Monday, March 10, 2014

Traveling by marshrutka

As the weather heats up again (it actually looks like summer today!), I'm mentally preparing myself to make the transition from Winter Marshrutka to Summer Marshrutka.

час пик on the marshrutka, courtesy of my student Karina.
 The Russian word for route is marshrut (маршрут), thus a vehicle that travels a particular route is called a marshrutka (маршрутка). Any trip to a country that borders Russia usually includes this rite of passage. At some point you'll find yourself on board one of these vehicles and at час пик (rush hour), you'll be crammed in close enough to your neighbors to get to know them very, very well ; ) Consider it the closest thing you'll get to a hug from a stranger in Ukraine. (Although who knows, you could end up with a marriage proposal, like Polly did!)

The Winter Marshrutka and Summer Marshrutka each have their own challenges. In winter, you stand around in your fur coat, stomping your boots and peering down the road to see if the marshrutka is approaching. When that flash of green appears, you've got to either fumble around for the correct change (2 - 4 uah) or rip your gloves off, exposing hands to the freezing air, to find the money. Once the marshrutka screeches to a halt, you'll have to fight your way on board. It's not so much the other passengers that take up all available space- it's more their own gigantic fur coats. In the winter, we all look like bears (some, of course, being more fashionable than others).

In the summer, it's the opposite.  

It's hot. You look forward to the arrival of the marshrutka, hoping that the cracked window will generate some breeze to cool you off.

waiting for the marshrutka
This is never true; onboard it's just as stifling as on the street. Lots of smart women carry fans around and I would always gaze enviously at them until finally getting my own fan last summer. It's a basic human truth: in the winter you want to get on a marshrutka as fast as possible, when in the summer you're madly longing to get off one!

There are some nice benefits to riding the marshrutka:
  • getting from Point A to Point Z (and everywhere in between) fast. And cheaply.
  • the chance to eavesdrop on interesting conversations.
  • actual proof that chivalry / respect for our elders lives on. Men sacrifice their seats for women. Men and women sacrifice their seats for mothers with children in tow. Men, women, and mom/kid combos all sacrifice their seats to the kings and queens of the pecking order: hunched over and wizened babushkas and dedushkas. (Although older folks seem to prefer using the tram or metro, probably wanting to prolong their lives as long as possible [see: marshrutka driving tactics].)
  • noticing that although there may not be much regard to the placement of trash in its proper place outside the marshrutka, the marshrutka itself is clean. Really clean, actually. For all I know, they'll probably throw you out the window if you even attempt to litter.

While marshrutkas come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of sketchiness, most of the Kharkov versions are bright green and carry a sign near the door that clearly displays where they'll be stopping. In fact, there's even a website that will show you over 100 different marshrutka routes in the city (in addition to bus, tram, trolleybus, etc).  

I'll confess that I don't take marshrutkas very often. I usually take the metro or walk and I've got a soft spot for the rickety old trams that rumble through the streets. When I do use a marshrutka it's almost always with a friend, someone to help navigate paying* or to bellow out a loud "Next stop!" or "Stop here!" to get the driver's attention.

* This often involves tapping the person in front of you on the shoulder, passing them some money with an "за одного" (for one) or "за двоих" (for two), then waiting for the change to get passed back down the human chain of passengers.

Okay, time to hear from you: Have you ever traveled by marshrutka? Got any good stories? 

I'll leave you with some marshrutka realities humor, courtesy of
Collecting fares and giving change, smoking, carrying on a cell phone conversation, drinking coffee and driving? Talk about multi-tasking!
Marshrutka seating diagram
whatever works, eh?


  1. hi, let me know if you are in kharkiv. my name is mark, from san diego. it would be great to meet you sometime. i am near freedom square and samskya street.

    1. Hi Mark! Yep, I'm in town. Are you here for a while or just a short visit? Drop me a line at katherine at english-ghoti dot com : )

  2. Hi lady!! Glad to see that y'all are still doing well, wanted to check in, particularly with all the craziness we've been reading about. It's been way too long since we caught up!
    On a side note--I keep looking at weather apps and being astonished that it's warmer in Kharkov than in NYC! I'm still bundled in my Kharkovian fur coat half the time here. Hope you're enjoying the warm weather--summer is always beautiful there!
    Hugs, Starr

    1. Hi Starr!

      Long time no see! (Or сколько лет сколько зим if you guys covered that in your Russian lessons.) Yes, weather-wise it's absolutely fantastic here these days... you can feel spring in the air, warm breezes, long evenings. I feel like it was a hell of a winter for everyone and perhaps this is the impetus we all need to feel cheerful again.

      Miss you and Alex! Maybe you'll come back for a visit at some point? They say you're a seasoned pro at plane travel :p