The best underground system in the World bar none.
The building of the Moscow Metro began in the 1930s under Stalin, who set about the project with the avowed intention of providing his capital with a series of 'people's palaces'. Evidently he succeeded and, though the gilt is beginning to peel off the splendour these days, the visitor is still in for a treat. Once you arrive on one of the cavernous platforms you will be assaulted by an array of bronzed light fittings, mosaics, sparkling chandeliers, statues, stained-glass windows, busts, friezes, odd designs in beaten metal and acres and acres of gleaming marble, all monumentalizing an idealised Communist never-never land. If you like Soviet kitsch, the Metro is your place. And there are tours. With guides and everything.
However, this is only one of the benefits of the Metro. Another is that it is unbelievably affordable. Not only do tickets cost a mere five rubles - slightly less than a cheap loaf of bread - but this is a flat-rate fare, enabling you to travel anywhere on the system for this one price. Amazingly, the price actually goes down if you buy multiple rides.
It is also efficient: the trains run regularly and on time. At peak times, they arrive every two minutes. At any time you would be surprised, nay, extremely irritated, to have to wait more than five minutes for your ride. And it never breaks down. Never1.
There is, of course, one disadvantage, although this is perhaps a result of the Metro's strengths. It is said that if the number of passengers who use the New York and London Underground networks every day were combined, the figure would still be less than the number of travellers carried by the Moscow Metro (at present around nine and a half million). Which explains why at almost any time of the day you will encounter a scrum-like situation when trying to get on or off a train, and overcrowding on the carriages. Judicious positioning is everything. Pushing and shoving is positively encouraged. Watch out for those babushkas - they are half your size, but have years of practice. Do not be surprised when they floor you with a timely jab of the elbow.
Using the Metro
The Metro starts running at 5.30am (when the first train leaves the first station at each end of each line), and closes at about 1.30 (the last train leaves the first station at each end of each line), although the stations start shutting down before this so it is best not to rely on this fact. You may find yourself stranded if you miss your connection, or lose your orientation if the exit you need has closed down.
The layout of the system, however, is relatively simple: there is a brown circle line roughly enclosing the centre of the city, bisected by nine other lines. Locations within the circle line are well served, though once out in the suburbs, you may find it necessary to do a bit of walking or familiarise yourself with the tram, trolley bus and bus routes. Finding the stations on the surface is fairly easy and aided by the large red neon 'M' outside. Once inside, if you are buying a ticket, the word you want is bilyet. At the ticket barrier, you slide your ticket into the slot, wait for the green light, remove your ticket and hope that the gates do not decide to slam arbitrarily on your legs. In compensation, the ones in the centre of the city will play you a jaunty little tune as they pincer your lower limbs. Forgetting to take the ticket out of the gate is a good way to enjoy this experience. While somewhat uncomfortable, it is an excellent way to introduce yourself to a member of the whistle-blowing Metro staff. She will be stout, red-hatted, resplendent in blue serge and only too happy to harangue you for any infraction. And she is everywhere...
Having successfully navigated the exceptionally fast escalator (stop admiring the decor - this is serious) get ready to contend with the choice between the left or right side of the open platform, aided only by the Cyrillic-inscribed signs hanging from the ceiling or the walls. There are no full-scale maps down here, so if you have problems with the Cyrillic alphabet or you don't know the network, well, it is important to carry your own map and/or have a clear mental photograph of your destination name and any changes you need to make on the way. Try memorising the first three letters, rather than the whole name. On the train, your nose may well be pressed up against a map (or it may be at the other end of the carriage with two thousand people between you and the map), but it is difficult to see the names of the stations from the trains and the announcements, which in any case are in Russian, may likewise be inaudible. If you can hear them, the announcements will begin by telling you what station you have just arrived at (plus any connections you can make), followed - after a discrete pause to allow passengers to cram themselves in - by a warning that the doors are about to close and the name of the next stop. However, the ability to count stations to your destination comes in very handy.
Once you make it into a carriage, if the mass of people does not obscure your view, you will find the walls will be covered in plastic wood. Or yellow 1970s style wallpaper. Seats are positioned along each wall, parallel to one another. Upholstered in brown imitation leather, they are either - should you have, by some happy fortune, been able to fight your way into one - bench-hard, or so overstuffed that sitters are bounced up and down unmercifully. Etiquette still demands that you give up this hard-won haven in favour of old ladies or the infirm. It is possible to sit tight, but the disapproval quotient in the carriage will be immense and you risk calling down a barrage of shrill babushka-scolding, which is not to be courted at the best of times. In an enclosed space, with limited possibilities of escape, it is definitely not a good idea. Meanwhile there are rails for you to hang on to, but on most occasions you will be kept upright by the mass of bodies around you. In any case, the true Muscovite scorns such aids in favour of train surfing. In the likely event, then, that you are upstanding, people who want to get off are liable to ask if you do too. No matter how crowded the wagon is, if your answer is no you will be expected to make way for them.
If you are trying to change platforms, avoid the Arbatskaya/Borovitskaya/Bibliotaka Imani Lenina/Alexandrovsky Sad junction at all costs. It is a rabbit warren and only to be attempted by expert Metro users. Otherwise the connecting passageways are marked with signs saying perekhod, a list of colour-coded stations each of the other lines reach, and a symbol of a white stick-man on a blue background running up some stairs. Although connected stations are housed in the same building, many of those not on the brown circle line have different names. Don't let this throw you off. Exits to the street can be found by looking for vikhod v gorod followed by a list of street names, shops and other places of interest, but the exits can be far apart overland, so scour the destinations carefully to make sure you have the one you want. This is particularly important to remember when arranging to meet someone, or when giving or following directions. It is essential to pay attention to which carriage you should be on (first or last) in order to get the right exit.
Even More Attractions
At times the press of passengers on the trains eases. At this point you may be treated to the sight of a procession of people passing down the carriages. Perhaps the most common are beggars. Do not judge them. Looking beyond surface appearances, life in Moscow can be extremely precarious, and despite rumours of Mafia-led begging rings2, these people are genuinely needy.
However, it is also not unusual to have Orthodox monks and nuns pass by. If you give them money, they will chant at you. Busking is also popular. See if they can stay upright while playing the violin and doing a jig for the length of the carriage. Most useful, though, are the hawkers offering everything from fireworks through a dazzling collection of biros to obscure doodads for fixing your toilet. In fact, doing a majority of your ordinary and extraordinary shopping in and around the Metro is an extremely viable option as the Moscow Metro has a thriving kiosk culture, where it is possible to buy anything and everything.
A Word About Safety
Owing to the fact that large numbers of people use the network every day, the vast majority of whom are perfectly respectable citizens of Moscow, travelling by Metro is a safe, rational choice, although the wagons do empty a bit after midnight. Even so, you are likely to remain safe while underground, but as in any major city wandering around alone late at night is not the most clever idea, especially as foreigners do stand out. Pick-pocketing is made easier by the press of people around you, but a bit of vigilance is sufficient to cut down on opportunities. The only other hazard, other than a run in with the militant Metro staff, is the ever present possibility that the patrolling Militia may stop you and demand your documents. This is not a situation wholly confined to the Metro, however.
This is the end of the line. The train doesn't go any further. Get off the train. And take your belongings with you3
While you cannot actually advocate a visit to Moscow purely based on the charms of the Moscow Metro, it will not be long after your arrival before you are thanking whatever deity you favour that you had the chance to experience such transportational bliss.