As the previous features editor, travel writer and food critic for this paper I thought I might be able to supply you with some home truths and current observations of the Russian Arctic.
Well, the observations may be a trifle limited to 30’ wall, rolls of barbed wire, dog fence, watch tower and more barbed wire but one does get smells and some ambience of location.
Murmansk, being the final destination of the heroic Arctic convoys in WWII does not seem to have cleared the harbour of sunken wrecks, abandoned submarines and decomposed nuclear ice breakers. All this was observed by planting my face against a porthole on the Arctic Sunrise as we were towed into port under armed guard over three weeks [editor’s note: now five weeks] ago. Surprisingly we weren’t allowed on deck.
Since arriving at and being processed through the system at Murmansk State
Prison Hostel I have been keeping a mental and digestive diary of food substances supplied through the security hatch of our cell door, three times a day.
Breakfast, 06:00 It looks like porridge… It is porridge.
Lunch/abyet, 13:00 Potato is in there somewhere. The trick is to sieve out the suspected meat particles and positive ID them before consumption. It is often quite wise not to consume them.
Dinner/oozhin, 19:00 Potato makes a comeback on most evenings, indeed lunch makes a comeback on some evenings, but that’s quite often well before 19:00. If one gets extra boiled water and uses bread, dinner can actually be quite palatable.
Once inside the accommodation one can really appreciate the protection and enveloping sensation of a 5m x 2m cubicle. I think these are somewhat larger than the variety I have stayed in at Shinjuku station and downtown Osaka but some of the features differ in quite remarkable fashion.
I am old enough to remember the smoking carriages on London Underground and I feel the general enthusiasm for all out fumigation is alive and well in “Room” 320. Fortunately the decorative bars crisscrossing the rather high window are strong enough to support my weight. I make my way to the ceiling and reach my arm through a slot and prize open an icebound window.
By this stage my two companions are halfway through the first packet. I assure you this is no exaggeration. At about 07:00 “house cleaning” pop in, all dressed surprisingly in the same combat blue fatigues. It seems as if all the broom heads have fallen off their rather stout broom handles and I may be mistaken but the room seems rather messier than when they arrived. I might try to write a letter to the management and leave it in the “comments” box attached to the 5” plate steel partition to the hallway.
There’s a bit of excitement tonight as we have kindly been provided with what I think is a chess set. My two colleagues were only too keen to get started and casually asked how many traveller’s cheques I normally travel with.