The Quick and the Dead, Part II: Exploring Moscow Bipedally
Text and photos Ross Hunter
If Passport’s pieces on driving etiquette last issue (April 2008) caused you some anxiety, then you might want to consider other ways of getting around Moscow. The capital has some wonderful architecture and some amazing street sights — animal, vegetable, and humanoid — that are best enjoyed up close and unvarnished.
1. Obuv ground: Use your shoe leather
Moscow from the pavement is a fine alternative to assault course training. The streets are teeming with pedestrians that are generally on the move and cars that are generally not. Of the two, the steel machines tend to be more accommodating and softer on impact, except when accelerating. Air quality is not the highest, though this is more a function of cigarette smoke than motor emissions. Curbs are high and of uneven geometry, curiously combining the traits of slipperiness under foot and abrasiveness against the flesh. One excellent guidebook states that, as personal risks go, the tilting manhole cover and elevated cobblestone are far more dangerous than gangster attack (unless you are a political journalist).
Pedestrian crossings are not safe for zebra. Given Moscow’s dire imbalance between cars and parking places, hard-pressed motorists will take the easy option. White stripes and impressive street signs are no protection against machines, whether in motion or at rest (see photos below, left; note the municipal vehicle). Moscow’s stray dogs, the city’s most streetwise citizens, recognize that it can take a while to get across a street (below, right).
A particular joy is Russia’s defining contribution to the urban hazard catalogue, the downspout (below, right). About the same time as Soviet technology was masterminding the launch of Laika the dog and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into the heavens (and getting the latter back to Earth again), monumental- grade water shoots were being fitted to monumental-style buildings, from top to not quite bottom. Often equipped with electric heating as a de-icing feature, these magnificent barrels discharge a high-speed jet of frigid water straight at …. your knees.
If not actually toppled by the water cannon, the walker’s next entertainment is the resulting delta of sheet ice enveloping the sidewalk, which slopes just enough to ensure that the pedestrian who loses his footing is propelled into oncoming traffic.
Should you reach the corner, you will be impelled to play that great Moscow sport, especially competitive in winter, “guess the depth of the puddle.” Eighty-three percent of standing waters are only shoe-deep, but one in six will reach your knees (the same odds, by neat coincidence, as those in Russian roulette). No points are awarded, however, if a passing trolleybus drenches you.
But do not be put off, gentle reader, as Moscow seen on foot is far more interesting, informative, and vital than through the window of a vehicle.
2. Four wheels bad, two wheels good: Moscow on velocipede
The best compromise between intimacy and velocity is, of course, the bicycle, and it can be the finest way to explore Moscow. You travel far faster than a car, and with total freedom in the open air. The city has a remarkable selection of cycle-friendly routes, some of them official. A ride along the river or through one of Moscow’s many parks can make for a lovely weekend outing. But it is at rush hour, when cars clog the city’s arteries, that cycling is most heavenly. The pavements are your playground, and pedestrians scatter quickly and respectfully. In fact, when mounted atop your bicycle, the pavé is the perfect locale — you are nearer the shops and away from the cyclist’s one serious enemy in town: the tram track. If you have to share space with a streetcar route, always cross the iron rails at a brisk angle; once enrutted, the biker’s chances against an oncoming road-train are slim.
While you are speeding between road, shop, and walkway, gaily ignoring all official rules, what legal upsets do you risk? Plenty in theory but few in practice. The clear working assumption of the uniformed branch is that anyone reduced to pedal power is too poor to own pockets, providing the cyclist some protection from arrest. Granted, body checking a bodyguard or oiling an oligarch’s suit may entail “consequences,” but that’s up to you; it’s a free country.
Ross Hunter is a Moscow based educator, biker, and pedestrian.