Skiing in Russia
PlanetSKI is in Sochi, Russia, the city that hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics. Our content editor has drunk vodka, been moved on by the security services and sampled the skiing. It's quite a place.
Cliches, stereotypes and pre-conceived ideas are hard to avoid as a journalist.
I had certain ideas about skiing in Russia and what it may be like as I reported in my first blog.
The reality though was somewhat different.
To start with the ski resorts may be geographically positioned in Eastern Europe but they are nothing like the other resorts that are found in Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.
The main ski area of Rosa Khutor and its smaller satellites of Mountain Carousel and Gasprom are more like The Alps.
In fact they are better than many resorts in The Alps.
They have state of the art lifts, extensive snowmaking capabilities, not that we needed it as 3m fell just before we arrived, and more piste bashers than you could shake a ski pole at.
The three areas will be linked shortly as Prime Minister Putin has ordered it and what he says goes in this part of Russia.
In fact the whole Olympic project wouldn't have happened without the unqualified political support of Putin and President Medvedev.
Five years ago there was nothing here, just the odd chairlift and farmhouses.
The road from Sochi to the resort of Rosa Khutor was 80 km long and was a two hour drive over a pot-holed, and in places, a single track road.
Now it has been straightened, is 45 km long and takes under an hour.
Except of course at the moment as the road is clogged with lorries bringing up all the construction materials for this massive project.
By the time the Olympics start a high-speed rail line from Sochi airport will whisk people direct to the ski resort in just 25 minutes.
The road also gets closed when political bigwigs arrive and depart.
In my visit the President of Belarus was in town and the road was closed for his motorcade to speed up the valley.
Luckily neither Putin or Medvedev wanted to ski as the whole resort sometimes gets closed for them.
For us, in the Park Inn hotel in Rosa Khutor, the visit of a lesser politician meant the lorry delivering the red wine could not get through. Or at least that was the excuse the barman gave for running out.
Other things ran out at the hotel; there was no coffee one morning, the electricity faltered in a few rooms and unbelievably one night the hotel ran out of vodka.
It has though only just opened and the manager apologised for the teething problems, though I must admit it didn't bother me.
The beer was still in plentiful supply.
Huge construction site
It is one of the biggest current building projects in Europe.
It begun from nothing and in many ways the Olympics is just the start. The long term vision is looking well beyond 2014 as it attempts to woo the Russian middle classes who are taking up skiing like it is going out of fashion.
Skiing and snowboarding is booming here and industry leaders want to stop them going to the likes of Courchevel, Crans-Montana and Verbier and keep them on home slopes.
Judging by the numbers out skiing it is working.
Another eye is firmly fixed on the western European skier.
They are after the adventurous skier who has a bit of money and wants to try something different.
Those with a bit of pioneering spirit about them.
Crystal is the first British company to offer ski holidays to Sochi and it sees a huge potential.
"Up until now Russia hasn't had a viable ski industry and this is going to bring international growth to the market. We have France, Austria, Italy and North America as core markets and I really see another core destination developing," said the the managing director of the Specialist Holidays Group, Mathew Prior. Crystal is part of The Specialist Holidays Group.
In the previous blog I talked about the very real terrorist threat. The Caucusus is one of the most dangerous places in the world.
The centre of terrorist activity is a way away but last year terrorists struck in a nearby ski area killing three skiers at random and placing bombs in several resorts.
Hence the security in Sochi.
It is highly visible as hundreds of fairly mean looking men in black are positioned at the lifts stations, in the resort and even up on the slopes.
Quite what they actually do I have no idea but their presence is everywhere.
To start the days skiing I had to go through a metal detector. Just like ones at the airport and my rucksack was put through a scanning machine.
It seemed utterly pointless though as the alarm went off, obviously, but no-one actually did anything about it.
A security man came up as I started to take a picture and tried to move me on.
I smiled, pretended I didn't understand what he was saying and carried on. He took a step closer and spoke louder.
I smiled back.
He then shrugged his shoulders and went back to sitting in his chair.
Bit of a joke really
In my short visit I started at the resort of Gasprom, home to the cross-country skiing events.
We then hit the main resort of Rosa Khator, where all the alpine skiing and snowboarding will take place, on a perfect blue sky powder day.
Lastly we skied Mountain Carousel, home to the ski jumping.
I have never been to a resort with a less apt name. It conjures up images of fairground rides and family orientated slopes.
It is nothing of the sort with steep chutes, drops and endless powder skiing in bowls or in the tress. I will be writing more about the skiing in my next blog.
That day in Mountain Carousel I had a unique lunch sharing bread, ham and hot Russian pickles with some of the workers on the building site.
They looked intimidating to begin with but were unbelievably friendly as they shared their food with me.
Washed down needless to say by a shot or two of vodka.
Conversation was limited as my Russian is non-existant but we laughed, slapped each other on the back and whenit came to farewell handshakes I thought my hand was going to get broken in their bear-like grips.
Making new friends
I am beginning to rather like this place.
Here on PlanetSKI we have already reported on Crystal's decision to sell holidays to Russia and for more information about what is on offer and how much its costs then see the Crystal web site.
If you want to see some more images of Russia then see the Photos of the Week on the homepage.
A four day trip to Sochi with bed and breakfast at the four-star Park Inn By Radisson including Turkish Airlines flights from Heathrow via Istanbul and all transfers costs from £835 per person based on two sharing departing 25 March 2012.
Lift pass per day from £27 in Roza Khutor: Gasprom and Mountain Carousel £29 each.
3-day ski hire from £39, 3-day boot hire from £23.
Group ski lessons from £25 (2.5 hours) per day.
Accommodation in Istanbul: one night stop in Istanbul at the 4* Kalynon Hotel (old town 10 minutes walk to the Blue Mosque), total price is £940 per person.
Accommodation at the five star Ciragan Palace Kempinski upon request www.kempinski.com
Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256); crystalski.co.uk.
Turkish Airlines, turkishairlines.com, Turkish Airlines is a 4 star carrier and member of The Star Alliance. It was also selected Best Airline of the Southern Europe by Skytrax in April 2009. Turkish Airlines is the fastest growing airline in Europe and ranked as the 4th financially best performing airline of the year by AviationWeek in June 2009.
For the spirit of the mountains
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