SOCHI, Russia – Some 24 hours after leaving Anchorage, I arrived in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday morning for the fourth leg of my journey: a flight to Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport.
I was getting excited to finally depart for Russia, but that excitement was somewhat tempered by what I knew could be waiting for me at customs there: the challenge of navigating Russian bureaucracy with a credential that said I’d been born on Aug. 30, 2013.
My newfound youth — I’m 26 — was an unintended gift from the Olympic organizers, who had messed up when entering my birthdate into their system several months earlier. (You’d think that someone would have noticed they were giving a press credential to a reporter too young to have teeth, let alone know the alphabet or write, might have set off some alarm bells. But I guess we’re talking about Russian bureaucracy here.)
I’d been assured that everything would be fine if I showed up at the border with a visa application, a pair of passport photos, and 4,000 Russian rubles (about $115, which would not be reimbursed). But I had my doubts, given that these were the same people who had credentialed a baby.
When I walked into the terminal in Moscow, I was ushered to a special Olympic line for customs, where, as I’d been instructed by the organizers, I presented the border guard with the credential I’d been issued — in hopes that he wouldn’t notice the discrepancy between it, and my passport.
With my passport stamped and a completed immigration card, I strolled into the Moscow airport, pleased with the 4,000 rubles and passport photos still in my pocket, but a little bit unsettled about the supposedly stringent Russian security measures that I’d just skated around.
After five hours trying not to stay awake in the packed departure area — made slightly more tolerable by a beer and a bowl of borscht — I boarded my flight for Sochi, which landed at 1 a.m.
Upon arrival, I got a replacement credential, then boarded a bus for my hotel, some 30 miles up the Mzymta River valley.
I’d read all about the $8 billion road and railway that covered this distance, and even in the dark, it was impressive. Or, impressive is one word for it — anyone with concern for the environment would probably use another, given that the road and rail system was essentially built on top of the river in places, with support columns plunked down mid-stream.
I was exhausted from nearly two full days of travel, so I was looking forward to getting to my hotel. But it turned out that required a trip up a gondola after I got off the bus, at 3 a.m. Which seemed straightforward enough, until I was informed by a guard that the gondola was closed for a “technical break” until 4:30.
So instead, I piled into a van with six other reporters for a 10-minute drive up a precipitous, winding road to the hotel, during which our driver seemed intent on rolling the vehicle.
At the top, we stumbled out, and I made it into my hotel — the Gorki Panorama — where I was shown to my room. Having heard horror stories of brown water, malfunctioning bathrooms, and even stray dogs in the Sochi hotels, I was prepared for the worst — but other than a strong odor of paint and a strangely wet carpet, the room was just fine, and I went to sleep.
I spent Friday getting acquainted with the cross-country ski and biathlon venues with my two colleagues from FasterSkier.com. Getting there requires us to take the gondola down from our hotel, a 10-minute walk to the main mountain press center, a 15-minute bus to another gondola, then, once at the top, a van ride.
In the daylight, the scale of the Sochi project grew clearer. In this area — the mountain venue outside of town — the Russians essentially developed what feels like the entire watershed, cramming the Mzymta River valley with massive hotels and stores, many of them still unfinished. More development that didn’t fit in the river basin was shoved up to the tops of the adjacent slopes.
The buildings are impressive; the infrastructure all seems to work smoothly. But it’s not pretty — for me, the best part about the whole place remains the craggy, snow-covered Western Caucasus mountains, which still dwarf all the mega-projects here.
Friday night, we took the bus back down the road to get to the opening ceremonies, held in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi’s Olympic Park.
The park houses some of the games’ largest venues, including the ones for hockey, speedskating, and curling, which were all adorned with spectacular colored light displays.
When we arrived at the stadium, we were directed to sit in the third row up from the stage. From there, the ceremonies were spectacular, from the parade of athletes to the costumed performers and massive props gliding through the air. We even had a distant view of Vladimir Putin.
After a late night getting back to the hotel, I’m now up at the cross-country skiing venue on Saturday morning, getting ready to cover the first race of the games. Like yesterday, it was a bit of a logistical challenge getting up here, but so far, I have nothing to complain about.
It’s warm and sunny. And the free breakfast at our hotel was great: eggs, fruit salad, crusty bread, and even smoked fish. Though I haven’t seen any salmon.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.