SOCHI, Russia — One brisk December day in 1990, I embarked on a ski trip in the Caucasus Mountains with Russian friends. The 54-mile, 3 ½-hour trip commenced on roads as rough as raw leather. Here is what I wrote in the Seattle Times seven years later:
“When we finally reached the Spartan-looking ski center, it was closed. My Russian friends didn't seem too surprised despite waiting hours in line the day before to buy enough gas for the trip.
“It's normal,” Marina shrugged, offering the universal Russian expression at the time to explain her country's inefficiency.
That's a calm way of saying, “You-mean-I-drove-three-%$#@ -hours-on-a-barely-passable-road-only-to-discover-there-will-be-no-skiing-today?”
No problem. I'll get back there some day.
As soon as the road improvements are finished.
The roads are finished. They've got an electric train to the mountain resorts, too. And a whole bunch more.
This once-remote region that was the czar's private hunting grounds has been transformed into a modern resort city that I don't recognize despite visiting here in 1987 and the aforementioned winter trip in '90.
Everyone I told about my Sochi experience has a simple question: Why?
Why would anyone in their right mind choose this place for a holiday?
I came in '87 as part of a summer tour that included Moscow and then-Leningrad. During that trip I met some Russians, so I returned to visit them in winter.
Why I would cross an ocean to visit a subtropical seaside summer resort town in winter remains a mystery even to me.
But I can say that even a quarter century ago, Sochites — are they Sochians? — entertained hopes of playing host to the Winter Olympics. They had a bid committee stationed at a cardboard table in the “lobby” of my hotel.
I introduced myself to the babushka manning the table. She spoke no English. A receptionist at the hotel front desk helped translate. I gave her my information and she promised an official would call me.
A week later, I was told to report to the makeshift table at a designated time. There, I found a younger woman who spoke broken English. She handed me some Soviet-style brochures about the greatness of Sochi that were useless for any journalist needing real information.
But that was that.
I walked away chuckling, “the IOC is never coming here.”
The thousands descending upon this seaport just cannot fathom how much has changed in 24 years.
In those days, the only places to get out were at the beach resort hotels such as Dagomys, which is 15-minutes from downtown.
Walking through the central district this week I couldn't stop shaking my head at the shopping malls with Apple, United Colors of Benetton, Ecco and other international brands. The women stride around town in the latest fashions. Cafes and restaurants are filled.
I can't recall ever finding a restaurant roaming downtown Sochi years ago. I encountered little mom and pop grocery stores with empty shelves. Now the stacked markets look like anywhere on the European continent.
Another reason the idea of having an Olympics here seemed ridiculous was the lack of infrastructure. Let's put it simply: the roads.
Sochi is one of the longest cities in Europe, stretching 90 miles in length in a spaghetti-thin strip of fertile land between the sea and mighty mountains.
It had one two-lane road going north and south like Highway 1 through Big Sur. We drove it south across the Georgian border to a ski resort in the now separate republic.
At lower elevations we worked our way through farm animals and horse-drawn carts that plodded along the road. As we came around a bend with rain spitting against the windshield, Marina leaned toward the front seat and pronounced, “You are now going to see our Road from Hell.”
Hell has to have better engineers than this. We drove through knee-deep mud puddles while worrying that a truck might be descending while the road narrowed to a half lane, our side inches from a 1,000-foot drop.
Once we reached the higher elevations the horray frost on the trees looked like something out of a scene from Dr. Zhivago. The mountain scenery is magnificent.
But the Winter Olympics?
The airport had nothing on the roadways. It had one meager landing strip where passengers had to debark on the tarmac to reach the small terminal. Baggage claim was a simple conveyor belt out the back in the open.
Located in Adler, which at the time was more like a village, the facility looks like an international port now.
Like the airstrip, Adler also has grown up with a bustling downtown and high rises. I saw the old road we took through Adler and remembered the one resort hotel sitting prominently near the village. Nothing else looked familiar.
Many of the Russian sanatoriums were located between Sochi and Adler in lush hillsides in this subtropical zone. These vintage 1930s structures turned the area into a health center and eventually a major domestic resort they called the Russian Riviera. One of the more plush places — Sanatorium Ordzhonikidze — has become a luxury hotel.
The government has invested a reported $51 billion into the Putin Games.
Media reports have not exaggerated the problems with hotel construction and the like. But they didn't build Rome in a day.
Sochi could not be completely rebuilt in seven years.
But this time I expect to see some skiing.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.