Speeding under Moscow

For the most part, when you think of a subway, your head fills with Letterman jokes and the Michael Jackson “Beat it” video. Subways are dirty, noisy, cramped municipal tunnels that are no more than a cheap way to get from point A to point B.

Following the crowd away from the escalators we were certainly in the cramped tunnels we expected, but we emptied out into nothing we expected. It was a goddamn museum lobby. Them main train platform was two-tone polished marble. Great arches spread overhead with smaller arches leading onto the platforms themselves. Between the arches were small mosaics, and the place was clean. Really clean.

We were in shock. It took us a few moments to soak it all in, and then you noticed the really odd thing, it was quiet. No one was shouting, hell, no one was even talking for the most part, you only heard the trains. Everyone was moving as quickly as they could to the appropriate platform, and getting on, or coming from their platform, and leaving.

Once we came back to our senses we looked into the platform that was closest, trying to figure if this was the right one. On the wall opposite the arches, over the tracks, was a green line, matching the map, with the station names listed on it and an arrow point on one end of the line. I compared this to my map and figured out that this was the wrong order for heading into town. We walked across the platform and went to the other side.

Trains seemed to be coming every two minutes or so, so you really didn’t have to wait. You could feel the rush of air when the train was coming, then the train would rush into the station at high speed, brakes squealing as it decelerated to a stop. The doors slammed open and a fast exchange of passengers took place. No one moved slowly. We had to squeeze our way on with the rest of the rush of passengers. Not very orderly, but effective. I was initially hesitant to shove my way onto the train, until another little lady popped me in the ribs to get past. Fine.

I used my right-of-mass to shove straight in, crushing her and a few others into the door frame as I went past. Right as we made it in, a voice said something over the loudspeaker that I couldn’t make out, but I took it as a hint to get out of the way. A second later, the doors slammed shut, and the train took off. Literally. Just like everything else we had encountered so far, this seemed to have two speeds: stopped, and too fast to stand. We all hung onto whatever we could grab and tried to not fall over into other passengers.

As we twisted along the tunnels below the city, I noticed that the train was pretty loud, but that was just the wind noise rushing through the open windows. I looked around, and no one was talking. I hadn’t noticed it at first with everything else going on, but it was just like it was on the platform. I was going to mention this to Bob, but we had to hang on for our lives again as the train was screeching to a halt in the next station.

My book had this station listed as Beloruskaya, and the map from the hotel and the one on the train agreed. The station we wanted was three more along the line. Tetralynaya, according to the hotel map, and Ploshad Sverdlova in my book. I checked the map in the train, and found that Tetralnaya was correct. That name was actually printed on a sticker, and attached to the map in the train, over the old name. Well, that explained the differences, and told me that my guidebook was the one out of date. I stuffed it away and kept the little hotel map out.

We watched through the windows at each station, and they were all as impressive as our station, but each one was completely different, all were arched marble, some with mosaics, others with stainless steel columns. It was amazing, each one was it’s own little work of art. When we finally got to our station, it seemed a bit subdued compared to the others we saw, but was still made from gleaming white marble with a crosshatched ceiling, with little plaster wreaths and busts inlaid. I was still craning my neck to look up when Bob led the way.

“Over here,” his voice seemed conspicuously loud with no one else speaking. We was already halfway down the platform, heading towards a set of escalators.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Look,” he said. Pointing up at a sign over the escalators.

I looked, and had to read in Cyrillic, “Vyikhod V Gorod” I had to think to translate. I didn’t have time as Bob translated as soon as I read it.

“Exit to City,” he smiled back as he jumped onto the bottom of the rocket-assisted escalator taking us back to the surface.

Now that I knew what to expect, the escalator posed less of a challenge. We were on, up, and out in just a few minutes. The exit from the Metro dumped us out onto a street, but we weren’t sure where to go from here. We started walking along the sidewalk, and I grabbed my book back out of my pocket. It had a city street map in it, so I figured that In could use it to find our way. But as soon as it was out, we stopped.

Just to our left, up a small alley rising from our street level, we could see the top of St. Basil’s Cathedral. As probably the most famous landmark in Moscow, we now knew where we were. As we walked up the rise the blue and white onion dome of the cathedral could be seen. Then the other domes came into view, all with different patterns and colors. It was incredible. I looked at the building to our right, and it was the brown brick of the State Museum of History. We stepped out of the alley, right into Red Square.

It was amazing.

The long walls and towers of the Kremlin were across from us, and to our left was the yellow stucco of GUM, the state department store. We could see Lenin’s Tomb at the base of the Kremlin wall, and the whole From of St. Basil’s Cathedral framed the far end of the square. We were stunned. Bob and Paul walked ahead of me. I stood for a moment, and looked down at the bricks of Red Square.

They were grey.

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  1. Mark, I love you for your love of Moscow, for seeing the beauty and the irony of it. You also made me remember those times when foreigners started getting in the way in public transportation. First they\’d be too polite and therefore disturbed the flow of human traffic, then after they\’s get pushet out of the way couple of times they\’d get too aggressive. It really takes some experience to get in the pace of the city\’s orderly disorder – too slow and you\’ll be pushed, too pushy and you\’ll get pushed and growled at.

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