Moscow: Need to Know

City Basics

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Arriving. If you fly into Sheremetyevo International Airport, a few warnings: Sheremetyevo is dusty, drab and very, very Soviet. Do not be afraid. Avoid eye contact with the cops and the hordes of gypsy cab drivers who will offer to give you a ride for an exorbitant wad of cash. Head for one of the yellow cabs and be prepared to haggle. The trip should cost no more than 1,200 or 1,300 rubles. Also, very important: Make sure you change some of your dollars into rubles before you get in the cab. Your driver will tell you he can't legally accept dollars and then tell you he has no choice but to charge you 100 bucks.

If you land at Domodedovo, the same cab rules apply; there's also a very convenient train that (usually) runs hourly. It's cheap, adequately comfortable and it'll take you to Pavaletsky Train Station in the city center, happily avoiding all the traffic that now clogs Moscow's major boulevards.

Getting Around. Take the metro. It's cheaper than cabs, and it's one huge piece of art, especially the stations at the Arbat and Mayakovsky Square. More good things: The metro is cheap; one ride costs about 60 cents,although fares have been rising. Best to give the unsmiling, unhelpful woman behind the plexiglass the 250 or so rubles you'll need for a 10-ride card — hold up your hands and show her all 10 fingers; she'll understand. The metro runs until 1 a.m. Note: Don't be alarmed by the occasional bloodied and besotted drunk wandering through a metro station. And don't be alarmed if, at seven in the morning, you enter a metro car that reeks of cheap vodka. You're in Russia.

Cabs, Part I. You hail a cab — or, more precisely, a gypsy cab — by extending your arm at waist, not shoulder, level. If you're at a busy intersection, expect a line of Ladas, Volgas and other Soviet-era rustbuckets to line up for you. There are no meters when it comes to cabs. You negotiate. If you're traveling within the center (i.e., inside the boundaries of the 12- to 15-lane Sadovaya Koltso, or Garden Ring), you shouldn't pay more than 200 rubles (roughly $8). When traveling outside the center, fares can jump to 300 rubles or more. Bottom line: Start very low and work your way up incrementally. This is a buyer's market. Unless you're being chased by someone — always a possibility — there's no need to rush.

Cabs, Part II. Under no circumstances should you ever accept a beverage from a cab driver. Many a foreigner has been offered an unopened bottle of Russian beer only to pass out and (hopefully) wake up sans wallet and passport somewhere in the farthest outlying reaches of Moscow. (Some cabbies have been known to inject sleeping agents into beer bottles through the cap.)

Cops and Bribes. Foreigners run the distinct risk of being hit up for bribes — for absolutely no reason — by the cops, who are really low-level criminals posing as cops who will threaten to arrest you if you don't help them buy a bottle of cognac for their friend Dima's birthday. (This happens. Really.) Shakedowns are most common in highly trafficked areas like Red Square. Two things to do in preparation: One, make sure your registration and passport are in good order; two, keep a spare 500-ruble note in a side pocket far away from your wallet. Most Moscow police make the equivalent of about $400 monthly; 500 rubles, or $20, is more than enough. One more thing: Do not be afraid if you get stopped. The whole cop-bribe gambit depends on you not knowing that you haven't actually done anything wrong. Just keep talking, asking questions, acting dumb and offering the bare minimum to make them go away. They'll go away.

Trust the Babushki. When you're lost or unsure how to extricate yourself from a difficult situation — which can happen — find the closest babushka (babushki is plural), or grandmother. These elderly ladies sell flowers and vegetables. They mull around the outside of their apartment buildings. They can be found in marketplaces and on street corners. No matter where you are, the babushki are your likeliest savior. They know Moscow. They are feared by everyone. And often, not always, they will help out a foreigner who's lost and in dire need of help.

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