Tale of a maiden experience in Moscow’s subway system
I rode the Moscow metro on my first day in Moscow and my initial impression was a mixture of nervousness and excitement. I was at the Komsomolskaya subway station, one of the major stations on the network, wanting to go to Park Kultury station. Several things I experienced on this maiden ride didn’t make sense to me until I got used to them few days later.
Dark tunnels: Let me begin with the long and narrow tunnel leading from street level to the metro station. Water was seeping through broken pipes, light bulbs were flickering, paint was falling off and there was a distinct smell. Being rush hour, the tunnel was packed with people who were walking very fast, going about their business. I got a cold and grim feeling since there was nobody chatting, smiling or laughing. For some reason I also thought that everyone was looking at me, haha, but that was only because the guidebooks said that’d happen.
Buying tickets: At the subway entrance, there were imposing windows with pigeonholes with the word ‘касса’ (meaning ‘ticket window’) written over them. Since everything was in Russian and transactions were happening at a brisk pace, it was a bad time to ask questions. I simply handed over three hundred Roubles and said “десять” (ten), meaning a 10-ride pass. The lady gave me change and a blue metro card and looked at the next person in line. That was my cue to move.
Getting in: Entrance to the metro is tightly guarded by expressionless babushkas (older women) who man (rather, woman) the entrance machines. You show your metro card at the reader and the door opens. On most of the times there are no doors (or they stopped working and are always open?), so you simply pass. At other times the doors will refuse to open. In such a case, you go to the babushka and grumble so that she can open the door manually. That’s why she is there.
Then, you are led down a tunnel, in a single or double file, only to disappear in darkness.
Escalators: I was quite shocked to see people form a single line and enter the escalator, almost in an army (prison?) like discipline. The escalator took a long time, what seemed like an eternity to me. It was a long, narrow tunnel drilled deep to protect against an American nuclear attack. There were 3 escalators – one going up, one going down and the middle one was shut off. People were standing in their respective escalators as the belts hummed their way down. Most people were silent and appeared to be very serious, looking straight ahead or at people on the other escalator (or at me). I quickly put my camera back inside. Someone with claustrophobia would have a tough time here.
As the escalator moves down the tunnel, you look down and you see nothing, you look up and you see nothing – it feels like you are on stairs running from the sky to the center of earth. The humming sound of the machines, artificially and insufficiently illuminated tunnels, policemen and people around me gave me a very uncomfortable feeling. I had never felt so disconnected.
Police: On the platform, all I saw was policemen. There might have been three policemen for every hundred people but that ratio was abnormally high for me. Then there were men dressed in military uniform all over – I thought they were police too but later I learnt that they were simply going to or coming back from duty. The literature you read online makes you believe that the sole purpose the Russian police exist is to stop and harass foreigners. Naturally, I was worried since I had not registered my visa yet (I was supposed to do it within 72 hours of arriving in Russia), and I didn’t want trouble.
Train: On the platform, being morning rush hour, people will bump into you if you stop walking. I had momentarily stopped under a signboard that said which train went where and it was enough to make it evident that I was a lost foreigner.
After I spent many minutes trying to read a few words from the board and looking at my map to make sense of it, I found my platform. I went there and saw a train coming. It was extremely crowded (by Toronto standards). So crowded that I automatically found myself inside the compartment once the doors opened. The crowd had shoved me inside. haha! People were tightly packed inside the train, arms, elbows, blond hair and stern faces all around.
Missed my station: The next challenge was getting off the subway. When my station Park Kulture was announced, I was ready to get off. But the people ahead of me were in no mood to make room. I tried to force my way through and even said a feeble “Извините, Я хочу Парк Культуры!” (Excuse me, I want Park Kultury!). Heads turned, obviously that phrase was incorrect but made sense. It was too late. The doors closed and the train moved. I missed the station!
“You should poosh” the guy standing next to me said thoughtfully, in heavily accented English, “otherwise you miss.”
“Yes, yes,” I said.
Conclusion: Those 30 minutes were enough to remind me of the aggressiveness required to negotiate the crowded train system in Mumbai or sunday morning buses in Israel. Once I was prepared mentally, rest of the metro rides were quite fun and enjoyable. I loved traveling in the subway trains thereafter. Suddenly, the metro became real and lively, not grim and scary at all. I even stopped imagining that the police were after me (despite the fact that I didn’t register my visa until last week!) Fun times! 🙂