We woke up to rapid knocking on our door. Vladimir stood outside. “Moskva.”, he said gruffly and I looked at the time. 4:30am. What in the…? We had an hour and a half before we were scheduled to pull into the city. Our sheets were pulled out from under us as Natasha and Vladimir rushed to get as much cleaning done as possible. They couldn’t even wait until the passengers were off the train. Thanks for the first class service, guys.
Moscow: One of the biggest cities in the world – boasting a population of 12 million – and the wealthiest city in Russia. Compared to Tokyo and New York City, the people are spread out a bit more, but it is still a fast-paced and money-driven city. As many others have said before, Moscow is the most “Russian” big city in Russia. The people are stoic, there is a heavy police and military presence everywhere you go, and the all-business, ever-symmetrical Soviet-era buildings add to the tense ambiance.
We braved the Moscow subway system to get to our hotel, and the subway is what this post will be about. Seriously, there is nothing else that really interested me about the city besides the unexpected beauty of the Moscow subway stations. The Red Square. Different, but it kind of sucked because there was a huge Euro Pop concert being set up while we were there, and euro dance music being blasted in our ears really spoiled the mood.
St. Basil’s Cathedral? There’s a more impressive one in St. Petersburg. The GUM Department Store. Over-the-top in a really pathetic way, especially because most locals can’t afford to shop there (the stores were creepily empty). Victory Park? Pretty cool and definitely the flashiest obelisk I’ve ever seen.
The goose-stepping changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Nothing special. My pet peeve about this particular tourist trap is that the soldiers couldn’t even be bothered to goose step all the way from the building to the tomb area. They just walked close to it like they were taking an afternoon walk and then started, which to me is half-assed and sloppy for such a militaristic country. And the food? Absolutely nothing to write home about. But I digress.
The Moscow Metro is the third most heavily-used subway system in the world, after Tokyo and Seoul. Who knew? Wikipedia has an in-depth and fascinating write-up about the history and other info on the Moscow Metro, so I highly recommend it to architecture, art, history, tech and engineering buffs. Did you know that the USSR hired engineers from the London Underground to help develop the Moscow Metro? No you didn’t. So read up on it here (after you read the rest of this post, of course).
Overall, the Moscow Metro isn’t nearly as technologically advanced as the Tokyo subway, but it’s more so than the New York City subway. Tickets (or passes) are bought at windows with stoic women (or at machines that are only in Cyrillic). Holding the ticket to a scanner in the turnstile either opens up the gate or unlocks the turnstile to let you through. It is in no way as efficient as Tokyo’s, and I was nursing a bruise on my thigh for a few days from the gates slamming shut against me because the scanner didn’t read my ticket.
Once past the turnstiles, which are prone to sudden violence, we took a long (and in some cases, very long) escalator down into the Moscow underground. Unlike escalators in other parts of the world, these are noticeably fast. There is an escalator attendant sitting in an enclosed box at the foot of every escalator, but I don’t know what they would really be able to do if something were to happen because it would all happen so fast. I guess they’re around to dispose of mangled body parts after they get torn off. This reminds me of an awesome etiquette video we saw in the Seoul Metro, in which they used mannequins to show what would happen if someone were to carelessly bump into someone else on the way up or down the escalator. I believe there was a decapitation involved, and several of them lost body parts as they domino-effect-crushed each other to death at the foot of the escalator. Ahhh, love how the Koreans infuse drama into even their public service announcements. If only I could find that video online.
The trains themselves look like they probably haven’t been updated since the 60s or 70s. They are old, simple things that look even shabbier next to the glamorous subway platforms. However, they do come very often (every few minutes) and are fairly easy to ride. Our mastery of the Cyrillic alphabet helped, because none of the signs are in the Western alphabet. And I mean, NONE. The same goes for most signs in Moscow.
We hopped on and were whisked down a long, brightly lit tunnel packed with people (someone’s video of it here). We found the Russians to be very quiet in these public spaces, and the only noise we heard during our long ride down was the loud chugging away of the escalator.
Thanks to the flashiness of Stalin, some of the most interesting Soviet propaganda art and designs can be found on the subway platforms. Beautiful and intricate tile mosaics cover the curved ceilings with the red Communist star, Grandpa Lenin or depictions of agriculture and industry. Huge, decorative chandeliers hang from the ceilings and highlight the mosaics. Even the railings have intricate socialist designs on them. I love this socialist propaganda stuff, and I was mesmerized.
My favorite station has to be Ploshchad Revolyutsii. As soon as we took the elevator down into the depths of Moscow to catch our train and stepped onto the platform, we realized we were surrounded by bronze statues.
There are 76 of them, flanking the many arches that line both sides of the platform. There are beautifully-carved, determined-looking women and men holding babies, wheat, chickens, guns and soccer balls. All of them were supposed to represent the glory of the Soviet Union, and they do a damn good job.
Russians touch certain statues to wish for something or to bring them good luck. The most popular statues were touched so often that the bronze shined through; on a dog’s snout or a chicken’s head. We watched as people got on and off trains, casually touching one statue or another as they busily went on their way. There were even a few people who stopped and lingered for a minute or two with their hands rubbing a part of a statue. I guess they had a lot to wish for.
Besides exploring the subway, we got to hang with our new friends Robert, Regina and Anne-Laure. The highlight of our time in Moscow was hunting for black caviar in the city with Regina and Anne-Laure, and realizing that we could probably get the same Russian caviar anywhere else in the world (it really isn’t cheaper there), decided to cook dinner together in our hostel kitchen. Well, more like they cooked. We bought a bunch of ingredients and wine at a supermarket and they whipped up delicious mushroom crepes with béchamel sauce, and a sweet dessert crepe of bananas and chocolate. It is a fond memory I will always remember when I think of Moscow.
Because the point of our trip is to soak up every place we visit without rushing from one touristy spot to another, I liked having this easily-accessible place within Moscow which spoke volumes about the city’s and country’s histories, and wasn’t packed full of tour groups. I would only recommend going to Moscow to experience a unique city that still proudly holds onto and celebrates its Soviet history (unlike other former Soviet countries). It isn’t a city for the faint-of-heart or for foodies, and learning Cyrillic and some basic Russian words will help immensely in getting around. This is as Russian as it gets, folks, and it has been the most historically interesting big city I’ve ever been to.
Check out our album for more photos of our time in Moscow.