Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Amazing Race 13, Episode 9

Almaty (Kazakhstan) - Moscow (Russia) - Zhukovsky (Russia) - Moscow (Russia)

Travel continues to have many common features throughout the countries that once constituted the “Soviet Union”. Dual prices for foreigners and locals, and difficulties in communication and navigation, which plagued the contestants in The Amazing Race 13 in Kazakhstan — especially Andrew and Dan — continued to cause problems for them when the race moved on to Russia.

The problems began, as they so often do, as soon as they arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport. It may have improved in recent years — anyone passed through lately and care to comment? — but SVO still has a fearsome reputation, at least at one time fully deserved and rivalled only by JFK in New York, for baggage theft (as at JFK, by organized gangs of corrupt baggage handlers and customs and security inspectors) and outrageous overcharging of visitors by taxi drivers.

The racers don’t lose their luggage (stay tuned for the next episode), since they tend to travel with only carry-on bags whenever possible. But they are quoted the equivalent of more than US$100 for a ride from the airport into the city.

Without a local escort and negotiator or a prearranged airport transfer, and without speaking Russian, that’s probably unavoidable. Moscow’s incomparable Metro (subway) is clean, fast, comfortable, and reaches everywhere you are likely to want to go except the main international airport. And the taxi mafia probably wouldn’t let a driver take a newly arriving tourist into the city for the “local” fare, even if the driver wanted to.

But this problem is so much worse at Sheremetyevo than anywhere else that the racers should have ditched their airport taxis at the site of the first challenge, and gotten other cabs that aren’t accustomed to such extravagant overcharging. If they weren’t in a race and didn’t want to be taken for “fat cat” capitalists, it would have been better to get around by foot, bicycle, or public transit once they made it into the city, since foreign business people invariably travel by taxi or private car.

The racers had trouble flagging down cabs, but there’s a trick: In Russia, as I explain in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World , you don’t hail a ride by holding your arm up the way you do in the USA. You hold your arm out and down at an angle away from your body, with your palm towards your body and your fingers held together and waving, as though beckoning the wheels of the cab in toward the curb at your feet.

Another way to deal with differential prices is to find or hire a local person — even one whose English is minimal — to show you around, introduce you (and explain that you are a tourist and not a business person), and negotiate prices. Dual prices for locals and foreigners are an enduring legacy of Intourist hard-currency prices for foreigners, and most people in the former USSR feel they are justified by foreigners’ wealth. It’s a waste of time to try to insist on paying the “local price” for, say, a cab ride in a situation like that. But a local guide should be able to get you a substantially lower price than you would pay on your own, somewhere between the “local” price and the “foreign plutocrat” price.

I strongly suspect that any team that had befriended someone in the departure lounge or on the flight, and arranged to hire one of their acquaintances (perhaps a student looking to practice their English) as their escort for this leg of the race, would have found their way so much more quickly as to win this leg of the race with ease, and saved enough money through the ability of their escort to negotiate lower cab fares for the day as to more than make up the price of the escort.

Not having done that, and keeping their airport taxi all day, Andrew and Dan got hit with a bill at the finish line for hundreds of dollars more than they had. Luckily for them, the taxi driver eventually gave up (probably because of the television cameras) and went away without beating them up, holding their passports hostage for the fare, or calling the police. Even more luckily, the producers of the race imposed no penalty (although perhaps they will at the start of the next episode).

It’s not just that the frat boys didn’t ask or negotiate the the price before they got into the cab, as one always should, but that they kept going long after they knew they wouldn’t be able to pay. The result, sadly, will be to encourage that driver, and everyone else who hears about the incident, to think that every tourist is a deadbeat who deserves to be ripped off in return.

In Moscow, unlike Almaty, there are enough foreigners and enough visitors from the rest of Russia to support local production of city maps. And the city is enough of a destination for foreign tourists for a wide selection of guidebooks and tourist maps to be published in Europe and the USA. Especially after learning in Almaty how hard it might be to find local maps, there was really no excuse for any of the racers to leave the airport in Moscow without first procuring a map. That’s a lesson for us all: There’s always a temptation to hurry out of the airport to experience a new country or city as soon as possible. But unless the only bus is about to leave, it’s worth taking the time to check for information — maps, city guides, hotel booking services, and the like — before hitting the city.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t follow these discouraging words with a note that I was shown warm and generous hospitality in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Independent travel in this region is rarely easy unless you have local contacts or pay through the nose. But especially outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, it can be not only affordable but fascinating and rewarding. More on that next week….

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 23 November 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I was disappointed that the racers were told to take taxis everywhere. The Moscow metro is very efficient, though people who don't read Cyrillic have been known to find it frustrating. (On a business trip, one of my colleagues would not venture into the Metro without me!)

By the way, it's increasingly easy to avoid SVO, as more and more airlines have switched to DME. There are fast and efficient trains to the center from DME, which is overall much nicer and more manageable.

Posted by: Miriam Nadel, 24 November 2008, 20:21 ( 8:21 PM)

Heathrow is my least favorite airport in the world for all the usual reasons - the confusing layout and poor signage, the general chaos, the endless lines in passport control, and the hysterical and heavy-handed security theater - but one of my most miserable ever travel experiences was at Sheremetevo.

I was in what was then the Soviet Union with a college student group on an Intourist tour in December 1981. We were set to depart on Aeroflot from Sheremetevo to Frankfurt, but when we got to the airport we found that all Aeroflot planes had been converted to military usage, due to the Polish military crackdown that was occuring at the same time.

As a result, we were stuck in Sheremetevo for approximately 24 hours, and, believe me, the Sheremetevo of 1981 was not a place you would want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary. For one, in that entire large airport terminal, there were perhaps six seats, all taken up by ancient looking babushkas with large amounts of luggage. Thanks to the serious shortage of seats, I ended up attempting to sleep on a cold concrete floor beneath a staircase.

Also, there was a serious shortage of food. In fact, what was mostly available at the one airport shop was a tremendous selection of alcohol, but no solid food. I ended up drinking copious amounts of hard apple cider during the ordeal.

Finally, after nearly a day of this nightmare, a Lufthansa flight that came to pick up some stranded Germans fortunately had enough room for us, and we flew out of Mother Russia with great relief. After 24 hours at Sheremetevo, the simple breakfast food we were served on the Lufthansa flight seemed like a gourmet meal. When we finally landed in Frankfurt, the entire plane broke into spontaneous applause.

I have not been back to Russia since that trip, so I have no idea if Sheremetevo has improved since then, but if it's anything like it was in 1981, I would go to great lengths to avoid that airport.

Posted by: Paul Schlienz, 29 November 2008, 18:20 ( 6:20 PM)

I found the other airport, Domodedovo (or whatever it's called), in Moscow quite amazing. The signage was far superior to anything at Heathrow even for native English speakers. Almost all signage was in dual English/Russian and very clear about where to go. Heathrow, on the other hand, has almost no signage and certainly no directions.

Posted by: Peter, 18 December 2008, 04:54 ( 4:54 AM)
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