer I imagine."
"No. In your country?"
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475