Thursday, December 30, 2010

All Aboard The Moscow Metro

I never thought I would encounter a more mind-boggling metro system than the one that runs through Tokyo, but then yesterday I arrived in Moscow.  I think I can now say with authority that there is no more confusing place on Earth than deep within the bowels of the Moscow Metro.  It’s probably not all that bad if you can read Cyrillic and otherwise have no particular place to be, but today I had a couple of important errands to run at two different places around Moscow, and only the following, palm-sized metro map to guide me:

I think you can guess what kind of a day I had.

I suppose the language barrier creates a different kind of challenge for me, but I can’t imagine that riding the metro here can ever be easy, even for the average Muscovite.  I’ve read that more than nine million people use the Moscow Metro daily, and today it felt like they were all trying to board my train at once.   There were so many people trying to shove their way on, at one point the train noticeably rocked back and forth on the track.  And when I say people shove, that’s no exaggeration, as when today a woman, apparently desperate not to wait the five minutes for the next train, placed both of her hands on my back and—seemingly with all her might—pushed me forward so she could squeeze into the few square inches of space left before the doors closed.  This startled me, and without thinking I blurted out “Jesus Christ!” which only served to turn a highly-chaotic situation into a more colorful one.

Not only is the metro overcrowded, it’s also brimming with people obviously under the influence, like the totally-inebriated man who stumbled on me as he entered the train at one of the stops on the Red Line.  Often, and especially during rush hour, there is barely a millimeter of personal space separating one passenger from the next.   Making matters worse, the little breathable air inside the train is constantly permeated with a stomach-turning mixture of stale-alcohol breath and rank body odor.  I rode the rails armed with a pack of CVS-brand moist wipes and my Purell hand-sanitizer, but I probably could have done better with a mask and some air freshener.

Before I ever set foot on the metro here, several knowledgeable people warned me, simply, to “watch out.”   This was probably unnecessary considering my already-heightened sense of paranoia, but I suppose one can never be too hyper-vigilant, especially when one is carrying an expensive MacBook Pro inside a backpack amid potential thieving gangsters on a sardine-packed foreign metro.  Of course I remained constantly on the lookout, obsessively guarding my person and things against prying hands, and every so often giving my abdomen a furtive fingering to ensure that my hidden money belt was still safe and secure beneath my jeans.  And—just to be extra cautious—I cut no one slack in terms of level of suspicion; not even the otherwise innocent-looking Babushkas at whom I would cast sidelong glances that said, “Don’t even think about it, Granny.”

I realize I've said a few unflattering things about the Moscow Metro, but I don’t mean to impugn it in its entirety.  In fact, many guidebooks advise that it is a tourist attraction in and of itself, and for 26 rubles a ride (approximately .86 cents), it’s a great value for those—like me—who enjoy soaking up the local flavor.   The beauty of its architecture alone is really something to behold, as is the art on display, including this mural of Lenin (at least I think it's Lenin), juxtaposed next to a fast-food stand. 

I learned as well that there are many good and helpful people working and traveling within the metro who are willing to assist a clueless stranger from America.  In the end, I got where I was going still possessed of all of my things, and ready to give it another go tomorrow for my first visit to Red Square.

And for those who have been paying close attention, I want to tell you that Alla's coat has now become my coat, and for this I am extremely grateful considering I arrived in Moscow yesterday in what I would describe as a blizzard.   At the moment it is hovering between 8 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and I don't think a sweater-on-top-of-a sweater would have quite cut it.  And finally, still no word on my own coat, which I'm hoping Alla will like; that is, if it ever does arrive in St. Petersburg.