Istanbul Airport, The Turkish Airlines Lounge Visit that Wasn’t, TAV Hotel review, and Our flight to Sochi

This entry is part 5 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

We had an approximately 8 hour layover in Istanbul. We had a few discussions on what to do during that layover.

Option 1: Go sightseeing in Istanbul on our own
Option 2: Hire a guide to jam pack as much sightseeing as we could in Istanbul in just a few hours
Option 3:  Just hang out at the airport

There were a few additional sightseeing options that would have been nice, but they would not work because the times did not work out. For example, Turkish Airlines provides free (FREE!) tours for passengers on a long layover in Istanbul. You can read more about the tours and times here, but basically the tours departed at either 9:00AM or 12:00PM. Since our flight was not scheduled to arrive until 4:45PM Istanbul time, neither of those tour departure times would work for us.

In fact, with our late afternoon arrival, we realized that many of the major sites in Istanbul would be closed by the time we’d get out of the airport and arrive in the city. For instance, the Hagia Sophia closes at 5:00PM. We knew there could be other things to visit, like the Grand Bazaar, in the evening hours, but we ultimately decided leaving the airport would not be worth the hassle.

Plus, I was SO excited to visit the Turkish Airlines lounge at Istanbul Airport, which is purported to be one of the best airline lounges in the world. I read that the lounge had sleeping rooms and showers that we could use, so we could just use our time at the airport to enjoy the lounge and get some rest. (I had read that your layover has to be 8 hours to get access to one of the sleeping rooms, and that they are very strict on the full 8 hours. Since our flight was arriving at 4:45PM and our connecting flight was departing at 12:15AM, it wasn’t quite an 8 hour layover, so I was really hoping to arrive in Istanbul early!)**

We did arrive in Istanbul nearly an hour early! After we deplaned in Istanbul, we followed signs for International Departure connecting gates. We had to transit security, but luckily we did not have to transit any immigration or customs since we were not leaving the airport, so that saved us some time. The security line moved quickly.

After security, we followed signs for the Turkish CIP Lounge. It was at the complete other end of the airport, so we got to see a lot of the airport’s amenities as we walked by!

When we got to the lounge, I showed them our ticket stubs from our business class flight we had just flown. The woman working said that this was a departures lounge, so they had to see our connecting tickets. I just thought this would be to confirm that we did, in fact, have a connecting flight.

If you recall from the introduction post, business class award seats never became available for our flight from Istanbul to Sochi, so we had to purchase coach seats.

The woman working behind the desk said we couldn’t use the lounge because our connecting flight was not business class! It didn’t matter that we had just spent 10 hours on a business class flight from Washington. I had not read about this anywhere, and I was trying to find information about it on my phone while standing there, but they were insistent that we could not use the lounge.

I was SO bummed and really disappointed in myself that I hadn’t known this was a possibility. (Although to be fair, I still cannot find any information online that specifies this policy, even through anecdotal information). I had been so excited to see the lounge after reading descriptions of it, like here and here.

The only picture I was able to take of the Turkish Airlines Lounge

Ken and I were hot, feeling pretty gross after our long flight, and just wanted a quiet place to relax. I knew there was a hotel right in the airport, so we set off to find it. Luckily it was just downstairs from the lounge. It was outrageously expensive, but we didn’t want to hang out on airport seats for the next 8 hours. The hotel had rooms available so we booked a double room for 4–6 hours for 154 Euros (about $210). Ouch. But, it was so convenient because it was on “airside,” meaning we wouldn’t have to transit security again.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the hotel room. I was expecting very basic accommodations with nothing more than a bed. But it was just like a normal hotel room. There were two beds, probably a little smaller than double beds, lots of storage, a flat panel TV, a desk, and free WiFi. The windows were fake windows, with artificial light shining in them, but I think it did make the room less claustrophobic.

(Sorry, I only took pictures when we were checking out, so everything is in disarray. Booking the hotel was such a last minute decision that I forgot to take pictures when we first got there.)

The bathroom was clean and spacious, and the showers had great water pressure. The toiletries were a welcome amenity since we had not been able to pack any liquids in our carry on bags going to Sochi. Even the towels were large and thick!

After we checked in, we both took about a two hour nap. We weren’t terribly tired because we had gotten a decent amount of sleep on the flight from Washington, but we knew we still had another very long day ahead of us.

After our nap, we walked around the airport and headed to the food court. The airport was clean and modern. But it was SO crowded! My goodness.

If I didn’t already know I was in Turkey, I swear this food court would have been indistiguishable from a food court at any mall or airport in the United States, complete with a Popeye’s, Burger King, and random Asian buffet place.

And even a Sbarro.

What can I say, it was no Turkish Airlines lounge food, but we had our fast food meal, and then even enjoyed some Turkish Ice Cream.

We headed back to the hotel. We showered and then tried to take another nap. It took us a while to fall aslep this time since, again, we really weren’t that tired, but we were anticipating another long 24 hours ahead of us.

We both slept for another 60–90 minutes, and then it was approaching the end of our 4–6 hour window in our hotel room. We packed up our things and headed to the gate for our flight to Sochi.

We both decided to have another light snack before we boarded, and I just grabbed a small tomato mozzarella sandwich from a kiosk vendor near our gate area.

Once boarding was announced around 11:30PM for our 12:15AM flight, we stood in line to board a bus. A gate agent checked our passports and checked that we had the proper Russian visas. While we were waiting in line, we met an American woman in her 60’s who had been to every Olympics (winter and summer) since 1984! There was also a handful of athletes on our flight, although it wasn’t clear what country they were from. They had a small media crew interviewing them at the Istanbul airport.

The bus ride to our plane seemed to take forever. Once we finally got there, we boarded through a rear door.

My sister and her family, who had taken this same flight just 48 hours earlier, told me that they taxied for nearly 90 minutes after the plane’s doors closed. Nearly the same amount time the entire flight to Sochi took!

I’m glad to say that after our plane’s doors closed (on time), we were airborne in less than 10 minutes. Whew!

The flight time to Sochi was barely an hour. The passengers on board were abuzz with excitement!

As we were landing in Sochi, we could see Olympic Park! (Forgive the crappy cell phone pictures, I wasn’t anticipating such good views).

Next up, I’ll talk about our crazy Sochi accommodations drama!

**I’ve read several variations on this minimum time standard, ranging from 6 to 8 hours. There’s no information about it that I could find on the Turkish Airlines website.


Our Crazy Sochi Accommodations Story

This entry is part 6 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

Settle in folks, this is more than 3200 words of our crazy Sochi Accommodations story. But I promise, it’s worth it.

During our entire two weeks in Russia, we only had two bad experiences. Checking into our accommodations in Sochi was one of those bad experiences. (You don’t get to find out about the other one until much later in the Trip Report!).  So needless to say, our trip did not exactly start off on the right foot.

If you recall, back in September, I lamented the troubles we were having booking accommodations in Sochi. You can read the full post here, but to summarize, I had been checking hotel websites several times a day for SEVEN MONTHS trying to find a hotel opening. And nothing.

On one of most active forums that I found related to the Olympics in Sochi, folks had started talking several months earlier about staying on cruise ships. Apparently the Russian government chartered several cruise ships to serve as hotels during the Olympics.

As late September rolled around and we were approaching the four-month mark until our departure, we decided to book the cruise ship accommodations, and we were ultimately very happy at the time that we made that decision and we didn’t have to worry about it anymore. It was more expensive than we had hoped, but we were okay with it.

Okay, so let’s start with our arrival in Sochi.

Arrival in Sochi

We were seated all the way in the back of the plane on our flight from Istanbul to Sochi, so by the time we got to immigration and passport control, the lines were pretty long. But you could see they had set up extra booths to accomodate all the extra passengers they were expecting. As we were waiting in line, we could see a baggage carousel in the distance containing the bags from the Istanbul flight. We were so worried that our bags wouldn’t make it because of our exceptionally long layover in Istanbul, so I kept craning my head to look for our bags, which I never saw. Then we were moved to a different part of the line, so we couldn’t see the carousel anymore. The line moved relatively quick, and the immigration process was fairly painless, especially considering the fear of god that the State Department descriptions of the process invoke.

Although Ken jokes that I almost got him deported right away. I thought the lady who was checking my paperwork spoke English. So, I asked her if my husband should come up with me since we were traveling together. She nodded yes. So I told Ken to come up to the desk with me. Then a very stern looking woman came from the perimeter of the room, gesturing for Ken to move back, move back. I apologized, which I’m sure was not understood, and the immigration process continued. And Ken was not deported.

We got to the baggage carousels and luckily our bags were on the carousel! Big relief. So then we needed to find our transportation to the ship. Since the ship wouldn’t have an “address” per se, we decided to arrange for an airport transfer through the cruise ship company to avoid any difficulty trying to explain to Russian taxi drivers where to take us. The instructions on the airport transfer confirmation said to find the “Svoy TT” desk at Sochi airport, but nobody seemed to know where that was. Somebody finally told us to walk to domestic arrivals to find it.

At one point, we couldn’t find an escalator or elevator, so we had to drag our bags (and we packed pretty light!) down two flights of steps in the airport. We finally made it to the Svoy desk, and we had to wait about 10 minutes for our ride. We were exhausted and getting impatient, so it seemed to be a lot longer to us, but I don’t think it was any longer than 10 minutes.

Our airport transfer was just a taxi driver that the cruise ship had arranged for, but at least he knew exactly where to take us.

Olympic Rings outside of Sochi Airport

It was only like 5AM, and my sister and her family, who had arrived in Sochi two days earlier, told us that the cruise ship was very strict regarding its check-in time of 3PM. But she told us that the ship had arranged for a very basic room at a hotel across the street that they could stay in, free-of-charge, until check-in time. So, we were expecting that we wouldn’t be able to check in to our cabin yet.

Checking In to the Grand Holiday Cruise Ship

The taxi driver dropped us off, and we showed cruise ship confirmation paperwork to get past security at the port. They directed us to a temporary tent-like structure that was serving as check-in.

Here is where the first element of craziness starts in our trip.

I had been reading in a few Sochi forums that people who had booked on the cruise ships were getting bumped off in order to make room for “official delegates” who needed rooms. But I wasn’t too worried. My sister and her family had gotten a room when they checked in two days earlier, and we had booked our reservation several days before them.

The girl who was checking us in told us that our cabin was no longer available, and we were being moved to a hotel much further on the outskirts of the city. She didn’t know the precise address or the price differences, but just knew that our cabin on the Grand Holiday was no longer available. She spoke very little English, so there wasn’t much I could do to argue with her. She told me we could go to the hotel across the street, called the Hotel Rus, free of charge, until 3PM. At 3PM, I should come back and speak to her manager, who could explain more about the hotel we were being moved to. I was so furious, but I was exhausted too.

Outside the Hotel Rus, the free hotel they let us stay at until 3PM.

We went to the hotel across the street which was, indeed, very basic. But it was at least a clean place to rest after nearly 26 hours of travel time. I was having a difficult time falling asleep. We had spent a year planning this trip, and I tend to plan things out very carefully, so I was really mad that this was happening. I finally fell asleep, probably around 6:30AM or so, and woke up around 10:30AM.

Basic, but much appreciated free accommodations where we could stay until check-in time

 

I had texted my sister earlier, when we were checking in, to tell her what happened, but she didn’t have her phone on. So when she was awake, she called me and we were trying to figure out a plan of attack. She came over to our hotel (which again, was literally less than 500 feet from the cruise ship) to get some things that we had brought over for her that she needed (like Kleenex. The moment she arrived in Sochi she got sick, and she was having a hard time finding Kleenex to buy).

 

Checking in (Again)

I decided I was going to play dumb. I left the hotel, went across the street to the port, showed my same paperwork to security, and went back to the check-in tent.

There were different people working than the ones who were there at 5:30AM. I made no mention of my interaction with the check-in desk five hours earlier, when I was told that my room had been given away.

I simply told the woman I was checking in and handed her my paperwork. I couldn’t believe it, the check-in process went through. I was assigned a cabin. They needed my passport, which I gave them, and I frantically called Ken on his cell phone so he could come over and show his passport. Ken arrived, showed his passport, and we got security badges to access the port area beyond the check-in desk. We were informed that we would get our cabin keys once we got on the ship.

The Luggage

They gave us luggage tags so that we could leave our bags in storage until the 3PM check-in time, but our bags were still at the hotel across the street.

We were instructed that we could not board the ship until 3PM, but that was okay. I was SO happy that my scheme worked and we were able to get a cabin. They wrote our cabin numbers on our baggage tags, and we took the tags with us back to the small hotel so we could put them on our luggage.

We had a lot to do until 3PM anyway. We actually had Women’s Halfpipe tickets starting at 2PM, but since the tickets were for an 8-hour duration, we decided we would just go to the event late since we wanted to check in to our cabin before we headed to the mountains for the snowboarding event.

Instead of putting our bags into storage until 3PM, my sister and her family took our bags on the ship for us and just stored them in their cabin.

Specator Pass and Texas Chicken in Sochi

Then we all went to the Olympic Village train station and took the train one stop to the Olympic Park station. Ken and I had to stand in a line to get our “Spectator Pass,” which would serve as our credentials allowing us access to the venues (in addition to our individual event tickets). We waited in line for about 20 minutes. We behind an American mother and son from Colorado who were waiting in line because the son had lost his spectator pass the previous day while skiing. The son, who was about 13, said this was his 4th winter Olympics! He has been to every one since 2002 in Salt Lake City!

After we got our Spectator Pass, we realized we were getting pretty hungry, but there wasn’t much around to eat (this became a recurring problem, there were very few food options near Olympic Park). We found a fast food-looking place called Texas Chicken. (go figure, right?) The line, which was not long, took at least 20 minutes. Thanks to my Russian class over the summer, I was able to decipher some of the menu. By the time we got to the front of the line, we learned that they were out of chicken nuggets, which is what I wanted, and we could not figure out how to communicate “onion rings” to them. Finally, a guy behind us intervened, apparently saying onion rings in Russian. He said he was a Russian who lived in Atlanta, Georgia, so he was happy to help.

After we ordered, we realized we forgot to ask for ketchup, which they charged us for (pretty usual for Europe), but they wouldn’t take our 1000 Ruble note, which was the smallest we had. So, I paid for the ketchup, the equivalent of about $1.00, with my credit card, which they did not mind at all.

The food was edible, and I was happy to at least eat something, even if it wasn’t great. It was a little after 3PM, which meant we could check in to the ship, so we decided to head back to the port.

“We Have Tiny Problem.”

Since it was now past 3:00PM, we were allowed to board the ship. We used our Port security access badge that had been provided to us at the check-in tent. We were directed to the ship reception desk to pick up our cabin keys.

Once we got on the reception area, we knew almost right away there was going to be a problem. A woman at the reception desk took our check-in paperwork that had been provided to us at 10:30 earlier that morning. We’re not sure what happened, but she probably looked at our name in the computer, and maybe it showed up in their system that we weren’t supposed to have a room and that we were supposed to be moved to a hotel? We aren’t sure. But she said, “one moment,” and retreated to some back office.

When the woman got back, there was a flurry of activity, including another woman standing next to us who spoke into a walkie-talking and said, in a strong Russian accent, “We have tiny problem.”

I’m not sure who she was talking to on the other end of the radio. The reception desk woman told us that there had been a mistake. That we should have never been given check-in paperwork or a pass to access the port, because we were not supposed to be staying on the ship anymore.

I just calmly said, “We made a reservation for this ship five months ago. We were assigned a cabin number this morning, and even given tags for our baggage. Now it is after 3PM, so we want to check in to our room so that we can go to our snowboarding event, which we are already late for.”

Eugene, our Coats, and our Luggage

At this point, I may have done a few things that were slightly disengenuous. But since what they were doing was also disingeous, I felt like I was justified.

She told us to go to our snowboarding event and they would have a hotel arranged for us by the time we got back.

I said, “We need our coats to go to snowboarding in the mountains! Our coats are with our luggage! The check-in staff gave us luggage tags with our room numbers earlier!”

Now, nothing in that statement was untrue. But it did lead them to believe that they had our luggage. I did not tell them that my sister had put our luggage in her cabin.

So I said, “How are we supposed to go to snowboarding without our coats!?”

At this point, there was another flurry of activity about locating our luggage. We were told to go sit on some sofas about 40 feet from the reception desk. After sitting for a few minutes, a man named Eugene came up to us and started explaining the situation.

Eugene: I’m sorry, but there has been a mistake. Your room was double booked. We have arranged for you to stay at another hotel.
Me: That’s not my problem that the room was double booked. I reserved the Grand Holiday. It is where I will stay
Eugene: I am sorry, but that is not possible. Your room has already been given to somebody else. It is a very nice hotel and we can take you there now.
Me: No, I have family already on this ship, so I cannot stay anywhere else
Eugene: Yes, I am sorry. That has happened with many other people. Many families have been separated due to double booked rooms.
Me: That is not my concern that they separated. We will not move. We were booked here. And, you are making us late for snowboarding
Eugene: Well, go to snowboarding, and I am sure this will all be resolved when you get back tonight.
Me: No, I am not leaving until we have a cabin. Plus, we need our coats for the mountains. Our coats are with our luggage, and the check-in desk gave us luggage tags earlier!
Eugene: Oh, your coats are with your luggage?
Me: Yes! We need our coats!!
Eugene: So you will not leave?
Me: I will not leave.

This conversation probably carried on for 10 minutes total and consisted of him telling me I had to go to a different hotel, and me politely declining.  I started asking him detailed questions about their reservation systems and occupancy statistics and all sorts of other random things I could think of.  I kept leaning in closer to him. He was getting more agitated by the second, and I was enjoying every moment of it.

Eugene gets up and leaves, never to be seen again. Ken surmises that Eugene is still looking for our coats and luggage.

Another 5–10 minutes pass and there is no resolution. I get up from the sofa and go to the reception desk again. I ask if our room is available yet. The woman tells me that she is sorry, it is not possible, and that two managers are working on getting us to a hotel as soon as possible.

Pulling the “American Card”

Let me preface this by freely admitting that what I did next was a pretty jerk, “Ugly American” move. If I was standing by and overheard an American say something like what I did, I would’ve rolled my eyes, BIG TIME. This is not normal travel behavior for me, but I felt that they were being very dismissive, so I had to take another approach.

After the woman told me that two managers were working on getting us to a hotel, I somewhat obnoxiously said, “I have to make a phone call! I have to make a phone call right away, it is urgent!”

The reception desk woman looked at me strangely.

Me: I need to call the U.S. Embassy to inform them of this matter.
Employee: What does the U.S. Embassy have to do with this ma’am?
Me: I am a U.S. Citizen that has been a victim of a crime on foreign soil. Fraud. In the United States we call this bait-and-switch. I am calling them now. I have the address for the American Citizen services unit that is set up here in Sochi for the Olympics. Where is this located? (I find the address and show it to her on my phone.) I need to report this right away so other Americans can be alerted to cancel their reservations.

The employee looks panicked.

Employee: Ma’am, we are working on getting you a cabin. We will have one in 10 minutes for you! (She says it in a huffy tone like it’s what she was planning all along, of course, to get us a room)

I shake her hand, thank her politely, and go back to the sofas.

Now, I’m sure that if I had actually called the Embassy to complain about a double booked hotel room, they would have laughed me right off the phone. But, my threat, no matter how ridiculous, seemed to start a new, even more pressing flurry of activity by the reception desk staff.

Another 10 minutes pass, so I go back to the reception desk. Before I can say anything, she says, “We have a room for you,” and tells me the room number. They give keys to me and Ken.

Triumph

I couldn’t believe that it had worked. I had read on the Sochi forums that so many people were getting screwed on their reservations, and I couldn’t believe I managed to still get a cabin. I was so happy to be able to stay on the same ship as my sister and her family, as we had all initially planned!

We went down to our cabin and momentarily enjoyeed our triumph. I had to get to my sister’s cabin (she had left us a key) to get our bags. I was hoping I didn’t run into Eugene along the way. Luckily, I did not.

 

We hurried up and gathered some things so we could head to the mountain cluster for our snowboarding event. We left the ship, took a taxi to the train station, transited security, and hopped on the train that would take us to the mountain cluster.

The Actual Accommodations

There’s nothing much to report about our cruise ship cabin.

It was a typical small cruise ship cabin, but we very much appreciated the safe location (three layers of security – ID check, followed by a port access magnetometer and bag x-ray, then a ship magnetometer and bag x-ray), especially considering all the hype about how “dangerous” the Sochi Olympics were going to be.  The food was really, really terrible (something we have never been able to say about a cruise ship before!).  But given the very limited food options in Sochi, we were happy to have the dining options available.  Plus, the dining was open until 2AM, which was such a relief because we didn’t get back from many of our Olympic events until well after midnight.

So, there you have it.  We didn’t have any missing doorknobs, broken curtains, or yellow water, but we definitely had our own unique Sochi Accommodations story!


Sochi – Day 1 – Women’s Halfpipe

This entry is part 7 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

After all of the craziness of our afternoon that we talked about in our Sochi Accommodation story, it was time to go to the Women’s Halfpipe Event!

The tickets we had were actually for an eight hour duration, 2:00PM–10:00PM. But you can go late, which is just what we decided to do. Because watching snowboarding is fun and all, but eight hours of it would’ve been a bit much!

Our ship was located near the Olympic Village Train Station, so we had to travel one stop to get to Olympic Park, where the venues and main transportation hub was.

You weren’t allowed to take any liquids through security. But these vending machines were inside of security, so we stopped by the vending machine to take some drinks with us to the snowboarding event.

We took the train, which ran once an hour, from the Olympic Park station to the Krasnaya Polyana Station. The Krasnaya Polyana station was the key transportation hub for all of the “mountain cluster” events.

Once we arrived at Krasnaya Polyana, we had to take a bus to the snowboarding venue.

The sky was gorgeous on the drive up the mountain. This photo doesn’t capture it well at all, but use your imagination!

We had “standing room only” tickets for Women’s Halfpipe, but it was still a fantastic view. (The people coming down the halfpipe are “smoothing” out the pipe during a break in the competition.)

We arrived just in the middle of the semi-finals. We met up with my sister, brother-in-law, and 7-year-old nephew who had been at the event since nearly 3:00PM.

I mentioned in my previous post that my sister had come down with a pretty nasty cold (and presumed ear infection) when she arrived in Sochi. The cold wind was feeling especially rough on her ears, so she and her husband went back to the ship, and my nephew stayed with me and Ken to enjoy the rest of the events.

We loved watching the competition!

At some point, a woman came up to me holding a printed list of countries and their flags. She asked me to point to my flag, so I pointed to the American flag. I wasn’t sure why she wanted to know, then she took out face paint! I declined, but my nephew was very excited to have his face painted.

Between the semi-finals and finals, there was about a one hour break, so we headed to the concession stands. One of our few complaints about the Olympic experience was the food. It was so dreadful.

So, before she left, my sister told me that they asked earlier in the day if they could pay to upgrade to the seated area. The bleachers were only about 40% full, but they were told no, that it was a sold out event. So they just left it at that.

So after Ken, my nephew, and I had eaten, we decided to see if we would have any luck upgrading to seats, even though my sister didn’t. So we asked one of the volunteers who was checking tickets, ensuring that people were going to the correct areas. We asked her if we could upgrade to a seat.

Her English wasn’t very good, so we used some charades. I brushed my thumb on my forefinger and middle finger a few times, making the signal for money. Then I pointed to the bleacher area and squatted down like I was about to sit.

Then, in a very strong Russian accent, she said, “Yes, you want seat, go seat.” And then proceeded to walk the three of us to the bleachers. We were pretty astounded at our luck! Ken started to sit in the fourth row, and I said maybe we shouldn’t press our luck, so we went and sat in one of the very empty sections just a few rows from the top.

Then we waited for the finals to begin. As the finals approached, the bleachers definitely began to fill up, so we were worried we might have to move, but obviously if we did, it wouldn’t be a big deal since we were upgraded for for free!

When there were only a few competitors left to compete in the finals, volunteers started setting up the podiums for the “Flower ceremony.” (Medal ceremonies were held at Olympic Park every night starting around 8:15PM.

We witnessed something so amazing! The American women took both the Gold and Bronze! We were so proud of our country’s athletes!

 

(Side Note: Just wanted to point something out here. Did you realize that some of these venues are so close to one another? We weren’t sure, but we think the hill right next to the halfpipe was the end of the Slopestyle course. And right next to that was the moguls. Go figure! I had no idea how these venues would be set up!)

We watched the medal ceremony, and then it was time to leave. We boarded the bus back to Krasnaya Polyana. Since the trains only run once per hour, it was going to be quicker to take a second bus from the Krasnaya Polyana center back to Olympic Park instead of the train.

That bus to Olympic Park was quiet, dark, and nearly empty. It was just me, Ken, and my nephew in the front, and maybe 10 or so Olympic volunteers all seated near the back of the bus. It was nearly midnight, and given that we had basically been traveling for the previous 40 hours on only a few hours of short bursts of sleep, Ken and I were pretty tired on that bus! My nephew fell asleep hard sitting next to Ken.

I was in a row to myself, sitting in an aisle seat. I was dozing off, and as the bus rounded a sharp corner, I nearly fell out of my seat and into the aisle! The armrest wasn’t up on the seat!

Then came one of the stranger moments of the trip. The CB radio on the bus started buzzing, and the bus driver answered it. There were some Russian words exchanged. Then the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road, stood up, and started walking down the bus aisle, looking in all the seats and under the seats.

Given all the fear mongering about potential terrorist attacks during the Sochi Olympics, my brain jumped to some horrific conclusion that there had been a bomb threat or something. After looking for a few minutes, the bus driver went back up to the driver’s seat and started driving again.

Then the radio buzzed again. He picked it up, some Russian words were exchanged again, and then he tried to hang up the radio while he was still driving. And couldn’t get it clipped on the spot where it was supposed to go. So he started taking his eyes off the road to put the radio back. And it still wasn’t latching. So then he’d look back at the road, swerving a bit. Then back down at the radio. Ken was about to get up and put it in place for him!

All along I’m thinking to myself, okay, “this is not going to result in Russian dashboard cam footage. This is not going to result in Russian dashboard cam footage.”

We got back to our ship at nearly 1:00AM. I called my sister to let her know we were back with her son, and that we were all hungry and going up to the ship buffet (which luckily operated every day until 2:00AM). We all had a bit of a second wind, including my nephew, who was SUCH a trooper! We had some dinner, I took my nephew back to his cabin, and then Ken and I went to our cabin. We both crashed asleep fast, and slept until nearly 11AM the next morning!


Sochi Day 2 – Luge

This entry is part 8 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

After our first night of sleep in Sochi, we were feeling so much more refreshed. In fact, since we didn’t get to sleep until nearly 2AM the night before thanks to how late the Women’s Halfpipe went, we slept in until about 11AM on our second day in Sochi! I’m sure persistent jetlag wasn’t helping matters either!

We had tickets for the Luge Team Relay competition on this evening. After we showered and got ready for the day, we had some lunch at the ship’s buffet. Then we headed to the Olympic Park area. We stopped by a mini convenience store type of place and purchased some snacks and drinks to keep in our cabin for the rest of our stay in Sochi. We found this interesting snack! Red Caviar flavored Lays potato chips! Yum?

We meandered around the area for a bit, but we didn’t actually go into Olympic Park, because somehow the day was escaping us, and fast! I guess sleeping until 11AM will do that to two weary travelers!

It was 60 degrees in the coastal area of Sochi that day. Back in DC, the entire city was shut down due snow. We didn’t even need our coats walking around the coast.

We headed back to the ship and got our cold weather gear together which we would definitely need for the mountains though!

Like the day before, we took the train to the Krasnaya Polyana train station, which served as the primary transportation hub for all of the mountain events. The trains were free of charge during the Olympics, and they looked brand new.

The only problem was that they were SO slow, especially going up the mountain. I had read online that there was a certain section that was only one track, so trains had to stop and wait for the trains going in the other direction to pass. It was nearly a one hour train ride from Olympic Park to Krasnaya Polyana.

So, I forgot to mention this in my post about the previous day, when we took the same train to go the Women’s Halfpipe competition. So, I’ll tell the story here, but it happened on our first day in Sochi, not our second.

Much of the train seats are groups of six. Three seats that face another three seats. Ken and I sat in a grouping that had three other Russian kids, probably college aged. We heard them speaking Russian to one another. Then out of the blue, this happened:

Russian College Kid: Excuse me, are you Christian?
Me: (Thinking to myself) Oh my goodness, this is never a good topic, NEVER a good topic. There is no winning answer.
Ken (while I’m thinking): Um, sure.
Russian College Kid: What kind?
Me: (Thinking to myself) What does that even MEAN? Oh my god, we’re so dead. I don’t even know what religions are acceptable here in Russia. When I traveled around other parts of the world, they could freakin stone or behead you if you were the “wrong” religion.
Ken: Lutheran. I went to a Lutheran school.
Me: (Thinking to myself) LUTHERANS. Oh god, what do Russians think of Germans these days? Do they hate them? Would they hate Lutherans because they’re associated with Germans? I’m going to throw up.  Should I chime in that I went to Catholic school?
Russian college Kid: What kind of Lutheran? More conservative or liberal?
Me: (This guy knows there are different sects of Lutherans. What the hell?  Why don’t you stop being so damn judgmental Melissa!)
Ken: Oh, the more conservative one.
Me: (Nervously) But we don’t go to church or anything. (Maybe this will help ease things over).
Russian College Kid: We (points to him and his friends) are Baptists. Do you know Baptist?
Ken: Yes, we know Baptist
Me: (Russia knows about BAPTISTS? That isn’t limited to the southern USA? Am I in some alternate dimension?)

The Russian College Kid then proceeds to pull up video footage of some church choir singing, presumably taking place at a Baptist church. I watch, and he looks at me as if I should start to sing along.

Me: (Wait, are we being witnessed to by Russian Baptists on a train? Is this real life?)

I have not been in such an awkward situation in a really long time. Shortly after that conversation, there was a train stop, and some seats opened behind the group of six we were sitting in. Ken and I politely said we were going to move back there to be able to stretch out. And with that, we said so long to the Russian Baptist College kids.

Now, in retrospect, my brain probably dramatically overreacted to that conversation. But it was my own fault for not learning more about religion and faith in Russia before we traveled there. Maybe then I would have not been so panicked. Ken was not panicked at all, so I’m glad he just handled the situation.  I will say that I did my homework when I got back to the USA, and on average, only 0.06% of Russians (about 90,000) identify themselves as Baptists, compared to the more than 23 million members in the USA.

[End story that should have been added to my Day 1 Sochi post].

After we arrived at the Krasnaya Polyana transportation hub, we walked around for a while before making our way to the gondola that would take us to the Luge venue.

Standing on the train platform at Krasnaya Polyana with the amazing Sochi mountains in the distance.

We walked to this building, which was a kind of ski-resort type building, and served as the location for the gondola departures as well.

We were standing around outside of the building taking some photos, and a volunteer asked us if we needed help. Then he asked us if we had any Olympic pins to trade. Unfortunately Ken and I were just learning about the whole pin trading thing, so we told him we didn’t. But we had a lovely conversation. He was so excited to be a volunteer for the Olympics in his home country and he said he loved being able to meet so many new people. We told him that we had been having a great time in Russia, and just how beautiful we thought it was. It’s hard to explain, but it was just a nice, but brief, conversation. He seemed so proud and happy that we were having a good time.

Once we got in the building, I wanted to find a restroom. I found this room, which I assumed was a ladies room. When I walked in, it was filled with men.

Oops.

Ken went into that bathroom, and I found a door around the corner that had the exact same icon on it. I walked in. It had women in it. Whew! I still can’t figure out why the icons were the same. I speculated that maybe they were unisex bathrooms, and that there just happened to be all men in the first one I walked into. But Ken said there were urinals in that bathroom. There were no urinals in the bathroom I located around the corner.

Mystery bathroom icon: Unsolved.

After our adventurous bathroom break, we were ready to stand in line for the Gondola that would take us to luge.

Ken and I weren’t quite prepared for how fast these things continued to move as we boarded them. We were practically knocked over!

Ken in the gondola!

We got some fantastic views of the Luge venue as our cablecar/gondola approached.

I was amazed by how close we could get to the luge track.

I was also fascinated by the video cameras and all the angles, and kept thinking to myself, “So that’s how they get that shot on TV!”

The most amazing thing, I thought, about luge was just how fast the athletes travel. I mean, I knew it was fast, but I don’t think I really appreciated it until I saw it in person. The lugers would pass us on the track in a fraction of a second.

And perhaps most amazingly, you could actually “feel” them coming down the track before you ever actually saw them. There would be a vibration in the air and on the track. Then before you know it, blink, and they were gone. We had our camera on burst mode to capture some really fast shots.

After standing in one section for a while, we walked around to different sections. This was the Luge Team Relay, which was a new competition for 2014. The team member would hit this paddle near the end of the track, signaling that the other team member, at the top of the track, should start.

Then they’d zoom by!

And of course, there were stretchers every so often, a stark reminder of how dangerous this sport could be.

When the competition finished, the track was quickly covered by volunteers that pulled down shades. Presumably this is to keep the track from melting during the daylight hours.

We took the gondola back to Krasnaya Polyana, and then took the train back to Olympic Park (instead of the bus like the night before). The train going down the mountain was much faster than the train going up!

We got back to our ship, had a very late dinner again, and plopped ourselves into bed. We were spent!


Olympic Park in Sochi during 2014 Winter Olympics

This entry is part 9 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

This post will deviate a bit from the chronological order of our trip report. I figured I’d cover Olympic Park in a single post, even though we visited it two separate days.

Admission to Olympic Park is free, but only if you had tickets to an event taking place at Olympic Park that day. Since our event tickets were for a mountain event that day, we had to buy tickets to enter Olympic Park, which were about $7 each. It was an unusual setup. There were just two volunteers at a folding table with a cash box collecting money for the tickets. You gave them cash, you got the tickets. Ken described it as buying something at a church bake sale.

With our tickets at the entrance to Olympic Park!

I didn’t count, but there were probably 75 security lines to get into Olympic Park, so it moved very quickly. However, they were very thorough and went through my bag after the x-ray scan showed I had a loose camera battery. After we transited security, I turned around and took this photo of the huge security transiting area.

We began our walk through the giant Olympic Park

There were many corporate “exhibition” buildings that you could go into and shop, view Olympic-related displays, and perhaps even pick up some Olympic pins.

The Coca Cola Exhibit

The Samsung Exhibit

The Audi Exhibit, which included an awesome and steep track you could test drive an Audi car

An exhibit from a Russian bank, complete with an ice climbing wall!

An obstructed view of the Microsoft exhibit

As we walked towards the sports venues, we crossed these colorful pedestrian bridges. (You can see the Olympic flame in the distance)

 

On the other side of the bridge was the “Olympic Superstore.” The line simply to ENTER the superstore was THREE HOURS LONG. No matter what time of day, no matter how empty the park seemed, it was a huge line. And that was a problem because there were very few other places to buy Olympic souvenirs. Each sports venue had a little kiosk, but you could only get into the venue if you had tickets to an event. I’ll talk more about the Olympic souvenir-buying experience in some future posts because it was quite the ordeal.

 

Many countries also had “houses” that you could visit.

House of Switzerland

House of Canada.

 

And right next to the House of Canada was …

The USA House!

Unlike many of the other country houses, the USA house was manned by security, and only US Citizens were allowed inside, so we had to show our passports. But even then, we were limited to the gift shop area and a small platform that allowed some views of the rest of the house. The security guard explained that the USA House is intended to be a “safe place for the athletes and their families.” We definitely understood that, and we just walked around the gift shop for a while.

Do you remember those Ralph Lauren sweaters that the American athletes wore during the Opening Ceremony? They sold them at the store in the USA house.

And it could be yours for the bargain price of $595. And yes, that’s dollars, not some currency exchange mistake. Umm, I’ll pass.

We searched at length for food in Olympic Park. Eateries were limited to amusement park-type food stands that served very odd assortments like this.

 

After crossing the colorful bridges, we passed through these huge billboard-type displays.

(These two photos were taken a day apart. Notice the difference in crowds!)

 

And then we had an amazing view of that Olympic flame!

A wide-angle shot of the Olympic flame area. Towards the right, you can see a stage area. That is where the medal ceremonies took place each night. During popular Olympic events, they would also broadcast the sport on a huge TV on the stage.

 

I swear, Ken and I took about a hundred pictures from different angles of the flame. We went a bit overboard! I’ll spare you all the photos and just share these few favorites, like this one too.

 

The sports venues surrounded the flame.

 

In the distance from Olympic Park, you could see the beautiful snow-capped mountains.

 

And there were some weird English translations.

The territory of waste segregation anybody?

We definitely enjoyed our time at Olympic Park, but I will say, it was HUGE. So huge. Almost too big. And with only one entrance and exit, you had to walk all the way back to the beginning of the park after taking such a long walk to get to the venues once you were ready to leave. It was about a 30 minute walk if you didn’t make any other stops. Crazytown.

As we left though, the park had a different feel at night, with all of its vibrant lights and colors.

(The huge billboard things I mentioned earlier. Not sure what else to call them)

 

I chuckled at the apostrophe mistake at the Russia House.

And after our second visit, we said farewell to Olympic Park!