Russians enjoy taste of Olympic snow
Plain-clothes police patrol the Rosa Khutor Alpine center in the mountain cluster on February 2, 2014 prior to the start of 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games - by Fabrice Coffrini
A steady stream of skiers, snowboarders and simple tourists weave their way through the mishmash of newly-built faux-Italianate accommodation blocks to board the French-made bubble-car and ride up the mountain for an Olympic experience.
While the Black sea resort of Sochi has the name rights for the Winter Olympics, many of the mountain events, including the blue-riband alpine skiing, will take place in Rosa Khutor, on the Western Caucaus range in southwestern Russia.
A day's lift pass for nearby mountain resort Gornaya Karusel costs 1,600 rubles (34 euros), with equipment hire coming in at 1,200.
Rough hessian sellotaped across the seats, the battered eight-seater gondola heads up from an altitude of 540 metres, free of charge for those who wish just to ascend to the first station and pose for photos above the valley.
Crossing a raging river and the new tracks of the specially-constructed Olympic train, the gondola moves over a snow-covered, low-lying forest of ivy-clad oaks, sycamores and birches, large stone-laden tracks already hewn from the ground in expectation of the spring thaw.
The gondola car boasts a large sticker from one of the Winter Olympics' main sponsors, but also features the traditional warnings in English, French, German and Italian about the dangers of smoking or keeping the doors open.
The temperature drops as skiers change gondolas to go higher, the oaks making way for 30-metre-high snow-clad pines, the 2,200-metre peak of Gornaya Carusel offering a spectacular vist.
Dropping sharply down to the Gorki valley on one side, there is a cloud-covered valley giving way to the Black Sea on the other, and then further views eastwards towards Rosa Khutor.
"This is a dedication to all the skiers out today," a gruff-sounding DJ bellows over the ubiquitous tannoy, as Bryan Adams and other American soft rock and country music are piped out for the enjoyment of all skiers.
With security and organisational demands meaning the Gornaya Karusel area is not completely open, the lifts are still painfully slow on the handful of slopes available, although the snow is fantastic.
"Proximity to the Black Sea and the mountains, what more could you want? I want to buy a house here!" said Yefgevny, a retired Russian teacher who will be working as a volunteer in the coastal city of Sochi.
The chairlifts taking skiers and a large percentage of snowboarders into and out of a beautiful sun-kissed bowl were overseen by a begoggled Russian soldier, binoculars resting on his camouflaged chest, as he stood by his lonely portakabin.
But there was a welcome nearby restaurant. Mulled hot wine, Irish coffee, soups and hearty dishes were largely affordable for all, although there was also Dom Perignon champagne on the wine list at an eye-watering 34,700 rubles (732 euros).
"We're proud the Olympics is coming here," said 22-year-old snowboarder Nataliya, a Moscow-based languages student who will be working as a hostess for a Western sponsor of the Games.
"We're rightly proud that Russia is hosting the Games and we're not bothered about the criticism of our country," she said in reference to international condemnation of a new anti-gay propaganda law.
"I'm taking advantage of my last day off in a while and am just enjoying the snow."