Letter from St Petersburg: Getting around in Russia can tax the patience
Inexpensive they may be but nation’s taxi service can take a bit of getting used to
A taxi driver waits for customers in Saint Petersburg. Photograph: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty
After the heat in Kazan touching down in St Petersburg in the early hours of Monday morning came as something of a surprise, what with the cold and the rain. The taxi rank outside the terminal was chaotic but, after even a few weeks here, these things seem a little easier to make sense of.
Touching down on my first night in Sochi, it came as more of a shock. The standard advice for arriving in an airport here is to go to the official taxi desk rather than dealing with the mob of guys outside but there didn’t seem to be one there, not at 4am anyway, and so some big bearded bloke waving a car key at me and repeating “taxi, taxi, taxi,” got my custom.
I was all set to haggle hard but when he asked for less than 20 quid, the inclination promptly deserted me.
I’m not generally one for the scare stories that have become a big part of the build up to the last three World Cups but they are not groundless.
In South Africa, there were stern warnings about the dangers of hopping in a car outside a bar at night rather calling one but hey, what are you going to do? On our first night in Johannesburg a colleague from back home and myself had a bit of a late one and broke all the rules.
Later, we would discover that a reporter from the BBC had come out of the same place the night before and got in a car parked in the same spot upon which somebody pointed a gun at him and took everything worth stealing. We, on the other hand, didn’t really know where we were staying and the driver didn’t know how to work his Satnav. For 20 minutes it was hilarious; for the 40 after that, not so much.
Anyway, my welcome to Russia driver seemed especially keen to help with my bag, suspiciously so, and the reason became clear as we walked clean across the car park, out the other side, onto a feeder road then the side of a motorway.
“In, in, in,” he kept instructing me despite the fact that the alternative was fairly obviously getting run over.
We walked for a few hundred metres before reaching a cluster of taxis parked in the hard shoulder. Staying for more than a few minutes after going through the barrier at the airport involved paying a fee, a small one but still a cost that could be avoided.
Once in the car, he starting banging the steering wheel hard with both hands and shouting loudly: “Just like in Irlandia!” It came across as a very good impersonation of Brian Blessed but turned out to be an overly excited attempt to establish a connection on the basis of his car being right hand drive.
We were stopped once which entailed a long delay and lots of paperwork being retrieved but I was struck by the driver’s patience over the process
He dropped outside at the address for my hotel which didn’t look much like a hotel at all. I called the number I had and a guy came in a minivan with blacked out windows to bring to the actual hotel. The side door slid open, there was a bewildered, (maybe frightened, I thought) looking Brazilian in the front.
He turned out just to be tired, like me, only more so and Marat, the driver, was great but it still crosses your mind that if it had turned out differently and ended being told as a cautionary tale, nobody would be able to listen through with interrupting to ask a question that started with: “what sort of idiot . . .?
The week that followed in Sochi included lots of very scary high-speed journeys to the stadium 35 kilometres away but in Yekaterinburg a driver took me to new levels of terror by trying to use a translation app to tell me about his mates who live in Dublin while hurtling about the city’s backstreets.
Kazan was far more ordered. They have police checkpoints in every city but the taxis seemed to take more notice there. We were stopped once which entailed a long delay and lots of paperwork being retrieved but I was struck by the driver’s patience over the process.
On previous trips to the former Eastern Bloc, such incidents had almost always ended with the paying of a small bribe followed by much grumbling about the corruption but here he talked about them doing their job and the need to keep the roads safe.
Separately, somebody had told me of a relation in the sort of public sector job that would previously have attracted backhanders but, they said, his pay was good, arrived on time and he had career prospects.
“He’s not going to throw all that away for a few dollars.”
Taxi drivers, as it happens, had a bit of thing going in the old Soviet Union. As late as the mid-1970s barely one per cent of the population had a car and even in the big cities there weren’t too many cabs. Those who worked them drove a state asset and received a salary so there wasn’t an awful lot of incentive to actually drive people about; not on the meter anyway.
The fares are tiny, bewilderingly so sometimes, and attempts to top them up with tips are routinely met with bewilderment
Now, of course, it’s all apps with the biggest, Yandex, an IT company whose taxi wing swallowed up Uber’s attempt to crack the market here in a deal worth €3.25 billion earlier this year.
The fares are tiny, bewilderingly so sometimes, and attempts to top them up with tips are routinely met with bewilderment but the business is so lucrative that a government investment fund announced a while back that it was buying in. So, the drivers might all be working for the state after a fashion again soon. It will all be rather different now.
Back in Kazan, I suddenly found myself in need of one of my Sochi drivers when a flight time suddenly seemed far more imminent than I had thought. When the guy eventually came I tried to convey the sense of urgency involved through a combination of mime and frantic cursing.
He said it was “not possible, police”.
Things were already looking grim when, two thirds of the way to the airport, he announced he was stopping for petrol. I tried to convey my feeling that this was not the ideal time by almost having a coronary and stepping up the cursing but he said: “not possible, need petrol”.
The flight left without me.
Sometimes, it’s hard to beat a bit of lawlessness.