SOCHI, Russia — If you just arrived in Sochi, you’d be forgiven for thinking there is little else here besides the Winter Olympics.
Sure, this sleepy, Soviet-era resort is no London, Beijing or Vancouver. Calling it a “world-class city” — despite insistence to the contrary by some local officials — is a stretch, to put it mildly.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to see around town, whether exciting, peculiar, or just plain funny.
GlobalPost ventured beyond the games to bring you a list of “medal winners” that probably won’t make the official Olympic podium. Forget hockey, speed skating and the biathalon — here’s a look at some local treasures that are winners to us.
1. Top 'Russian' moments
Gold: The Ministry for Economic Development's strip club next door
Subtlety isn’t exactly a widespread commodity in Russia. And with this photo, need we say more? In central Adler, not far away from the Olympic Park, GlobalPost spots an advertisement for the “Wild West” strip club outside a local branch of Russia’s Ministry for Economic Development. Whoops.
Silver: No smoking. So what?
Russians love their smoking. So much so, in fact, that the country is the world’s second biggest tobacco market after China. Despite efforts to cut down on the habit — Sochi was declared a “smoke-free” city ahead of the games — many locals appear to be slow to catch on. But in Russia, sometimes rules are made to be broken.
Bronze: The church kiosk
Many Russians are religious — if not genuinely, then at least out of tradition. While the country is home to a diverse array of nationalities and faiths, the Russian Orthodox Church still reigns as the majority faith and dominates many areas of social and political life. Even less-than-devout Russians acknowledge that the church — and religion in general — has played an important historical role in the Russian experience. That’s why in Adler, on the way to the Olympic Park, visitors can stop by this kiosk to pick up all their church accessories, from prayers to icons to rosary beads.
2. Best destinations off the beaten track
Ask any Sochi local, and they’ll tell you: Khosta — a leafy suburb halfway between Sochi and Adler — is the pearl of the entire region. And they’re right. This quaint “village” sits nestled in a valley far away from the Olympic bustle (that’s part of the reason local officials plopped a designated “protest park” there). Visitors can stroll its quiet streets and shop for fresh local fruits and spices in its market. In some ways, it’s a throwback to pre-Olympic Sochi: quiet, low-key and endearingly rustic.
Silver: The beach
A roasting sun and the deep blue sea aren’t the first things that come to mind when one thinks of “Winter Olympics.” But they’re readily available here in Sochi, just in case fans have gotten their fill of all the excitement on snow and ice. Holding the games in a subtropical region was among the many criticisms Russia faced ahead of the Olympics, and standing under the sun and against the sea — in 62-degree weather — one can see why it was a curious choice. The balmy weather has posed some issues for the games, but locals nevertheless pride themselves on living in a region they say is unique in Russia.
3. Best place to take in the view
Gold: Adler train station
The view from the outdoor patio at the mammoth, glass-encased Olympics transport hub in Adler provides a telling glimpse of the area. Brand new roads and a freshly manicured park and coastal walkway hint at how much of a facelift this once neglected resort town received for the games. Visitors can also take in both the Black Sea and a coastline studded with the picturesque hilltops that give way to the western Caucasus Mountains.
Silver: Krasnaya Polyana
Russian officials say it’s the future for Russian tourism. Critics say parts of it reveal a Potemkin village that’s too big and expensive to sustain. Either way, Krasnaya Polyana — the site of the mountain cluster where the snow-based games are held — presents one of the most beautiful views in this year’s Winter Olympics of the formidable Caucasus. Here, the Rosa Khutor resort is tucked into a valley split by the icy Mzymta River — only a 40-minute ride from sun-drenched, seaside Adler, where the ice-based games take place.
Bronze: A coastal drive
It doesn’t take a trip to the mountains to take in some quality scenery. Sometimes, a quick ride on a minibus, or “marshrutka,” will do the trick — especially if you can fight your way to the front, where the broad windshield offers a vista on the coastal highway that connects central Sochi with Adler. The road snakes its way through quaint, hillside resort areas before nudging closer to the Black Sea coast. If you squint hard enough, parts of the newly renovated road are almost reminiscent of California’s famous and scenic State Route 1.
4. Best modes of transportation
Gold: The train
A sprawling network of new infrastructure was one of the most important — and expensive — parts of Olympic preparations, which in total reportedly cost around $50 billion. One of the crown jewels is the state-of-the-art, German-built train, which shuttles visitors silently and smoothly to and from central Sochi and the Olympic Park, with a few extra stops, and between the two main sporting sites known as the Coastal and Mountain Clusters.
Silver: The marshrutka
Then there’s the ubiquitous and begrudgingly beloved “marshrutka” — a creaky, gas-guzzling minibus that ferries around Russians in cities all across the former Soviet Union. It’s small, cramped, and almost always tinged with an indiscernible human stench. But if you can handle all that, it’s a cheap, quick way to get around town. Just make sure you yell loudly enough at the driver when your stop’s coming up.
5. Most entertaining face-palm moments
Gold: Sorry, this bathroom does not recognize men
Surely, there are better ways to inform passengers at the Adler train station, Sochi’s busiest transport hub, that the men’s bathroom is out of order. Even so, this one made us smile.
Silver: “Time work ... without break and days off”
While more common in Moscow and St. Petersburg, English isn’t exactly widespread in Russia — even in Olympic Sochi. Thousands of volunteers and service workers have no doubt brushed up on their language skills, but there’s still a fair amount of amusing mistranslation to be found.
Bronze: “Opening soon”
Ahead of the games, critics voiced complaints that the massive construction and renovation efforts in Sochi wouldn’t be done on time. Sure, the venues are completed, the buses and trains running, and most (ahem, many) hotels fit for use. But around town, some — like this retail storefront in a newly renovated plaza in Adler, not far from the Olympic park — appear to have failed to make it across the finish line. I guess we’ll wait.
All images by Dan Peleschuk via Instagram.