KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Visitors to sunny, seaside Sochi proper may have been thrown off by the palm trees and balmy, springtime weather that seems so unbefitting of the Winter Olympics.
But a 40-minute ride into the mountains just west of the sprawling, Soviet-era resort city might put them back on track.
Here in Krasnaya Polyana — the site of the so-called Mountain Cluster, where all of the snow-based events are held — sits a sparkling and ornate winter resort area built to impress.
Tucked into a valley bookended by snow-capped peaks, it is enough to soothe concerns that staging a Winter Olympics in the subtropics was impossible.
Since winning its Olympic bid in 2007, Russia has hurled a reported $50 billion into these games, which have widely been seen as Putin’s personal project.
A good chunk of that money was undoubtedly spent here — a once forlorn corner in the western Caucasus that officials hope will become a world-class ski resort for decades to come.
But critics have assailed the Olympics as a hollow show of cash and capability — a “Potemkin Village” designed to represent the very best Russia can muster, no matter the cost.
GlobalPost took a trip to Krasnaya Polyana for a quick glimpse at just how much money can buy.
The billion-dollar road
On the way in, ragged villages and dirt trails provide few clues of what lay ahead. Before the Olympics, this route was almost non-existent. But today, a brand new highway and rail tracks shuttle visitors swiftly along the Mzymta River. On the German-built train, the ride is smooth and silent. It should be: this 30-mile stretch of road and rail reportedly cost $8 billion to build, more than entire budget of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. That’s why to critics, it has come to represent the worst of flagrant — and allegedly corrupt — spending.
If you build it, will they come?
Years earlier, this was empty land. Now, a crisp Marriott hotel hulks over the road as a reminder of just how much Russian officials have staked on both the Olympics and the region’s tourism potential after the games.
Visitors arrive at the sleek new train station, a state-of-the-art hub that marks the endpoint for the sprawling transportation system that has sprouted in the greater Sochi region — which for decades had remained undeveloped — in the past several years. Now, gleaming metal infrastructure is everywhere.
The heart of the mountains
Near the station, networks of gondolas reach into the sky and fan out toward the several different mountain sites where the games are held. They include the Rosa Khutor Alpine Park, Extreme Park, Laura Cross-country Ski & Biatholon Center, the Sanki Sliding Center, and the RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center.
A river runs through it
Lavish and freshly constructed buildings line the Mzymta River at the Rosa Khutor resort base. Here, an array of luxury hotels, restaurants, cafés and shops has gone up, and it’s clear that planners sought to recreate a quaint, European resort. There’s even a German-style “Rauthas” — a traditional, spired city hall building — that anchors the local square. It’s a far cry from the largely muddied riverbank that once stood here. Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin, who enjoys close ties to the state, reportedly spent around $2 billion to develop this resort. Kremlin-connected oligarchs have picked up much of the $50-billion Olympic tab.
Meeting all your sporting needs
The area is clearly targeted toward the foreigners officials hope will flock here regularly after the Olympics. Brand names abound, from Columbia — pictured above — and North Face to McDonald’s and Baskin Robbins.
You can almost smell the fresh paint
But a mad rush of tourism doesn’t seem to have gripped this quaint resort just yet, even as the Olympics are underway. Most visitors seem concentrated at one end of the Rosa Khutor resort, where a livefeed to the events is set up and a gondola transports them up the mountain. Here, visitors grab a bite at tastefully sparse — but almost barren — eat-out café. Curiously, the menu boards appear blank.
A little too quiet
Meanwhile, some places remain entirely vacant, and “for rent” signs draped over other structures suggest unfulfilled ambitions. It’s scenes like these that feed concerns about life after the Olympics, over whether this seemingly top-quality resort area will attract enough business to stay afloat.
Sochi's little resort in the valley
But for now, a steady — if limited — flow of fans and visitors continue to stream through, many donned in apparel celebrating their national team and most sporting the ubiquitous blue Olympic passes that grant access inside the venues. The big question is: Will they return when the show's over?