Revising the Moscow in Our Minds

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Some stereotypes are based on a kernel of truth, while others are stuck in the time warp of Soviet film. Here, tourists and expats are candid about the real deal. 

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Stereotypes owe much to the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, when only a few people could see for themselves what things were really like "over there." Twenty years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to quote singer Michael Stipe, it was "the end of the world as we know it."

After talking to many expats, Russia Now found that Moscow has a visceral impact. Rarely did we meet someone who is blasé about the place. It punches them in the gut and woos the imagination. For some expats, their time in Moscow is a very creative time. For all, it is memorable. Living or visiting Moscow is an opportunity to experience and master -- to varying degrees -- a steep learning curve. To know what foreigners think about Moscow, Russia Now interviewed a couple dozen expats and tourists aged between 22 and 50.

Is Moscow More Expensive Than Other Cities?

Many foreigners agree that Moscow is by no means an inexpensive city. Though some agree with reservations:

"Housing is expensive," said Lucie Pokorna of the Czech Republic, who has frequently been to Russia as a tourist. "Transport and culture are rather cheap in comparison to western Europe."

"I think Moscow can be expensive, but there's also a lot of ways to save money as well, especially on food," Brandon Para, 22, said. "Eating street food and eating in places that serve cafeteria-style food like Mu-Mu, helps to save on food costs. The number one piece of advice I would give visitors from America is to eat at places like this, because you can still get a lot of food for the price. Also, using the metro is a lot cheaper than taking taxis, so you can also save on transportation costs that way."

Considering that an average business lunch in a Moscow restaurant costs 300 rubles ($10) and a metro ride costs 28 rubles (about 90 cents), hotels are by far the most expensive part of a trip to Moscow. A recent survey by the hotel.info portal revealed that the average cost of a hotel room in the Russian capital this autumn was 140 euros (more than $200) a day, which makes Moscow the second most expensive capital in terms of hotel accommodations, after Oslo. 

Part of the reason for the high prices is the shortage of hotels in Moscow. There are 215, according to official statistics. Things are looking up though: In 2011, three new hotels were opened in Moscow, four more will open before the year is out and 14 hotels in the center are due to open in 2012. According to City Hall, by 2020 the capital will have 535 hotels capable of accommodating 150,000 tourists. 

The Keys to an Affordable Visit 

Try to save by choosing the right season for your visit: January is considered to be the off season, which includes the three Christmas weeks (in Russia, Christmas is in January and there is a holiday for most of the month). Few conferences are held during that period, and only 10 to 15 percent of hotel capacity is used, according to Moscow's Tourism Committee. 

Another way to save is to find a hostel. They are springing up like mushrooms and are already making inroads in the market. There are officially 55 hostels in Moscow, almost all of them in the center. Twenty were opened in 2011. The average price per night is 10-20 euros. 

Beware of vendors selling fur hats in the Center. To get the best bargain, you have to know the right places. 

"Souvenir shops are to be avoided at all costs, especially in central Moscow, as their prices could bankrupt small countries," Laura Gardner, 26, from Manchester, England, said. "Markets are the best place to look for that cheap, authentic piece of Russian culture that you just can't live without." 

One of the most famous souvenir markets is located at the picturesque Izmailovsky Kremlin. The average prices there are lower than in the shops and, most important, you can bargain. Expats and tourists agree it is a great place to practice your fledgling Russian. Learn to ask "How much?" Then learn to walk away when you hear the answer. The price goes down when they see your back. It works every time.

Dangers at Every Step?

"I am sure it is like any big city," said 31-year-old Tessy McKee, an English teacher from Louisiana who lives in Moscow. "However, I do not feel unsafe at all. I was very cautious in the beginning. I had been warned about pickpockets, etc. So far, I have not been the victim of a crime. I do not know anyone personally who has been a victim."

According to The Village portal, 15 percent of expats interviewed are afraid of nationalists -- and not without reason. 

"While living in Moscow, and since leaving, I have routinely heard disparaging and insulting comments made about people from Africa, the Caucasus and China in particular," said Cole Margen of California. "If you are a minority going to Moscow, don't let the comment I wrote above discourage you. Most Russians I met were very loyal, friendly and generous. However, there are a few bad apples mixed in as well, and you probably will come across them at some point during your stay."

The advice offered by travel agencies and seasoned travellers to first-time visitors to Moscow is pretty much the same as for any other city: Do not stray onto unknown streets after dark and keep away from groups of strangers. 

A Chaotic Sprawl

"As for finding your way around, the Metro is really pretty clear and simple," Elliott Estebo, 25, from Minneapolis, said. "The masses of people can be a bit intimidating if you get lost, but if you're underground you can find your way. Above ground, the streets can be confusing, and they're not always clearly marked." 

Street signage is increasing, and you can always ask directions from a passerby - the younger the person, the more chance he or she speaks English. And one stereotype is true: There are beautiful women walking around in stylish clothes, just as you might imagine. You can even ask them directions. But an elder Babushka (grandmother) is more likely to take you by the hand and show you your train. 

Are Muscovites unfriendly? People do not say "have a nice day" upon departing (unless they just finished their customer training with a Western company). On the other hand, if they say something nice to you, it is genuine. And if they invite you to their home, they don't cancel, and you are well fed. 

"The stereotype is that Moscow is big, crowded, a city of business and that people are always in a hurry," Andrew Close, 48, of Chester, UK, said. "These are all true! However, it is possible to find quiet back-streets to wander through, and some of Moscow's parks are wonderful. I particularly enjoyed Tsaritsyno Park." 

If you try a few words in Russian, you will hear excessive praise and wild applause. No one will tell you your Russian is terrible; instead, you will be encouraged to speak more. 


Good to know 

Free Call Center Aids Travelers 

There is now a 24-hour call center for tourists in Moscow. Operators speak both Russian and English and are ready to answer questions about the capital's places of interest and methods of transport. They can also help in case of an emergency by calling the police or a tourist's embassy. The call center can be reached by dialing 8-800-220-00-01 or 8-800-220-00-02. 
" Housing is expensive. Transport and culture are rather cheap in comparison to western Europe." 

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