We got back to Moscow on the 6th January after a short New Year holiday in Germany. We had originally expected a long transfer wait of 5 hours in Warsaw. Due to some kind of delay, that blew out to more than 8 hours at Warsaw airport waiting for our plane to Moscow.
Eventually it left, with us on it, and we were on our way home.
We were very, very tired. As well as spending all day at the airport in Warsaw, we had had only 2 hours sleep the night before. We’d been with friends at a concert in Munich, and left the venue really, really late. Then we had an early flight from Munich to Warsaw, so we were up at 5.30am or something ridiculous to catch the first plane from Munich.
Not enough sleep, too much beer, and not enough food. We were exhausted and just wanted to get home.
We finally arrived in Moscow at midnight, instead of the scheduled time of 8.35pm.
As is usual in Moscow airports, after leaving the baggage reclaim area and customs control, we arrived at the point where taxi drivers tout for passengers to take their taxis at inflated prices. Some of them are official taxis, some aren’t.
Many years ago there were virtually no taxi companies here in Moscow. It was customary to just flag down a car in the street, tell the driver your destination, fix a price and either agree and off you go, or disagree and off he goes without you. Then you wait for the next car to stop.
The wait was never very long, and sometimes the next car had already pulled up behind the car you were negotiating with, in the hope that you’d reject the first guy’s offer and try the next one. It was super convenient because wherever you were in Moscow, and whatever time it was, day or night, you didn’t have to wait more than a few seconds for a ‘taxi’.
And waiting outside clubs and bars, there was always a choice of drivers to get the best price for your destination.
Then they changed the laws. Taking a car in the street became illegal. It didn’t mean that you couldn’t still do it. It just meant that there were fewer cars stopping for you.
Then somehow, quite quickly, there were several new, official, taxi companies operating here. You can book them instantly with an app on your phone.
And now the streets of Moscow resemble the streets of New York – yellow taxis everywhere.
The prices for the official taxis are quite reasonable, but the experience is completely different.
You see, taking an unofficial taxi is fun – if not a little risky.
You never know who your driver is. Is he drunk? On drugs? Illegally in the country? A safe driver? Going to rob us? Going to crash the car?
What can happen in an unofficial taxi?
I’ve heard so many nightmare stories about foreigners taking unofficial taxis in Moscow, some are even first-hand stories from friends and colleagues.
A couple of English teachers fell asleep in the back of a taxi once and the driver didn’t know where they wanted to go (they were drunk), so he drove to his home and left them in the back of the car. When they woke up in the car they didn’t have a clue where they were. Then they had to negotiate the cost of the ride home (as well as pay the cost of the drive to the taxi driver’s house!).
Some years ago a colleague of mine was accused by the driver of paying with a counterfeit note. He was happy to go to a cash machine and get some more cash to pay the driver, but there was some kind of altercation, and the driver opened the passenger door while the car was going and pushed my colleague out of the car. He ended up with some broken teeth and a smashed and bloodied face – fortunately it wasn’t worse.
Other stories involve the driver stopping some place down the street after the passenger gets in, to let in his friend, and then together they rob the passenger. Or the driver offers the passenger a drink from a can of beer or bottle of vodka, then the passenger has no memory of what happens next and wakes up somewhere without his wallet, passport, or phone, in a place he doesn’t know.
I’m sure there are many more stories out there about this kind of thing.
The ‘old’ Moscow
Moscow has changed a lot since I first arrived in 2007. Back then, apart from almost no official taxi companies, there were no night buses. The metro closed (and still closes now) at around 1.00am, so if you were still out after that you had to find another way home.
Sometimes you could find the number for a taxi on a tree!
Ten years ago, you took an unofficial taxi. There was really no other option except to wait for the metro to open again at 5.30-6.00am.
The ‘new’ Moscow
These days you just open the taxi app on your phone and you have a taxi in a matter of minutes. Or you can take a night bus, which didn’t exist until just a few years ago.
Because I don’t have a smart phone (and neither does Olivier), I can’t use an app to order a taxi when I’m out late at night. Sometimes we ask a friend to order one for us if we’re in a place with no night bus, or if we’re in a place where it will be difficult to get an unofficial taxi.
It’s getting harder and harder to find unofficial taxis.
But at the airports in Moscow it’s a different story. Even though they’re not allowed, there are still plenty of guys waiting for you when you arrive, ready to offer you a ride for a negotiable price.
There are also official taxi companies operating from the airports, with quite reasonable prices, but sometimes the desk you have to go to order the taxi is either far from where you’ve exited, or there are too many people waiting.
So, sometimes the unofficial taxis are the best option.
How to get an unofficial taxi from the airport in Moscow
What happens is that a guy approaches you with some kind of fake taxi id thing hanging around his neck with prices of fares to different areas of Moscow. So, you negotiate your price (or accept his ‘official’ price if you don’t know any better), and he takes you to a guy who’s waiting outside in the parking area with a car. You pay the guy you met inside, he pays the driver and then goes back inside. Then you go with the driver.
The problem is, the driver doesn’t want to pay the car park fee. There’s a 20 minute free ‘window’ in the car park, during which you can exit without paying. If you stay more than 20 minutes you have to pay.
Apparently, our driver had been there for more than 20 minutes. But he didn’t want to pay.
The barrier system to exit the car park at Sheremetevo Airport is a 2 part process for cars, with two barriers to get through. So, the driver puts his ticket, which he’s already paid for at one of the payment stations, into the machine. Then the first barrier goes up, and he goes through and stops at the second barrier. The first barrier then goes down so nobody else can go through behind him. Then the second barrier goes up and he’s out of the car park and on his way.
It is possible for a second car to get through behind the first car without paying. He just has to drive very, very closely behind the first car.
Will we get out or not?
Sometimes, the security guy, or the operator, or whoever is monitoring the exit, lets this happen, and the two cars exit together. Maybe they think it’s no big deal to sometimes let someone out without paying.
But, as we saw the other night, sometimes the operator doesn’t let anyone out without paying.
First, we watched another car try to do it. So, there were two cars between the first and second barriers, and the operator had blocked, or somehow prevented, the opening of the second barrier. So, the first car, who had paid, couldn’t get out until the second car reversed back out.
The operator was giving instructions over the announcement system for the second car to reverse out. The second car reversed out, the first barrier was then lowered, and the second barrier was raised to let the first car out. The second car has a choice, either try again behind another car, or go and pay for his ticket and get out legitimately.
Then our driver decided to try it, so we sneaked past the raised first barrier behind an official taxi, who had obviously paid.
The operator was having none of it. The second barrier wasn’t raised. The official taxi in front of us couldn’t get out. The operator was announcing on the loud speaker for us to ‘reverse back, reverse back’!!
After a minute, we reversed back and watched the taxi which was in front of us leave. We waited a while. We saw the same thing happen again with another car. ‘Reverse back! Reverse back!’
I was wondering how long it would take to get out of the car park. I was really tired and just wanted to get home.
What happened next?
The driver called his ‘boss’ – I guess it was the guy inside the airport we paid our money to. The ‘boss’ told him to drive through the barrier – break it if necessary.
So that’s exactly what we did.
We drove slowly to the first barrier. The driver opened his window and with his hand, lifted the barrier over the top of the car, and then drove to the second barrier.
The second barrier couldn’t be lifted, it wouldn’t move. It was stuck. So we drove right through it. Broke it completely. We were free!
The driver was happy. He said something like ‘if they won’t let us out without paying then of course we’re going to break through it’. He wasn’t angry, or aggressive, he just wanted to get out of the airport car park without paying.
Another car came through the broken barrier behind us, and thanked our driver as they passed us on the road!
I’m not sure we would have had such an ‘interesting’ exit from the airport if we’d taken an official taxi home. That’s why we like taking the unofficial ones – sometimes something unexpected happens which just gives us one more story to tell.
Olivier once had a problem with his foot and couldn’t walk. We ordered a taxi online from home to take him to the hospital for an xray. But after his hospital visit, he had to take a taxi from the street because he had no way of ordering one from the hospital.
It was raining. He was walking with a walking stick. An official taxi approached him in the street, but when Olivier said where he wanted to go, the driver told him it wasn’t in his direction and left Olivier standing there in the rain with his stick, not being able to walk!
He took an unofficial taxi home that day.
One evening, we went to one of our favourite 24 hour bars, the Bourbon Street Bar, and when we arrived there was a ‘taxi’ driver there who we had used before. He remembered us. When he asked us if we needed a taxi, we explained that we had just arrived and wouldn’t be needing a taxi for at least a couple of hours. He said no problem, he’ll wait for us!
He was waiting for us outside the bar when we were ready to go home a couple of hours later. No extra charge.
Sometimes (maybe often) we’ve paid too much for taxis because we’re foreigners. We know we’re not going to get the same price as locals. Even though we’re not rich by any means, we usually don’t mind paying a higher price because we just want to get home.
One night, also from the Bourbon Street Bar, we took a beautiful taxi home. His price was quite a lot higher than the price we usually pay, but when we tried to negotiate a lower price he indicated that if we wanted to ride in such a beautiful car we should be prepared to pay for it.
We paid the higher price and enjoyed the ride in the beautiful old car.
And a bad experience
On the other hand, the only time I thought I was going to die in a car was in an unofficial taxi in Moscow one night a few years ago.
We’d been out with a friend and were going home. We negotiated the price and got in the taxi.
He drove like a maniac. And really fast. I was really ready to die. Each second of the trip I was expecting him to crash. I actually made peace with myself and prepared to have my life end. It was that bad.
So, yes, it can be dangerous to take a lift in a car from someone you don’t know. The risks can be high – not only death from dangerous driving, but many other risks associated with accepting a lift with a stranger. There’s absolutely no protection for you if something goes wrong.
But it can be fun.
Let me know your taxi stories in the comments below.
Disclaimer: The author does not recommend or endorse catching unofficial taxis or breaking the law anywhere. Take any taxi, official or unofficial, at your own risk.