We went to Sochi on the trail of Western media spooks hunting for White Elephants in a Ghost Town, and this is what we discovered...
Many years ago I started to really like Russia, but being a resident of Moscow I suffered much from the climate, too long gloomy falls, and greyish winters. I like visiting and exploring wintry places, but I prefer to live in the sun. When I tell this to Russians, they almost invariably retort that I should be used to cold winters coming from Finland. But the whole point is that I wanted to migrate south to escape that particular predicament.
So I dreamed about a place that would combine Russian mentality with the sun and warmth of the South. I used to long for the Crimea that then seemed lost forever, but for some reason I had completely missed out on Sochi. It was only in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics that I was introduced to that city. And I was really in for a surprise when I first travelled down there. I found that there, right there, was the Russia of my dreams.
Emerging from the airport, instead of a patched-up Soviet resort, I saw views that reminded me of Southeast Europe, with stunning mountains, well-groomed roadsides and small houses; not fancy ones, just neat and evidence of a good life. This was before the Olympic construction boom, with building sites just starting to pop up. As I was driven to the center along the Kurortny Prospekt, I just gaped at the sea on my left, the mountains on the right, and the road which seemed to have been drawn right through a luscious garden.
Sochi center in February
I returned to Sochi in February this year to verify with my own eyes and share the story on what has become of Sochi now, one year after the Olympics. But where do I begin to tell the story of what a great place Sochi can be? I can’t make up my mind on what I like best about Sochi. The climate? Perhaps. The natural beauty? The mountains or the lushness, or the balmy evening breeze of midsummer? The way the city is developing and its diversity? The sporting heritage and the shining new facilities? The quality of life it offers?
A Ghost Town Populated by White Elephants, or Visited by Media Spooks?
I decided that the natural point of departure is to discuss the Olympic heritage. Is Sochi “Deserted and already falling apart” as The Daily Mail claims? A “ghost town” as the spooks at The Guardian informs us? I cannot even get worked up about these claims — they are so ludicrously flawed — just what one would expect from the London fiction factory. These stories were just the last failed attempts to rehash the anti-Sochi propaganda of yesteryear, which I addressed already back then in this article.
As there simply is nothing real to complain about, what the Western reporters did was to go up to the mountain winter sport cluster in the summer to report that no skiers were spotted and then descend onto the beach resort in the winter to share their amazement over the empty beaches. The winter is mild down there, rarely cooler than 10°C in daytime, but it hardly qualifies for a beach season. It is true that not many families have yet moved down to the area because most of the real estate has not been put on the market yet. But what has been on sale has been picked up reasonably well. Most buyers are either financial investors or people buying a holiday home, so they would not be around in droves at that time of the year. Nevertheless, the reporter must have been quite inventive and ill-intentioned to find all the angles that so completely hid people and parked cars from the lens.
I must say the photoreporter was much more successful in capturing the void than in conjuring up images evidencing how the place is supposedly “falling apart.” Look again at those Daily Mail pics of a Sochi “deserted and already falling apart.” What is falling apart here? I can’t spot anything like that. On the contrary, what I see are some quite attractive new housing developments. I can see a stray dog basking in the sunshine on the landscaping with newly planted pine trees by a perfectly constructed promenade with separate bicycle lanes set against the blue sea. What’s wrong with that? Oh, wait… there is disrepair! Three concrete slabs have “come loose from a newly-built road.” And that is not all. The investigating reporters from the Daily Mail managed to scavenge a stock of “uncollected rubbish piled up in a Sochi reservoir.”
To tell the truth, it is about at this point that the Western propaganda center called off this second wave of media assault on Sochi. It was getting too embarrassing; they couldn’t find a reporter who wanted to sign his name to the stories. The last nail in the propaganda coffin came when journalists from The Washington Post and Bloomberg returned from Sochi with these disappointing stories, that is, disappointing those who wanted to find disasters.
Here is a piece of some of the better reporting that has come out of Sochi.
Here below are photos of what I saw there.
White Elephants Live and Kicking
What about the claims that the Olympic sporting arenas stand out like white elephants - unfinished, useless and abandoned? Already a few days before the games even took off, the Voice of America declared that the “Sochi Facilities Will Not Be Used After Olympics.” Alas, this wish did not come true; far from it.
The venues are bustling with activity. One of the ice rinks is the busy home rink of the new Sochi Hockey Club, which plays in its first season in Russia’s prestigious KHL league. The club has drawn between six to ten thousand spectators per game. Another ice rink is being used for various figure skating activities and ice shows; one ice musical running from July through October with five weekly showings. A third one has been converted into a Russian central facility for child health and sports activities. The speed skating arena was turned into a tennis center with nine courts under roof and 15 open-air courts. The central stadium of Sochi Olympic Park, which hosted the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, is now being reconstructed to serve as one of the football stadiums for the FIFA World Cup in Russia 2018. And in 2014 Sochi hosted its first annual Formula One race on a street circuit built around these venues of the Sochi Olympic Park.
Sport, Beach and Home
These sporting facilities are surrounded on a large territory by hotels, convention centers, and various clusters of housing developments originally built to accommodate the Olympic teams, support staff, organizers and media. The result is an extraordinarily vibrant residential and recreational area with a gorgeous beach on one side and snowcapped mountains on the other. This area will certainly provide for some of the best quality of life in Russia, and a good one by any global standards. Most of the dwellings will be sold off or rented to private individuals. Only a fraction, albeit some of the best, have already been put on the market and the sales have been rather brisk.
Tourists are Flooding to Sochi
In 2014, Sochi welcomed a record 5.2 million visitors. These included the Olympic guests, support staff, and organizers. This year Sochi is awaiting at least 5.5 million visitors (including those who stay at private accommodations). It might come as a surprise to those who have read the Western media stories about the supposed glum prospects of post-Olympic Sochi that the one big problem Sochi is about to face is …lack of sufficient capacity to cope with the demand. The winter season at the mountain resorts was practically fully booked, with about one million winter sports fans, and the summer season by the sea looks just as promising.
Thanks to the infrastructure built for the Olympics, Sochi will this year become the first Russian domestic destination where Russia’s major tour operators will organize package tours with chartered flights from some 15 Russian cities. Previously, the Russian mass tourism industry focused exclusively on overseas destinations.
In addition to accommodating guests during the winter and summer seasons, Sochi now, thanks to the Olympic infrastructure, also serves as an all-year-round top destination for conferences.
Longest Coastline of Any City in the World
Few if any cities in the world stretch out as long as Sochi, sprawling 145 kilometers (90 miles) along the Black Sea coast. The center is referred to as Sochi proper; in the eastern end there is Adler with the airport and Olympic Park and the road up to the mountain cluster at Krasnaya Polyana. Westwards from the center there are still some 60 kilometers more coastline and suburban developments like New Sochi and the territory furthest west, Lazarevskoye.
Although bathing in the sea must be the primary attraction for most Russians who visit Sochi in the summer, it is safe to assume that the beaches are not the best assets that Sochi can boast of. At least not for me, who prefers sandy beaches over the pebble ones that dominate Sochi and most of the Russian Black Sea coast. Some of them can be quite attractive, though, in their own aesthetics, especially the completely refurbished miles long and wide beach at the Olympic Park. In the summer it will have all the trappings of a top beach, with boardwalks, boarded terraces, beach shades and service. However, the shoreline in the center is in need of a makeover. I would in particular wish that they would do something about the quite hideous concrete seawalls jutting out into the sea at intervals of 100 meters, devised by the Soviet authorities to shelter the beach line from being washed out by the, at times, stormy sea. Another problem is that during the wild years of the 1990s, the authorities allowed chaotic commercial construction along the promenade to the effect that at some points the sea view has been completely blocked off. – Fortunately, I was assured that the city authorities have a plan to revamp all that.
Sochi - A Very Pleasant City in its Own Right
Sochi is not only about the Olympics and its heritage; it is a pleasant subtropical city in its own right.
Sochi lies in Russia’s Krasnodar region on the Black Sea, protected by the Caucasus Mountains. The mountains literally shelter Sochi, extending like a giant air-conditioner over the city. This is why Sochi has its unique climate - the mountains block the cold weather while creating the conditions for skiing at its peaks. This is also what makes Sochi’s climate so much more attractive than the rest of Russia’s Black Sea coast.
Sochi’s subtropical climate provides for mild winters from December to March and warm summers from May to October. Impressive swaying palm trees and blooming magnolias are spread all around the town to remind you of this.
It was only in the first decade of the 20th century that a small settlement that originated in a Russian fortress burgeoned into the Sochi sea resort, which acquired the status of a town in 1917. After the end of the Caucasian War (1866), the coast had been actively colonized by Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Germans, Georgians and other people coming from all over the Russian empire.
Sochi has the added flair of the South in view of its significant ethnic Armenian population. According to official statistics, some 20% of the inhabitants are said to be Armenian; but down at Sochi central district and Adler one gets the feeling they are even more prominently represented. To the delight of the visitor, the Armenian – and also Georgian - influence makes itself felt in the Caucasian cuisine that is distinctly the proper cuisine of Sochi. Any visitor to Sochi will be offered to sample all the favorite Caucasian dishes, such as shashliks, khinkali, and the cheese bread khachapuri.
In the Soviet times, Sochi benefitted from the attention Joseph Stalin lavished on it. Among other things, he commissioned a range of imposing Neoclassical buildings to be erected there. Stalin is also said to have had his favorite dacha there, now open to visitors. Sochi received a new boost, emerging as the Olympic host and present-day modern resort through Vladimir Putin’s very personal dedication to it. Sochi may also be considered as Russia’s summer capital, as the President spends a lot of his time there at the official residence, Bocharov Ruchei, conducting his official business and meeting with foreign dignitaries.
Sochi – Part of a Vast Black Sea Holiday Wonderland
Thanks to the Olympic development, the traffic infrastructure is really excellent, easily the best in Russia. There is now a whole new road which cuts right through the city, half of which is underground tunnels and frequent overpasses, which have removed practically all traffic jams between Adler and the center. You can now travel in half an hour from the city center to the airport and the Olympic Park in Adler. The transport infrastructure on the western side is still in need of improvement, and it has been announced that a bypass road will be built for that purpose. This is a part of the plan to connect Sochi with a decent road to the regional capital, Krasnodar. Currently you would need to spend some 6 hours or more on roads winding through populated communities to travel to Krasnodar. In fact, there are now plans to completely overhaul the roads along the Russian Black Sea coast, connecting Krasnodar, inland, with a road that connects Sochi with Anapa, and further with a new bridge due in 2018 to join Krasnodar region with Crimea over the Kerch Strait. When this transport infrastructure is in place, the Russia Black Sea coast will emerge as an amazing holiday destination ready to absorb billions and billions in investments.
Sochi saw a lot of real estate development across the city in the years leading up to the Olympic Games; some of the sites are only now coming to the market, and many others are still under construction. After the sharp devaluation of the Russian ruble in the wake of the Western-imposed sanctions and the decline of the oil price, Russian real estate prices have gone down in dollar terms. This applies to Sochi also, but to a lesser extent. The new sites are being sold out at a steady pace. I would think that now is the best time to buy, as the present uncertainty and reluctance of banks to finance has temporarily put a lid on the market. Clearly, a surge is expected come summer with millions of tourists expected from all over Russia. Premium category apartments with a sea view currently sell at a level of two to three thousand dollars per square meter (without finishing, fittings and fixtures, which is the way new apartments are usually sold in Russia).
Greene, Greene, Greene
I take singular pleasure in just strolling around Sochi. Many cities have parks, but Sochi seems to be a city placed in a park, where you stroll from one park to another connected by luscious streets. I would start at Primorskaya Street, which, notwithstanding its name, is actually a wide pedestrian park on elevated ground overlooking the seafront. Eventually, I would arrive at the park in front of the seaport with one of Sochi’s landmarks, the Naval Station. From there I would turn inland and cross Kurortny Prospekt, which is the city's main transport artery. From there, I enter another pedestrian street, the recently refurbished Navaginskaya Street, which is the main shopping street, lined with small shops and boutiques and recently built shopping malls, in an urban architectural ensemble that transports me to a place somewhere in the best parts of the world. I am searching my mind to identify which actual place I am thinking of - till I realize that I need not rack my brains any further; that place I have in mind is precisely here, right in front of my nose. It’s Sochi.
In between Navagansky Street and the Sochi River lies the older town center, with mostly three- or four-storey houses, most of which date to the Soviet period from the 1930s onward. The architecture style is quite nondescript, but with all the houses and modern storefronts, and what with the lush vegetation, it does not resemble anything that I would associate with that period of Russia’s history.
In addition to all the greenery and park-like streets, there are many parks and gardens proper, the grandest and most famous of them being the Sochi Dendrarium, the city's botanical garden. This botanical garden, stretching over an area of 49 hectares, hosts a unique collection of subtropical flora and fauna.
Sochi has something to offer in all the four seasons but now is perhaps the best one when the magnolias are about to bloom.