The Moscow Metro is similar to other metros in my experience. You buy a ticket. (There’s often an English speaking window at the station.) You wave the ticket at a machine. You find your line. You get on the train. You get off and change to the next line. You get off at your stop. You find your way to the surface, point in the right direction and walk towards your destination.
BUT! Moscow Metro IS different! The stations are the People’s Palaces! They are GORGEOUS!
Advertising came along with the World Cup. The video screens were put into each train so that it would be possible to see every game even if you were commuting. In fact, you could sit in the warm trains and watch if you wanted. Now there are ads. And funny cat videos. And screens are appearing in the middle of the platforms in the People’s Palaces.
The station names were unfamiliar and written in a different alphabet. I was deeply grateful that underneath the Cyrillic the familiar (to me) Latin alphabet spelled out those words or I do not think I could have found my way to my hostel. The streets were quiet as I walked the 10 minute stroll, houses and buildings set back from the road. Little traffic. Autumn leaves clinging on. People in warm coats, scarves and gloves. October. It was nearly winter. Nearly dusk. Mid-afternoon.
Strawberry Duck was a lovely building. Like the city I had experienced so far from the Metro, and the little park on the way, it was quiet and orderly. The interior designers had been given free rein and the flavour was elegant, quirky Prado.
Deep blue walls transitioned down the long hallways into mulberry, then into a kind of mustard, giving an impression of opulence and soft dignity. The art pieces scattered around were light-hearted, an origami duck lampshade, a collection of watercolours showing inviting places to sit with your friends perhaps and many prints and paintings featuring ducks in amusing poses.
Downstairs, the kitchen and common areas were hard-hit-back designer brick inlaid with cool shapes and atmospheric dim lighting.
As well as the deep colours throughout there were wallpapers of bold florals that matched the decorative noveau splashbacks in the bathrooms. You could pay for 45 minutes of private bathroom but the shared spaces were cleaned regularly – in fact there was no time when I didn’t see a cleaner somewhere nearby. The reception staff were very kind to me – the oldest woman they’d seen in Strawberry Duck ever, I imagine! Most of the girls in my shared room were young and, as I went to bed, they fussed over their make-up and outfits preparing for a night on the town. The beds were curtained off with a deep green faux velvet, adding to the quiet style. Everyone had a locker but many of the girls seemed to be between houses, bringing suitcases, hangers and boxes of clothes. There was a lot of packing, repacking and some emotional phone calls going on. But quietly. Real owl and sparrow divide. Definitely in the sparrow tribe, me. Though, solitary. Just an unidentified LBB, then.
Thought I was lost for a moment. I walked around their block, not making sense of the map and their street not coming up on maps.me. I asked one lady who pointed me off in the wrong direction (we were actually just near the building) and another who steered me correctly with lots of words but we nodded and smiled and I said, ‘Spasibo’ a lot. Another young woman looked at my crumpled piece of map and, fearing I wanted money, I suppose, cut me dead and steered away. Made me think how I have treated people in need in the past.
Lena and the two girls gave me my ticket with a small ceremony. ‘Do not bend the ticket!’ And they let me charge my phone. I would not bend the ticket.
Back to a little cafe near my hostel
and a walk around the pond.
There were beggars, people with their hands out in the shopping strip and in the tourist area, just by Resurrection Gate. This is modern Russia. I gave some coins to a man with no feet and there was a strange circular place like a coin fountain, where if you threw money over yourself, presumably depending on where it landed, you would get the wish of your dreams. A random man picked up some of the coins with a collecting stick. He wore no badge of accreditation. Could just have been his turn.
On our walking tour we heard the story of a young woman who did just that, and as she stood and contemplated her wish, a young man, bearing an armload of long-stemmed red roses raced to kneel before her and propose. ‘Of course,’ said the guide. ‘We can only hope she knew him beforehand.’
Our lovely Free Tour of Moscow guide, Iryna, happened to be late. I spotted her preparation at the bus stop in front of the meeting place, the sculpture of the two fellows who invented the Cyrillic alphabet. She put on her red scarf and microphone and bouncy stage presence. Then made an entrance as she swept up the steps and called us all together into a group with such merriment she sounded like she was twelve, giving an Eisteddfod speech. She was well into it by the time her assistants arrived with the red umbrella. Perhaps she was on edge because everyone had chosen to be late that day?
I found it difficult to engage for some reason. It might have been my state of mind, the tone of her voice or even the subject. Russian history in a nutshell was incredibly hard to digest; overwhelming and unsatisfying. I guess it was me. We went up to see a beautiful swirl of green, white and red old church that is usually unavailable for tourist viewing. But today the street was open.
This site has been haggled over ever since Stalin wanted to build the Eighth Sister there. (Guess he settled for Warsaw?) Now, after years of debate, it is a place for the people, entertainment, museums and cafes.
We walked through the roof garden to the observation bridge that is not a bridge. It is a lookout, a hang out, a stretch over the River Moscow that does not go to the other side.
We looked at one of the Seven Sisters that looks exactly like the Palace of Culture in Warsaw and then we turned to look at the Kremlin and St Basil (which is a clump of nine chapels squashed into one).
Irena told us of the Romanoff Museum and the Moscow History Museum side by side in the little valley and assured us a visit to either of these small places would be very rewarding. Next time. There is a LOT to see in Moscow.
Once in Red Square, the tourist area felt unreal and arranged so conveniently it was difficult to take seriously. I began to feel I was in a theme park or a film set. It’s possible I have been a tourist too long.
St Basil, of course, the speakers’ platform, the Kremlin walls and tops of buildings therein, the State History Museum and the massive GUM shopping centre. I am sure it would be possible to spend a week just seeing museums. I was looking for the post office …
The square itself was packing up what had been a gastronomic festival, many little stalls and bright pot plants were folded with a bang and pushed away towards trucks. Beside the super shopping centre full of high level labels is a street already decked with sparkling Christmas twinkles, getting ready for the winter markets I suppose.
Stalin was removed from Lenin’s mausoleum. There’s now a bust nearby. Our guide made a couple of daring remarks about Stalin that would have had her arrested for making them and us arrested for hearing them. She showed us the unbalanced front of the Four Season’s Hotel, the architect apparently too frightened to check which design Stalin had signed off on. Now either side of the building is noticeably different. (But you can’t really tell from the photo below!)
She added the tale that when the Metro Engineers met with Stalin to discuss the different options the lines would take he left a coffee stain on the map. Which is why there is a brown circular line.
It may be a joke but the terror he inculcated was certainly real. They say not to speak about Stalin to a Russian for you do not know what their family stories may be. That sounds like Franco in Spain. At least there has been a reckoning with Stalin – Moscow has been de-Stalinised.
Red Square is surrounded by history and story and I found it really is overwhelming to be there.
I was keen to join the Metro tour. As a train afficionada – or at least a fan of tågskryt – I felt my journey onward should be my focus rather than history. We all had receivers with ear pieces which meant our guide could speak quietly and keep us all connected without having to wave flags or chickens on a stick. Of we went, down into the metro system to hop on and hop off the trains.
Alex showed us photos of some of the murals that used to include Stalin. The big Mother Russia with a plea for peace around the world is impossible to imagine with Stalin up in the middle of that, where the big MUP is now, don’t you agree?
The Moscow Metro was one of the last to be built in a major city. Mainly, according to Alex, because the people were religious and superstitious. Why would you choose to dig down closer to the devil? Finally, there was a dramatic day of gridlock in the city. No horse, tram or car could move so it was decided to build the People’s Palaces. Read this excellent blog post for more information.
The tunnels were built just in time for WWII. Each station was used as a bunker and each had a different purpose. The first one Alex showed us, Bibliotecka Lenina, was used as a library. He showed us pictures of people sitting at desks, studying or attempting to continue with their work while the bombing raged overhead. The economy does not stop with war.
Revolution Square Station features sculptures notable for their shiny patches. Each group of sculpture was repeated four times across the platforms. There was the family, the sports people, the man with the dog – and each one had a part to rub to bring good luck – the dog particularly. Before I heard this I carefully patted the mother’s shiny shoe. This would bring either love or heal a broken heart. Perfect.
Apparently when sitting exams, students must exit their train, pat each of the four dogs over the platforms and enter the train going the other way and they will pass their exams. For sure. As we admired and rubbed our bits, the commuters definitely did reach out and pat the dog or rub the golden rooster, everyone smiling as they did so. It was not that they were superstitious! They did it for fun, for habit and maybe … Alex pointed out it paid to be careful which bits you rub. Some might bring you bad luck. Not superstitious at all, then.
I am sure these magnificent spaces must influence regular commuters. I loved the peace and tranquility there. Apparently buskers have to undergo a strict audition process. Once granted space, they have that time to themselves. There is no competition setting up amplifiers nearby and they are unmolested in their performance. Is that the best way for cut-and-thrust, the best will rise above, life-hurry-scurry and bustle? Or does it show respect for the artist’s value?
We finished the tour near the theatre district. Unmissable. The Bolshoi.
I found it hard to believe I was in Moscow! And next, on to Beijing. Wow. That idea felt fabulous and awe-inspiring. It felt like I’d entered the portal of hard-drug travel. Went through the gate in Warsaw, I reckon. Comfort zone got a bit smaller. Went back to hostel. Time to get organised.
Tatiana, my Warsaw-Moscow train companion, WhatsApped me to ask what else I intended to see in Moscow. I told her I’d done the walking tour and the Metro looksee and added I didn’t really feel the urge to run around and see everything. She asked, then what was the point of my visit? I said, ‘To get to the other side’. My main aim was to stay calm, make everything as easy as possible for myself and get to the train on time. Moscow was the first place where I hadn’t managed to find a post office, nor post cards. Signage outside shops was indistinct. I think it would probably be worth a few language and cyrillic lessons before visiting next time. But for two days sight-seeing? I made do.
I did a load of washing, fed myself and aimed to finish two blog posts before I left the land of wifi. Poor young lady from Korea, just arrived and bleary lonely and tired, wanted to chat. Turned out she had recently been to Taichung, one of my impending destinations. She showed me her photos where she looked happy and alert. She did not seem happy now. I said I was very sorry but I really had to push on with my work. She listlessly turned away but kept drifting around. I typed, uploaded and corrected as fast as I could. Sorry for the mistakes that got by!
I managed to extend my hostel stay by half a day. My train left at 23:55. I could stay in my room, have the use of all the facilities (shower, wifi) until 21:00 at which point I packed up and went to reception. I took some time to observe the beautiful full moon. How auspicious was that? Dasha remembered to give me the all-important form to show the police where I had been staying. And I remembered to get her to print me the little hand-drawn map of my hotel in Beijing. She then wrote out her phone number and email and invited me to visit her and her family in Saint Petersburg! What a darling. We exchanged Instagrams so I hope to see her in that platform. Once I leave China, of course.
Luckily, the Avocado Café, just around the corner, was open to 23:00. Back I went for poppy seed rolls and mango coco icecream with a double espresso to keep me on my toes. I gazed happily at the pretty coloured lights changing over the flat Clean Pond before heaving up the packs and strolling ten minutes up to the number one metro line, Chistye Prudy, three stops to Komsomolskaya, the nearest to Yaraslavsky Train Station.
It was almost too easy. I congratulated myself on clever hostel booking.
Quite a few folk in the waiting area. I surreptitiously interviewed them in my mind. Was she going to China? Would I have to share a compartment with him? Did she look like an intrepid traveller? As soon as my platform number was announced, I left the stinky banana on a chair and whisked off to platform three and Pekin!
First impressions. Cold. Coal dust. I’m the first one in my carriage. The beginning of six days, one hour and four minutes on the train.
There was no keycard.