Editor’s note: The following report is from the perspective of Alexey Shunaev, of Metro World News in Sochi.
To escape the winter, we head to Sochi: for decades, Russian holiday-makers have traveled to this subtropical resort to flee the freezing cities and bask in the Black Sea sun — an unusual place to host the Winter Olympics, perhaps.
“Contrast is Sochi’s middle name,” my taxi driver Andrei says as we leave the airport. “I’ve been living here for 45 years and have never seen the snow falling.”
Yet there is still the white stuff in sight: “I can see snow every day by just turning my head to the mountains.”
This town is full of curiosities and oddities. Checkpoints are guarded not just by regular baton-wielding police officers, but also dozens of Cossacks, members of traditional warrior clans wearing lambswool hats and coats with epaulettes.
If seeing descendants of the Tsars’ borderland protectors transported me into history, surveying Sochi’s exotic plants sent me to the other side of the world. Palm trees here are in abundance, having been introduced a century ago. But looking at the tropical plants with snow-covered mountains in the background made me wonder for a moment where I was.
Russia has splashed out $50 billion to host the Olympics in Sochi, so naturally I expected this place to be scintillating. But the biggest impression I got in my first few hours here is the chaos from massive traffic jams and the yellow ice of the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
Yellow, you may ask? Yes, yellow-tinged water is flowing from faucets, but I’ve been reassured not to worry by an employee at the dome’s service desk.
“There’s too much rust in the water,” he remarks. “It’s no surprise: iron water pipes in many Russian cities are in use long after their use-by date.”
He brushes off the problem with typically ironic Russian humor: “If the water won’t be better before the Games start, they’ll add paint to it, and we’ll beat the Canadian hockey team on white ice.”
The truth is if Russia’s Ovechkin and Co. beat Canada in the final, people will forgive everyone for everything – oddities and all.