I've expressed many controversial viewpoints about Russia and its people in previous posts. After three visits in one year, the world's largest country remains a huge puzzle in my mind, with many pieces missing such that an entire frame or understanding will likely never be achieved. In the lead up to the Sochi Olympics, I had huge doubts. How could a nation with virtually no tourist infrastructure host a global event, welcoming visitors from around the world? After the Volgograd bombings, American and other Western press went into a feeding frenzy, focusing only on the strong probability of terrorist attacks. U.S. Senators, and even some athletes, went on major news networks and proclaimed they wouldn't send their families to the Games. "It's too dangerous"..."Russian security forces can't handle the threats," and other strong words of caution penetrated Western airwaves to the point many tourists became so frightened that they canceled plans to attend. In my mind, absence was never an option. Every day, I sit in the heart of Washington, DC, a few blocks from the White House, perhaps the largest terrorist target in the world. Such tragic bombings can occur anywhere, including right here on my beloved American soil, and they have.
When foreign journalist arrived shortly before the start of the Games, the Internet immediately exploded with pictures of dirty water, stray dogs, weird signs and hotel horror stories. It looked like Russia would become a joke on the world stage. And then the Games began...
1. I watched the Opening Ceremonies from my couch, right here in America. All journalists were in place, but more importantly normal visitors had arrived and began sharing photos of a very different Sochi. Photos of people sitting in modern venues, attending events and assimilating fine into their Russian surroundings. A week later, I was standing in Olympic Park, my eyes affixed to the symbolic Olympic rings.
2. In the confines of the Olympic area, another Russia existed. Everything shiny, new and modern. Smiling, friendly people welcomed you at every corner. I traveled with a native, but in most cases we were separated so I was able to view and feel the infrastructure from a foreign perspective. The most heartwarming part of the Games were the amazing volunteers! Not all spoke English, but language barriers weren't really an obstacle. If one volunteer couldn't assist you, they would try to find another who could. These young ladies greeted me as soon as I entered Olympic Park. None of them spoke English, but they saw my camera and immediately wanted to pose. A smile - one of the most welcoming gestures in the world, transcending all language barriers.
3. The most noticeable result of the Olympics? Amazing transport infrastructure now in place in Sochi. I arrived in the Adler Station after a long train ride from Moscow, but visited many other stations during the journey. All are modern, clean and easy to navigate. New rail lines covering a total length of 157 km were constructed, and exceptional brochures outlining all routes, timetables and stations were available in both Russian and English.
4. The Olympic Park Station housed a lot of souvenir shops, including this one with huge stuffed animals of the mascots. Who can carry such a large toy home? Or, maybe they're just nice window decorations? Purchasing souvenirs at the official BOSCO store was a big problem, as the queue to enter the store was very long. I purchased my souvenirs at the airport, though options there were limited.
5. These shiny and new trains operated on all routes. Transport during the Games was completely free for all visitors.
6. Everything related to transport is duplicated in English. On the train and in the stations, including announcements by the conductor. No problem for foreign guests to navigate the route.
7. Best part? All trains are equipped with plugs, so it was easy to recharge electronics on the long ride from Olympic Park to the Mountain Cluster! We don't even have this feature on most American trains, so be grateful. :)
8. Coat racks and plenty of overhead storage space on the new trains.
9. New roads run parallel with the train tracks, although few foreign guests were traveling via car. I can't imagine driving on most Russian roads, but on these newly constructed highways in Sochi, it's almost feasible. Wide and clearly marked lanes, normal signage, and proper shoulders to ensure safety in the event of an accident or breakdown. Photo credit macos.
10. This could be a picture from any American highway, but no - it's Russia! Amazing and I wish for the entire nation that similar roads will be built in the future. Imagine the ease and freedom of movement if such pavement existed everywhere?
11. Even guard rails to prevent more catastrophic collisions and accidents. The absence of such rails on most Russian roads is perplexing. Easy to implement and improve safety for all, yet rarely present.
12. I often wondered how local residents felt during the Games? Here, a babushka takes an afternoon ride on the train. Maybe with her granddaughter by her side, going about normal, every day life and chores, while the world viewed her homeland from a television set. Washington, DC placed a bid to host the Summer Games of 2024. Perhaps in ten years I'll be able to welcome the world to my town!
13. The train ride from Olympic Park to the Mountain Cluster was about 45 minutes, but passengers kept themselves occupied. On this day, the big hockey match between Russia and America, and fans took time to put on their war paint during the ride. Sorry for the loss, but proud of my American team.
14. Security was tight at all stations, with bags being inspected at all points. Two officers even argued amongst themselves at one of the stations as to whether I could bring a water bottle on the train. In the end, I walked past them while they continued the debate, and carried my bottle with me. It also was immediately noticeable in Olympic Park that Big Brother was watching at all times. A huge balloon flew over the Park day and night. I assume it was some type of military or special forces unit to monitor crowd activity? I always felt safe during the visit.
15. Some type of loud speaker or monitoring device was even mounted on a palm tree!
16. Speaking of palm trees, it was very strange to host the Winter Olympics in a subtropical climate. I didn't like it at all, and believe it took away from the spirit of the Winter Games. Maybe I'm biased because I like cold, snowy weather, but I think others felt the same and many were unprepared for the warmth. I wore the same shirt for three days because it was the only cool thing I packed. I monitored temperatures ahead of time, but in the open concrete of Olympic Park temperatures felt much warmer than the figure shown on the thermometer. Bright sun to the point that I even got sunburned on one day. And what do you think of the slogan - HOT.COOL.YOURS? :) I don't think it translates well, as some foreigners likely perceived the term "COOL" to be the equivalent of "kruto" rather than a reference to the temperature.
17. Colorful domes in the distance. I understood that the IOC stayed here during the event, and that afterward it will be home to a children's entertainment center/museum.
18. Magnificent flame, burning day and night. It was surrounded by a grassy lawn on which people could rest and enjoy the scenery.
19. What's this? Carrying Siberian snow to the top of the mountain? :) During the final days of competition, I think the snow was melting even at the highest mountain points.
20. Krasnaya Polyana Station in the Mountain Cluster, built to resemble a ski chalet.
21. Excellent platforms and signage in the stations. Even elevators and escalators! Of course, all transport infrastructure must be fully equipped to handle athletes competing in the Paralympic Games. However, these trains will be integrated into other areas afterwards. A huge and long overdue step in accommodating and assimilating the disabled into Russian society.
22. Volunteers were placed in all stations to assist passengers.
23. In the mountain area, these speakers existed, presumably to convey information to guests. However, I tried several of them and none worked.
24. I was only in the bottom of the Mountain Cluster for a few hours, but it was completely empty. Maybe an event was happening and all tourists were on the mountain? Most restaurants and cafes had no guests. I imagine they are now closed and will reopen again when the Paralympic Games begin.
25. In this area, many Cossacks were patrolling the grounds. I didn't really understand their purpose, to merely look intimidating? Did they have the power to arrest people? Not sure. Before the Games, there were a lot of stories relating to cooperation between Russian and American security forces, indicating Putin didn't want our assistance. However, I saw several armed U.S. Officers in Olympic Park, probably sent there by the State Dept. to protect American visitors.
26. The mascots appeared around every corner. Plenty of photo opportunities with them, and I couldn't resist. :) In this area, a lot of nice hotel chains (Radisson, Mercure Hotel, etc.). Layout felt more like a quaint European village rather than Russia. A lot of colorful buildings, clock towers and a stream running right down the middle of the village.
27. The mountains were beautiful, just wish there was more snow.
28. Almost all of my time was spent in Olympic Park, an endless sea of colorful personalities. The most interesting part of the Games were the attendees, although it seemed most were native Russians. I think this woman was broadcasting for a television news channel.
29. A lot of patriots, waving different versions of the Russian flag.
30. Some even wanted me to pose with them, including a group of men who handed me this flag. They kept pointing to the meteor explosion on the flag, but I vividly remember this incident. It happened a few days before I arrived in Russia in February 2013.
31. I don't know the final attendance numbers for the Games. It seemed most visitors were native Russians, so I think foreign attendance was probably less in Sochi than other Olympics.
32. I didn't come across many Americans, but here are two in horrible outfits! It's true Americans sometimes wear pajamas out in public places, though it's rare. I love pajamas more than anyone, but it's shameful and lazy behavior when you can't put proper pants on in public. American Olympic apparel could be purchased in a special store in Olympic Park, accessible only by showing an American passport. However, my Russian friend was able to enter with me. I also saw a special store for Canadian apparel and souvenirs. All of it very expensive.
33. Others more plainly dressed and enjoying the bright sunshine.
34. Popular outfit with Russian women - very short dress with boots.
35. On Valentine's Day, I even saw a wedding! The Olympics aren't my idea for a romantic wedding venue, but I love seeing these brides in Russia and Eastern Europe. Found almost any place, and any day of the week, usually with a white fur draped around their shoulders. Remember my post about the Bridge of Kisses in Moscow? Nice. :)
37. I have nothing bad to say about the sports venues. They were top notch, handicap accessible and comfortable. I attended two events - figure skating and curling. Figure skating occurred here in the Iceberg Skating Palace. To me, it was the most aesthetically and architecturally pleasing structure.
38. This is my favorite Olympic sport, so I was happy to attend the men's free skate program. Special congratulations to gold medal winner Adelina Sotnikova in the women's program! Huge talent on the ice.
39. The venue is high tech, with top quality screens, monitors and cameras throughout.
40. My compatriots, loudly cheering the American skaters. One thing I found obnoxious. During the men's free skate, the crowd repeatedly shouted "Россия, Россия, Россия...", even though Russia had no athletes on the ice that night. The chants became particularly loud when the American skaters appeared. Disrespectful in my view.
41. This flamboyant skater from Uzbekistan was my favorite! Full of life and energy, skating to fast paced music.
42. Waving the Russian flag, a common sight in all the venues.
43. The curling stadium was very small, and there's a reason why. I think this must be the most boring sport in history!!
44. Four separate matches are running at the same time, with eight different countries present on the ice. I attended a match where Russia was playing.
45. There's no defense involved in this sport, perhaps that's why I find it boring. I left after watching the action for one hour. Russia's opponent in this match - China. Pity that I was only here two days and didn't have time to attend other sporting events. I would have liked to have seen luge, snow boarding and some of the skiing competitions.
46. Site of one of the hottest tickets during the Game - the U.S. vs. Russia hockey match.
47. Many people couldn't get tickets to the game, so they flooded out into the lawn and watched from big screens in Olympic Park. Really amazing atmosphere for this event, and I saw many American and Russian fans walking together despite the intense rivalry. Spirit of the Olympic Games! Impossible to capture from a television screen or laptop. Only those who have stood in the midst of the event can truly understand it.
48. In between events, there was no time to be bored! Amusing characters walking around Olympic Park at all times, entertaining spectators.
49. Musicians disguised as rabbits.
50. This is Russia, so of course there were some strange things. :) Why have a whole section dedicated to Grandfather Frost when Christmas passed over a month ago? Visitors could enter his home and take a tour, but the queue was so long I never waited.
51. Even a Christmas/New Year tree in February!
52. Great performances by these dancers/singers in traditional costumes, attracting a large crowd each time I passed.
53. How can a trash can be out of service? But many were.
54. Everything was well organized, but food options were a real problem. There weren't enough stands or variety of choices in Olympic Park. In the Mountain Cluster, many more options as cafes and restaurants existed.
55. Only one restaurant in Olympic Park, and it was expensive. I think you needed a reservation, but I never really understood as the hostesses were rude. I think they were hired to merely stand there and look beautiful rather than service guests. Well, a special talent to stand in these high heels on concrete all day, so they earned their pay for that alone. :)
56. Mime walking around the area. Clowns scare me, but I don't mind these characters. They live by my motto - "silence is golden."
57. No problem with liquids, as Coke machines were everywhere, including options for bottled water (my drink of choice). Some vending machines also sold sandwiches and soups, but I didn't try them.
58. We passed so many buses on the ride back to the hotel!! What will happen to all of the Sochi-branded transportation after the Games? Will they maintain the colorful logos, or be changed? In what parts of Russia will they be transferred? I'm not sure anyone knows the answers.
59. Special thanks to these lovely volunteers who helped me on the bus routes, especially my dear Sophi in the middle. :) Amazing girl, with a shared passion for travel and exploration.
60. Outside the main Olympic area, a very different Sochi. More typical of the Russia I'm used to seeing.
61. View from my hotel room balcony. My accommodations were excellent, only a minor problem with drainage in the shower which caused a flood both mornings. Hotel staff immediately cleaned the room and vacuumed the excess water from the bathroom floor and carpets.
62. Olympic Park was especially beautiful at night.
63. What lies ahead for Sochi after all the colorful banners, buses and fancy trains are removed? Time will tell, but I can't imagine many Americans, Europeans or Asians will incur the expense to travel there for a sea vacation when comparable places are much closer and cheaper.
64. My souvenirs from the Games. Sochi gloves and my favorite mascot - the bear. Gloves were 500RUB, another 500RUB for the USA flag cover. My beloved bear cost 800RUB. Expensive, yes, but normal for any sporting or global event where prices are always exaggerated.
65. What I'll remember most about the Games isn't the colorful banners, nice roads or fancy trains. It will be the Russian people, who really surprised me by embracing the international spirit of the Olympics. I met more friendly people here than in all of my prior Russian travels combined. I never expected such an emotional reaction from attending the Games, but it really moved and inspired me. For a short period of time and in the confines of Olympic space, humans embodied John Lennon's famous lyric - "Imagine all the people..sharing all the world."
In many ways, Sochi was a fairy tale, a sort of imaginary Russian world. Yet I believe Russians should be proud of the Sochi Games and the achievements associated with it. Not only winning the most medals, but more importantly creating a livable and vibrant infrastructure for residents and foreign tourists in the region. I hope it doesn't go to waste, and that it serves as a template for improvements in other parts of the country to facilitate a better quality of life for residents.
66. The flame now gone, and me too. Спасибо Россия! I hope we meet again soon!
Other posts about my Olympic journey:
American Journey to Sochi, Part 1: Sapsan Train from St. Petersburg
American Journey to Sochi, Part 2: Train Ride from Moscow to Adler