Krasnaya Polyana used to be a remote mountain village high above Sochi. A cliff-hugging road wasn’t built into the Mzymta River valley until the end of the 19th century, and even in the 1950s, the trip from Sochi to Krasnaya Polyana could take five to six hours.
Now the hamlet is host to the alpine events of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Thanks to a new train line and highway, the journey from Sochi takes half an hour.
When I visited Sochi in July 2011, construction was in full swing. Twelve tunnels had to be built, as well as multiple bridges over the Mzymta riverbed. Muckrakers had branded the 50-kilometer highway the world’s most expensive road, while ecologists raised the alarm over the intrusion into a largely pristine alpine environment. Krasnaya Polyana only got its first ski lift in 1994.
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As we drove up the old two-lane road into the mountains, Yevgeniya Bocharnikova, my enthusiastic guide from the Olympic organizing committee, regaled me with local lore. The remains of an early human, 400,000 years old, had supposedly been found nearby. Legend had it that the Golden Fleece had been held here and Prometheus chained to these very rocks.
The scenery was beautiful. The trees along the road appeared white in the blinding sunlight. Yet it was impossible to overlook the construction site that ran all the way up the valley to Krasnaya Polyana. We passed concrete pylons jutting out of the riverbed, a container camp for 300 rail workers and heavy machinery. On the side of the road there was a security checkpoint monitoring the loads of every truck that entered the site.
I made my guide nervous. Without any prompting, Bocharnikova rattled off the positive changes that the Olympics had brought to Sochi: new hospitals and kindergartens, renovated schools, natural-gas lines to villages.
Just the day before, a profanity-laced video had appeared on a local blogging site showing the head of Krasnaya Polyana’s administration, Sergei Avdeyev, accuse local officials of being crooks.
“The mayor is completely unprofessional,” Avdeyev ranted. “Everything’s for fucking sale.”
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A concrete marker with a golden Orthodox cross marked the entrance to Krasnaya Polyana, a settlement of older houses, cottages and chalet-style hotels.
Our first stop was a self-contained ski resort built by Gazprom, Russia’s natural-gas giant. The complex was located in an area called Esto-Sadok, which had been populated by Estonian settlers after the Russian Empire conquered the Caucasus in the mid-19th century.
Even before Sochi made its Olympic bid, Gazprom had started building a hotel complex and ski lift. The results were impressive.
The Grand Hotel Polyana, with 800 beds, was a modern rendition of the grand hotels built in the Rocky Mountains a century ago. The hotel faced a subdivision of two-story log cabins with green roofs and immaculate lawns. A gated community at the edge of the resort was reserved for Gazprom executives.
A cable car whisked us up to Psekhako Ridge, where the biathlon trackwas being built. There was an Alpine-style lodge, and in the distance a village to house Olympic athletes was going up. Loudspeakers mounted on the support towers of a chairlift blasted out pop music from a radio station called Relax FM. Chainsaws whined from below.
All the alpine Olympic venues were muddy construction sites, with felled timber and tractors laboring up dirt roads carved into mountainsides. I remembered how the Russian government had decried environmental damage caused by the foreign-built Sakhalin-2 oil-and-gas development – until the moment that Gazprom took over the mega-project.
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Our next destination was Roza Khutor, a resort being built by oligarch Vladimir Potanin. A whole tourist city was going up on the banks of the Mzymta: six- and eight-story structures overlooking the rushing mountain stream. The main building, a Las Vegas-type imitation of the Sochi train station, was already complete.
The Swiss-made cable car to the 2,300-meter Aibga Ridge was being used to ferry workers up and down the mountain where the snowboard and freestyle skiing events would be held. Judging by temporary notices stuck on the gondola windows in Russian, English and Turkish, it was an international crew.
A panoramic restaurant was under construction at the top. A helicopter carrying a cement mixer on cables clattered over the ridge and poured its load into the foundation. A second chopper soon followed. Laborers from Central Asia lived on site in containers.
The view was spectacular. The snow-capped peaks that appeared on the other side of the ridge were in Abkhazia, the breakaway Georgian province that Russia occupied after a brief war in 2008. Sochi’s eastern city limits border directly on Abkhazia.
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Finally it was time for lunch. Bocharnikova and I had a feast at a Georgian restaurant next to a rushing stream in Krasnaya Polyana. When the water went turbid, my guide said that it must be raining in the mountains. Sure enough, a few drops fell on us before our meal was over.
The sun came out again as we drove back to Sochi. I had a flight to catch to Moscow.
At the security line at Adler Airport, two young women were checking boarding passes and documents.
They were flirty and asked if I didn’t want to stay in Sochi. I grimaced involuntarily.
“Did you come for business or pleasure?” one of the women asked.
“Business,” I replied.
“And who gave you permission to come? Who invited you?”
I couldn’t believe this interrogation. Unfortunately, my Foreign Ministry press accreditation had just expired.
“I came for pleasure,” I corrected myself.
I was allowed to pass and board my plane.