I've been in serious training, you see, for something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, and finally, my moment arrived. Just what was this whimsical and serious adventure? I was training to participate in the national sport of Kazakhstan, which is of course competitive bus surfing. How do I know this? Just look around; it's happening everywhere, everyday (as with most sports, it gets better promotion and funding in the cities). Like American youths watching and waiting in the wings, and then bingeing beneath their blankets at night in hopes of someday becoming the competitive eating stars they idolize, so the youth of Kazakhstan hone their skills on city streets all over the country.
So I knew, with one month left before I leave this great country, possibly forever, that I had to get in on the Olympic-sized action. I set off on a whirlwind tour, seeking out every opportunity I could find, every secret trick and technique, every great guru to emulate. And then I returned to Astana, capital city and home of the great practitioners of the sport, to train. It was intense. It was grueling. But it was worth it.
Competitive bus surfing is, as it sounds, a sport that takes place on public buses. It is not, as you might be tempted to assume, performed on top of buses, but in the buses themselves, in the public standing areas, and it measures not just one's physical prowess and balancing skills, but also artistic interpretation and performance. It combines the physical beauty of figure skating or gymnastics with the real proximity of danger you see in auto racing or American football. A tumble in competitive bus surfing can cost you more than style points; it could put you out of the action for months.
Bus conductors are generally recognized as the best at the sport, being required to stand on and navigate often crowded buses without the benefit of a handhold, all while counting change for fares. These people sometimes perform their job sometimes with a kilo or more of change in pockets and purses on their persons, and you rarely see one miss a beat. Conductors, being professional athletes are of course barred from competing on the national circuit in keeping with the old Olympic spirit. Making the jump from paid athlete to amateur national sports icon (if you make it big) is tough, and few can succeed in this cut-throat sport. Most aren't bitter about it, and can be great role models for training, but it's best to be circumspect if you decide to emulate a conductor's style.
What follows is the place I would show you pictures of different surfing styles as exemplified by the conductors who practice them. But they wouldn't let me. Turns out they really can throw you off of public buses. Instead I will do my best to describe some of them to you.
- In what is known as the gorilla technique, competitors swing from bar to bar, rarely letting their feet touch the floor. This technique is more prominent among males, whose longer arms and fingers allow them to reach these bars, which are often out of reach for shorter bus riders. This method is somewhat less prevalent among competitive bus surfers because, requiring much less balancing upon two feet, there are far fewer opportunities to score points. When done right, however, this method can be a slam dunk when combined with the technique of the one-handed multi-task.
- The SoCal boy, a personal favorite of mine, is perhaps most reminiscent of the sport's namesake—actual surfing—and relies on the technique of leaning into the turn. Buses in Kazakhstan, unlike their more docile counterparts in European countries like the United Kingdom, rarely slow down for turns, and approach bus stops often at alarming rates of speed. Competitors using this technique must master the concurrent skill of foresight, as one lean in the wrong direction at the wrong time can doom a competitor. Extra points can be gained for the longest lean, and the bus surfing version of the slalom, completed during long runs in which buses weave in and out of traffic.
- The moving target relies on constant movement by the competitor, usually in a forwards-backwards orientation to the direction of travel. This method is considered by some to be the laziest, as mistakes can be covered in many cases simply by keeping your feet moving and not running into anyone. The jackpot of this move is the dismount, though—the ability to arrive at the door at the exact moment the bus stops without a stumble and can often prove a game changer.
There are many breeds of municipal bus in each city, and none more diverse than in Astana, the new-old capital and ever-expanding dream city. There are the cadillac lines, whose stateliness is only outdone by the plushness of the almost-new, most-new seats of all the buses (none of them were ever new, it's speculated). There are the closer-to-microbus lines whose pluckiness and utter lack of shock absorbers make great training grounds, but can also prove hazardous to the the uninitiated. And then there are the self-assured veteran lines, who will always be guaranteed usefulness and patronage, who go just fast enough to stay on schedule, and feel confident in their ability to get away with the occasional erratic move without too much grumbling by riders. Whatever the variation, you will see the noble competitors practicing their moves, if you only know what to look for.
There is only one segment of society who scoffs at this great sport, but we also know better than to say anything because if we do it will mean an immediate end to birthday cards filled with money and all the ice cream we want. I speak, of course, of the babushkis, the grandmothers of Kazakhstan. These ladies are both wonderful and terrible, and also completely assured of their place in the nation's favorite sport. Having the natural balancing ability of women, and the toughness only life under Stalin and a subsequent regime change can provide, these grandmothers of the nation are hands-down champions in the sport of bus surfing. They also know this all too well, and having nothing to prove instead force the younger generation to give up their seats at will and just generally terrorize everyone. And we love them for it.