3 life lessons from riding the Moscow subway

Moscow, Russia – June 2012

Russia is famous for vodka, Red Square, and the Cyrillic alphabet.


Cyrillic what?

According to my thorough research, two brothers born in 9th century, Cyril and Methodius, or maybe their religious followers, decided the Greek alphabet wasn’t confusing enough.  They modified it so centuries later Westerners like me would get lost in the Moscow subway. Of course, “Cyrillic” is based on the name “Cyril” because “Methodillic” sounds a little awkward.

I’m paraphrasing but that’s my understanding of what Wikipedia says.


Easy to ride a subway

Actually, I love riding subways regardless of the language or alphabet. It’s like a giant puzzle, full of adventure, with people going in all different directions.

And if you’ve never ridden a subway, they aren’t that complicated.  Two train tracks are laid out underground, going in opposite directions.

All you have to do is pay some money to a person or a machine, go underground, and then stand between the tracks.  Soon a train will arrive and you get on if it’s going in the right direction.

Sure, it’s possible you could get on the wrong train.  But if you do?  No problem.  Just get off at the next stop and wait for a train going the other direction. Simple.


Get a map

Oh, one more thing.  Get a subway map if you can.  They usually have giant maps in the subway station with “you are here” arrows.  But those maps are 8 feet tall and bolted to the floor so get a nice paper map you can put in your pocket.

My hotel had some nice fold-up-in-your-pocket paper maps. Written entirely in Cyrillic.  Not a letter or word I could understand.  But this is where the fun begins.  I can match the Cyrillic letters on the map with the signs at the subway station.  If I wanted I could even draw an “I am here” arrow on the map.

I walked to the subway station where I had my choice of a ticket window with an actual Russian person or a ticket machine.  I went with the machine. After depositing a few Rubles and pushing some buttons, I received a magnetic-strip card.  Scanned the card in a turnstile and I’m ready to go for a ride.


Ask for directions

The final piece of the puzzle?  I’m standing between two tracks but which train do I get on?  Well, all I do is ask a friendly Muscovite.  Okay, I don’t really “ask” with words and all that fancy verbal stuff.  Mostly I show them the map and point to where we are.  We both agree “we are here.”  Then I point to my destination on the map, which is a stop near the Kremlin and Red Square.

We then communicate with one or two gestures and my new friend points me to the correct train.  A smile, wave, and “thanks” in Russian.  I am on my way.

When it comes to gesturing, I’m bilingual.  Or maybe tri-lingual.  If aliens ever land, call me and I’ll gesture to them to see where they’re from and where they’re going.  I’m a good gesturer.

I find the Kremlin and Red Square and a shopping mall and McDonalds.  Not bad for one day in Moscow.

On the way back to the hotel, I take some different subway lines just to explore.  Some of the older subway stations built in the 1930s are quite ornate.  Lots of marble floors and bronze statues.  Once again I ask directions with my bilingual gestures.  One nice woman even helped me when I needed to change trains from the “blue line” to the “gray line.”  I’m sure at least a few not-so-nice people live in Moscow but I didn’t meet any that day.

Visiting the Kremlin, Red Square, and various churches and museums were all fun and interesting. But that day also reminded me of some basic life/travel lessons.

1) Ask. Even if you don’t speak the language you can still “ask.”

Ask. One of the best words in the English language. And not just when you travel but in everyday life. Ask for help. Ask others if they need help. Ask for advice. Ask people what’s going on in their life. Ask. Sometimes you’ll run into a dead-end but you’ll never know unless you ask.

2) People are helpful.

I’ve been to lots of countries and sometimes run into unpleasant people. But the vast majority of time, people are helpful. I’ve been helped by strangers in China, Moldova, Ecuador and Afghanistan. And I’ve been helped by strangers at home. Don’t let yourself be too cynical about the people you meet throughout life just because of the occasional bad apple.

3) The best parts of traveling aren’t the famous destinations but the fun of exploring something as ordinary as a subway.

My favorite travel memories involve routine events more often than finding some famous tourist site. Museums, old churches and ruins are okay but my best travel memories involve bus rides, unexpected conversations, finding a place to do laundry, or just walking through city streets. Life at home is the same way. Accomplishing a big goal is great but don’t fail to appreciate all the more ordinary moments which happen everyday.

One more thing. I don’t believe Russians understand the Cyrillic alphabet either but they fake it for the tourists.

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