Archive for the ‘Daily Life’ Category

I Survived Moscow's Summer of 2010 (but didn't get the t-shirt)

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

When I returned to Moscow from the slight chill of wintery South Africa, the city was at the start of what would be a six week heat wave of epic proportions. From late June until early August, not a day went by when temperatures didn't reach 30 degrees C (86 F) in the city. Some days, it got up to the 35-40 C (95-104 F) range.

I remember one day checking to see the temperatures in other major cities in what are usually warmer climates to see if their weather was hotter. Los Angeles? No. Miami? No. Cairo, Mumbai, my beloved Ibiza. Nope. Every one of them cooler than Moscow. To put it in perspective, Moscow is at about the same northern latitude as Glasgow, Scotland or Edmonton, Canada.

The hotter days, up around 40 C, set all-time temperature records — not just for those particular days, but for any day since they started keeping records! One top meteorologist hypothesized that, since there were no written accounts of such serious heatwaves in the pre-weather record era, it was probably hotter than it had been here in 1000 years.

With the heat came wildfires — literally hundreds of them throughout the European part of Russia. Forest fires burned whole villages in some parts of the country. In the Moscow region, peat bogs were ablaze, covering the City of Moscow in a blanket of acrid smog whenever the wind blew in the wrong direction. Health officials likened being outside for an hour to smoking two packs of cigarettes, and visibility was measured in the tens of meters at times. Airports even diverted flights.

Bolshoi Moskvoretsky bridge. Usually, St Basil's Cathedral and the Kremilin's towers are visible on the other side.

Bolshoi Moskvoretsky bridge. Usually, St Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin's towers are visible on the other side.

In mid-August, the heatwave ended almost as quickly as it began, and the rains finally came. It was too late to save the crops in some parts of the country, resulting in a ban on wheat exports as the government tried to keep domestic prices from skyrocketing.

I've never been one to fret much about global warming, but I suppose this phenomenon was good evidence for those who advocate a stronger position on the matter. Even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev softened his stance on the issue, admitting for the first time that it's something to worry about! Interesting for the head of a country that, in the coldest parts of Siberia, wouldn't mind if things got a little warmer.

Christ and the Car Thieves

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009


I was coming home from a long night out on Saturday morning and had to get something out of my car, which was parked in the courtyard of my apartment building. I noticed some glass on the ground nearby and thought, “what idiots broke a bottle there?  I'm going to have to be careful backing out tomorrow.”

Only when I got closer did I realize the glass came from the window of my car's front passenger-side door. Someone had broken in and tossed everything around the front seats. Fortunately, they had no interest in taking the car's documents, a tube of super glue, the factory-installed car model-specific radio, or the power cord to my mini-computer. I assume it was the latter that sparked their interest, or maybe my windshield-mounted mobile phone holder, which looks like it could be made for a GPS unit. Too bad they thought I was idiotic enough to leave the computer in the car overnight, because all they accomplished was wasting everyone's time.

As it was Saturday, there was really nothing I could do until Monday so I ended up having to go park the car in my office garage for the next few days. The insurance people were competent and more or less tried to be helpful, although it still took until Tuesday to work out how I could get the window repaired quickly.

Today, Thursday, I finally got the glass put back in. I am extremely glad to be back on the road. It was interesting how, despite having taken taxis everywhere for more than 7 years before I bought the car, it was unpleasant to have to return to that routine.

But the best part of the whole thing is this: ISTT, the glass specialists who repaired my car, have a small shop in a parking garage… underneath the Christ the Savior Cathedral! It turns out there is also a car wash down there, and I'm told there's a banquet hall too (which even serves meat and alcohol during Lent. Oops!)

I wonder if this means my new passenger door window has been blessed. The next time someone tries to burglarize my car, they'll probably choose a different window.

Update: I have since learned, following an unfortunate traffic incident in which an emergency utility truck scraped the front of my car, that something was stolen in the break-in. They got the digital camera I kept under all the papers in the glove compartment. I kept it there in case of unfortunate traffic incidents! Good thing this accident was in daylight hours as my cell phone camera worked just fine.

Starbucks Update!

Friday, July 17th, 2009


The Starbucks in my office building is now open for business! They put up the signage just before I left for vacation 2 weeks ago and, when I returned earlier this week, they were already up and running.

Firstly, that means not having to listen to any more banging and sawing, as it is directly under my office. More importantly, iced vanilla cafe lattes are within easy reach.

I’m trying to figure out if we could install a dumbwaiter or coffee pipeline directly into my office to save me the trip downstairs!

500 km Non-Stop

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

OK, so I haven’t driven 500 km without stopping, but I finally hit that marker with my lovely little Peugeot 107!

This amazingly fuel efficient vehicle has consistently gone an entire month on a single ~35 liter tank of petrol. Like clockwork, I went to the station to fill up in the early morning hours of June 25 and subsequently checked the trip odometer. I had finally broken the 500 km barrier on a single tank. 504.5 km, to be exact.

I don’t think I did substantially more highway driving than usual, although I did take one trip out to the suburbs last weekend. Nevertheless, this range was noticeably better than the usual 440-460 km.

So that works out to about 14.44 km/liter, or 6.92 liters/100 km. In imperial measurements, that’s 34 mpg. Not quite the official rating of 51 mpg for city driving, but with the traffic you encounter in Moscow I’d say I did quite well!

Starbucks Update

Thursday, May 14th, 2009


Last September, I wrote excitedly about my first experiences with Starbucks in Russia. They’d opened their first store in Moscow a year prior to that, and their second just 3 months after the first, but both were in areas I rarely traveled. Thus, it took me a while to get around to visiting.

Now, a year and a half since they won their copyright battle and arrived on the scene, there are already 15 Starbucks in Moscow. That’s a little less than one new store a month. Well done.

Best of all, 2 of the stores are within a 3-block radius of my apartment! The newer of the two, which opened within the past few days, is even conveniently located such that I can quickly stop by on my drive to work. Starbucks’ iced vanilla lattes have already become a new addition to my daily routine!

And it gets better… another one is due to open right in my office building by the end of this summer. Bonus!

However, there is one downside to all this: pricing. A grande iced vanilla latte cost 200 rubles, or about $6.15 at today’s exchange rate. Compare that with the one I had in London last week for £2.35, or about $3.30. Big difference! Here’s hoping that the prices come down once they hit critical mass.

One Month, No Gas!

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

There were several reasons why I chose the Peugeot 107 when I decided to buy a car last year – some of them quirky, others quite practical. On the practical side was the fuel efficiency of this car’s tiny but entirely adequate 1-liter engine. With fuel consumption rated at a stellar 68 miles to the gallon (about 3.6 liters/100km) on the highway and 51 mpg (4.8 liters/100km) in the city, I expected not to have to spend much money on gasoline.

My first full month of what I consider to have been regular driving conditions proved me right! Between January 24 and February 25, I drove daily to and from work (about 15km round trip) in the notorious Moscow traffic, and took a couple of longer trips to places like Ikea and Sheremetovo 1 airport. Over the course of that month, I used 33 liters of petrol to travel around 420 km. That works out to 7.85 liters/100km or 31 mpg.

Sure, that’s not as good as advertised, but I never expected as much when driving in this city’s traffic. It’s still better than most other cars on the road, and I doubt there are many other car owners out there who drive for 40 minutes a day and can say they’ve gone a whole month without visiting a filling station!

There’s one other statistic I’ve worked out. I used to spend 400 rubles/day on taxis to and from work. That’s about $11 now, but for most of last year that worked out to around $16 (the ruble has taken a beating over the past 2 months). By contrast, I spent about 33 rubles per weekday on fuel for the month ending February 25, and that’s assuming no weekend driving, which was not always the case. That is less than a dollar a day, and less than a 50 ruble round trip on the metro. I saved $240 over the course of a month. Even factoring in depreciation and (future) maintenance, this car is paying for itself!

The Last Document

Friday, December 12th, 2008

So, today, I received the final piece in the puzzling array of documents a car owner in Russia should have.

Actually, in fairness, there are no more documents required for a car owner in Russia than there are in the United States. When you’re driving in either country, you have to have your car registration, your proof of insurance, your driver’s license, and proof that your car has passed a state inspection. In some states, you also have to have proof of property tax payment, which they don’t have here.

The difference is that getting these documents in Moscow, at least for foreigners, is a bit of a hassle. Fortunately, I had some help from an agent whom I employed so the process for me was, in hindsight, no more difficult than it would have been back home. The only real complaint I have is that the various GAI stations that must be visited are miles away from the center of town. I’ve put 400 km on the car in 2 weeks, when my daily commute to and from work is only around 12 km.

I mentioned before that I had gone to the GAI technical inspection, but I didn’t actually receive my “techosmotr” card at that point. I just handed some documents over to my helper guy. This week, I learned that in order to actually undergo the inspection, I needed to go to another GAI office conveniently located on the far southern edge of the city just inside the Moscow Ring Road in the Tsaritsino district.

I drove up at my appointed time (those with connections can make appointments instead of waiting all day) and drove into their garage. The process was relatively painless and quick. Here’s a photo of the red car next to mine getting the once-over with their mean green analyzing machine.


I was out of there in 30 minutes, techosmotr card in hand, and actually got back to the city center in time to return to the office for the last 40 minutes of the work day. I am now a fully legal Moscow car owner and driver.

The Process

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Now, there are all kinds of fun associated with acquiring a car in Russia, especially if you're a foreigner. Here's a little synopsis of what I have had to do since I arrived a the dealership last Sunday.

First of all, you've got to get some insurance right on the spot. I signed up for OSAGO (mandatory liability coverage) plus KASKO (optional comprehensive coverage). I had done some research on various insurance companies and had some ideas about pricing and service. In the end, I ended up choosing the insurance company favored by my dealer, mainly because they have a special arrangement whereby I can just drive to the dealer's service center for any insured repairs and not deal with all the insurance company hassle.

Premiums on KASKO vary based on how long you've been driving. I've been driving for over 20 years, but unfortunately that is not written on my driver's license (as it is on Russian licenses). As a result, they tried to charge me as if I'd been driving since I last renewed my license… one year ago! That's about 50% more than I should be paying. I fought this one hard, and won! I found a couple of documents around that prove I've been driving since at least 1999, and there is no difference between the 9 year and 20 year rates.

New cars are sold without license plates and Russian law gives you 5 days to get that sorted out. Most dealerships will handle this for you for a fee. Not for me though, because for foreigners the system is “too complicated.”

So the next stop is the state auto inspection, abbreviated GIBDD but better known by its Soviet-era acronym GAI (pronounced gai-yee). The GAI where foreigners have to register their vehicles is conveniently located at the northernmost edge of town, just inside the Moscow Ring Road. The process involves waiting in line, handing over a stack of documents, paying a $20 fee and having some guys check the numbers on your engine and chassis to ensure that you're registering the right car.

I went out there on a Tuesday and found the whole thing surprisingly painless, aside from taking up half a day, much of it due to the distance traveled to get to the place. It might have been quicker had the Peugeot dealer not made a mistake on my OSAGO form, requiring me to break off the process, drive over there and get them to correct my policy. Luckily, the dealership is located just a few miles away on the same northern edge of town.

After receiving my car registration and license plates, the next step was to take care of the technical inspection. The office for handling tech inspections for foreigners is conveniently located on the southernmost edge of town, just outside the Moscow Ring Road. Yes, that's right, on the whole other side of the city from the first place. Brilliant.

Thankfully, I had a contact there, found through a friend, who made the whole process simple when I trekked out there on Wednesday. Afterward, I went to a local auto parts store and picked up all the essentials — tools, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, window washer fluid, towels, an emergency sign, bungee cords and a towing rope — everything a good driver needs to weigh down his trunk! Still having a problem sourcing some proper floor mats, but I hope to have that handled soon.

On my way home last night, I had my first encounter with the GAI's road police, whose job is basically to stand around on thoroughfares and intersections, stop passing vehicles with their magic baton, and then extort drivers for money. I was stopped in one of their random document checks, not because they saw me commit a specific violation. However, I was missing one document that I was supposed to have with me (left it at home on the copier). After arguing that I wasn't supposed to carry it around (knowing I was wrong), being taken to sit in the officer's car but not offering a bribe, and generally playing the can-barely-speak-Russian foreigner for a good 15-20 minutes (and ignoring various threats of car impounding, big fines, etc.) he gave me this:


A 100 ruble (~$4) fine! It pays to argue :-)

The Wait

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

The process of buying a car in Russia is not unlike subjecting one's self to a long period of torture. Surely, the physical pain is minor but the psychological damage is likely permanent.

Firstly, the dealer system here is a farce. If back home in the US of A you can find lots full of new cars and plenty of options immediately available for purchase (and other options installable by the dealer), here a dealership is lucky to have a handful of any particular model available, and usually in the configurations they want to sell, not the ones you want to buy. In Washington, a city of roughly 5 million including the far-flung suburbs, I bought my previous (and only) new car in one day. Here, the process took exactly 2 months.

First, I contacted each of the 10 or so Peugeot dealers in town to see if they had a 5-door Peugeot 107 automatic in stock. I found one, in a city of 15 million. Just one. I had to travel 20 km to a dealership just outside the Moscow Ring Road to take a look. It was silver, a color I can deal with, but there was one big problem — no air conditioner.

I was beaten. Moscow had won again. I resigned myself to wait, put down a $400 deposit, and put in my order. I could see on the sales guy's computer that the car I really wanted was their next one scheduled for delivery — a black 5-door 107 automatic with A/C. It was still on the factory floor in the Czech Republic. It'd be here by the end of October, he said, but I never really believed him.

Now, Peugeot is not such a big brand in the States but it, and its sister brand Citroen, are quite popular in Europe and especially in Russia. Seems like any time you look around, a Peugeot 206, 207 or 307 is driving by. The Peugeot 107 (also sold in other parts of Europe, with slight modifications, as the Citroen C1 and Toyota Aygo) is entering its third model year now. Granted, this model only made it to Russia in the past year, but you would think there would be a few in stock by now. No, not really.

Frequent calls to every dealer in town throughout the months of October and November turned up no more than 3 or 4 cars in the configuration I wanted. They were all red, yellow or light blue. I could have dealt with 4 of the 7 colors this car comes in — dark grey, dark blue, silver or black — just not those other three. So there's the dilemma: drive around in a bright red car or keep waiting. I waited.

In the last week of November, I finally got word that my car would be there in a few days. Of course, I had heard that a couple of times in the previous couple of weeks, but this time my sales guy said it was for sure. I paid for the car by bank transfer, only to have some other sales guy call me on some nitpicky administrative issue and blurt out that it would still be another week. I had a sinking feeling… this car is never going to show up.

But 2 days later, my regular sales guy called to say the car had arrived. And so, on November 30, 2008, I drove off the dealer's lot with my shiny new little car. The wait was over.

My story is not the exception. In fact, I’ve been told that I’m lucky. Others have waited much longer for their make and model of choice – 3 months, 6 months, or more. Why the automakers and dealers can’t fix a system so obviously broken, given the massive demand for vehicles in this country, is a mystery to me… until I remember that I’m in Russia.

The Decision

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

I was sitting with some friends on the lovely summer terrace at Moscow's Scandinavia Restaurant one day when I queried one as to why he had bothered buying a car. In this city, every 5th car is a private taxi driver trying to make an extra buck, and the cost is relatively low compared to most big cities (about the only thing that is cheap here!). He told me of the day he had what I'll call an epiphany.

You see, the trade off for cheap transportation is that these private taxis are often old beat-up Ladas with a smelly driver who plays some intolerably bad Azerbaijani music while smoking a cigarette with the windows closed and interrogating you on your life story. You learn to deal with it… I even enjoy it sometimes as it's interesting to learn about people from different countries and cultures (many drivers are immigrants from the Caucuses or Central Asia) and maybe teach them a little something about where I come from.

But my friend had enough one day a few years back, and after sitting in a taxi much like the one described above, he said to himself: “Why do I put up with this? I can afford it. I'm going to buy a car.”

I didn't put too much stock in his answer at first but a few weeks later, on a cool September day, it happened. That was when, after 7 years in Moscow, I grew tired of the routine of walking 2 blocks to the main road each morning to hail a car; of sitting in my office until late so as to wait for the traffic to lighten up and not pay double on the way home; and of explaining to every other driver that no, I'm not a visiting African student but an American professional. I sat in one too many smelly taxis.

It was time. I had my epiphany.

And so, on October 5, I put down a deposit on a Peugeot 107.


After a lot of research, I settled on the 107 as it is the smallest decent 4-seater I could find (my initial idea was a Smart car, but I decided a 2-seater was impractical). Parking is a major issue in Moscow, so a small car seemed ideal. There are a couple of Korean cars of similar size but quality was also a concern and the Peugeot, built at a joint venture with Toyota in the Czech Republic, gets good marks in that department.

The 107 has insanely good fuel economy and very low emissions, so it's not only an environmentally-sound choice but also economical. It also costs, new, what some other cars in its class would have cost me used (the Mini Cooper was another option I looked at).

And best of all, I feel as though I'm giving the finger to the sometimes-overbearing excesses of Moscow. Some people here think that some level of status is conferred upon them by driving the largest available Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Range Rover or Toyota Land Cruiser. And I'm not talking necessarily about the wealthy, but even people on my executive level and pay scale. I could afford one of these fancy cars too, but why bother? My Peugeot will get me from point A to point B… comfortably… and that's all I need it to do.

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