Friday, 27 January 2012

The Metro 3: Escalators and Komsomolskaya (brown line)

I have noticed that if I place my hand on the moving handrail of an escalator in Australia, it gradually creeps ahead of me. The handrail, it seems, moves slightly faster than the steps. The same thing happens on the long Metro escalators in Moscow. It must be a universal escalator phenomenon. 

To their credit, Muscovites are very diligent about standing to the right on escalators, allowing people in a hurry to pass. Not that many people actually walk up (or down) the steps. Most people just stand there. I have seen people scurrying along the perehods (passageways) to the escalators as if they were late for an urgent meeting, only to become statues on the ascent. People have even, quite rudely, pushed in front of me in their urgent haste to get on these magic moving steps. Then they freeze and I pass them again (I usually walk up the escalators – I try to think of them as free exercise machines).

Wendy has suggested that riding the long escalators, which can take up to a minute, is sort of time out for busy Muscovites. I am less charitable – I think they are just being lazy.

Another interesting feature of the Metro is what I call the escalator police. At the bottom of long escalators is a little glass booth in which sits a grey-uniformed, often somewhat elderly, official watching both the escalator in front of them and a group of escalator images on closed-circuit television. I guess it stops people from getting up to whatever mischief people get up to on escalators. But it has to be one of the world’s most utterly, totally, completely boring jobs. Especially as Muscovites don’t seem to get up to any interesting mischief on escalators – they just stand there.

Riding the Komsomolskaya escalator. Unusually quiet as this was New Years Day. The metal and glass booth on the left is home to the diligent 'escalator police' - so behave yourself!
 Today’s station is Komsomolskaya on the brown line (there is a nearby, older station on the red line which is also called Komsomolskaya). This station was opened in 1952 and is perhaps the most ornate and lavish in the Metro. If I only had time to visit one Metro station on a short trip to Moscow, it would probably be this. 

A second, short escalator ascends..... an art gallery (sorry, I mean train station)

 The central hall contains 8 mosaic panels. Six of them show Russian military leaders and folk heroes. The other two were added in 1963 (one of which depicts Lenin speaking) to replace a couple of Stalinist mosaics deemed inappropriate at the time. 

Komsomolskaya mosaic
The station design won a Grand Prix at the 1958 International Exhibition in Brussels.

This really is just an underground railway station
See, there's a train!

Even Lenin approves.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Skiing in Izmaylovsky Park

I am a keen cross-country skier.

It sometimes surprises non-Australians when they learn that we have extensive winter snow-fields downunder. It is possible to ski for days with a back-pack in remote wilderness, staying overnight either in a tent or a rustic stockman's hut.

I had hoped to cross-country ski around Moscow. After all, there is plenty of snow. It is surprising, though, how difficult it is to find information about local skiing opportunities, either in guidebooks or on the internet.

So for other cross-country skiers who may be wondering ahead of a trip to Moscow - don't worry. There are plenty of large parks in which to ski just a few metro stations from the city centre.

Today I took the metro to Ismaylovsky Park, just six stations from the centre of Moscow. Just before arriving at Ismaylovskaya Station, the train emerges from its tunnel and the birch forests of the park appear on the right.

This park is, I understand, about 15 square kilometres in size. It was inaugurated in the 1930s, when it was known as Stalin Park. In the 1950s it was renamed after the 14th century boyar (aristocratic) family who owned the nearby village.

The better known (to tourists) Ismaylova Markets are on the edge of the park (one gets off a station earlier - at Partisanskaya - to access the markets). I actually don't like the markets much - I think they are a bit tacky.

Anyway, that's enough text. Here are today's photographs, hot off the SD card:

Getting away from it all just a few kilometres from Red Square
Lebedyensky Lake looking back towards high rise at Ismalovskaya
Perhaps a little chilly for using the swings today
I can't say I've ever encountered prams while skiing in the Australian Snowy Mountains.
Off the Metro and on to the snow. Couldn't be better.
Follow this link to see the location of Izmailovsky Park on Google Maps

Thursday, 12 January 2012


I have been asked about grocery shopping in Moscow. One of the first things on the mind of the new arrival in any city – where to buy food and toilet paper.

I knew the days of food queues and limited choice were over, but there was still lingering apprehension about what we would, or, more importantly, would not find in the shops. I needn’t have worried. Staples are in abundance, and even in the midst of a Russian winter I am able to buy pineapple, grapes and bananas.

Some items, I assume not routinely eaten by Muscovites, can be a challenge and require hunting. I finally tracked down some tofu in an Indian Spice Shop at Sukarevskaya. 

On the other hand, quite unexpected foodstuffs turn up. The Azbooka vyekoosa supermarket round the corner from our apartment has Australian Weetbix on its shelves. They evidently don’t know what to make of them as the packets are stocked with the dry biscuits, at the other end of the store from the breakfast cereals. Azbooka vyekoosa, by the way, looks much better written in Cyrillic – this is a supermarket chain and the name translates to, as far as I can work out, something like ‘the Alphabet of Taste’.

On arrival in Moscow (now 8 weeks ago – it somehow seems longer), we conveniently moved in to the apartment previously occupied by Wendy’s predecessor at work. Prior to her departure, Jen gave us a quick orientation of the neighbourhood, which included pointing out the nearest supermarkets. It didn’t take me long to realise that, being within a couple of kilometres of the city centre, these were not cheap. They looked like boutique supermarkets. There seemed to be almost as many staff as customers.

The ultimate boutique supermarket - Yeliseev's on Tverskaya (note Ded Moroz and Snegarochka)

Another view of Yeliseev's

 Since settling in, one of my on-going tasks has been to locate more reasonably priced supermarkets. As we have no car, they also have to be accessible by metro and not so far away that I would buckle under the weight of a backpack full of groceries.

Fresh fish anyone? Last time I looked this supermarket at Sokolniki appeared to have closed down.
For other expats who may also be seeking reasonably priced and large supermarkets accessible without a car, here are the two I most often use: 

·         The Metropolis mall supermarket. Metro station Volkovskaya (green line 2). Convenient for me as it’s only a few metro stops away without the need to change trains.

·         The Ashan mall north of Marina Rosha metro station. Walk about 500 metres north of the station along Sheremetskaya Ulitsa - the mall is on the right after the railway bridge. This supermarket is very large. Marina Rosha is a fairly new station and is not on older metro maps – the line runs north of Tsvetnoy Bulvar (which is on grey line 9).
The Ashan supermarket near Marina Rosha. OK, its just a picture of a boring supermarket - but that's the point. Muscovites shop in boring supermarkets and push crippled shopping trollies too...
...and queue at boring check outs. Just like everyone else.

       By far my favourite place to shop is an old-fashioned ‘mall’ near Ismalovskaya Metro Station, but I’ll give that a post to itself later.

If anyone reading this post knows of any other good supermarkets close to the Metro, I’d love to hear about them.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Babooshkas and the "beggars' mafia"

I received a comment to my short post about the old women I see begging ('Babooshkas') . I was going to write a comment in response, but my reply was getting rather lengthy, so I thought another post might be warranted. 

The writer noted that much of the money collected by the old women goes to a beggars' mafia. 

I’m going to have a closer look at this notion of a beggars' mafia, as frankly I think it’s something of an urban myth. I have heard this same story in almost every country I have visited where there are beggars, from India and Morocco, to Peru and Namibia. Whenever I have pressed people for more information I am told its common knowledge, ie hearsay. I’ve googled the subject (for what it’s worth) and it’s the same story,  people saying  ‘I’ve heard that…’, but rarely is any real evidence presented.

When we arrived in Moscow we were briefed about potential hazards to our safety. We were advised that there is organised crime operating in Moscow (mafia if you like) but that expats like us, and tourists, are such small fry that we won’t be bothered. 

If we aren’t of interest to organised crime, I find it hard to imagine that an old woman getting a few of my cast off kopeks is going to be a serious source of income for crime bosses. Even if an old woman managed to rake in 100 roubles an hour (which from my observation is highly unlikely) and sat there for 10 hours, she’d still only make the equivalent of about $30 for the day. I couldn’t see Al Capone getting too excited. 

I will accept that old women collecting money may be subject to petty thuggery and intimidation. I also expect that a beggar who has a bit of turf would become possessive of it – that’s human nature.

I am also aware of the social issues attached to giving to beggars - I won't give to children or people who look like they could work.  But I am talking about elderly women here.

Now let’s have a quick look at the cost of living and social welfare. The average old age pension was 7,377 roubles a month (about $250 Aus) in 2011. Moscow is not a cheap place to live. On Mercer’s  2011 ranking it was rated the fourth most expensive city in the world. Also around 60% of the men smoke – there is a high mortality rate among males. Put all this together and you have a lot of old women living alone and in serious poverty.

I have no doubt that the women I see are cold and poor. Of all ways to generate an income, begging is the most humiliating. No one would do it without good reason. And yes, they may well be ‘professional beggars’, as the writer of the comment observed. But it may be that there's no other way for them to make any money. 

So I will continue to give the odd bit of change to these poor souls, beggars' mafia or no.

Finally, what I really think is that these beggars' mafia stories are used by people to justify to themselves their own lack of generosity and charity.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Metro 2: Novoslobodskaya Metro Station

I have lived most of my life in Sydney. As a result I have developed low expectations of underground stations – the Sydney underground has the aesthetic appeal of a string of public toilets connected by rail. 

The Moscow metro has improved my perspective. Underground stations don't have to be dingy.

Novoslobodskaya is north of central Moscow on the circular metro line (brown line, number 5). The brown line and its stations are almost invariably busy as people use them in the same way as drivers use a ring road – to skirt around the city centre.
Train arriving at Novoslobodskaya station
 I caught a glimpse of Novoslobodskaya stained glass a few weeks ago as my train passed through. Having an interest in leadlight, I decided to have a closer look at the first opportunity.

One of over 30 leadlight panels, each edged with brass.
 The station architect was the guy also responsible for Mayakovskaya, Alexey Dushkin. The station pylons are faced with pink granite from the Urals. It was opened on 30 January, 1952.

The stunning glass panels, which are illuminated from behind, were manufactured in Latvia to designs prepared by Pavel Konn.

Not content with the leadlight, Pavel Konn also designed a mosaic at the end of the station platform, called ‘Peace Throughout the World’.

Pavel Konn's mosaic "Peace Throughout the World'.

Well, in fairness, I suppose the Sydney underground stations do have advertising posters to look at.