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When I visited in 2008 – shortly after Russia won its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics – Krasnaya Polyana belonged squarely in the developing world. Then, the “resort” was a few streets of ragged wooden houses, set along roads mostly made of mud. A lone Radisson stood secure behind a spiked metal fence and mangy curs roamed the streets.
Going skiing meant travelling 5km up-valley to the isolated slopes at Alpika. The pistes were rough, and you tackled them with legs dead from an hour’s dangling as you rode the ancient chairlifts to the top. Skiing there was an act of faith and hope.
What a difference a few years and an apparently unlimited Olympic budget can make. Krasnaya Polyana, in a valley in the Caucasus, 40km inland from the Black Sea city of Sochi, is now roughly 10 times its previous size and is gearing up to stage all the on-snow competitions for next month’s Games.
Only a decade ago, getting there from Sochi involved a three-hour drive that included several sections of unmade road. Now, a sleek new railway takes 40 minutes to whisk visitors there from the Olympic Park, the main stadium complex by the coast where the curling, ice hockey and skating events will take place. The rail link, and a new road alongside it, pass through a series of tunnels through the mountains.
It’s an impressive feat of engineering, but the project has become better-known for its cost – some $8bn – which has seen it become the symbol of blind spending at this year’s Games. (Russian Esquire magazine estimated that, for that sum, the road could have been covered with a 1cm-deep coating of caviar.) That figure alone outstrips the $7bn total cost for the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. In all, the estimated cost of the Sochi Games is more than $50bn, at least $6bn more than China spent on the 2008 summer Games – which had three times the number of events.
Today, new developments stretch from Krasnaya along the banks of the Mzymta river, with once-humble Alpika at the heart of the grand design. Alpika’s handful of pistes have been replaced by the Olympic bobsleigh and luge tracks, and a horizontal gondola zooms across to a neighbouring valley where Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas group, has developed its own “mountain tourist centre”. After watching biathlon and cross-country events there, spectators will be channelled into a shopping mall full of global luxury brands.
Ski jumping will take place at Gorky Gorod, a kilometre from Alpika, which has the area’s only ski-in, ski-out accommodation, but looks as inhospitable as the moon. An architectural riot of turrets, arches, gables and spires, its hotels and apartments will house the Olympic “family” during the Games before evolving into a huge Vegas-style casino complex.
By comparison, Rosa Khutor at the end of the valley, the venue for the Alpine and freestyle skiing competitions, is an oasis of calm. In 2010, the Compagnie des Alpes, the French ski resort operator with a portfolio that includes Val d’Isère, Chamonix and Verbier, signed a contract to manage the mountain for 25 years. Its representative Jean-Marc Farini arrived three years ago with a double brief: prepare Rosa Khutor’s pistes for the Games and establish the resort on the world ski map once they’re finished.
“The mountain is ready,” Farini told me with certainty just before Christmas, as we stood on Rosa Peak, the summit of the ski area, gazing out over the Caucasus to the Black Sea far below. He headed off at a speed that comes naturally to a man born in Chamonix. Descending more cautiously gave me time to appreciate the views and the easily accessible powder. Rather than dense forests of pine and fir, much of the area is covered in widely-spaced silver birch, ideal for skiing between. The hardships of skiing at Alpika are long gone: the lifts here are factory-fresh Doppelmayr gondolas and Poma chairlifts with heated seats. The pistes are immaculately prepared.
Before the Olympic revolution, skiers who came here to go heli-skiing had to wait each morning for a lone soldier to arrive in a 4x4 and check their passports. Today, security is far more apparent. Gangs of policemen, smart in their new mountain kit, laughed as they toured the alien snow fields on foot. On Rosa Peak, they were posing for smiley selfies with anyone who asked.
Last week it emerged that about 37,000 police and troops will be on duty for the Games. Anyone tempted by the idea of mixing spectating with skiing should think again: the tight security means visitors will not be allowed to ski between venues or on other parts of the mountain. The pistes will only reopen after the end of the Paralympics on March 16.
I caught up with Farini when he paused beside giant humps made by 400,000 cubic metres of last season’s snow stored under fabric through the summer. At present, it looks as if the reserves won’t be needed, but the message from on high was that nothing should be left to nature.
He pointed out the designated competition slopes and the tunnels that will funnel spectators underneath them. The tour ended at the notorious See jump, the longest in Olympic history. The 40m leap near the end of the blue riband men’s downhill is the last twist of the knife in a thigh-burner that will take a shade over two minutes to win. Miss the acute left-hander below and you head straight for the reservoir that the jump is named after. Nail it, and you are straight into the wall of sound at the finish, where a temporary stadium will house 18,000 spectators.
So the first part of Farini’s brief looks secure, but what about the latter? Crystal, the UK’s largest ski tour operator, and others will restart packages to Rosa Khutor in March for the final part of a season that lasts until early May. Those who sign up will find plenty of mountain to enjoy for a week. The vertical drop from Rosa Peak at 2,320m to the Rosa Stadium at the bottom is 1,380m, more than many top Alpine resorts. A total of 14 lifts, six of them gondolas, serve 72km of groomed pistes and the weekly lift pass costs a modest £150 in high season. Advanced skiers will find plenty of powder and steep terrain (renowned Verbier-based coach Warren Smith was impressed enough to schedule a series of off-piste camps here for the 2014-15 season).
There is also a Stash park, copied from similar zones in Jackson Hole and Avoriaz – a playground of jumps and obstacles. Combined with octagonal tented bars scattered across the hillside, it prompts thoughts of high-decibel high-altitude fun.
“Bring it on,” said Farini, but his more pressing mission is to convince officials to establish a lift pass covering the entire area – currently skiers need separate tickets for Rosa Khutor, Gorky Gorod and Alpika – and free shuttle buses between base stations. Billed as president Vladimir Putin’s favourite resort, Gazprom’s gentle plateau has eight lifts accessing 21km of pistes, and a vertical drop of 851m; a further seven lifts are under construction. Gorky Gorod has nine lifts, 1,340m of vertical drop and a little over 10km of pistes, mainly mellow cruisers. With Rosa Khutor’s more extensive and advanced terrain, the trio make a compelling destination. The predominantly intermediate slopes at Alpika will add a fourth dimension once the pistes are reconfigured round the bobsleigh and luge tracks, but not until the 2014-15 season.
As most of Krasnaya Polyana’s early intake will be Russians lured from high-end alpine resorts such as Courchevel, there is pressure to give them what they expect – and that includes a lift pass covering the whole area. Here, though, logic remains challenged by pigheaded bureaucracy. This is a place where my passport was held hostage at the cash desk until I returned my rental skis. Not having it meant I couldn’t get a permit to visit Gorky Gorod, let alone anywhere further afield. Meanwhile, heli-skiers eager to explore the vast Caucasian powderfields need to be aware that if Putin, a local homeowner, is in town, all flights are cancelled.
Farini shrugged. While discussions about a joint lift pass continue, he is promoting Rosa Khutor alone in the international market. The village is smaller than Gorky Gorod, the architecture as eclectic but much more tasteful. Crowds stroll across the Romanov bridge from the Italianate piazza to the gondola station. Some of the tall terraced houses on the Mzymta are one room wide, a familiar feature in 17th-century Dutch cities, while the pastel-painted exteriors conjure up Mediterranean seasides. Group hotels with familiar names line broad boulevards on both river banks. The Golden Tulip, opened by Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, in December, offers warmth and comfort within 200m of the lifts.
The Red Fox, a faux woodcutter’s cabin with deep sofas around low dining tables, twinkling lights and tinkling Frank Sinatra, is Rosa Khutor’s culinary highlight. Diners pick oysters and scallops from tanks by the door or eat from a menu that includes slow roast crispy pork belly and fettuccine with cèpes. All delicious whenever the surly waiters can be persuaded to deliver: oligarch status might help here. Bistrot Modus, on the opposite bank, is the antidote, offering pizzas and good cheer.
For more typical fare, seek out Patskha Achishkho, in an alley in old Krasnaya Polyana. Both the genial proprietor and rustic dishes come from Georgia. There’s a log fire, seats covered with sheepskins and robust red wines from the Fanagoria vineyards 200km north of Sochi. All very affordable, unless you want to eat grilled sturgeon: you can pick your own from the rock pool outside.
By next month, Krasnaya Polyana will be ready to put on a glittering show and, in the longer term, has brighter prospects than the Olympic Park down by the coast. Finding a viable future for half a dozen stadiums designed for skating, curling and ice hockey, in a town with no major sports teams, seems unlikely. By comparison, Krasnaya’s seductive cocktail of classy slopes, casinos and luxury living should appeal to adventurous skiers from home and abroad.
Minty Clinch was a guest of Crystal Holidays (crystalholidays.co.uk) and the Golden Tulip hotel (goldentuliprosakhutor.com). Returns from London via Moscow with British Airways (ba.com) and S7 cost from £414; the Golden Tulip has doubles from £120. Crystal offers a week’s package from £1495 per person. Visit Russia (visitrussia.org.uk) can arrange tourist visas for £115