Hello from Moscow,
I probably knew just enough to get myself in trouble. Not enough to know which station I was heading for or which one to transfer at or even if I needed to transfer. Perhaps I should have done a little more research but then again, it all worked out okay. I found the cats. The theatre of cats…the Moscow Cat Theatre that has been entertaining the children of Moscow since 1893.
I should probably begin at the beginning. Whenever time allowed at home, I stole a few minutes to look at what I might do in Moscow with my extra days. Having been here a few times before, I had seen all the regular sights: Red Square, The Kremlin, the view from Moscow University…so on one website, I searched for unusual attractions and two animal theatres popped up. I was instantly captivated. Perhaps it was because my dad is a huge animal lover and I knew he would love to watch such performances. Or perhaps it was because I was cut from the same cloth as him. I watched youtube videos on The Cat Theatre and knew I would try to get there.
After a hearty Russian buffet breakfast, I set out with a miniature map of the Moscow Metro system. My driver the day before had pointed in the general vicinity of the subway station so I headed off in that direction. On my first pass around the massive hotel grounds, I saw nothing that resembled a station, only currency exchanges that gave a better rate than I gotten the night before. Not wanting to look lost or like a tourist, I veered left and entered the large tourist market. All the doors were barred because the market is only open on weekends. I ended up circling the entire complex (about a 2 km walk) before steeling myself for another attempt at finding the station.
See, the shy person, Me, doesn’t ask for directions at the best of time even when surrounded by Anglophones. Here, where the signs are in Cyrillic and where English speakers are harder to find, I knew I would depend extra on my ability to pick up clues from the environment. Nearing the commercial centre a second time, I noticed a large map of the hotel complex (it has four towers and can serve 3000 guests) that actually had a “You are Here” dot and showed where the metro station was. Bingo. I walked right to the subway station and watched people buy tickets at the wicket. Fortunately I had looked up the fare, 22 roubles, so just walked up to the wicket, handed over a 50 rouble note and held up two fingers. Instantly I had a ticket to ride, twice.
I watched people hold their tickets over a certain dot on the entrance gate and did exactly what they did. Wahoo. I was in. Two tracks. I knew I was near the end of the line and there were three stops beyond the hotel. I went to the track that had more station names. I couldn’t read any of the station names since they were in Cyrillic. I made a point to “drop some bread crumbs by making a special note of the station name where I started the grand adventure so I could get back home. This had all happened so fast that I didn’t know what station I was heading for. All I had was the small metro map on the back of my hotel key holder and I needed a magnifying glass to read it. I had three possible destinations: The Cat Theatre, The Animal Theatre, or the Zoo. I had English names for the stations I needed to find for all three but not the Cyrillic.
What to do? What to do? I decided to get off the blue line, on which I was riding, at one of the stations that had multiple lines, that way I figured, I could probably get to almost anywhere. I got off at the intersection of the blue, brown, green and red line at a station whose name sounded a lot like the famous nightclub area of Moscow, the Arbat. Turns out it was, though I’d not seen it, because after searching around a bit, I found a larger subway map which showed the station I wanted was three stops further down the blue line I’d just gotten off of. I found my way back, deciphered which way I needed the train to go and thus which track to stand beside and voila, seconds later came another train. This one, older than the first, didn’t have the fancy little light up line marker that indicated which station we were approaching. I just had to count. And watch. And remember what the Cyrillic name was for the station I wanted.
Got it. Which way out? The instructions I had, said “Go out by the last train.” Hmmm. No way out there. Alas, follow the masses. Emerge into daylight and wonder which way now. Spot a beautiful square (Moscow is famous for them) and take a few pictures (it was the Ensemble of the Square of Europe). There was a bridge over the Moscow River from which I could see the Russian “White House” up river. I’d driven past it on previous visits. Velma and I took a few photos and then it was time to get down to finding the target of our mission, The Cat Theatre.
I consulted the instructions once more and it said take a trolley or a bus or walk. Since the first two options often require speaking to the driver, I elected the last. My only difficulty was that there were two major streets, neither of which was identified. I started down the one by the river and after a few kilometers started to get the intuitive hit that this wasn’t the one. I turned around and backtracked to my last known location and then went beyond. At one point, I thought I could read the big Cyrillic sign that said turn left for something so I did. I decided right then, like on the mountain, that “the path was the goal” and that it was a lovely day for a walk.
I kept walking and this major street had a few signs translated into English with some distance indicated. There was hope. At one point, I was certain I was heading in the right direction and on the right road. I was. I arrived at the Cat Theatre Box Office and it miraculously had a show beginning in an hour. I managed to decipher that much from the posters on the wall and now it was time to try to buy a ticket. With a few hand gestures, a bit of pointing, and some bad Russian on my part, I had a ticket. For the next hour I watched many families come and do the same. Grandmothers and their grand kids, moms and tots, aunts and nieces, and Velma and I. I was one of the few unaccompanied adults. The average age of the audience was about eight.
The show was delightful. Think of crossing clowns, cats and Cirque de Soliel and you’ll get some idea of the show. Kids were dying of laughter at the clowns and the antics of the cats. I was in stitches watching the whole thing and was glad my intuition led me there. The journey home went pretty much with incident and I was even brave enough to enter the station a different way which meant joining the sea of humanity moving from track to track in a steady Friday afternoon at 6 pm kind of way. We were each a corpuscle moving through the underground capillaries that led to the major arteries that housed the trains. I got an old train again so I had to count stations. I noticed that my brain was beginning to understand the muffled voices of the train conductors and I was starting to see meaningful patterns in the Cyrillic.
I realized I had lots of travel tips for shy folks (probably for regular folks as well). Things like subways are often easier than buses, grocery stores easier than corner stores, places with fixed prices are easier than bargaining…then again, those are mostly common sense. As the day worn on, I started to remember tips and tricks acquired from many trips abroad: carry toilet paper wherever you go, put small bills in a handy pocket, keep bills grouped by denomination since they are all unfamiliar, take a card along with the hotel’s address and phone number, carry water and a snack, listen to your intuition on many levels, etc. etc.
I remembered my first big trip alone. To Mexico City and I had to arrive three days ahead of the rest of the group. I thought at first, speaking no Spanish, that I might spend the entire three days hiding in my room. But instead, I made gentle forays into my new world. I learned in small steps how to exchange currency, find a meal, and eventually get all over the city on the metro. Today, 23 years later, I summon the same courage to learn the same things again in another large city.
Soon after arriving back at the hotel, I met my roommate for the trip Marie. She’s from Montreal. We hooked up with the rest of the team-everyone has arrived and only one has to deal with the trauma of finding lost luggage. We are eight climbers (three women and five men) and our guide, Keith. We have one more day to explore Moscow and then it’s off to southern Russia on the fifth.
There is likely little email access once we leave Moscow so enjoy these first few verbose updates as I’ll be switching to phoned in ones from the satellite phone in a few days. Pictures from today’s adventures can be found at this link: http://bit.ly/FHWTU
Have a great weekend,