We arrived in Sochi Friday night after a long layover in Chisinau from Bucharest. First impressions were favorable. The Adler airport is modern, and because most Olympic visitors appeared to have arrived for the Opening Ceremonies ahead of us, there was relatively little hassle processing through Russian passport control, and no customs check whatsoever. It was probably helpful that we’d gone through extensive security in Bucharest and Chisinau.
Getting transportation to our hotel was interesting. After a bewildering half hour or so, we enlisted help (the Olympics has tons of information people stationed everywhere one might encounter visitors) and taxied to our accommodations just a few miles north of the airport.
Check-in was interesting as well. We are staying at Guest House Deja Vu, and the administrator spoke no English. With the aid of a translation program on her computer, our reservation was found, passports copied and the appropriate communication with the authorities was made. See below for impressions of our room.
We headed to the hotel’s onsite restaurant, which is popular in the neighborhood. A hearty meal and the Opening Ceremonies were topped off with vodka shots offered by our new Russian friends at the next table.
The following initial impressions are appended from a post on our Facebook page. I felt reactionary in the face of sensational media information our U.S. friends and family were seeing, and wanted to reassure people that we and our valuables were safe, our electronics were protected from hacking, and the accommodations were in working order.
1. Security – There is a heavy police and security presence here, with transportation checkpoints that screen buses and individuals. The police dogs are the biggest German Shepherds I’ve ever seen. Police, military, Cossacks (in their traditional hats – very tough looking) and Security Team members and various types of vehicles are posted throughout town and the Olympic venues, and along main arteries and waterways up to the Mountain Cluster. Buses are scanned and stickered at each stop. Bags and backpacks are scanned and physically searched and we each received a gentle patdown from a same-sex security person. The effect of this is reassuring, not forbidding.
2. Stray dogs – Yep, there are stray dogs. It’s hard to get used to seeing them. You know how I love dogs. Most appear to be fairly healthy and are quite furry as would befit a non-pet animal during the winter months. The ones we’ve seen are not aggressive, but they’re quite large mixed breeds – lots of shepherd, malinois, newfie-sized. They’re sort of co-existing with humans in this urban environment. Saw several napping in the sun on concrete from the train/bus today.
3. Accommodations – Our guest house appears to be a middle class vacation option. I’d rate it on par with Motel 6 in terms of decor. It’s very clean, but some details caused us a chuckle: Eastern European decor/esthetic, some jerry-rigged solutions to minor fails in the bathroom, etc. We have a fridge in our room, and the bed is fairly comfortable with double Euro-style duvets. The room is triple-bolted and so far, our personal belongings have been undisturbed. I made a point of making things very neat so I could see if anything was different. So far this seems like a far better choice than a newer hotel which might still be under construction, or have been full of Westerners. I think we’re the only Americans here, so we’re somewhat of a novelty.
4. The Russian people we’ve encountered have been kind and as helpful as they can be, given the language barrier. Not everyone knows everything. They’re doing their best. We’ve made several new friends, and with the aid of iTranslate on our iPhones, we can communicate with Russian speakers. The people from our hotel are very nice. Perks include meals up to 1600 rubles with a swipe card, laundry services (150 rubles – about $4), and help with directions around the neighborhood (I got an excellent manicure for 400 rubles – about $11.50 – at a nice salan kitty corner from our hotel. The neighborhood came alive on Saturday night with multiple stalls grilling up all kinds of meats and vegetables on kebab swords over charcoal. Lots of strolling about and people-watching for entertainment.
Interestingly, even Russians themselves were skeptical about the choice of Sochi. We met a lovely young woman from Moscow whose company had done work for the U.S. and Austrian teams. She’d never been to Sochi prior to commencing the project, and has been living here full time for several months preparing for the Games. She only knew the area as a vacation destination, and couldn’t believe it could support snow venues, much less the impressive Mountain Cluster facilities and people-moving systems. Judging from the comments of our fellow spectators at the Slopestyle Snowboarding event, favorable impressions won the day.
5. Where did the $51 Billion get spent? A lot of it was spent in the Mountain Cluster. The venue is a good 45 minutes from town (which has a semi-tropical climate). They literally had to blast the competitive venues and access to them all out of the mountains. It is amazing. Not everything is perfectly done, but overall it was a positive spectator experience, and some of the aspects – view, entertainment other than the athletics, and a really swell gondola ride – were outstanding!
It was beyond exciting to see the first gold medal of the Games go to the USA in Slopestyle Snowboarding. Because this is our first Olympics, it was difficult to know what to expect. I think our expectations were realistic; we’re getting what we think is a more authentic experience than the sanitized one we might have received had we stayed in the Olympic Village “bubble” in a branded hotel. We’re getting around using the free transportation system (which is pristine and efficient, but initially confusing to us), and we’re looking forward to a couple more free days before our next events.
Please visit our Facebook page for lots more photos and updates as they happen. Go USA!