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Monday, October 11, 2004

sochi.

Pictures from Sochi are up. Here's the link.

So, as I sit back home on the eve of another monday, it occurs to me that there's probably no such thing as a relaxing vacation if it involves travel. Travel into, out of, or within Russia is no exception, not surprisingly. We had a relatively catch-free trip both to and from Sochi, but there was, I’d say, excessive waiting around at all junctures. We met at around midnight at Yaroslavl's main train station, had a few chances at sleep on the 4-hour train ride to Moscow, and then emptied out to stand around and wait for the metro to open up. Breakfast was at the American Bar and Grille at Mayakovskaya, which was great. Recommended, even. Maybe a bit expensive, but not bad for Moscow, and nothing but good for the vaguely homesick American. Unfortunately, at 6ish am we were late for the dinner menu, but i'm planning to get back there sometime for an allegedly-genuine hamburger. Also, they had old Larry Bird games on the TV set for most of the time we were there, which was great. I love those guys.

So travel is boring. We got to Sochi calmly on an entirely respectable Aeroflot flight. I guess I'd expected a lot worse from Aeroflot, but it was only typically-cramped and we got a relatively complete (and I thought tasty) meal for a two hour flight. So thumbs up, Aeroflot. I bet you thought the airline of the former Soviet Union would be lousy too. Yeah, but it was ok. At the airport, we were greeted by a gauntlet of taxi drivers, which was great. The first ones were ok; they played it cool and, well, let us keep walking if we didn't want a taxi. After the first 4 or so on each side, they were all a bit more desperate. As if maybe we had changed our mind after the first 18 tempting offers and were really deciding we didn't want to walk to the hotel after all. After the gauntlet, there was a handful of other cabbies milling around, not even bothering to ask. They were good too, and I'd have gone with them if we weren't all going to the hotel together on a marshrut thing. Which is to say, a van. Also, one of maybe three or four really great points in my trip, and I don't even mind mentioning it, was at the airport. Right after we got in, a group of 15 or 20 really-pretty-going-on-modelish girls landed (2 or 3 of whom...) and were milling around together. I don't know where they came from or why, but I'm positive I've never seen anything like it.

Anyway our luggage came shortly and we were quickly whisked away within some 15 minutes, or at least before we could find our senses. I'd feel bad in retrospect that nothing came of it, but even the girls in our group were kind of standing around gawking.

So Sochi. It was warm and sunny and one of those airports where you walk around outside the airplane instead of through some big gate. I really like those. The whole thing actually reminded me a lot of Mexico in that the airport was pretty second class, everyone was smoking inside, the cabbies looked hungry, and there were palm trees half heartedly planted around the parking lot. Also on the ride over I saw a guy jackhammering in sandals, which is sort of pushing the bounds of what i'd consider second-world. Anyway, putting it that way makes it sound as if I didn't like it. But I did. It was charming even, in a tourist-town sort of way, especially before we got into the Sochi-part of Sochi.

We checked into the hotel late afternoonish and had a "free day" to wander around and want sleep after our 15 or so hours on the road. We met up with the kids from Moscow, exchanged cell phone numbers, ate dinner, had a beer down by the beach, and went to sleep fairly early.

Day 2

That's dramatic isn't it? We all got up early, had the first of decreasingly tolerable breakfasts at the hotel breakfast restaurant, and got on the bus to Красная Поляна for our first of two hikes. Little did we know, it was cold and rainy there, and at the top of the mountains where we were to be hiking it was snowing. We were all in shorts, t-shirts, and the like. As an afterthought I grabbed the rain jacket moms bought for me before the trip to russia, which turned out to be really sharp. Our guides told us that it was going to be around freezing at the top and we'd be out hiking for about 4 hours, and suggested that we head into the gear shop for overpriced tourist-outfitting. Your tempered new-englander made the right choice and decided to stick with the shorts, t-shirt, rain jacket combo which fortunately proved to be adequate (despite the weather) once we got rolling.

We had a pretty considerable ride (almost an hour, I think) on a series of four chairlifts, which brought us to the top of the mountains where we would be hiking. The pictures from this part more or less speak for themselves - it was incredibly foggy, and although that was gorgeous in and of itself, the view we missed (but caught on the way down) was an entirely different story. I ended up being the odd-man out at the back of the line for the chairlift, and had the good fortune of riding up with one of our three guides, one very charming Vika. We talked about skiing, life at Krasnaya Polyana, the mountains, the fog. She was great.

At the top of the four lifts was a little base camp with a small cafe/bar. The drink of the day was Глинтвейн, which I've given a capital G in awe and respect. Hang onto your seats, folks. It's warm-going-on-hot red (fortified?) wine with mulling spices like the ones we throw in apple cider back home. And a chunk of orange. It was spectacular, and between apple cider and glintvein (so ugly transliterated...) I don't see why anyone needs hot chocolate. Anyway, after two cups of it and two snickers (не тормози!), I was more than ready to face the light snow, freezing weather, and whatever else the mountains of the Southern Caucuses had to throw at me. For the geographers in the group, we were hiking along (and for all I know across) the border with Georgia. I guess here I'll just cut the narrative out a little and let the pictures speak for themselves. Anyone who's hiked/photographed big open places knows that pictures never suffice, but there you have it. It was beautiful, and a great hike. Our guides were very sharp, even in the thick fog.

After we got back to the starting point, we all rode down on the chair lift, which was cranked up to full throttle and rocking unbelievablely because we were late. And hey, everyone wanted home. I rode back down with Vika, and the conversation picked up as it left off. At the bottom we returned our ski-poll-walking-sticks and went to check out the local bee farm. Apparently the area and Krasnaya Polyana in particular is famous for its honey, and we were treated to a couple hot samovars of tea and various jars of honey to sample before a brief tour of the bee hives. We had dinner nearby in a very Southern-US themed place, complete with a poster of Russia's man-of-the-people Vlad Zhirinovsky. Exhausted and sated, we all got on the bus and dozed off on the way back to Sochi (to the extent that provincial Russian roads permit dozing off). The bus driver had one of the girls answer his cell phone when his wife called. Which is to say, he asked the girls, “Which one of you speaks the best Russian?” and then gave her the phone. I can't imagine why anyone would do that to himself, but he did it, and it was great.

The next day was a "free day," which is to say we had nothing planned as a group. All the days were technically free days, as no one was required to come along on the hikes and a few of our best and brightest deferred on both occasions. I decided to skip out on a boating expedition that morning because I’m not nuts about boating or waking up early. I didn't do much in particular during the day - sat out around the beach during the day to catch what glimpses of the sun I could. It was 50% cloudy, and somehow the sun managed to dance the dance and stay behind them. In the evening Rohan and I had a few friends over for a drink, and I'm told we got to bed sometime before sunrise.

So this is already heading into day four, and we met up with two of our three guides from the trip to Krasnaya Palyana (alas, minus Vika) for a trip to a really gorgeous canyon, the name of which I forgot. You'll never know what it's called. I was, we'll say, still feeling a little under the weather from the previous evening's festivities, but I was alive enough to enjoy the scenery, if not the hiking. We did a little rock climbing in the morning. jay fitzgerald if you're still reading, you'll be happy to know that you could speak english to russians about climbing and they'd understand everything...bouldering, traverse. russian words! Боулдеринг. I'm not sure how they'd spell it. I explained to Sergei the idea of buildering (and the word play). Anyway, I'm a lousy climber and I didn't do very well, but it was fun all the same. I think I'm going to let the handful of pictures from this expedition more or less do the talking because my memories of the day are somewhat tainted. In the evening we had a tasty bbq-style dinner, and there was an eagle tied to a post and a little bar-store with old guns from the great fatherland war. Which is to say WWII. I asked why they had guns and an eagle. The guns, they told me, were from the war, and the eagle, well, they bought it when it was a baby. Isn't that why you have your eagle?

So we rode back home, and I went to bed at 7 pm. I slept until 9 am, and awoke to another "free day" in Sochi. I should add that Sochi as a resorty-sort of place is not a place I'd run back to. Certainly from American there are a billion closer and more likeable places with, for example, sand beaches. Even from Russia, a trip to Turkey or Egypt is probably cheaper and relatively more interesting (if you don’t have to worry about the visa/passport hassles). We hit Sochi at the very very end of the tourist season, and things for the most part were already shutting down. Again, this isn't to say that I didn't have a good time...just that after another couple 'free days' I think I might have managed to exhaust all nearby entertainment. We had free bracelets at the local water park on the beach, and I was one of a couple in our group that managed to get down to the desk in time to collect mine. I sat around at the water park for a few hours in the late morning, and then went out looking for comrades, as no one else had arrived. We slept on the beach and swam in the sea. I had an interesting conversation with a fellow on the breakwater who was collecting snails for dinner. Josh, Danya and I returned to the water park for a few rides on the water slides and then headed back up to the hotel for dinner.

I should definitely mention the restaurant at which I ate the majority of my meals. It was (I think...) either turkish or kurdish cuisine. Cuisine is an obnoxious word. Basically when you show up for dinner you have a choice of either chicken, lamb, or beef. You get a skillet with fried meat/vegetables...I'm not a culinary expert. It was all very tasty. I recommend the lamb. I always recommend the lamb when it's coming from somewhere south of Russia. Also we had hands down the most friendly and accommodating waitress in Russia, and that in and of itself was a treat. So yeah, while i'm writing third class restaurant reviews, here's a thumbs up for the restaurant 'magnolia' on kurortnaya prospekta in Sochi. Ask for the girl who likes chatty Americans.

That night I went back down to the beach with friends and much to everyone's surprise, we ran into the handful of other Americans we were there with. Our ever personable leader Simone had already made the acquaintance of one of the shopkeepers and one of his patrons when I arrived, and we ended up hanging out around one of the kiosks for an hour or so, talking about politics in America. The shopkeeper closed up, and I ended up talking with Genya (I think that's what Simone said his name was. He and I didn't end up personally trading names.) for another three hours or so until a bit past 2 am. I'm not sure exactly what he did or who he was, but I was more than willing to listen. He referred to himself a few times as a 'pedagogue.’ Suffice it to say he was one of the more interesting people I've met in my twenty years, and I'm not even going to try to list or remember everything we talked about. He was probably in his late 50's, or early 60's. We talked and walked on the beach for about four hours, he bought be a couple czech beers, and taught me that no one should ever have to pay for a toilet. There were some other things, but you kind of had to be there.

And so yeah. That was hands down the high point of my trip, and easily among the better evenings i've spent in Russia. Friday morning we were up again early for a breakfast that was just foolishly unappealing. I seriously would have eaten that egg thing from the first day every day if they'd offered it. It was fine, even tasty, and there's something to be said for consistency in mediocrity.

The rest of the day was long and traveling, but somewhat easier than the trip to Sochi. There was no throng of models at the airport, but we did get to go through a bunch of security. Somehow Russian domestic security is a lot more relaxed than in America. I don't know why or how, but I know that it is. Also another interesting note - when our captain landed in Moscow, the whole plain burst out in applause. I'm not a frequent air traveler, so I don't know if this is common, but I'd never seen it before. It didn't happen when we flew to Sochi, or into Moscow from Germany (and let me tell you, I couldn't even tell when the Lufthansa captain touched down). So I don't know whether it was an expression of relief? genuine applause at the (in my opinion average) landing, or what? or what?

And so we had what was billed on the schedule as a free afternoon in Moscow. By the time we stored our baggage at the Yaroslavl' train station, it was already four-ish and we had to be back at the terminal by 7:45. I was unsuccessful in contacting the handful of people i know in Moscow, and really I'm to blame because I forgot to call people ahead of time. Sorry Roman. Sorry Hunter. Sorry Emma. I called your cell phone, and your mom courteously reminded me that you're actually in America at the moment.

I wandered around and ate my first meal at a Sbarros. Sbarro? I don't even remember how it's spelled. There's one in Biddeford, ME. Oh, Biddeford. I bought my second russian copy of Erofeev's Москва-Петушки, and sat around the train station with decidedly less literate russian drinkers (than erofeev...) and read until 8. unremarkable train ride home. can you tell i'm getting tired? irregular capitalization. incomplete sentences. you're handling it well, though.

The cabbie in Yaroslavl' ripped us off, and I was too tired to argue with him for long. I got home and Larisa, someone bless her, was waiting up for me (midnight-ish) to warm up food and tea.

So I guess I can end it there. My trip to Sochi. It was a good one. I’m positive that I forgot a lot, whole days maybe, but the abridged version is always a trick. I didn't send any postcards because i'm a bad person and I didn't have your addresses.