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Moscow Diary: Driving tips

Russia's ferocious winter tests the resourcefulness of drivers in all sorts of ways, the BBC's James Rodgers reports. His diary is published fortnightly.

ICY CHALLENGES

It has been a strange experience.

Moscow traffic
Long traffic jams are common on Moscow's busy main roads
With each year that passes, Moscow's streets become increasingly clogged with traffic. If they travel by car, people often struggle to keep appointments in the city centre.

December was especially bad. It not only seemed that every Muscovite motorist was out in their car shopping. It felt that half the driving population of this vast country had decided to join them.

Then, suddenly, it stopped. From the last days of December until 9 January, Russians relaxed. The roads were all but deserted. Parks emptied as Muscovites shunned the cold and slept off the effects of festivities. The city was eerily quiet, unusually peaceful. Driving once again became a reliable way of getting somewhere on time.

This time of year brings other, special, challenges for the motorist.

For the past week, the temperature has been well below 0C.

At night, it has been closer to minus 20C.

Some drivers just surrender at the first snowfall - leaving their iced-up cars parked until the spring thaw.

Moscow park in winter
The New Year festivities leave Moscow parks largely empty
Any foreigner who wants to get on the road, and stay on the road, has to watch carefully and learn.

It all begins in the late autumn. The first big decision is when to put on winter tyres. Unless you're one of those Russian drivers who simply puts their car into hibernation, you just have to have a set.

There are important factors to consider: move too late, and you risk sliding all over the place. Move too early - especially in a mild winter like last year's - and you risk wrecking the studs on your winter tyres before their time has even properly arrived.

There are some tricks - such as lighting a fire under the diesel tank of a truck to coax the sluggish fuel into life - which are best left to the experienced expert. I must admit I have not seen this recently, but it was once a fairly common sight on the streets of the Russian capital on cold winter mornings.

There are some obvious tips: never forget to allow an extra 15 minutes' snow-sweeping and defrosting time before setting off on a winter morning. Heating a car key with a cigarette lighter will help to open a frozen lock.

But this is the stuff of the amateur and the part-timer: mere trifles compared to the real heroics required in the merciless frosts of Russia's Arctic regions.

Some years ago, I visited Chukotka, Russia's far north-eastern corner, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska. It was December.

One night the temperature hit minus 49C. Life there had become so hard after the collapse of communism that some housing states had simply been abandoned.

Russian cars parked in winter
Moscow drivers are lucky compared with those in remote provinces
Nevertheless, there were still some people living outside the towns. Cars were their only connection with the rest of civilisation.

It was all but illegal to attempt any journey outside a built-up area alone. A breakdown could mean exposure to temperatures that could kill in a very short time - so cars always set off in twos. Because of the risk that they might be impossible to start again until spring, the engines of parked cars were simply left running.

Even in those hard times, theft wasn't considered the greatest risk.

So for those of you troubled by the challenges of winter motoring where you live, spare a thought for the drivers of Siberia.

AIRPORT ETIQUETTE

No one can say that air travel has become easier in recent years. As the father of a two-year-old daughter, I find delays especially unwelcome.

So I just want to mention a Russian habit which makes airport life much easier: the idea that people travelling with babies and toddlers should be allowed to the front of the immigration queue.

I normally ask an official if it's possible. The last time I returned to Moscow, there weren't any around. Thanks, then, to the Russian lady who saw my daughter in tired tears and insisted we took her place.

If you don't travel with kids, this can be infuriating. But in a country where dealings with strangers and officials can be difficult and even confrontational, this is a real example of the kinder side of Russia.


Your comments:

All true, but misses two key points: First, most Moscovites keep their studded tyres for summer, and enjoy sliding on slicks in winter. Second, Moscow traffic is FUN, especially if you have the sense to watch it, but travel always by the utterly brilliant Metro.
Ross, Moscow, Russia

There is another rule which helps to drive through winter: never (and I mean that) lock the brush and ice-scraper in the boot - its lock gets frozen even more frequently than those of the doors, and there is no chance you would defreeze it using the lighter. So you might end up freeing your car of ice and snow using your hands, nails and parts of your winter attire.
Elena, St.Petersburg, Russia

I spent the winter of 2001 in Moscow; a very snowy winter even by Russian standards. I was greatly impressed by the ability of the local authorities to keep the city free from snow in spite of the heavy snowfalls through special equipment that removes it and dumps it far away in the forests. However the situation was very different in provincial towns such as Ivanovo and Smolensk that remained buried in snow until the spring thaw.
Mietta Federici, Milano, Italy

I am British living in St. Petersburg, this is my fourth winter in the city but my first acually living here on a long-term basis and my first attempting to drive in the city! What a place! Granted the temperatures could be much colder, but nevertheless attempting to steer my winter tyres around the sometimes frozen, sometimes not frozen congested roads is a test of anyone's nerve, especially after the relatively relaxed organised roads of the UK! I stick to the underground where possible now, I know I'll make it on time that way!
Adam, St. Petersburg, Russia

One of the main problems is the inability of Russian drivers to stay in the designated lanes and patiently wait behind one each other at traffic lights or on slip roads. Drivers will create 5 lanes out of 2 despite the fact that they have to get back into 2 lanes once they start driving off. So the drivers who have pushed their way to the front of the queue by creating a new lane might feel they've taken the competitive advantage, but everyone else has to wait. The other problem is blocking the road at traffic light junctions - but there's no point introducing a yellow-box grid system like in the UK. Everyone would just ignore it.
Fran, Moscow, Russia

Brings back memories of Warsaw, Poland in the 60's, taxi drivers used a blow lamp to get the car started and of course there was no heat inside. Kept awake all night by the sound of old ladies armed with pointed iron bars as they broke up the ice on the pavements. Happy days. The people were so nice to us foreigners and the vodka was cheap.
Mike Sanders, Hong Kong, China

Just got back from Moscow after visiting my wife's family. Never cease to be amazed by the resilience of Lada taxis coping with snow, cold and some pretty awful side roads with massive potholes!
Tony Stalgis, Leeds, UK

Our winters are not that ferocious any longer. I can clearly remember the situation about 2 years ago. The average temperature in January was minus 30 C. We got up several times during night, we started the engine of our car and waited for at least 20 minutes, as in the morning everyone wanted to go to work by car (you can imagine walking in such weather).
Catherine, Moscow, Russia

James does not mention the Moscow authorities' liberal use of de-icing chemicals sprayed onto the roads. This may be effective in keeping the traffic moving, but it also turns every vehicle the same grey colour.
Ian Smith, Chester, United Kingdom

One of the main problems: most of the drivers completely ignore parking rules. They leave their cars in the narrow streets of the city centre. And it consequently leads to the traffic jams. So the easiest way to get to the appointment in Moscow centre in time is to use the Metro (subway).
Igor, Moscow, Russia

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JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


MAY - OCT 2008
 

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008
 

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