I have successfully navigated my way through public transport systems around the world. The Tube in London, the subway in New York, the metros in Madrid, Paris and Stockholm, the skytrain in Bangkok, not to mention trains in Morocco and Vietnam, buses in Denmark and minibuses in Thailand, but I never encountered anything like the metro system in Moscow – or felt my travel IQ was quite so low as I did on that dark day.
Though we were able to walk the distance, my travel buddy and I wanted to catch the metro from our hotel on the outskirts of the city to near Red Square, which would seem a simple enough idea. The famously intricate artworks featured throughout the metro, whose construction began under the direction of Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, were part of our motivation.
Stalin’s idea was to build “palaces for the people”, and the result evident today is an exquisite parade of different architectural styles including Baroque and Art Deco, with mosaics, friezes and stained-glass windows all featured at various stops along the 300 kilometre-plus system that is the second busiest subway in the world after Tokyo.
Everything was going swell as we bought our tickets, made our way underground and arrived at the platforms, but that was where the confusion began. First, there was very little signage directing us, and the platforms had no information apart from basic signs.
Trains came and went, people swarmed and I took a characteristic too-many pictures as we hunted for clues to find the line we wanted, but no train seemed to be going where we wanted or even operating on the line we needed. It appeared one important factor was exactly where you stood on the platform as trains for different lines stopped at different sections before continuing on their journeys – something I had never seen before.
It was impossible for us to figure out alone, particularly given the few signs were in Cyrillic with no Latin alphabet in sight, and those same signs had no evidence of the colours indicating the various lines that formed a complicated labyrinth on our map. So, the next step was to ask a local – usually a fairly safe bet.
The first person we asked had no idea, but looked carefully at our map before directing us to the other end of the station up some stairs we had not yet tried. Relieved, we walked that way, but could not spot the train so asked another person, who promptly directed us back to where we had come from.
Finally, we found a cleaner – surely a person who worked there would know where to go. But he was equally perplexed, and we were completely stumped now having spent at least 30 minutes underground simply trying to find our platform.
Eventually a train pulled up on the platform that now felt like it might be my eternal prison, seeming to be the one we wanted. We hopped aboard very satisfied with ourselves, but as we looked at the stations indicated on the train’s map we soon realised we were going the wrong direction. Jumping off at the next station, we boarded what we were convinced was the right train, but it was not.
After riding a couple of stops we gave up, disembarking at a random station and finally coming up for sweet, sweet air. Yet again no one at the station was able to provide us with clear directions. We studied the map and landmarks around us, finally locating the station we were at and decided on a major avenue to walk down that would lead us to Red Square. It was not going to be a quick walk, but both of us were scarred by the metro experience and our senses of direction were sorely in need of an ego boost.
We walked and walked, stopped for ice cream and a lie down in the park, then continued on to finally reach Red Square. From that moment, the afternoon was a success as we picked up souvenirs and enjoyed a coffee in the beautiful GUM shopping centre, before beginning the walk back toward our hotel.
Soon enough we stumbled across a metro station and, tired from the day’s adventures and lengthy walk through what felt like most of Russia, we decided to try again. Lo and behold, this time it was easy. We could clearly see where we were on the map, could easily identify the platform and train needed, and were disembarking from the stop closest to our hotel in less than 15 minutes.
I was proud we had given it one last try and been able to conquer the system – though I think neither of us really understood how we had done it, and found the idea of quitting while ahead and leaving the Moscow metro behind us forever very appealing.
There was one lesson for me that day: no matter how experienced a traveller you are, you can always encounter unexpected difficulties. The best idea is to be prepared and read the advice of other travellers who have tested what works and what doesn’t for you.
Courtney Gahan is a serial expat, traveller and freelance writer who has bartered with Moroccan marketeers, seen the sun rise at Angkor Wat and elbowed her way through crowds on NYE in NYC