By the time I had been in Russia two days, I was thoroughly unimpressed with the Communism that I had seen. I had expected to see dilapidated buildings, sad old junker cars, an unhappy, slow people and general drudgery around me. To the contrary, St. Petersburg is a cosmopolitan city replete with parks, clean city streets, beautiful architecture and fascinating people.
One of the things that did set me on edge though was the taxi system. Namely that there really isn’t one. Yes, there are a few yellow cabs that roam the streets, but for the most part people rely on gypsy cabs. I had read about gypsy cabs in doing my inadequate research on wikitravel before I left — but had immediately ruled them out.
See, years back during the Communist regime many people used to pick up riders going in the same direction for a few extra chunks of pocket change. Most drivers supplemented their meager annual salaries this way and it became fairly commonplace. Now, well into the federation years of Russia, the tradition still stands.
To flag a gypsy cab, stick your arm out at about waist height, wave it around and wait for some car (any car) to pull up and roll down its window. Negotiate your price (or, if you don’t speak Russian, show them a picture of your destination or address), jump in and off you go.
Sound safe? I didn’t think so either. In fact, the idea never even occurred to me until I had about a liter of Russian vodka in me and needed to get home at 4am. Solution? I stuck out my arm and within five cars passing a new Volkswagen Golf stopped by, I showed him a picture of our address and we were home for two dollars.
Now, in the US I can’t think of one person in one city who would be willing to do this in the middle of the day, but in the Motherland it appears to be a pretty common way to get around. I wish we trusted each other enough at home to do the same thing.