Having been in Moscow for over a year now, the threshold demarcating overdue has well been exceeded, with regards to my discussion of the Rapid Transit System of Moscow, referred to with breviloquence as "the Metro".
Having now been here for as long as I have, the bizarreness, or perhaps, more appropriately, the unusual nature of the beast, has begun to wane. What began as a thrilling and novel undertaking rapidly descended into normality, to become nothing more than the part of my daily ritual that follows breakfast.
Most notable about the Metro is the sheer number of people who use it every day. Apparently, the annual usage is 2.5 billion passenger rides per year, which is only very slightly fewer than Tokyo's 2.9 billion passenger rides per year; and it is very nearly the same number as the combined users of both the London Tube and Paris Metro (2.6 billion). This works out at an average of 7 million passenger-rides a day, peaking out at 9 million on some days – which is over twice the population of New Zealand.
I am going to try to describe the Metro as best I can, but it is so far beyond anything else I could imagine, that the place I’m depicting and the place itself are barely similar. I've taken it hundreds of times by now, so the new-and-exciting factor is wearing a little bit thin. It's only upon reflection now that I realise just how unreasonable it is to find the Metro less than mind-blowing.
First of all, the system is architecturally amazing: some of the stations are true works of art. Floors of cobbled marble and stone, white marble walls and Soviet mosaics are the norm in most older, central stations. It is also common to see bronze statues, life-sized busts of notable Soviets (especially Lenin) and even chandeliers. Even away from the centre of Moscow one can find anything from clean, unadorned marble, to latticed arched pillars, to bizarre, modernistic-gothic stations that look to be taken straight from a Tim Burton film.
Rush hour, when most of those 7 million people seem to be using the system all at once, is best described as "wow". As soon as you enter the station, you can immediately feel the competition for oxygen intensifying. From this point there is no turning back. Please forgive my use of a cliché, but in this instance, it isn't a metaphor; it truly is impossible to turn around after you have allowed the overwhelming current of people to dictate which direction you are to travel. Through the magnetic card-scanners and past the steely eyes of someone guarding against fare-dodgers (they are almost always, large, middle-aged Russian women, and the fare-dodger is unvaryingly a young man too fast to be caught) and one descends into the depths of the Metro system. Things bottleneck at the elevator, and it is all you can do to shuffle like a penguin, surrounded by like-traveling commuters. At the escalator, one has a two-pronged option: stand on the right side or, for those commuters who believe that it will make a difference, walk on the left.
On the platform at last, and the crush of people has thinned out to a mere squish. Here, the current of people branches into many; crossing, merging, branching further. My station, Ryzanskiy Prospekt, near the outer edge of the city, doesn't offer any transfers to other stations, and the flow of people is predictable: down the escalators and into the train that's going into town. By contrast, in town, where a station can be connected to two or even three others, there is a criss-crossing flow of such complexity that any individual is only equipped to comprehend his or her own part in the overwhelming range of un-choreographed cohesion of movement.
Because of the hectic movement of people – tight-lipped and silent, save for the chorus of shuffling – the well-lit platform (more so due to the vast amounts of white marble used in many of the stations) and the reverberating drones and squeals of the trains' engines and breaks, it takes a concerted effort to remind myself that this is all happening as far as 84 metres below the surface. (The station I am referring, Park Pobedy, is also home to the longest escalators in Europe.)
And we step onto the train…
This is contrary to intuition. As the train pulls up to my station, which is yet only the second station from the commencement of the line, it is already full beyond any bus I have ever seen in Christchurch, and my first reaction is to say “Crap! How the hell am I meant to get into town if the train is already full?” The solution was a vicarious one: the dozen-odd people standing behind, actively denying the obvious, lunged forward in a single, practiced motion, sweeping me half-way into the carriage.
It is a great deal warmer in the train than it is on the platform, or, of course, outside. I don't have to think too hard for an explanation: I am, after all, in a tight space, filled to capacity with hundreds of heaters set to 37. Boyle's Law may or may not be another contributing factor.
As the train pulls away from the station, there is a sudden nudge of momentum. Surrounded by people like sheep in a truck, the inertia of my threatening fall is dissipated throughout the bodies behind me. Climbing to full speed, the gentle rocking of the train – cradle-like, were it not for the drone of the engine – causes all of the heads in the train to resonate, rocking left-and-right in perfect synchrony. With my mind adjusting to the noise of things, I begin to enjoy the incubative sensation of the thing – the warmth; the engulfing feeling of the people around, softer than they are hard, especially the woman next to me in a fur coat, which is too smooth to be compared; the minimum of effort needed to remain standing – and I can imagine myself as a yolk in an egg beneath maternal Moscow. (Yes, I just compared Moscow to a chicken.)
Too soon, my meditative commute is interrupted as we pull up to the next station on the line. Another jolt of momentum, this time from behind, and the doors open. One man steps off the train, demonstrating the presence of mind to have been the last person to step onboard at the last station, and a new mass of people display the same degree of disregard for the elastic limit of human flesh as those at my station had done. A rapid rearrangement of bodies, people jostling for position in order to ensure a minimum of effort at their stop, a sudden encrushing, then, just as the doors are shutting, a man runs up to the train, steps into it backwards by slipping his feet in among the feet of the people who were themselves struggling to remain within the jaws of the train, braces his hands against the top of the doorway, and levers his body inside the train. The doors close, the man relaxes, and we pull away. I hear stories that, in the Tokyo Underground at rush hour, there are men whose job is to push people onto the train so that the doors will close around the enormous number of people inside. Lacking the pathological politeness of the Japanese, Russians have no qualms about doing this job for themselves.
Only now do I realise that I don't actually know where my arm is. It still feels attached, but it certainly isn't anywhere near my side, nor do I seem to be able to move it. I look down and find that it seems to terminate halfway down the upper-arm, disappearing between one man's back and another man's shoulder. While it is about as functional as my other arm (that is, entirely not), the fact that it is pinned between two things that aren't me gives the strong feeling that it really isn't there at all. I’ll have to wait.
Station number four – Volgogradskiy Prospekt – is dead, even at the best of times. It is a large industrial area, all but overwhelmed with smokestacks, and the smell of fish. The train stops here as a matter of posterity, and no one gets on or off.
At the next station, things become interesting. Prolertarsaka sits on the cusp of the residential Outer Moscow and commercial Central Moscow and as such, there are a large number of people who want to get off the train here, and as many who want to get on. This creates an enormous, live-action game of Klotski, with everybody shifting into new locations on the train, trying to either: get on the train before the doors close, get off the train before the doors close or not get off the train, which seems to be the most difficult of the three tasks. A woman, trying to counterbalance her below average stature with above average assertiveness, braces herself as if she is leaving a mountain hut during a blizzard – head lowered and forearm across her face – and strides forward at near-normal walking speed off the train, cleaving a path as she moves. The doors close again, and I am nowhere near where I was when we pulled up. In addition, my feet aren't beneath my centre of gravity, but are rather further to my left than I am used to. Not an issue, though; I am being supported by the communal legs of all those on the train.
Immediately to my starboard, two men are having a conversation. This, in itself didn't surprise me (“what?” I didn't say. “Do I see an example of human interaction? How very strange.”) I was surprised at how close the two men were forced to stand – torsos pressed against one-another, faces only centiemetres apart, and completely non-plussed by how coital this stance might appear to an onlooker, as they discuss the weather, possibly.
We pass through Taganskaya in similar fashion to Proletarskaya, the in-and-out flow of commuters having now forced me hard up against the opposite side of the train.
All to plan, though. The next stop, Kitay-Gorod is the only station on my line where the doors open on the right side of the train. The accumulated pressure of dozens of passengers pressed up behind me, most, it would seem, harbouring the same intentions as I am, reduce my assertive exit into a floundering departure. I stride forward, as rapidly as is practical, yet still more slowly than the other passengers – my own personal allusion to the scene from Return of the Jedi, in which the Millennium Falcon flies clear of the exploding Death Star just as the flames of explosion surround it.
Uniquely among the Metro stations of Moscow, instead of making a transfer to a different platform in order to change lines, here at Kitay Gorod, all I need to do is cross the same platform, board the opposite train, and continue.
I still haven’t made it to work yet. Out of the train once again one stop later at Turgenevskaya, along the platform and up the stairs, I follow the two-way tunnel connecting this station with Chisty Prudy. This transition is, as I mentioned earlier, less a willful decision as it is leaping into the ceaseless stream of people to become subject to the laws of fluid dynamics, and hoping for the best.
Through a semi-circular tunnel to another set of escalators, again with the choice of standing on the right or walking on the left. Again on the platform, again into the train, again taking my seat beside…
Clearly something must be wrong: I almost died getting this far, and now I’m on a train that’s practically abandoned. What has changed?
BKC has over 30 branches throughout Moscow, and only about half a dozen of them in the central city. The rest of the schools are dotted across the area between the inner city and the periphery of the Metro-bound system, and it is to one of these locations that I am making my way on this journey. This means that, having made it into the heart of Moscow, I am now leaving again on a different line. I am in the minority: most commuters come into the city and disembark, leaving outgoing trains virtually empty (virtually empty being relative to the scale set by a city of 17 million people), and some of the seats are available, even at this time of day.
Another four stations later, and I get off the train at Sokolnoki, my last stop. I move up the stairs, past the ticket gates and along the underground corridor. Townward bound men dressed better for a funeral than a day at the office, and workbound women dressed as if ready to appear on an episode of the Fashion Channel’s Label Bashing, (or a Comedy Central parody), march past me in a tight mass, preparing to endure what I have just escaped.
Outside at last. Stretching out in front of me is a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard; to my left, a looming glass skyscraper. Behind is a four-way intersection, choked with cars, and across that stands a McDonalds. Ahead, halfway down the boulevard and on the left, a purple and white onion-domed cathedral towers over the shopping centre beside it.
I take my first deep breath since leaving home, and walk the remainder of the way to work.