I flew down to Sochi in July 2011 to see how construction on the Olympic sites was progressing. It was my first trip to the Black Sea resort during the summer high season. Tourists were flocking to the city from all over Russia, but I didn’t see a single foreigner the whole time I was there.
The first sign of progress was that my plane from Moscow taxied to the new terminal instead of the large shed that used to pass for an airport. Unfortunately the jetways hadn’t been added yet, so a bus picked us up and drove us less than 100 meters to the terminal. Andrei, a local Armenian cab driver I’d befriended on an earlier trip, was waiting for me at arrivals.
Because of the construction of a new flyover and railroad station, traffic into the center of town was as heavy as in Moscow. Money from the capital was also on display in the form of Mercedes-Benzes, Land Rovers and a yellow Lamborghini.
I’d reserved a single room in the Hotel Zhemchuzhina over the internet. The Zhemchuzhina – Russian for pearl – is Sochi’s biggest hotel, a giant, white 15-story cement block in the center of town with its own swimming pool and beachfront. The words “Caesar’s Palace,” spelled out in the same font as the legendary Las Vegas hotel, were displayed on one side of the building.
My expectations were significantly lower.
* * *
The lobby on the first floor had undergone what Russians call a “cosmetic” renovation: a red carpet, portable air-conditioners, new furniture. No longer Soviet but still not quite modern. Clocks behind the reception desk showed the time in New York, London, Berlin, Istanbul, Moscow and Tokyo.
The young woman who checked me in was less worldly. When I produced my U.S. passport, she subjected me to a grilling that would have been out of place at a border crossing.
“Here you are.”
“When did you arrive?”
“About half an hour ago.”
“Really? Do you have your ticket?”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Well, you could have come from anywhere!”
“Here you are.”
Nowhere in Russia had I been met with such hostility. I wondered how staff would deal with the thousands of foreign visitors expected for the Olympics.
As in all Soviet-style hotels, it was payment upfront and a dezhurnaya – a severe hall lady – monitoring every floor. My room on the 13th story was an oven. There was a narrow bed, a stained couch, an easy chair and a Korean mini-fridge. Standard rooms didn’t come with air-conditioning, and there was no wi-fi in my wing of the building.
I was paying about $100 a night. In September, prices more than doubled.
* * *
In my experience with communist-era hotels like the Zhemchuzhina, the snack bars located on the room floors were often much better than the cavernous restaurants below. But when I looked at the menu in the Frigate Café on the sixth floor, I was surprised to see standard Russian fare going for $15 a dish.
I went downstairs. The Crystal Restaurant had just closed. A buffet lunch cost $20. I wondered how Sochi could compete with the all-inclusive package deals that attracted hordes of Russian tourists to Turkey and Egypt.
I ended up in the American Diner, a long hall with pool tables and diner-style booths with U.S. license plates nailed to the walls. Besides a tasty club sandwich, nothing else was particularly American. The beer was tepid, the air-conditioning barely worked, and the waitress looked at me with curiosity when I asked for ketchup. A dollop cost me an extra 30 rubles.
Fleecing tourists was the name of the game. A French Chablis, which retailed for about $25 in France, cost more than $200 in the American Diner. A bottle of Rémy Martin XO cognac went for almost $1,000.
The only question was: what were you doing in the Zhemchuzhina if you could afford the drinks?
* * *
From my balcony I looked down on the hotel swimming pool. Beyond it was a pebble beach connected to the Zhemchuzhina via an underground passage below the main promenade. There was the Neptune Café, the Proletarian Buffet and a fake tall ship. The hotel complex was a self-contained pleasure dome. It even contained a strip joint with the discreet name Art Club.
Though it wasn’t much hotter in Sochi than in Moscow, the subtropical climate made the air much more humid. After the sun went down, I took a walk along the seashore promenade. The walkway was as tacky as I remembered it from my last visit during the off-season.
Tourists in shorts and sandals shuffled by carnival rides and karaoke cafes. Singers wailed into the night from open-air restaurants. Muscle-bound bouncers in black T-shirts guarded the entrance to the Malibu Disco, while go-go dancers gyrated outside the DJ Café. In the shops there was beer and ice cream and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Sochi: City of the Future.”
I returned to my baking room in the Zhemchuzhina. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang. I didn’t bother picking up: it would be the nightly phone call, customary in Russian hotels, offering to send a hooker up to my room.
Pounding music from outside drifted through the open window, then the sirens and horns of an official’s motorcade, followed by the gunning engines of young auto enthusiasts. I finally fell asleep.
Breakfast, a selection of fried foods, was served between 8 and 10 in the Crystal Restaurant.
I sat down at a table with a middle-aged man from Yekaterinburg. I asked him why he didn’t go abroad for vacation. My neighbor mumbled something about visa problems.
So was it his first visit? Oh no, the man said, he came often. He seemed quite happy. After all, the summer is short in the Urals.
In the elevator back to the 13th floor, I met an elderly woman with a little girl. The woman sighed that her granddaughter had been up since 4 a.m. as she hadn’t yet adjusted to the time difference.
“Where did you fly in from?” I asked.
“Kamchatka,” she answered. Eight time zones away.