We can't drive in the Olympic lanes. That's what I've gathered from the cop's angry gestures after being yelled at for five minutes in Russian. He's taken my passport, driver's license, journalist accreditation, and car registration. It's the passport that I'm really worried about. I can imagine it disappearing into his pocket very easily.
An SUV pulls up and a plain-clothes cop steps out. Leather jacket and jeans, black boots. Plain-clothes cops always make me extra uncomfortable, like they're not quite within the law. He joins the other cop at our window, does some more yelling, then motions for me to get out of the car, leaving photographer Chris Wellhausen inside.
We walk across the street and he places my passport on the hood of his car, where I keep a close eye on it. They try to interrogate me. I still have no idea what they’re saying. When they get frustrated and stop talking I reach for my passport and am met with a stern, "Nyet! Nyet!"
Plain-clothes takes a picture of me and all my documents, drives off.
The cop who pulled us over dials a number on his phone and passes it to me. There is a translator on the other end. I'm supposed to pay a 5,000 ruble fine, cash. I can pay it right now.
Cash. I'm sure that will go straight on the record books. I try to work out how much 5,000 rubles are in US dollars. Somewhere around 150 bucks I guess but I tell him no. No fine. We didn't know we were in the wrong lane. I pass the phone back.
Seriously though, we have been driving in that lane from Sochi to the main media center at Rosa Khutor for six days, passing through the first security gate and parking wherever we wanted. Yeah, security is real tight.
Now the cop is on the phone again with the translator, nodding, saying something that doesn't sound friendly. He hands me the phone again. "He's says you the pay fine," the translator says. "Pay now."
I say no. Tell him no fine. I pass the phone back. Then plain-clothes comes returns, talks to the cop that flagged us to stop. "Camera," plain-clothes says and points to Chris in the car. We walk across the highway to Chris and they seem to forget about the fine for a moment as they ask him to cycle through his pictures. There are photos of them pulling us over. "No," plain-clothes says. "Delete this. Delete."
Chris deletes the shots, but he’s smart. He had already taken a bunch of photos on another memory card and swapped it out. Those are the ones you’re looking at now.
Plain-clothes asks to see our business cards. We hand them over and he studies them. I want to show him that we’re just kindly snowboard journalists trying to do our jobs so I pull up our website on my phone. The main homepage image has Jamie Anderson with her in a victory salute after wining slopestyle gold. Snowboarding, I say pointing at the screen. We cover snowboarding.
Some chatter between the cops then. "Snowboard?," plain clothes asks. Some more chatter and then something clicks. He smiles. "Snowboarder are our friend."
I smile back now feeling that something good has just happened. "Yeah, snowboarders are your friends."
Big grins for everyone now. "Okay, you go. You go now."
Why exactly snowboarders are their friends, I don't know. Maybe it’s because once slopestyle practice started, Shaun White dropped out, and people started complaining about the course it took some of the focus off the other #sochiproblems. I get my passport back and we decipher that we're supposed to backtrack and get on another road. It’s not as direct as the one we've been on but it will get us to the main media center still.
As we drive, I find that I prefer our new route. We see bow-legged grandmas wrapped in shawls shuffling down the street. There are schools and grocery stores and steely looking men standing around smoking. Russians have a saying that a smiling man is a stupid man. There are stray dogs, of course.
Every experience from the Games so far has been choreographed, so completely controlled that I haven't felt like I've seen the real Russia. When your day consists of going from the hotel to the media center to the course venue and back again you might as well be in any mountain setting. Passing through the towns I get a sense of permanence outside of the temporary chaos of the Games. We're given a glimpse at the life that existed for generations before the Games started and the one that will remain long after the closing ceremonies, when the eyes of the world have moved on.
Sochi Olympic blog 1: Learning the rules of the road at Sochi
All Photos: Chris Wellhausen
Chris Wellhausen and I landed in Sochi Tuesday and so far we’ve had none of the problems other journalists are experiencing. Our room was ready, the hotel is decent even though it feels more like a dorm, the Wi-Fi is fast, and I had some good Russian herring for dinner last night. The side panels on the tub in our room are fractured but it’s cosmetic really.
The security presence is crazy. Surveillance blimps dot the sky and military personnel poke their heads from the tops of walls and stand around at pillars under bridges. There are fences surrounding our hotel and you have to go through a checkpoint to access the grounds. So although I feel safe that’s definitely been traded in for any super-happy-fun-times Olympic vibe. When we pulled up to check in security kept a close eye on the car and wrote down the license plate number, I assume to run a check on it. Cops were pulling people over in the middle of the road on the way from the airport, which was kind of sketchy, because I mean they were searching vehicles in the actual middle of the road, not on the shoulder. It wasn’t like a roadblock either, that’s just how they pull people over here I guess. We came around a blind curve to find them tossing one transport van and had to hit the brakes pretty hard. We have a rental car so unless parking is a huge issue at the mountain we will use that to get around instead of public transit. Really I wonder what will happen to this place when the Olympics are done. Our hotel room is okay for now given some of the horror stories out there but it’s not a place I would ever recommend anyone to stay. Give it a few more years and I can only imagine it will deteriorate more.
On Wednesday we set off to Krasna Polyana and the Olympic Mountain Cluster to take a look at the slopestyle course and figure out where our credentials would and wouldn't get us. Aside from the security rules are pretty tight about where you go here.
I don't know if it's because the roads have changed so much here recently or if Apple Maps just sucks, but we ended up driving around Sochi in circles for two hours following directions from my phone only to discover the onramp to the freeway about a mile from where we originally started. Near the Main Media Center and train station groups of workers were half-heartedly turning over clumps of soil, looking for explosives or something. That's the only thing that seemed to make sense because they sure didn't look like were seeding the grass.
Once we finally got on the freeway we started cruising towards the mountains. The road was in good condition and we could see huge snow-capped peaks meeting the sky farther up the valley. It looked sick up there and we'd been seeing the Instagram feed clogged with pow riding shots from riders already here.
Here is an interesting fact about driving in Russia. A single broken white line in the middle of the road does not mean two lanes of traffic are moving in the same direction and you can pass. I hadn't seen any oncoming traffic so I assumed were on a freeway similar to back home and pulled out to leisurely pass a row of busses. As I neared the final bus a car appeared from around the corner coming at us head on, full speed. A wave of dread washed over me like you can only get when you know something life altering is about to happen and all I could do was punch it to barely squeak past the bus. Hesitation is devastation they say. So, yeah, single broken white highway lines here are actually like our broken yellow lines back home. Duly noted.
At the Mountain Cluster we ran into Sal Masekela, Mark Sullivan, and Hailey Caruso who said the mountains here have some of the sickest inbound terrain they've ever ridden. We didn't have a chance to strap in since were still dealing with all the details like the fact the wireless internet is useless in the main media center so we had to run around the maze of offices guided by the friendly but mostly non-English speaking volunteers, each of whom passed us from person to person as we searched for Ethernet cable upgrades. The scale of what it takes to operate the Olympics is mind blowing. But things like Ethernet cables are minor issues. And we think we've found a loophole in the parking system so we can drive up from Sochi everyday instead of taking transit, which saves a ton of time.
Tonight we're to the opening ceremonies. I'm not going to lie, I'm pretty nervous about an attack of some sort. Everyone keeps trying to reassure me but as tight as security is in some areas it seems really loose in others, like it's just there to make us feel better rather than truly being effective.