Perils of Polly: Moscow by Metro

Posted: Friday, September 17, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

Tourist Moscow is all about the Kremlin and Red Square, but we decided it was much more fun to explore the Metro. And we were determined to conquer it. We had two days: one for the obligatory visit to the Kremlin and Red Square, and one for the Metro.

On the train from St. Petersburg, we shared a berth with a young Russian woman and her hyperactive 4-year-old son. She was an Obama fan who favored a Russian return to communism, and her son favored a reversal of day and night. He finally knocked off around 3 a.m., which gave us a couple of hours before being dumped into Moscow. This time our transfer was on time. Whew! She drove us way out of the main part of Moscow to a typical Soviet-style, 16-floor, dirty-bland-colored box apartment building.

The host, a wonderful, English-speaking woman, fed us breakfast and gave us a note to reassure any police that might stop us that we were only here one night and therefore didn't need to register. I guess Russia still is a police state. As we were eating, she told us about her Stalinesque history: her father was shot and her mother was put in the Gulag for eight years, was released and died. She was 3 years old and survived by escaping with her aunt to Siberia. We were spellbound by her story. She was horrified when we told her about the young woman who wanted Russia to return to the old way. Then she gave us an English map with directions on how to use the Moscow metro and sent us on our way to the Kremlin and Red Square.

As we headed out of her parking lot and down to the metro station, we began taking pictures so we could recognize it on the way back. I noted a typical Soviet-style, 16-floor, dirty-turquoise-colored box apartment building on the opposite side of the street from the station. It stood out and would be our marker.

Our first time in the metro station proved to be a bit intimidating. Our map had the English-alphabet names for the metro stations, but everything at the metro stations was written in Cyrillic.

We tried desperately to follow our host's directions, who promised she'd never lost a guest. When we finally came up and looked around, there was Red Square. We'd done it. We soon discovered Red Square was closed for Independence Day practice, so we couldn't see the mummified Vladimir Lenin, father of Russian communism. I wasn't much into looking at dead bodies anyway. We tootled around the huge Kremlin and its ornate concrete cathedrals, minding our own business, when we stepped off a curb just short of the white crosswalk lines. Suddenly a whistle sounded. A policeman, frowning, in a crisp, clean uniform, motioned angrily for us to retreat to the curb. We jumped back, then looked around. There was no traffic, as we were inside the Kremlin. "Wow! Maybe he's a control freak," I said.

"Or he's just bored!" Sue chuckled. Then we watched as he did it to every tourist who even tried to cut off three feet to get to the crosswalk!

While the Kremlin does have government buildings, tourists are only allowed to see the concrete mausoleum cathedrals full of painted pictures, icons, graves -- and guards. Most of them were women, and most of them stood or sat grimly in the corners, never speaking, never smiling, looking like gulag guards.

Once out of the Kremlin, Sue had to see St. Basil's Cathedral, on the other side of Red Square. We couldn't walk through the square, so we went through a huge mall that looked like it would spit us out on the other side of the square. It did, and it was worth it, as St. Basil's is an unbelievably ornate gingerbread candy sort of structure that looks like it belongs in Hansel and Gretel.

A walk down Arbat Street -- tourist town of Moscow -- and we were ready to head back to our homestay. Unwilling to chance a different metro station and get lost, we walked back to the Kremlin and went down the same way we came. We were taking it safe.

Luckily, all the metro lines are color coded, so we just had to get on the same color as the one we came on, going in the opposite direction. Maintaining a sense of direction underground is not possible. So we had to look for the name of our destination station on the wall of the train going that direction. We walked down the final set of stairs. On either side are trains going in opposite directions. Station names are in Cyrillic. We recognized a station as one we had passed, so we got on that train. Hopefully

We got off at what we were sure was the right station, and when we came up for air, instead we got water. Lots of it. It was downpouring rain. Everyone had umbrellas -- except us. Then we were hit with another fact: nothing looked familiar. Instead of the typical Soviet-style, 16-floor, dirty-turquoise colored box apartment building as our marker, the road was crisscrossed with overpasses. We headed back into the tunnel to look at our map.

"It doesn't look right. Are you sure this is the right station?" We studied the name. "Yeah," we both agreed. "It's gotta be it."

"Maybe we came out a different way," Sue ventured. "We had lots of choices of tunnels."

I closed my eyes to try to picture the station. We looked back into our cameras at our photos. "I think we were supposed to come out on the other side of these overpasses," I said.

We began trudging through the downpour, protecting our cameras the best we could. On the other side of the overpasses, there stood the turquoise apartment building.

"Yea!" we said, and arrived, drenched but relieved, at our homestay.

Watch these pages for the next installment of Polly's adventure.

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