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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


World-Class City for Tourists? Not so fast…
Text Diogenes Touristico

got into an argument with a Russian colleague of many years the other day. I was agreeing with him that Moscow was indeed an enjoyable and exciting city to live in, when he said, “Yes, we have truly become a world-class city!”

I took issue with that. “Yuri, I have come to love this city. It is big, it is rich, and it has many good things going on. But Moscow is not “user-friendly,” as we say in the computer world. And this is enough to keep it out of the ranks of the world’s top cities. It is unfriendly and unhelpful to the traveler, and certainly, no one says, “Let’s pop over to Moscow for a holiday!” as they might for Paris or London or Rome.”

Why is that? Well, here are some areas in which Moscow has some improvements to make before it can truly become a world-class city

1) Tourism infrastructure. The entire thing needs an overhaul. This town forces tourists to sign up with a guide or tour agency to get around. Terrible signage. Irritable and unhelpful kassa attendants are as common as mushrooms after the rain (as we like to say in Russia) or as sidewalk expectoration (as we like to do in Russia — see #11 below).

Whenever I have sent visiting friends to the Kremlin, they always come back tired — not from hours marveling at the wonders of the Kremlin Armory or Cathedrals but from the frustration of the ticket-buying process. Even those who successfully navigate that procedure and obtain tickets — for a pretty penny, by the way — are then told that their movements are restricted: They must have a guide escort them to the front of the line to enter each building. And how about setting up a centralized electronic ticket distribution system for theater and concerts? With all the central planning experience and computer wizards in this town, surely someone can be found to design such a thing.

Sidenote: Is there a reason for the windows at these kassa booths to be set at Munchkinland height? I submit it is to make the customer bow down and tilt his head in supplication before the mighty Ticket Khan, who has the power to admit you or send you packing. A lingering vestige of the Tatar Yoke, perhaps?

2) Visas. The visa policy must be brought into the 21st century. Why on earth does one need a letter of invitation from a hotel or travel agency (see #1 above) to come here? Russians are so quick to invite you into their house for some tea, but into their country…well, that’s another story. You literally need a printed invitation! And maybe some hospitality lessons for the visa clerks at the embassy? Many friends complain they are treated as criminals trying to sneak into the country rather than guests to be welcomed.

3) Metro. The Moscow metro is quite splendid for those of us who live here, but it is outdated. In addition to the millions it needs in infrastructure upgrades, how about more signs telling you what station you are at? Or maps to tell you which of the 20 exits underneath Pushkin Square is the one you need? Or, Heaven be praised, electronic ticket dispensers (again, see #1 above)?

4) Traffic and driving.
The hassle and danger of driving in this town make it prohibitive for the visitor. Car rentals are horribly difficult, and the laws regarding who may drive are Byzantine (literally — I think they were brought from Byzantium in the 10th century together with Christianity). How about numbered exits for the MKAD and other ring roads? And the GAI (traffic police)? Don’t get me started…

5) Taxis. It’s time to set up a decent, dependable, licensed cab service. With meters and drivers who know the roads. Can Moscow really call itself a worldclass city when you raise your arm to hail a cab and end up flagging down a decrepit Lada instead? You then haggle the driver down to $10 (from $15) to take you to what basically amounts to the end of the block (albeit a long Moscow block). Maybe you are paying for that old car smell and the tetanus you’ll contract from the metal spring that’s popping out of the seat and digging into you for the duration of the trip.

6) Save your old buildings. Tourists want to see those old palaces and glorious buildings! And how can you let a glorious place like the Shchusev Architectural Museum go without the paint job and new windows it needs? How about a “Heritage Trust” organization or “Save Moscow” society to help private donors save your old buildings and better utilize the space?

7) Airport access. I know there is some train service to 2 of the 3 airports, but once an hour? And where are the signs that tell the visitor that? Get off at Paveletskaya Metro Station, and where do you go to get the train to Domodedovo? Or where do you get a taxi when you take the train back to that station, aside from hauling your luggage out to the street and flagging a gypsy cab? And getting a cab at the airport? (See #4 above.) Russia could learn from the rest-of-the-world about the single line for passports and airline agents, with a monitor directing one to the first available clerk or official?

8) No foreign newspapers.
How can a city of 12 million people, with international businesspeople here all the time, not have Le Monde or the International Herald Tribune or Asahi Shimbun for sale at regular newsstands? This is Moscow — not Perm! (I suspect there’s still some Soviet-era law on the books restricting the import of “degenerate” foreign journals.)

9) Classical music station. Culturally speaking, this is a wonderful city — theater, concerts, ballet, opera. Can’t someone buy the bandwidth for one classical music station so we can have Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff there for us always instead of bubble-gum, teenager-targeted cacophony that dominates the radio dial? Yes, I know Radio Classic is trying, but I’m talking fulltime classical music — 24/7, please.

10) Phone codes. Maybe this is just the eventual overtaking of all landline phones by mobile phones, but can’t we synchronize the prefixes for dialing so that a mobile number can be used easily from landlines?

11) Trash. Only in the receptacles, please, and we could use some more of those. And pick up aft er your dogs, for Spot’s sake. Also, the spitting and tissueless nose-blowing on the sidewalk have got to stop. Even Beijing cleaned up its act for the Olympics. Surely the Russians can do better than the Chinese?

12) Bird Guide. Well, I admit this one’s not essential, but it is personal. Why is there no “Birds of Russia” identification guide in this glorious country? Not just of “Europe …and Russia,” but of all of this beautiful land? Not just a pretty picture book with a few birds, but a real bird guide of all species and distribution maps. Every country interested in protecting its environment has one. And environmental tourism is big money these days.

I paused for a breath, and Yuri gave me that “What-right-does-a-foreignerhave- to-tell-me-how-to-improve-myown- city?” look that I know so well by now. Then he paused. “Well, maybe we could use a decent birdwatcher’s guide…”

The author, a diplomat who has traveled throughout Europe, the Americas, Australia, and Asia, has learned to love life in Moscow but, out of pure respect for the sensitivities of others, prefers to remain anonymous when offering critical advice.

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