Sometimes you feel like an Arab sheikh in Abu-Dabi... That was my impression upon arriving in Sochi on Monday. So many new things have been built around with so much money – roads, complicated interchanges, trains along the highway...
But maybe it was so welcome because I was arriving in Sochi from frosty Moscow. When it's 2 degrees (35 Fahrenheit) in February, and cloudless, spotless, sunny and joyful, well, what's not to like?
Staffers form NTV+ and the local Olympic volunteers greeted me at the airport right, set me on a shuttle to the Alexandrovsky Sad (Alexander's Garden) hotel (which unlike its namesake garden alongside the Moscow Kremlin is snow free and bathing in the sun). I look out the window and see attractive youn speed skaters whizzing by on roller blades... It's hard to remember this is February.
Despite what the news was reporting about unfinished hotels, my room has all the modern amenities, including a separate (!) toilet (with a lavish supply of "myagki znak" toilet paper) and a huge shared bathroom down the hall.
A shuttle bus stops at the hotel every 10 minutes. I hop on a half-empty shuttle and it whisks me to the stadium-sized International Press Center – a high-tech, state-of-the art facility where Rostelecom (sponsors of the games) provides free internet access on one of their notebook computers.
I walk for three and a half hours, amazed at all the sites located in the Coastal Cluster: the Big Ice Stadium for hockey only (!) with a 7000 seats, the 12,000 capacity Iceberg Stadium exclusively for figure skating, the Shayba (Puck) stadium just for kerling, the separate speed skating center and then the Fisht Stadium, which seats 40,000 and will host only the opening and closing ceremonies.
All of this is located on 2-4 square km along the Black Sea coast. The hockey stadium is literally a stone's throw from the sea, with snowy mountains towering in the background. And then I watch planes landing and taking off before a splendid sun set...
Two caveats. I mistakenly called my shuttle sputnik a "Canadian" (his name was Daniel Grange, and grange is a French word, so I thought perhaps he was from Montreal), but he retorted "I am from the United States," politely adding, "but we like our Canadian neighbors." He is a member of a US TV crew assigned to cover ice hockey, so we chatted about Russia's chances to win that event.
Second, we talked about how McDonalds on the first floor of the Press Center was almost a welcome site, after having been ripped-off at the Food Court, where I paid R750 (over $20) for a not-so-good mushroom soup and potatoes, with just one sausage and one tiny blin (pancake) with cheese and ham (and plastic forks and spoons in lieu of silver wear).
Lest anyone forget, soldiers and reporters travel on their stomachs, so they are both prone to judge the "atmosphere" of a place by the availability and pricing of foodstuffs...
But not even lousy bliny could spoil this Olympic broth. The slogan we see everywhere for the games is "Zharky, zimniye, vashi" ("Hot, cool yours").