Central Asian cycling can be a bit wild, especially if you’ve just landed from a country where there’s a developed cycling culture.
Across the region, more and more people are driving for the first time. The high cost of petrol relative to income meant that until recently few people could afford a car. Now, as the economy grows, the number of vehicles on the road is exploding. In Kazakhstan particularly you will see a surprising number of SUVs and luxury cars.
There’s no need to get too worried. First of all, you can avoid a lot of this just by picking the rural roads, of which there are many. When there is traffic, coming into cities for example, most drivers tolerate cyclists fairly well, simply going around them.
But because there are very few cyclists in Central Asia and because there isn’t a great deal of respect for cyclists (anyone with a bicycle is poor while a car symbolises power and wealth), clashes can happen if you don’t yield to local customs when it comes to who has right of way on the roads.
Be aware that:
- Techniques like moving with traffic in the lane, ‘taking the lane’ and going to the front of an intersection at red lights don’t generally play well. Expect plenty of horn honking, gestures and close encounters. At stop lights, cars frequently wait ahead of the stop line and will get upset if you’re “in their spot”
- Many people have not been driving long so driving skills are lower than in developed countries; they may have even bought their driving license and never taken a test
- Drink driving is somewhat common and culturally accepted as normal
- Offended drivers may think nothing of lightly nudging your bike with their cars or getting out and challenging you to a fight
- In cities, local cyclists tend to cross intersections by riding over pedestrian crosswalks and often on sidewalks. On the road, they will keep as far to one side as possible so cars can go around them.
- Be careful of missing manhole covers and poorly maintained roads in general, which make night cycling particularly hazardous
- Shared taxis, a common form of transportation, are another hazard to watch for in cities as they may stop unexpectedly or open a door in front of you