Going home through Russia

Returning to Australia from London through Russia is something that occured to me while flying over Russia on a flight from Hong Kong the previous year. I thought a series of stop overs might help me avoid jet lag, which I suffer from terribly.

The first problem you encounter is that the airline industry is quite good at providing return tickets but charges the earth for one way tickets. And so it is that by some odd twist of marketing logic a return ticket to Moscow from London is cheaper than a one way ticket. So rather than trying to fathom the reasoning for this you simply find it easier to throw away the return portion of your ticket. Which must mean there will be an empty seat on whatever flight you were booked to return on.

When you decide to go to Russia you immediately become aware of many horror stories and bad experiences people are only too willing to relate. Over the last few decades Russia has become the epitome of a society gine haywire. The media seems to use Russia as an example of everything we are not or might one day become. One arrives in Moscow with some trepidation.

However going through Russian customs was not the daunting experience I was lead to believe it would be. There was none of the officous grilling one gets at Heathrow. The young woman who checked my passport just did her job and no words were spoken. It seems quite true that Russians do not smile in public. In fact I found they look particularly glum in Moscow. Although there was one notable occaision when I first bought a Metro ticket. My complete ignorance of what I was doing and total lack of Russian caused the lady in the kassa to burst into laughter - a hearty russian laugh that even though it was at my expense reassured me of her humanity.

The funniest thing is to see woman in their uniforms but with the skirt shortened and wearing the extreme high heels Russian women like. An odd mixture of officiousness and fashionable sexiness that somehow is reassuring that there is a post-soviet humanity that has reasserted itself.

It was interesting to note that on the bus ride into Moscow there were Mac Mansions just as you would find in Melbourne - only with steeper roofs. There is something about airport proximity and large houses which I am sure has to do with cheap land. And you get that same sense of fantasy and nostalgia that the dream home designer indulges in. But mostly of course there were those huge slabs of apartment blocks that come under the classification "Soviet Style". These building were once presented to us as evidence of Soviet conformity. But really they seem no different from the kind of post war bureaucratic housing you find anywhere in the world and probably owe more to the international style of architecture fashionable at the time than anything poilitically sinister.

I had this somewhat rash idea to take the Metro to the hotel. In London and New York I like the way you can land at the airport and immediately get on a normal commuter train. You get this sudden immersion into the normal life of the city. So suitcase in hand and backpack on my back I ventured into what proved to be a quite amazing labyrinthine adventure. I had it all worked out; which train to catch, what station to transfer across to another line, the names of the stations in cyrillic. But planning and putting into practice are always separated by a chasm of surprises.

I didn't want to arrive in Moscow at night so I took a flight that arrived in the morning. Spending a night on the plane - saving an hotel bill. But I hadn't considered that this also meant that it was the morning peak hour.

Firstly it must be said, as I am sure you all know, the Metro in Moscow is absolutely spectacular. I am quite certain it must be one of the modern wonders of the world. Whoever designed it threw common sense out the window and took a somewhat eclectic approach to its design, which could be described as Socialist Baroque. In fact I am quite sure they simply had fun. Every station seems to try to out do the others in just how far they could make it outrageously gaudy. It most certainly has to be seen to be believed. But having seen it I still can't quite believe it.

The revolutionary above has his dog by his side. This dog's nose is polished by people touching it as they walk by. I gathered this is for luck. My photos above are not very clear because I discretely used my phone with the flash turned off. At this stage of my trip I was quite convinced some KGB type agent would jump out and arrest me for taking photos. If you ever find yourself in Moscow it is a good bit of tourism to buy a Metro card, which enables you to ride on the system for as long as you want until you emerge at some station or another. You can get out at every station have a look around and then jump back on to a train and get off at the next. The trains seem to follow each other immediately so there is very little waiting involved.

I had carefully researched the route from the airport to the hotel. I took the bus from the airport to the nearest satation and caught the train heading in the right direction. Then the started the carriage started to fill with commuters. And when I thought the carriage was full another load would squash in at the next stop. At this point my greatest fear was I would be stuck behind an immobile compressed crowd when we arrived at the station I had to off at. But luckily at one station, like an exploding champagne bottle the carriage just emptied out.

Then I had to transfer from one line to another. On your typical Metro map connecting stations are simply two liked circles but in reality these are vaste tunnels with escalators at each end. I walked down one tunnel trying to find the station I had to transfer to, reading each sign to see if my destination was on it. Luckily I could read them. Do not try this without first learning the cyrillic alphabet. I was so glad I had made the effort in preparation for this trip. I would recommend anyone do the same. [ Click here if you want to learn. ]

I went down one tunnel and then another until I realised it was hopeless. You cannot imagine how surreal this was. It was like a Bunuel film; the architecture, the confusion, the crowds all combined to create a genuine nightmare. And this after a sleepless night on the plane.

I asked direction from the ladies who monitored the steep escalators. They were very helpful - but in Russian. It is one thing to learn a simple question from a phrase book but what happens when you are replied to? I just noted in which direction they waved their hand and walked that way.
Eventually I simply went above ground and on to the street to try a different approach.

Moscow streets are very wide. I counted six lanes, and that was a one way street. You cannot cross them ( I did and immediately realised it was a very dangerous thing to do). So whenever you get to an intersection you must go down into yet another tunnel. Moscovites must spend a lot of time underground, which must be good in winter. In these tunnels there are little kiosks selling all sorts of things through tiny little windows.

Eventually with the aide of my GPS navigation phone I found the station I was looking for - right next to the one I had initially got off at. So I had made a circuit around central Moscow. My tourism had inadvertantly already begun.

And so by some miracle of persistence I made it my hotel.

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