This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Treats, Trials and Tribulations of the “Taxi”

Photo: "Lada in Belarus",
There’s no better way to experience the delights of the Russian automobile industry than by hailing a “taxi” on the streets of any town or city of Russia. In the short period of time that it takes you to journey to your destination you are free to admire the finer details of various car models the likes of which are unseen and unheard of (for good reason) in the West. During this time you will also experience a momentary insight into the life of those who drive such a vehicle. Trapped in a confined space with a total stranger for whom you have momentarily become a long-time friend, you are unable to escape hearing his whole life story / personal reflections on the financial crisis / evaluation of the state of the country and/or world today / extensive opinion on immigration / complaints about the price of groceries and/or government pension schemes.

The most convenient thing about taxis in Russia is that most drivers are potentially ready to become one. Stick out your hand and negotiate your price and destination with the first person who stops. If the first car does not fancy this price/destination combination fear not – there’s probably already a queue forming behind him waiting to get their chance. This standard practice of negotiating your price with the driver beforehand niftily saves you from the agony of the London black cab as you sit watching the little red figures on the metre rise exponentially every couple of seconds and is one of the main reasons why I am a fan of the “gypsy cab”.

The ubiquitous Lada “Zhiguli” model (yes, it’s the one whose inventors were clearly inspired by the cars they drew in crayon as children) in various states of disrepair or, more comically, with tinted windows, shiny hubcaps and leopard-print furry seat and steering-wheel covers is the first “taxi” that you will probably come across. My favourite Zhiguli experience so far (and there are indeed, many) was one with a tinted rear windscreen etched with a line drawing of Tyra Banks running through a forest accompanied by wolves. The driver really didn’t look the type. Indeed, whilst hailing a car, although it is easy to pick out from a distance which car in the line of traffic will be the one for you (bets are on that it won’t be the guy in the Mercedes), predicting the conversation in store is more of a refined ability.

The price of your journey will depend on various factors, including whether the driver is going that way anyway, how small his normal wage is, how keen he is to have someone to rant at, whether you can show them how to get to where you’re going and how direct the road is. If your destination is straight on then you’re in a good position to negotiate. If your destination is to the right then, at least in Moscow, the city where it is impossible to make a right-hand turn, getting to where you want to go will involve 3 left hand turns and/or u-turns and so your price is likely to be higher. In any case, you can be sure that you will get from A to B in the fastest possible time by weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating the car in front, or even better, tailgating an ambulance passing through a red light. Don’t be surprised if you driver tells you that you don’t need to put your seatbelt on when he sees you making an attempt to do so. Don’t be surprised either if he sees any attempt at putting on a seatbelt on as a personal insult to his own driving abilities. And don’t be too surprised if your car happens to have a portable police siren stuck to the roof. It’s all part of the experience.

Putin: Good Evening, will you take me to the Kremlin?
Driver: D’you know the way?
Putin: Not really, I’m from Petersburg myself.
Driver: How much you payin’?!
Putin: I don’t know… 200 rubles?
Driver: Call it 300 and let’s go.
Putin: No, I won’t pay 300 sorry

: Alright then, let’s go.
Putin: Excuse me, can you…?
Driver: It’s alright… I’ve got one myself.


Emmanuelle said...

Je croyais que la voiture "Retour vers le futur" (total look 70's, avec le chauffeur louche portant des lunettes de soleil et fumant un cigarillo) avait battu la voiture "Tyra Banks"... Tout ça en une seule soirée, c'était du grand art !
Great article :)

Kalle Kniivilä said...

Why can't you do a right turn i Moscow? I never noticed... And why should a left turn be easier? Should be the other way around.