Sochi – Emerging from Soviet chrysalis (2006)

Sochi’s selection as the venue of Winter Olympics 2012 brings memories flooding back – of winding hill roads teasing you with tantalizing glimpses of the Black Sea at every bend;  of streets blanketed in canary yellow petals that rise up in a swirling cloud as if to dodge crunching steel radials;  of splendorous autumnal hues that span the spectrum from lemon to gold to russet forming a dazzling  canopy above, of smoky shafts of sunlight filtering through the chinks in the foliage; of luscious fruits peddled by equally luscious but unself-conscious Caucasian women, of swaying poplars standing sentinel for farms ripe with corn and wheat, above all, of the magic and mystique of the mighty Caucasian mountain ranges straddling two seas.

Six months ago, I had spent a few memorable days in salubrious Sochi, after our team had driven through knee-deep snow for over a month all the way from St.Petersburg.  Sochi was truly a cameo of Constable landscape after the expansive Russian wasteland in winter. But surprise, surprise, December is autumn, not winter, in the Caucasian heights. Black Sea surely keeps its own counsel when it comes to seasons.  So, here we were, driving from the Caspian shore to the Black Sea through the unpronounceable Krasnador Krai and almost suddenly, bleak white snow bows to bountiful autumn hues in Cossack country.

Kropotkin, the capital of the Krai is a harbinger of the plentitude that would await us henceforth in our journey. The ever so gracious Cossacks who, incidentally, had never set eyes on Indians before, had pulled out all the stops when it came to hospitality. Laid out for us at the local community centre was a virtual cornucopia of fresh produce – fruits, nuts, freshly baked bread, cookies, cream and barrels of local wine, not to mention vodka on tap. We fell upon the fare with the vengeance that only an unvarying fare of potatoes in Russian rural dhabas can breed. So sozzled and sated were we that we could even grin and bear the marathon Cossack cultural program that accompanied our meal and lasted well beyond!

Sochi is also in Krasnador Krai, but unlike Kropotkin, had seen its fair share of Indians most of whom seem to have come here all the way just to add their own graft to the Tree of Friendship at the local botanical garden. The tree is the citrous version of the United Nations. The fruits on this single tree come in different sizes, shapes, colours, taste and tartness and of course, some weigh much more than the others. I was asked to add my own graft to this tree and was immortalized in a plaque alongside Munuswamy and Aiyangar, both presumably my compatriots.

Crowning jewel of the Caucuses, Sochi used to be Soviet Russia’s watering hole for the commissars. Those apparatchiks not high enough in the pecking order to fly to dachas in the Kyrgyz snow ranges settled for a sojourn in Sochi.  That, of course, was more than a decade ago, before the obscenely wealthy oligarchs of Russia began buying up glamorous beach properties in Rio and Goa.  Sochi  has since been invaded by Ukrainians, Moldavians, Armenians, Jews, Volga Germans and the assorted nationalities that make up Russia today.

Hotel Primorskaya overlooking the bay with its fleet of boats lived upto its commissar reputation.  It had a grand patio and colonnaded exterior, but the interior was depressingly Soviet. Miles and miles of corridors with frayed and smelly carpets, common toilets with chipped enamel fittings, pretentious pianos and chandeliers in a decadently decorated lobby,  and wonder of wonders, a lone internet terminal at one end of the reception area with a broadband connection that actually worked!  Even more surprising was the event at the convention hall where a jam-packed local audience listened with rapt attention to a prayer meeting organized by followers of Ma Anandamayee – all in Russian! Her larger than life smiling visage beamed at us from the walls and pillars.   

Sochi’s chief attraction is its location. And no one appreciated it better than Josef Stalin who, in 1930, got built a watch tower on the highest point in Sochi. From here, he could wistfully watch over his beloved motherland Georgia. We huffed and puffed up the winding ramp to the top of the tower only to see cotton wool clouds obscuring the views. Our guide though, was unfazed. She gamely pointed out Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, and even Bulgaria and Greece yonder. We nodded sagely, took our regulation photographs on top of the tower and beat a hasty retreat.

We sauntered through the town with its grand public buildings – library, opera house, theatre, university etc and eventually reached our destination – McDonalds – to eat a familiar version of potatoes this time.  There were a few German and Chinese tourists about, but mostly Sochi bazaar was a place where local youth hung out. The sea-front shops had an effete look about them and most of them were closed anyway.  There were unmistakable signs of decay, and Sochi reminded me of a nautch girl well past her prime. The town will need a drastic and smart makeover if it is to emerge from its Soviet chrysalis and metamorphose into an international city that can host a global sporting event.

Finally it was time to leave. Our ship taking us to Trabzon on the northern shores of the Black Sea in Turkey would be sailing that night. Although it would have been just a hop across to Georgia, geopolitical rivalries between Georgia and Russia ensured that we took a delightfully circuitous route that would sail all the way down the Black Sea and then meander all the way up the Caucuses to Tbilisi in Georgia. We boarded Apollonia II, a medium-sized boat. The captain of the ship, after a few bottles of evil-smelling absinthe, told us with a wink that Apollonia’s passengers were mainly ‘Natashas’ in search of greener pastures on the other bank of the Black Sea.  With few passengers about, we had the deck all to ourselves. As we pulled out of Sochi, Mt.Ruslan with its snowy beret lifted its lofty crown above the boat-studded jetty, as if to bid us farewell.