Sochi – the ugly

This entry is part 11 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

When we tell people that we went to the Olympics in Sochi, the response is almost always universally the same. “Wow, did you have fun?” followed quickly by “Was it as bad as they said it was?”

Our answer is always no, it was not as bad as they (meaning as reported on the news and Twitter) said it was. We thought it was amazingly well organized, efficient, and above all, very safe, which we were so thankful for considering all the fear mongering leading up to the Olympics. The volunteers were friendly and helpful, the transportation was amazingly easy to figure out, and everything was clean and sparkling new. I think the only two complaints you’ve seen me mention on here so far have been the dreadful food selection at Olympic Park and the venues, and the three hour line just to enter the souvenir store.

But, since everyone always seems to be so interested in what was “bad” at the Sochi Olympics, I thought I would dedicate a post to it. So, while we had no complaints about anything overall, there were a few things that made me scratch my head and say, “Wow, for $50 billion, I don’t think this should’ve been an issue.”

So, these things I am pointing out are, admittedly, very petty and did not detract from our enjoyment at all. This was also our first Olympics, so these types of things might be normal in all Olympic host cities! But since folks seem so interested, here you go …

Access for the physically disabled and building safety issues

I don’t claim to be an expert on how things should be constructed in order to accommodate the physically disabled. But, considering that Sochi would be hosting the Paralympics just a few weeks later, I was shocked to see things like sidewalk ledges that were way too tall, and no visible sidewalk ramps anywhere.

I’m not sure how tall this ledge was right outside of the Olympic Park entrance, the you can see that it is nearly up to the knees of the woman walking ahead of us. And we didn’t see a ramp anywhere.

 

There were no handrails on this main staircase inside the Adler Arena, where we saw the speed skating event. But, in their defense, there was an elevator right next to the stairs, but I did find it a little disconcerting as I climbed the steps, especially considering I’m such a klutz!

 

This ductwork in the hallway to get to our seats at the speed skating arena was so low, that we had to duck to walk under it. No caution tape, no padding, nothing. Seemed a bit dangerous for anyone distracted while walking.

Oh the Scaffolding and Fences

EVERYWHERE. Fences to cover unfinished stuff. Even scaffolding standing in for what looked like should have been the location of a permanent structure.

For instance, this elevated pathway looked like it should have been home to a permanent structure that was never finished. This is right by the Adler Arena and directly behind the medals stage.

And there was a lot of fences surrounding the venue that hosted the Opening and Closing ceremonies.

And these fences with bright orange feet around what appeared to be some sort of media building.

Fences hiding what should have been landscaped areas but instead were housing some sort of equipment.

And I was really surprised at all of the ugly equipment and fencing just off to the side of the Olympic flame.

Unfinished landscaping

All of the grassy areas did not look healthy and you could still see the sod seams. But others were just completely unfinished. Here was an area right by the Samsung exhibit inside Olympic Park. There is a single row of sod (bottom of photo), and the rest is just dirt and no trees or shrubs.

Other areas had some trees and shrubs, but still no grass.

The Parking / Taxi Drop Off Situation

Our primary form of transportation from our cruise ship hotel was taxi. There was no organized drop off point for taxis to drop off their passengers. Instead, the taxi drivers would pull into this insanely disorganized parking lot-type area and drop off passengers there. Then we’d have to maneuver through parked cars (and moving cars) to get to the Olympic Park entrance or to the train station. There’s a ton of empty space in Sochi, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t have had a better situation figured out for this.

And there you have it. Those were my primary “complaints.” And even then, they’re not really complaints as much as just shock that those things should certainly not have occurred considering the $50 billion price tag of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. And you can see in my previous posts about the Olympics that everything else was so beautiful and amazing!

Did you go to the Sochi Olympics? Did you see any of the same issues?


 

Speed Skating and Long Jump Events – Sochi Winter 2014 Olympics

This entry is part 10 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

This post will combine events we saw on two different days.

Ski Jumping (Long Jump)

The third event we had tickets for at the Sochi Olympics was Ski Jumping. It was the first non-medal event we’d be seeing, but it was still great! The jump was the “long jump.” I didn’t even know there were two types of ski jumps. The smaller jump is on the right, and the long jump is on the left.

Like the luge event the night before, we had to take a Gondola to the venue. These gondolas were slightly larger, and we were better prepared to board them and didn’t get nearly knocked over this time! It was always so difficult to gauge how long it would take us to get from the coast (where we were staying) to the mountain events. We ended up arriving at the venue nearly 90 minutes prior to the event start time. But not to worry, we got to watch the practice round! Nearly all of the 60 or so jumpers decided to participate in the practice round before the qualifying event. The stands started to fill up as the qualifying event was underway. I captured a wide angle shot of the venue, with the jumps on the left, the scoreboard at the bottom of the hills, and the media box on the right. There was an elevated structure, right near the “jump” part of the hill, and we’re not sure what that was. We think it might have been judges and/or coaches.

Here is a high speed capture with sequential images of a single jumper, much like the high speed sequence I posted in my luge post!

If you look close up on the hill, it looks like there is like dirt or debris on the hill. Those are actually pine needles (and some other greenery) to help jumpers determine where their landing surface is. When you jump and all you see is white snow, it’s difficult to tell how far away the snow actually is. You can read a better explanation of it here.

As things wrapped up, my sister took a picture of me and Ken, and then we all headed back to the gondolas that would take us back to the Krasnaya Polyana transportation hub.

Speed Skating

The next night, we had tickets to Speed Skating (the Men’s 1500 m), the only event we saw in Olympic Park! As we walked to the venue in Olympic Park, the air was electric with excitement. The USA-Russia Men’s hockey game was starting soon, and Russians were just chanting with pride as they walked through Olympic Park. Spoiler alert: By the time we left the Speed Skating event, the Russians had already lost the hockey game. It was so quiet in Olympic Park you could hear a pin drop! A very different mood than earlier! We arrived at the venue really early, and captured some pictures of a very empty rink!

Right before a race would start, they would put images on the big screens of famous speed skaters doing the “shush” sign so that the audience would quiet down.

I think there were 20 or 30 pairs “races.” I put races in quotations because the two skaters are not actually racing one another. That is called “short track” speed skating. Instead, in this type of speed skating, they just so happen to skate in pairs, but all that matters is their overall individual finishing times compared to the other competitors. I love the look of determination on their faces! I also didn’t realize how short speed skates are and that they don’t even cover the ankle.

Like many of the other venues, I was fascinated by the camera equipment used to film the events!

This was a medal event, and it was really crowded. And much of the crowd was decked out in orange, because I don’t think there are bigger speed skating fans than the Dutch! They typically dominate the sport!

But of course, we were cheering on Team USA!

After the event was over, a band came through and played in the middle of the rink!

And we said farewell to speed skating, and our last Olympic event during our five days in Sochi!

Buying Souvenirs at Speed Skating Venue

Remember in my post about Olympic Park that I lamented the three hour wait time just to ENTER the souvenir store? Well, there was a little souvenir kiosk at the speed skating venue. During a “zamboni” break in the competition, I went to the kiosk, but there was a line to enter. They were only letting like three people in at a time. I waited for nearly 30 minutes, and was still like five people away from entering. The competition had started back up, so I left the line. The kiosk closed right after the event was over (seriously, why do they do that?) and the last customers had already been allowed in. It was our last night in Sochi, and I wanted to leave with SOME SORT of Olympic souvenir. Outside of the store, I just kind of looked at the security guard and said, in English, “Look, I know exactly what I want, I’m just going to go in here real quick,” and I slipped past the retractable belt barrier that had been put up in front of the entrance. The security guard didn’t object, but the people working the counter in the store kind of did. I just looked really sad and pleaded with them. I knew exactly what I wanted, picked up the items, and checked out. Whew! We had a few souvenirs to take home. Ken took this picture while I was in there. Note the belt barrier that had been in front of the door.

And that was it! As we left the park, we walked past the Olympic Flame one more time, and snapped a few photos. Then we headed on the (long) walk to the exit, and headed back to our cruise ship hotel to pack up our things for our very early morning departure for Moscow!


 

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!


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!


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!