Tag Archives: 2014 sochi olympics

Russia as we know it

19 Feb
Gorki village side street on one of several 50-degree days during the 2014 Winter Olympics

Gorki village side street on one of several 50-degree days during the 2014 Winter Olympics

You’re probably dying to know what Russia’s really like — I mean, it’s a big reason why I wanted to come here in the first place.

But to be honest, two weeks into my Olympic journey, I can really only tell you about the Olympics, specifically the mountain cluster, and really, the nordic events — if you want insider details.

The region of Krasnaya Polyana, and its villages of Gorki and Rosa Khutor, where I’ve been spending the last 13 days aren’t your salt-of-the-earth, local-yokel joints. Part of the reason is because they’re brand-new towns created for the Olympics.

One of the first days I was here, I went for a spring-like stroll down one of the main pedestrian side streets in Gorki. I heard an American say it reminded him of Disney World — and to a point, I agreed. The buildings are bold and impressive, and opening each day to reveal new hotels, businesses, and shopping malls.

You feel safe on these streets, with plenty of tourists and journalists buzzing around by day and bright lights and purple-coated security guards at every corner by night. I was most nervous about an inflated-chicken mascot, who playfully pecked at unsuspecting people passing by.

My biggest fear so far: the Gorki Square chicken

My biggest fear so far: the Gorki Square chicken

Most mornings, when the sun’s out, there’s a dance party in Gorki Square. Hello Kitty dances with Spiderman, the chicken bobbles around, and all the costumed characters toss a beach ball to one another while standing in a circle — and anyone else can join in. What a way to start your day.

I have to applaud Russia in so many respects. The Olympic organizing committee’s volunteers are friendly and generally speak good English, their security guards are often jovial, and even the police officers in those ushanka trapper hats (yep, they wear them even when it’s 60 degrees out) occasionally smile.

But my sense is this isn’t real Russia. This isn’t reality no matter what country you’re in. I’m living in an Olympic wonderland and sometimes I wonder if I’m falling into a false sense of security, or if I’m letting my guard down. As was swimming in my hotel’s five-day old lap pool this morning, I smelled something. Something like gas or diesel. I just kept swimming, swimming, until finally it got a little hard to bear.

You’re being over-sensitive, I thought. I finished my swim and still smelled it. The windows were open, and I think it was simply some kind of inversion, where the fumes from the highway down below wafted up to our mountain hotel. But I really don’t know.

Last night while I was in a deep sleep, Nat and Chelsea heard explosions around midnight. I’m assuming it was avalanche blasts from the several inches of snow we received yesterday. But who knows?

Regardless, I didn’t find out until the next morning, and it hasn’t affected anything as far as I can tell. Our all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast was still out with even more options to chose from, and for the second day in a row, there was a bonus food-and-drink spread in the lobby. If nothing else, this country knows how to feed us in the a.m.

As I sit in the hotel lobby in a swanky chair sipping my second cup of coffee, along with a free seltzer water, I’ve got to tell you, I can’t complain. Tomorrow, we’re planning to head down to Adler, the coastal town near Sochi. Maybe after that, I can tell you more about Russia. But somehow, I don’t think I’m going to get the full effect.

Sochi-bound and I couldn’t be more excited

27 Jan
Skiing in the Dolomites, because, why not? March 2013 after Nordic World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy

Skiing in the Dolomites, because, why not? March 2013 after Nordic World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy

I’ve been thinking about writing for a while now, ‘Gotta restart the blog. Where do I even begin?’

I guess the best way to jump right in is to make the point that everyone who’s traveled even a little bit has a war story. That’s why I’m not scared.

Yes, the Olympics, which start in less than two weeks in Sochi, Russia, about 500 miles from the volatile region known as Chechnya, present new fears — fears that are infiltrating our news and validated every time a terrorist strikes anywhere near Sochi. People are concerned and I don’t blame them.

Chicago's Midway International Airport on Jan. 2, 2014. My home sweet home for the next 24 hours.

Chicago’s Midway International Airport on Jan. 2, 2014. My home sweet home for the next 24 hours.

But back to the travel stories.

Two days after New Year’s, Chicago was a hub of airport mayhem and tens of thousands of unhappy passengers — customers, really — all trying to get to their final destination.

I stood inside one of Midway’s terminals for 24 hours trying to figure out how to get the heck out. It was Friday and I heard murmurs about how there was no way anyone was getting to Salt Lake (my final stop) until at least Monday. Succumb to hotel life for the next three days? Not an option. Everything was booked solid in the windy and snow-impacted city.

Fear never crossed my mind (why would it?), nor thoughts of what if I never get out, although a couple I befriended jokingly entertained that possibility. It wasn’t funny but it wasn’t scary either.

I got out of Midway by staying alert and being somewhat savvy. I made sure I hustled, stayed on top of my game, and didn’t let the situation take control of me. While Russia and the Olympics are an entirely different ballgame, I’m approaching it similarly.

Fact is, you can’t prepare for the unexpected. At least that’s how I feel. You can, however, be as alert and savvy as possible, stay on top of real threats and warnings, and seek out the safest environments in a given place. But I won’t stay home or let opportunities pass me by out of fear alone. It simply isn’t worth the risk to me of not going to the Olympics, of not experiencing a once-in-four-years Winter Games, which will be my first.

Up at dawn to watch the flag ceremony in Tiananmen Square, just outside the gates of the Forbidden City before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

Up at dawn to watch the flag ceremony in Tiananmen Square, just outside the gates of the Forbidden City before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

Six years ago, I went to China. For two months. As a student. I interned for the Olympic News Service at the 2008 Summer Games and ran around greater Beijing with little international travel experience and learned a lot in a hurry.

Russia will be different than China, no doubt, but one thing I took away from there was to not be scared of feeling uneasy. Instinct is our most basic and often most reliable form of security. Stay in tune with exactly how you feel in a situation and try to figure out what’s behind those feelings, whether those nerves are justified or not. You won’t always know what’s ahead — but when does anyone, ever?

Above all the stresses that surround travel, there’s the underlying reason some of us love it. New experiences. That’s why China and its Olympics left me wanting more; that’s why I’m going to Sochi.

I wrote this blog post in my head while hiking in Lake Placid, N.Y. Thirty-four years after this region last hosted the Winter Olympics, that spirit is still going strong in this little touristy-yet-twinkling village. That’s the kind of spirit I can’t wait to experience again, and that’s the spirit I hope will outweigh, overshadow and defend against any kind of radical acts in Sochi.

Alex is heading to Sochi with two coworkers to report on the 2014 Winter Olympics from Feb. 7-23. Check out their stories on FasterSkier.com and follow her on Twitter @Active_Alex.

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