Friday, May 10, 2013

I Almost Forgot How Much I Love NATURE! Sochi Take Two

Second Day in Sochi. Best Day in Sochi. An 11 km hike through one of Sochi’s most popular forests. Let me tell you though, I was a bit out of shape. The hike was rough and entirely uphill for the first hour and a half. As my friend Olivia commented, there were sections of the hike that involved more rock climbing than hiking. I’ve got to say that it was probably my second favorite hike ever. I may have liked the hike to the bottom of Bryce Canyon more, but it’s a close call. On our winding path through the forest, we marveled at hills covered with flowers, views of the sea, white cliffs, deep ravines, a fallen log bridge, murmuring streams, and a towering rock gorge (where I incidentally thought that I had been transported into an Indiana Jones film). And then my dream came true again, we swam in another waterfall pool! After I plunged into the waterfall and swam around for 30 seconds it was already time to get out. I’ve never been in colder water. We joked that after only 10 seconds in the water our breathing and stokes slowed and our vision blurred. Not really, but it was a close call. 

At the end of our hike, we were treated to a traditional Georgian lunch complete with pear juice, a loblani bean dish, the best cheese bread in history (hachipuri), humus, cheese, and meat filled polmeni (similar to dumplings). Georgian food is filled with delicious spices (especially the ‘“Georgian salsa”’ as I liked to call it). It was quite the amazing experience to eat this cuisine within a mile from the border between the heavily disputed territory known as Abkhazia and Russia. During my time in Sochi, I ate Georgian food at least 5 times, and I’ve got to say that I’m a fan. 

Tasting chai leaves at the chai plantation
Like everyday in Sochi, we rewarded ourselves with tropical cocktail while watching the sun set from a Black Sea Beach. The Caucasus are such a beautiful region of the world; the ability to hike through this region on only my second day in Sochi could easily  be considered one of my top 3 days in Russia. Good news: day 3 was almost as good as day 2. We woke up early and headed off to our shortest excursion- a trip to a tea plantation in the hills of the Caucasus. I learned that tea grows in bushes and there there are 5 general types: black, green, white, red, and yellow (all of which grew at the plantation). After tasting the chai leaf, we had our own tea tasting extravaganza complete with a samovar and traditional Russian folk performances. Overall, a very relaxing and enjoyable experience with a breathtaking view of the surrounding area.

After the excursion, a group of 7 of my friends decided to explore by ourselves. As the Russian history nerds that we all are, we made it our mission to find Stalin’s dacha (aka Stalin’s personal vacation villa). It was everything I expected and more. The whole experience oozed paranoia and melancholy in a remarkably beautiful setting. As we made the 20 min hike up a forested hill, we were wondering if we were ever going to glimpse the building. Well we didn’t until we were physically 20 steps away from the dwelling. Why may you ask? because Stalin's dacha was colored in the same green as the surrounding forest; the dacha almost completely blended in with the foliage. Only Stalin. His villa though was beautiful, covered with vibrant flowers, yet it was also minimalistic. It is hard to believe that I was walking around the building of a man who many say was responsible for the deaths of 20 million of his own people. What was even more amazing was the fact that everything in the dacha was an original: the satinwood floors, carpets, tables, toilets. You name it; it’s an original. The highlights of the tour most definitely include: the pool, the billiards room, and Stalin’s office. The indoor pool was probably 10 feet deep. I didn’t quite understand this though because Stalin couldn’t swim. We joked that Stalin never did things half way, but really why the deep pool? As we headed toward Stalin’s office, I couldn’t help but imagine Stalin in the villa. The window shades were closed, a certain darkness loomed inside the house - a seemingly perfect location for plotting the mass executions and show trials of the 20th century. Our group was so fascinated by the tour; out tour guide probably thought  we were young Stalinists from America. But how could we not be awed when she allowed us to stand behind Stalin’s own office desk and hold the pool stick that he used during his vacations on the Black Sea?
Behind Stalin's desk and next to his bed
One of the most exotic and unique aspects of Sochi’s landscape is the proximity of the colossal snow-covered mountains to the tropical resort area on the Black Sea beaches. Day 4 in Sochi allowed us to take advantage of the scenic views that Sochi offers. After strolling through an ancient section of the forest where сумшит trees (pronounced sumshit jokes abound) have flourished for over 1000 years, we serpentined up to the top of Mt. Akhun where we were rewarded with a beautiful vista and Georgian food. The view: blue-green waters of the Black Sea, green rolling hills, beach cities, and towering mountains. On a clear day, it’s even possible to see Turkey; however the marine layer unfortunately prohibited from viewing the opposite shore of the Black Sea. We did see the hills of Abkhazia though- where Russian forces invaded Georgian territory in 2008, kickstarting an international crisis. I didn’t know the next day I would be within a half a mile of this controversial territory. 

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