Perils of Polly: Moscow metro: Beautiful stations, dour people

Posted: Friday, September 24, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Peril's 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.

It's one thing to travel through France, Germany, Spain, or Italy where even though the language is different, the alphabet is nearly the same so some words can at least be semi-pronounced. But entering a country with an entirely different alphabet quadruples the difficulty of communication.

After our taste of the Moscow metro, I realized it would be easier to master if I could get a grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet. Magically, Sue pulled out a cheat sheet she and a friend had composed during high school -- not even for a class! I guess there was true fear Russians might rule the U.S! Anyway, I discovered that H's were N's. B's were V's. C's were S's, etc., plus there were letters unknown completely. I studied it diligently. Using our cheat sheet, we could translate the Russian names of stations into the English-version names on our map. It was too much work to learn the stations in between, so once on a metro train, we would count. If we were supposed to get off at the fourth stop, each time the train stopped I'd stick out one finger. I glanced at my sister hanging onto the pole overhead and laughed as I noticed her finger sticking out, too.

In this fashion, we took out the intimidation of riding the metro and had a great time. Our map indicated which stations were the fanciest, so our trip became a treasure hunt as Moscow has the most beautiful metro stations in the world -- ornate with columns, murals, paintings, or mosaics. We don't know which one had been bombed the previous month, but there was one station that was blocked and under construction, causing us to lose our way for a moment until a Russian, seeing our distress, wanted to try out his English on us.

The other factor about the stations we found amazing was their depth. We climbed on escalators that descended for five, six, seven stories at a time. The hard part about metros was re-entering the land of the sunshine. We had extreme difficulty reorienting, and could only guess which direction to walk to reach our destination. Through much pondering and logical thinking, we usually we guessed right.

Soon I began to notice that, while crowded, nobody on the metro spoke. In fact, nobody on the metro even smiled. The women, especially, seemed grim -- even the younger ones negotiating the steps, doors, and escalators in their miniskirts and 5-inch spike heels. I began to experiment. I would smile at middle-aged and older women to see what they would do. Not one person smiled back at me. In fact, one woman, probably in her 50s with a tight, gray-haired bun, steely eyes, and wrinkly face, didn't just glare back, she stared me down with what appeared to be extreme suspicion or hatred -- I'm not sure which. I stopped smiling at people, and merely chuckled to myself. I must have appeared to be an obnoxious tourist!

While at one station, we noticed we were only a couple stops from a monorail. It looked like it was connected to the metro system, but turned out it wasn't. The metro dumped us out in the middle of a market where we marveled at the huge variety of goods for sale -- probably every bit as good as Wal-mart and Home Depot put together. After a bit of wandering and questioning, we finally found the monorail station. It crossed a good portion of the city and gave us a great overview of all the statues, cupolas, and McDonalds of the city. We spied a bunch of huge buildings with a lot of people mingling about, so when we got off the monorail, we wandered over. No one seemed to be paying an entrance fee, so we walked in. It was a giant park of huge pavilions and exquisite fountains which we later learned was the All-Russia Exhibition Center built back in the 1930s to showcase the Soviet states.

As we traversed the huge expanse, we began to get hungry and were attracted to the numerous outdoor restaurants advertising chicken shish kebab. We finally gave in and ordered two. We were brought out a delicious meal of chicken and a salad -- nice but what we in Alaska would consider a $15 meal. Plus it was an outdoor restaurant and almost seemed like fast food, so we hadn't bothered to ask the price. After the food was in our stomachs, the sticker shock took our breath away -- 2,300 rubles.

I started second guessing myself. Perhaps I had forgotten the exchange rate. I pulled out my calculator. It came to $75 for the both of us! We knew better than to get something without finding out the price first! Sue pointed to a large sign on the other side of the grill. "Look! That is the right price!" We paid it and walked off laughing at our own stupidity.

Another long walk took us to a metro station, and we went back to our homestay. I think our host was a bit disappointed that we were so culturally depraved and spent our day on the metro instead of in museums. Oh well. My sister and I both agreed it was more fun.

Exhausted, at 7:45 p.m. we donned our backpacks, took a taxi instead of the metro (thank God), and headed to the Trans-Siberian Railway Station. We were leaving the land of subways, ornate churches, expensive food, and grim people. It felt like our real journey was just about to begin.

Watch the Recreation page for the next installment of Polly's adventures.

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