SOCHI, Russia - Olga Demchenko was chattering with a companion, barely paying attention to her surroundings, when she suddenly stopped. The Sochi native retraced her steps to an empty lot beside the security service headquarters and exclaimed, "There was a building here! Where did it go?"
Wild guess: The Olympics took it away.
The Russian host city of the 2014 Winter Games isn't undergoing a simple facelift; it's building an entirely new self, from head to toe to soul.
Some destinations fit the Platonic ideal of the Winter Olympics. Innsbruck and Calgary, for instance, seemingly teethed on the competition's five rings. Salt Lake City, Chamonix and Lake Placid all engage in the sporting life even when the world's cameras aren't watching. Pyeongchang, South Korea - we'll get back to you in 2018.
Sochi, however, fogs the goggles. Rub them clean and you'll see palms and tropical fruit trees, tea plantations and a seaside promenade still lively in the offseason. Downtown, locals in light jackets relax at outdoor cafes on a mild November day, a social scene that's more South of France than southwest of Siberia.
Once, the subtropical vacation spot was an insider's destination, the so-called Summer Capital of Russia, drawing health-seekers and mineral-water-soakers. Now, with only a little more than a month before the opening ceremony, Sochi finds itself on a pedestal, spinning in public view, fully exposed to inquisitive international eyes.
To be fair, we shouldn't judge the city on looks alone, at least not until the construction dust clears. To know Sochi is to understand its back story, a compelling tale that bears the hallmarks of a Bob Costas narrative. There's heartbreak and uplift, a comeback and a reinvention, and endless possibilities that could endure long after the flame goes dark.
Was, is, will be. That was my mission: to examine Sochi in three tenses.
I started, of course, in the "is," a moment in mid-November that was as wispy and fleeting as the clouds scooting over the Black Sea. One day a building's there, the next it's gone. A street is ripped up, a hole is filled, a city changes shape before your eyes.
"Everything is new," said Andrei Ponomarenko, my interpreter. "The pavement is new, the bus stop is new, the road is new. The whole city has been reconstructed."
Sochi is undergoing a building boom that grows louder as the Games draw near. But even the largest earthmover can't alter the natural features that squeeze the city like a girdle.
The Greater Sochi area edges up against 90 miles of Black Sea coastline, with the white-crowned peaks of the Caucasus Mountains crouching on the sidelines. The city, considered to be the longest in Europe, is divided into four districts that tumble into one another. I checked off three in one cab ride: Adler (the airport), Central Sochi (my hotel, the Zhemchuzhina Hotel Complex) and Khosta (the connecting tissue). For a fourfecta, I visited the Dagomys tea plantation in Lazarevsky, in the north. Without traffic, the all-district drive takes about two hours, but if you think that you won't hit a snag, then you probably flew in on a unicorn.
"I am proud that we have the Olympics," said Olga, an English language teacher, "but we have a lot of difficulties. Our roads are good, but our traffic jams are bad."
During the Games, the athletes and spectators will congregate in Adler's Coastal Cluster, site of the skating, hockey and curling contests, plus the Olympic Village and stadium. For competitions involving skis, sleds and boards, the crowds will head to Krasnaya Polyana, the ski resort area about 40 miles east of the city center.
To get visitors in the mood, official gear stores sell a full line of logoed items, such as flip-flops, nesting dolls, dog carriers and rolling luggage. To broadcast its achievements, the city opened the Sporting Glory of Sochi Museum in 2010.
Despite the deafening rah-rahs, the Olympics are only one plot point in President Vladimir Putin's ambitious script.
"The third phase is now the legend of Putin turning Sochi into an all-year resort," Andrei told me during our city tour. He explained Putin's vision while we were idling in Phase 1, the Stalin Years, which preceded Khrushchev's plan to improve living conditions by erecting five-story concrete residences. (To experience Phase 2, stroll the banks of the Sochi River.)
"This is the Sochi of 60 years ago," he said, as we stood outside the Ordzhonikidze Sanatorium.
In the 1930s and '40s, Stalin ordered the construction of about 20 sanatoriums in Sochi, creating a salubrious resort town dedicated to the health and wellness of the Soviet Union's worker bees.
"Stalin wanted to show the capitalists that they really took great care of their people and could provide them with resting opportunities," Andrei said. "They created palaces of health and palaces of culture."
No surprise, the grand neoclassical complex is closed for renovations. It's slated to reopen in 2017 as a high-end hotel.
Garden of goodness
Of all the luck, I arrived on City Day, which celebrates Sochi's founding with music, dancing and food, and anti-terrorism week, which is anti-fun.
Russia, as you know, is not the most popular kid in the former bloc. On the public bus, a passenger window displayed a wanted poster for two alleged terrorists. Military vessels patrol the waters of the Black Sea. Lower down the anger scale are budget hawks and struggling citizens who decry the escalating costs of the Olympics, which are expected to exceed $50 billion ($38 billion over budget). And this summer, Putin agitated gay rights activists by pushing through a law that bans the distribution of gay-friendly materials to minors.
"We're not used to a man kissing another man," said Andrei. "Sooner or later, we'll all follow your footsteps, but it's not going to be this year or next."
Sochi is home to two gay clubs, including the Lighthouse, which holds nightly drag shows. Owner Andrei Tanichev, who opened the establishment eight years ago, said that he has planned a special performance for the Olympics, assembling the country's best "actors" (translation: drag queens).
"We are more tolerant than people in other cities," he said from the comfort of a dimly lit booth at his club. "After some time, Russian people will be more tolerant."
To taste the twin fruits of comity and amity, I retreated to the Friendship Tree Garden, where good feelings grow on trees. Our guide was an ebullient woman whose name suited her job: Lyubov, which means "love" in Russian.
The botanical oasis, encircled by high-rise apartment buildings advertising vacancies, was founded in 1934 for scientific research involving fruit trees and plants from around the world. The fragrant star of the garden is the Friendship Tree, a Frankenplant that, through a grafting experiment, produces 45 species of citrus. The tree started singing Kumbaya in 1940, when Russian polar explorer Otto Yulyevich Schmidt inserted a bud into one of the branches. Since then, nearly 170 countries have added their "autographs" to the tree.
"The whole globe is on this tree," the guide said. "Everybody lives in peace and understanding on one tree."
Mountain highs and lows
The Greater Caucasus Mountains seemingly have been around forever, and yet Sochi is only now getting around to building a substantial ski resort destination. Not to nag, but it had centuries to work on this project.
To make up for lost time, construction crews have been cranking out massive chain hotels and Alpine-inspired chalets, erecting ski facilities and shaping ski runs over the past five years. The mountain bases are loud, messy and muddy, with burly men and jaunty stray dogs roaming the grounds in species-specific packs.
On the two-lane road to Krasnaya Polyana, Mikhail Mordasov, a Sochi-based photographer, was behind the wheel of his car, stuck in fitful traffic. We were listening to Culture Club and the Steve Miller Band on a new (of course) English-language radio station. Mikhail warned me that English conversation and driving don't go together, but singing quietly to oneself was acceptable.
Early in the drive, we passed the new Adler train station, a greenish glass structure shaped like a dropped Q-Tip. The airport followed on this informal tour of Sochi's transportation facilities. It opened in 1950 with one terminal; No. 2 joined the party only in 2010.
Eventually, nature entered the picture. The Mzymta River flowed to my right, the white water catching on shallow rocks. Nearby, farmed trout swam laps in tidy rows of pools.
The scene was timeless, until Mikhail broke his vow not to speak English with some development updates. "The tunnel is new," he noted as we drove through the belly of a mountain.
He wasn't finished. On this short stretch, he added a sail-shape bridge for cars, a secondary road and the tracks that connect Adler to Krasnaya Polyana.
At Gornaya Karusel ski resort, the hammering noise fell silent once we entered the tram. As we ascended, the mountains took their rightful place in the landscape, gobbling up the man-made structures below. We hopped out at one landing and then another until we reached the 7,283-foot peak. I stepped onto a thin rug of snow.
For the final climb, I scaled the steps of a restaurant porch. The Caucasus rose from all sides, a granite embrace that never will let go.
On the return trip, we rode with a Russian tourist who was staying at a sanatorium in Adler. I asked whether he planned to return to Sochi for the Olympics.
He shook his head and said, "It will be beautiful on TV."
The national drink
Interesting fact: Sochi wins the bid for having the northernmost tea plantation in the world.
The region can pull this off because of its warm and humid climate, consistent sunshine, sufficient rain and absence of industrial pollution.
Vodka might grab all the punch lines, but tea is the straight man at the table. It earns one's respect as the country's No. 1 beverage.
To witness the entire tea-producing process - from leaf-picking to boxing to teahouse tasting - I ventured into the Dagomys region, north of Central Sochi. My visit fell during a gap between seasons, too late for the summer harvest, too early for the winter pruning. For kicks, though, tea specialist Amazasp Abramyan allowed me to pick a leaf from the cricket-green field.
At the factory, clunky, groaning machines dry and roll the leaves and separate them into different grades. Workers box the bagged and loose teas and seal the final product.
But hold on, we skipped a step: quality control.
Seven bowls of tea were lined up on the counter, a ceremonial air mixing with the rising steam. I checked for vivid color and floating particles, then inhaled, my nose skimming the cup's edge.
"You smell deep and you feel it," the factory guide instructed. "You hold your breath and you try to remember that smell."
Honey, flowers, peppermint, green leaves, Russia.