RUSSIA – Sochi


from snow to sunshine

When we left Moscow, it was snowing, so we have our winter gear on when we get off the plane in Sochi. Amanda asks some young volunteers how to get to “Prosvescheniya Street 85,” where we’re staying in Sochi, and they direct us outside of baggage claim where we board a free local bus for a quick ride to Adler Station.
The newly built transit hub is practically on the beach. Some stray dogs run along the promenade. It’s a perfect day with a clear sky over the blue Black Sea.
I get my rolling suitcase out from underneath the bus, but the handle’s jammed. After a few minutes, I concede it’s broken. I try dragging it by the strap, but I’m too tall, so I have to crouch low like I’m holding a toddler’s hand. I decide to just carry it. It’s only a short, 5 minute walk from the station.
15 minutes later we’re somehow back at the beach, but a different stretch of it. We ask a shashlik vendor for directions and he points back up the road. We thank him and promise to come back later for some grilled lamb.
A man and woman walk by us in their swimsuits. It must be 80 degrees. And I’m in layers and snow boots. So I take off my sweater and flannel shirt and tuck it under my left arm along with my puffy ski jacket. With my right arm, I hug my defunct rolling suitcase, and waddle up the street like a penguin, trying to keep up with Amanda as sweat drips down my face.
Another 15 minutes goes by and we still haven’t found the place. The afternoon’s getting warmer, and now I’m carrying all my top garments but my undershirt. My feet are sweating the most. Stupid wool socks.
Another 10 minutes go by and still no apartment building.
We stop for directions again, this time showing the slip of paper with the address to a convenience store owner. The lady says we’re not close at all and recommends we take the bus backwards a couple stops. In other words, we’ve been wandering around a completely random part of Sochi these last 40 minutes.
Amanda confesses she gave the wrong address when she asked for directions initially at the airport. This whole time we were looking for Prosvescheniya Street 85 when it was actually 84, which you wouldn’t think would be a big deal, being one number off, but because of the way they lay out their city grid in Russia, Prosvescheniya Street 84 and Prosvescheniya Street 85 are over 4 miles apart… I’m just glad we finally know where we’re going. And on the bright side, we found a good shashlik place to try later.

olimpiyskiy park

Olympic Park is enormous. It’s like the size of Disneyland, but with venues instead of rides. Buses and trains drop you off near the security terminal where there must be 50 security lanes. I wish they had this many at the airport. Everyone gets a pat down though.
The first area of the park is made up of pavilions. Big corporate sponsors create interactive buildings that are deconstructed after the games. They’re essentially big advertisements for the companies, but some of them are fun. At the Volkswagen/Audi pavilion, you can ride in a car down a steep, fake mountain. I guess to show off the brakes. At the pavilion for Rosneft, a Russian oil company, you can take photos with stuffed polar bears, you know because they’re producing oil in the Artic Shelf…
Next to the Pyeong Chang 2018 Pavilion is a 3D billboard. You stand in line and get your face scanned and then the individual bulbs of the flat screen glide out to create giant portraits. Do you remember those Pin Art toys with the block of nails packed together and you put your hand on the bottom and the top shows an imprint of it… It’s like that. The billboard of the future.
In the Samsung building, which is made up of yellow, red, and blue shipping containers, you can sit in a stationary bobsled and have a fan blown in your face. One man loses his comb over with the first gush of air. There are a few aisles of phones like you’re at a Best Buy. We change some of the phone backgrounds to an extreme close up of my face. In the corner, we find a movie poster for a documentary about the Jamaican bobsled team. One of the guys on the poster is my friend Mark from high school! The next showing is sold out, so we come back later to watch it. It’s great and at the end we get a free bottle of coke in a glass bottle. I still can’t get over it. Here we are at the Olympics in Russia and I’m watching a documentary made by a guy I went to high school with. And my high school was small. Super small. Our graduating class was 36.
The bigger countries, like the US, have their own “houses,” but you have to be a family member of an athlete to get it. We try to peek our heads in, but we can’t see much.
Across from the pavilions is “Experience Russia,” which is inside a permanent convention center. Each room’s a different region in Russia with interactive exhibits and travel brochures. We drink a fragrant Sakhalin rose tea, sit with a giant matryoshka doll, and reluctantly obey a sign that says we’re not allowed to ride the Woolly Mammoth wearing a cowboy hat.
In between the pavilions are food stalls like you’d find at a fair. They’re oddly specific. One sells “baked potato.” The other “blini.” We order a blini with red caviar and another with sweetened condensed milk and wash them down with pints of Baltika.
Red, green, yellow, and blue paved bridges take you from the pavilions to the arenas.
At the end of the ramp is the shiny, Olympic merchandise mega-store, which looks like it’s been wrapped in aluminum foil. Lines of people stand stagnant outside the door, so Amanda and I decide to forgo this stop and purchase our Olympic gear from the street vendors in Sochi.
In the center of Olympic Park is the torch, like a giant sundial, reflecting into a circular pool of water. There are concerts at night on the adjacent stage and a big screen that broadcasts some of the events.
Around the torch are six venues. Fisht Olympic Stadium, which is being used for the opening and closing ceremonies, looks like an enormous cycling helmet. The curved roof of the Bolshoy Ice Dome is wrapped in LEDs that act like a giant jumbotron. Canada’s playing hockey tonight, so it flashes the maple leaf of the Canadian flag. The Iceberg Skating Palace is my favorite with its undulating blue glass mosaic.
The thing that really makes Olympic Park, though, is the fans. Everyone is dressed up supporting their country. And I’m not just talking about jerseys. Scarfs, face paint, wigs, people are covered head to toe in patriotic regalia. Norwegians wear Viking horns. The Dutch fans might be the best in their bright orange. One guy is even wearing wooden shoes. Another man from Switzerland carries a huge bell inside the curling arena. He literally had to carry that thing for miles into this place. Not to mention on the plane. That’s commitment. US fans, ourselves included, are by far the least patriotic.

black sea

Our place is maybe 100 yards from the sea. The beach is made of smooth, black rocks instead of sand, hence the name. We try skipping stones, but we don’t get much more than one or two hops. If you look at the pebbles up close, you can see little white spirals etched into them.
The water is calm, except on one cloudy morning, we saw some waves. We walk along the beach to the delta where the Mzymta River flows into the sea. A McDonald’s anchors the corner. Probably the best view you’ll ever get inside a Mickey D’s.

cool runnings

I think I’ve seen Cool Runnings a thousand times. It was one of my favorite movies growing up. I can still quote the whole movie.
Today, I get to see the movie come to life.
The events we’ve seen so far have been at Olympic Park, but bobsled is in the mountain sector. They built an entire rail line to take visitors from Sochi to the mountains, so it’s not long before we’re up in Krasnaya Polyana, 6,000 feet above the Black Sea.
Bobsled’s a weird spectator sport because you can’t see the whole track. You only see a second of the sled whizzing by. Most people gravitate towards the start or finish. We choose to climb to the top of Sanki Sliding Center and watch the push start.
There’s a little bandstand by the start and reporters and cameramen stand right on the edge of the track. The athletes yell as they sprint down the ice. The crowd cheers and a few seconds later they’re gone. We watch them winding through the track on a big screen and then the next group goes. After a few teams, a crew comes out and re-groves the ice. One guys pushes a metal walker up the ice and two guys behind him clean the ice with push brooms.
I haven’t been cold really the whole trip, but it’s freezing up here. It feels like when I worked at a restaurant and the chef would ask me to organize the the walk-in freezer. It snowed in Moscow, but we were walking around, so it didn’t feel cold. I think about the scene in Cool Runnings when Sanka puts a hot water bladder inside his uniform, and wish I had one, too. The real Jamaican bobsled team is up now. They don’t do that great, but they get the loudest cheers by far.
There’s two rounds. So after everyone goes, there’s a halftime break, in order for the crews to drive all the sleds back up the hill. They play music for the spectators and everyone in the stands gets up and dances. Like really dances. There’s some pretty funny moves. I definitely wasn’t expecting a dance party in the middle of bobsledding with random people from around the world, but it’s probably my favorite part of the event, maybe the trip.


Explore more of Sochi


or fly to Astrakhan