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Pole to Pole

Day 26: Leningrad

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleThe Okhintskya Hotel has only been open for two months. It's a tall, anonymous, modern block about twenty minutes from the centre of the city and my room has, apart from a fine view of the river Neva, a fitted carpet, bidet, hot water and a massive throbbing Cheshinka 304 refrigerator, which I have to unplug in the night after dreaming of a tank coming through the wall. There is a huge party of Italian tourists here which explodes into the lobby every now and then, but apart from them and us the place seems empty.

Our Russian hosts give us an introductory tour of the city. The roads are in terrible condition, holed and pitted, and the ubiquitous tramlines have often completely parted company with the road surface, sticking out of their sockets like ribs on a corpse.

We're taken in the evening to a gypsy restaurant. Our regular drivers have the day off and Volodya, one of our Russian fixers, is at the wheel. He always looks harassed, but tonight as the vehicle jerks erratically forward he seems more than usually unhappy. Reaching for the indicator as he swerves to avoid a pothole, he succeeds only in activating the windscreen wiper. Unfortunately there is no wiper in the fitting and there is a horrid screech as the metal claw scrapes blindly at the windscreen, which is already broken anyway. Almost everything to do with the vehicles is a headache for Volodya and his team. The chronic shortage of petrol means that to be sure of supplies our regular drivers have to fill up at three in the morning, and the chronic shortage of glass is why every other windscreen in the city is cracked. At the restaurant we have zakuski - an hors d'oeuvre comprising slices of tomato, cucumber, pickle, tinned ham, beef and pork on a bed of lettuce, hard-boiled eggs in mayonnaise, fish paste and caviar. Vodka and wine are liberally supplied, and because the wine is so rough and beer seems impossible to come by most of us attend to the vodka. This leg of the journey is going to be quite a test of survival.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 26
  • Country/sea: USSR
  • Place: Leningrad
  • Book page no: 56

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