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The newcomer's guide to Moscow


[MOSCOW]--When the drive from Moscow's Domodedovo airport to my hotel took nearly as long as the two-hour flight from Vienna, it occurred to me not to count on getting anywhere fast in this town.

But, already late for my first appointment with a Russian insurer, I was certain driving was my only hope of making it there at all.

Taxis: When I inquired at the front desk about hailing a taxi on the street, I was informed that that just wasn't done in Moscow. (I'd learn more about that later.)

The front desk recommended I hire one of their hotel drivers--at a cost of about 900 rubles--to take me where I was going.

"I've got to be at there in 15 minutes," I anxiously told the driver. "Can we make it?"

Certainly, foreign and domestic companies operating in Russia face a myriad of risks. But during my first-ever trip this month to Russia, I thought there might be some benefit in compiling my own list of risks. Maybe it could smooth the transition for other business people touching down in Moscow for the first time.

Traffic: OK, we've established that the traffic can be horrendous. On that ride to my first appointment, it took maybe 35 minutes to go maybe a mile and a half.

During that time, my driver carried on in broken English about how little money he earned and asked if I would be interested in him coming to Vienna to be my personal chauffeur. I felt bad, but I had to break it to him that I was an risk reporter, not an Austrian baron.

The Metro: To get to a later appointment, I felt the best approach was to avoid the streets altogether. At the Oktyabrskaya Metro station, I managed to buy a ticket and took the rickety wooden escalator down into the bowels of the Moscow Metro. But my adventurous spirit gave way to frustration when I saw all the signs were in Cyrillic. To get on the right train I had to play a quick game of match-the-squiggly-characters-with-those-on-the-hotel-map. "Cool, a match."

The Metro turned out to be an efficient option for getting around, although it took a few runs to get comfortable.

One warning: the human traffic underground can be as thick as that above on the street. (There's even a mobile phone video posted on Google's YouTube website of bottle-necked masses of Muscovites in the Metro.) Be sure to avoid rush hour.

The Streets: While the train is quick enough, trying to get your bearing when you emerge above ground can lead to delays. I found darting into hotels to get directions was the easiest solution. Stopping people on the street and asking for help in English comes with mixed results. I generally found women in fur coats and expensive-looking shoes the most willing to stop a moment and point the way.

Crosswalks: While we are on the subject of streets, be warned about crossing them. The major boulevards have underground passageways for good reason. Meanwhile, those white-hash marks that usually mean pedestrian right-of-way don't seem to carry much weight in Moscow. A close call with a large SUV taught me that lesson.

Taxis (again): I learned later that there are other ways of getting a cab in Moscow. There are official taxis you can call. Then there are the unofficial taxis. You just stand near the street, put your arm out, and an unmarked car pulls over. An insurance executive hailed down a driver for me in a well-used Russian Lada, negotiated a price for my destination (100 rubles), and I was off. Women aren't always comfortable with this option, which I learned has given rise to a new business venture: a "pink" womens-only taxi service.

Appearances: Once you arrive at a company's office, you might be confused as to whether this could really be the right place--and turn away. In some buildings, merchants were actually selling goods in the lobby. I found that in some drab Communist-era structures, companies often have renovated, modern offices. Apparently appearances can be deceptive.

Hotels: Be advised that just because you or your company spends a small fortune for a hotel room in Moscow--one of the most expensive cities in Europe--don't expect too much. I was given a tiny, depressing wood-paneled room in an expensive Soviet-era hotel that is frequented by visiting heads of state. Come to think of it, recent dignitaries have included Syrian President Bashar Assad and Venezuela's Hugo Chaves.

Visa: After going through the paperwork and bureaucracy of getting a visa to visit Russia, I realized too late that the visa expired a day before my actual flight. Some well-placed experts told me that trying to show up to the airport with an expired visa could mean fines and further delays by Russian officials. I changed my flight and left a day earlier.

Souvenirs: Trying to squeeze in some sightseeing on the night before my departure, I was certainly in awe to be standing in Red Square after all those years as a teen hearing President Reagan speak of the Evil Empire. However, going there you run the risk of not being able to escape without buying one of those furry Russian military hats.

Surely it will come in handy on the next trip.