Since retiring, I have been fortunate enough to indulge my love of travelling and seeing new places around the world to a far greater extent than I had been able to do previously. My love of travel was born when I was 11 years old, when my parents put me on a plane to France to spend the summer with a family I had never met. And I had only had one year of French in high school.
The first in my family to ever fly (on a prop plane back then), I had no idea that airports were not in cities, or where I was supposed to meet this unknown family. Alone in the airport, I saw my suitcase piled on top of a bus, so figured out that I had better go with it. And so my travelling odyssey began.
In October 2013, I took a cruise round the Black Sea with Holland America. One of the ports of call was Sochi, Russia, upcoming site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Although I knew the Olympics was to be held in Sochi, I was unaware when I chose a required shore excursion that I had accidentally selected the one which took me to the site of the outdoor snow events.
I say accidentally because unfortunately there was no mention of Olympics in the description of the choices available for shore excursions in the booking information. In order to go ashore in Sochi, passengers had to be booked on a shore excursion through the cruise line, thus avoiding having to obtain a visa.
Armed with limited information and choices, I selected what was described as a trip to a mountain nature preserve, rather than to some propaganda-sounding memorials. I was assuming I would see some of the nature of Russia and perhaps even some villages. Boy, was I in for a surprise, as were all of us on this excursion bus.
Sochi is a resort city of Russia located on the Eastern side of the Black Sea, with a population approaching 400,000. The city enjoys a subtropical climate, with warm-to-hot summers and mild winters. It is the summer resort for many Russians, and until the demise of the USSR, a favorite with Russia's political leaders. Unfortunately, by the time it was selected for the 2014 XXII Olympic Winter games, it had been neglected and become somewhat run down, requiring significant renovation of infrastructure and buildings to showcase Russia's ability to stage a successful Olympics.
Sochi offers a temperate climate in the downtown area, rather than the harsh winters of most of Russia, and is just 30 miles away from snow in what was the mountain preserve in the Caucasian Mountains.
The more than $50 billion Russia has spent on building the Olympic venues in Sochi and the mountains included a high-speed rail and new four-lane highway from Sochi to the mountains. In addition to the Olympic villages in the mountains and the city of Sochi, accommodations for the visitors entailed building numerous new hotels, cable lifts, and the supporting infrastructure an enormous expense in what had been a sparsely populated mountain area. The resulting buildings along the Snake River were mind-boggling. There were tall pastel-colored hotels, restaurants, pedestrian areas, shops and the main ticket and transportation hub for spectators to travel by cable car up the mountain.
But it all seemed like a 'show' for the world. There were not very many people there when our group was allowed out of the bus and we were free to wander around this showcase village. The ticket/information area was well-designed and attractive, as were all of the other facilities, with the river running through the middle of the development. The hotels were western-style, although I had the impression that they might not be very practical. There seemed to be a lot of poorly-designed, unnecessary lobby space in the hotel in which we had our snack. I got the feeling that the staff was rather overwhelmed in dealing with just our one busload.
Everything was very clean, with modern furniture, but the staff wanted to clear our plates away too quickly. We had two small, but tasty snacks. We had been on the bus since 10 a.m. and off the ship since about 8:30 a.m. with nothing to drink or eat, and it was now 2 p.m. A small croissant and dessert were offered. One of our group wanted two croissants rather than one of each and was firmly told 'no' only one of each.
My impression was that by the time the Olympics begin, they will have the staff, but may not have the service experience to cater to the wide variety of cultures they will encounter.
We had to tender in (on what became a very rough sea) as the port had been closed to passenger ships for two years because of the massive amount of building materials needed to construct the Olympic venues and infrastructure. We had to pass through passport control. We got off the tender on a small concrete jetty and walked to some ticket huts to show our passports to some burly officious officers.
Once out through the terminal and on to the buses, we met our Russian guide, and a very dour bus driver. The guide (in his 40s) spoke good English but it was obvious he had a particular party line to tell us. We drove quickly through Sochi, seeing some of its imposing neo-classical style buildings and passing the official welcome garden flower clock.
In the outskirts of Sochi, and all along the 30-mile road to the snow sports venue, there was a fence along one side of the highway perhaps to keep down some of the noise and dirt from building construction.
The drive to the 'nature preserve' was along a two-lane road through the mountains, with a stop to view the mountain gorge. Unfortunately, there was so much construction equipment, and a fence in front of the viewing area, that it was virtually impossible to get much of an appreciation of the mountain view. Construction was everywhere. Equipment, mud, noise with the road still under construction and no sign of any train on the railway.
We were told many times by our guide that we were in "big high snowy mountains," in an effort to convince us that the 2014 Olympics would indeed have snow, even if the weather did not cooperate. To ensure that they had snow, they had stored copious amounts of it from the previous winter under special covers.
The Olympic village was right next to the main mountain Olympic center. We couldn't really get a good impression of it as there still seemed to be lots of road construction and building going on. My first impression was that it seemed rather dark, as it was tucked in to the steep hillside. We were told that there was another village part way up the mountain to enable the athletes to become acclimated to the altitude.
We were allowed to go into the Olympic center where athletes could obtain tickets to ride up the mountain on cable cars. We went through 'security,' although no one was there except our group and no security people either. The media center was off to one side, and was still very much under construction. That was the only area where we saw workmen. The main part of the facility had been completed. There was a gift shop and an elaborate electronic board depicting all the runs and event areas.
As we drove back to the ship amid the unending construction and seeing only construction workers and no sign of regular daily life, I was left with the feeling that Sochi was not ready for the onslaught of visitors. With the high-speed rail and new highway unfinished in mid-October (at least I did not hear or see any evidence of a train on the tracks) and this being the only link between Sochi and the mountains, I was left with an uneasy feeling about this community's ability to cope with the thousands of visitors. The athletes will be taken care of, but despite a new McDonald's in the hotel area and other restaurants, this 'mountain preserve' has undergone a colossal upheaval. I wonder what will happen to all these hotels, so far from the city of Sochi. Is the enormous cost to stage the Olympics really going to benefit the local economy when it is all over?
The Winter Olympics are being broadcast by NBC (channel 24) from Feb. 6 24 for 18 days, with the opening ceremonies on Friday, Feb. 7, at 8 a.m.