Five years before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics, in January 2009, I made my first trip to Sochi. Having recently started covering Vladimir Putin– at the time Russia’s prime minister – for Bloomberg News, I was dispatched to the city to report on a routine inspection visit by Jean-Claude Killy from the International Olympic Committee. As the only foreigner in Putin’s press pool, I wasn’t allowed to fly on the government plane like my Russian colleagues but had to take a regular commercial flight from Moscow.
I arrived on a brand new Aeroflot Airbus packed with vacationers. After flying due south for a little more than 2 hours, the plane looped over the Black Sea before landing at Adler Airport. I was in Sochi, the Russian resort that promised to combine the slopes of St. Moritz with the beaches of Saint-Tropez.
It was a modest welcome.
We taxied past the new terminal, an awkward trapezoidal structure of mirrored glass perched on a concrete base. Construction wasn’t completely finished, and the jetways were still missing from the gates. Further down the tarmac stood the old terminal, a Stalin-era wedding cake. The plane stopped and deposited us in front of a shabby one-story complex.
Balmy sea air hit me as I exited the plane. Here it was 15°C (59°F); in Moscow it had been -15°C (5°F).
The airport bus drove a few meters and disgorged us into a hall filled with gypsy cab drivers, unshaven fellows in black leather jackets who accosted travelers with the hopeful but insistent mantra of “taksi ne nado?” Need a taxi?
An old Uzbek man latched on to me, convinced that I was a long-lost compatriot, even though I answered all his queries with a “nyet,” “nyet” and “nyet.” The main problem was that I didn’t yet know my destination and was unprepared to enter price negotiations with him. I stepped out of the terminal to call the advance team from Putin’s press service for directions. The driver tailed me outside, haranguing me on how Uzbeks need to stick together. Annoyed, I jumped into a Yellow Cab.
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The city of Sochi is situated on a thin strip of land between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, with its districts strung along the coastline for 145 km (90 miles). Space is limited, so when Putin or some other big shot is in town, traffic inevitably gets backed up for miles.
My driver was a young man from Rostov-on-Don who spoke with a soft southern accent that turned his g’s into h’s. He complained about the bardak (chaos) caused by all the construction, the nastiest traffic cops in Russia and runaway speculation on the local real estate market. Five million rubles ($150,000) might just buy you a one-room apartment on the outskirts of town, he said.
The coastal highway took us from Adler through the center of Sochi to Dagomys, a district home to a gargantuan, 25-story concrete block of the same name. My travel guide, written in the early 1990s, boasted that the “health improving complex” was bigger than Frankfurt Airport.
Since the Dagomys is managed by the Kremlin, reporters covering the government inevitably get put up there. When I arrived, the cavernous hotel was practically empty. The receptionist was expecting me and knew my name.
My room on the sixth floor had brown décor with aquamarine towels.
The Putin-Killy meeting was scheduled for the evening, so I headed back into the city center to walk along the embankment. Most of the shops were shuttered for the winter, and the pebble beaches deserted. The Platforma nightclub, built in the water like an offshore oil platform, was complete with two nodding donkeys.
Finally it was time to head off to Putin’s residence, and I hailed a cab. The first car that stopped was an Oka, the tiniest Russian car ever made – a little larger than an American refrigerator. When I told my driver why I was in town, he looked at me with astonishment.
“Do you really think the Olympics will take place here?” he asked.