High above Sochi, the Caucasus Mountains sparkled with snow. Russia's new Olympic ski resorts have been opened to pioneering punters ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and on this glittering January morning Ilya Sergeevich and I were among the few thousand to test out the slopes of Rosa Khutor, which has even made it as far as Crystal's ski brochure.
Rosa Khutor is one of two areas currently open to the public. The other is Gazprom (yes, named after the Russian energy giant), a smaller resort 5km back down the valley towards Sochi. Gornaya Karusel, with its ski jump, and Alpika, with the bobsleigh run, are both still at least year away from their debuts. As for the media village, it's just a building site masquerading as a traffic jam at the moment. All the resorts lie along the rock-strewn valley of the Mzymta (or "Crazy") River as it plunges out of the Caucasus Mountains and westward down towards Sochi and the Black Sea.
"Mr Putin has said he wants an international-style, world-class ski resort in Sochi," said Ilya, drawing on his cigarette. Ilya was my instructor. "You do not mind the smoking?"
Aside from all the cigarettes and some very grim armed security guys on the slopes, Mr Putin seems to be getting what he wants here. Rosa Khutor looks like the snowier parts of Austria or Switzerland, which is hardly surprisingly: the Russian government chose it for its similarity to the Alps. The same heavy metal belts out of the café loudspeakers. The same piste-bashers and snowmobiles are parked nearby. Children cry in the unaccustomed cold. Teenagers laugh about falling over.
Only the bare branches of the deciduous birch and beech trees – and the rudimentary standard of skiing – served to remind me that I was in Sochi rather than the Tyrol.
I'd arrived the previous night after a 90-minute flight across the Black Sea from Istanbul. Transfer time from Sochi airport was one hour, but only after we'd queued up twice for different security scans of our luggage in the arrivals hall. I didn't make it to my bed until around 4am. No wonder I needed Ilya's help in the morning.
"When the new railway is completed they say transfer time will only be 30 minutes," said Ilya. Indeed, during that Stygian drive I had caught sight of half-constructed viaducts and bridges as I stared blearily out of the coach window. All they have to do now is sort out Russia's obsession with security. I'd had to lug my skis through two electronic checkpoints at the bottom of the lifts, and the Crystal Ski rep told everyone to carry passports because there was a rumour the president of Belarus was staying at Putin's palace in the Gazprom resort. Apparently we could be challenged to produce them at any time.
Crystal is brave to take on Sochi as a winter-sports destination. The mountains are beautiful: no doubt about that. The snow – certainly all that I'd swished through – is gorgeous, and the equipment is state-of-the-art. However, it currently takes a day on Turkish Airlines to get here, Russian visas are expensive and complicated to acquire – and however hard Compagnie des Alpes (the French resort management company) works, in-resort customer relations still leave something to be desired. When I picked up my skis, the burly man behind the counter got so frustrated by my incomprehension he demanded: "Vi khorosho kataetes no lizhok?"
From my overly polite smile, he clearly concluded that I was an advanced skier; and within a few hours I'd concluded that I wasn't up to the skis he had thrust into my hands.
However, the skiing in these Sochi resorts is very good for all levels of ability, including anyone who prefers challenging off-piste activity. At the moment there are only 15 lifts open, out of a planned 58, which means that good skiers will have used the place up in a few days. The plan is that eventually there will be over 150km of runs linked up to public transport. Sochi is intended to last well beyond 2014: an ongoing ski destination for those Russians who can't afford Courchevel.
At lunchtime I said goodbye to Ilya and headed for Psekhako Ridge, the beautifully built new gasthof next to the main lift in Gazprom. To the credit of the resort designers, Rosa Khutor and Gazprom have avoided the twee fretwork excesses of Switzerland and Austria. The Alpine Restaurant on Psekhako's first floor is decorated in good understated Russian timber, with slate fireplaces and long tables.
Borscht was on the menu and the table service was good – except that you have to go to the bar yourself if you want Velkopopovicky Kozel, the Czech beer on offer. My tastebuds long ago learnt that lunchtime on the slopes is inseparable from lager, so I hobbled over on my noisy plastic boots. When I asked why the two waiters who stood chatting to one side of the restaurant wouldn't accept an order for beer, I was told that they were tea waiters and therefore only served tea. Something of the old Soviet system of demarcation had clearly survived.
Happily back in my own shoes, I spent the afternoon slipping and sliding round the resort villages. Gazprom resembles a giant shopping mall, with Zilli, Bogner art shops and a 3D cinema. I much preferred Rosa Khutor, which has been constructed over the past eight years on top of an old Estonian settlement. Jean-Marie, manager of Compagnie des Alpes, told me that Estonian traders lived here in the 19th century, a time when the mountains above Sochi were hardly Russian at all but colonised by Armenians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Greeks, Germans and Moldavians.
The new Rosa Khutor consists of two rows of five-storey buildings facing each other across the Mzymta river. All have baroque gables and mansard roofs – and the town hall sports what looks like a Venetian campanile. But the effect is harmonious, thanks in part to the rich palette of terracotta, peach and cream.
I trudged across Romanov Bridge and checked out the buildings in the main square. None was yet occupied, but the layout suggested that this is all retail space in the making. The scale of the place reminded me of St Petersburg: European in style but always bigger than seems quite necessary. Workers from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, dressed in blue overalls, were laying paving slabs in sub-zero temperatures. Winter could not be allowed to get in the way of the grand Olympic project.
I ended my afternoon not in the bar of the Radisson, where a lot of grey contractors seemed to be slumped at the end of a very long day, but at British Bagna in the neighbouring village of Esto Sadok. British Bagna is one of the oddest spas I've ever visited. You enter down a long, dark maze lined with bunches of oak leaves to where an accordionist dressed like a 6ft locust serenades you. Inside you're then given a towel to wear and a knitted tea cosy for your head before entering smoke tents and steam rooms in the snow-covered garden.
British Bagna is the brainchild of James Larkin from Bury St Edmunds, and the cute tea-cosy hats are to make sure no one mistakes this for a Russian bagna, which he told me was more about vodka and prostitutes. "People in the village weren't happy about the idea of a bagna until I told them there would be no sex, just treatments," said James.
Being beaten by hot oak leaves and plunged alternatively into a metal cauldron of James's own making and an ice-cold stream proved a surprisingly restorative regimen. James took inspiration for the bagna from his own travels in India and from reading about America's First Nation tribes. Now he's building a hotel on similarly eccentric lines.
"The Norwegian Olympic team have already said they want to book it for the Games," he told me. When I asked what the accordionist in the locust costume represented, James referred me to his Russian wife, but she only laughed. I suppose if you have to ask, you just won't understand the answer.
The next day the weather closed in, so I travelled down to Sochi itself. My driver, Maxim, reacted to a 25-minute standstill outside the Media City as if it were a personal insult; thereafter we rocketed down the rest of the journey through haphazardly built, muddy villages and fearsome gorges.
Arrival in Sochi itself took a certain amount of time. This is, after all, one of the longest cities in the world, taking up nearly 145km of Black Sea coastline. In the park in front of the harbour there's a large digital clock ticking away the days till the Sochi Olympics (as of today, 731 remain). There's also a new Olympic University and Hotel complex overlooking the sea. At Sochi State University a small wing has been turned into an Olympic Museum, with trophies previously won by Russian athletes and two 2014 mascot figures that are just as hideous as London's for 2012. The rest of Sochi is under reconstruction. Margarete from the tourist board apologised: "Nothing much was built after the fall of Communism so now Sochi is having to catch up fast."
I noticed that the Hotel Moskva was being gutted and completely rebuilt. The city's Italianate railway station (on whose campanile Rosa Khutor's clocktower was clearly based) was having its restaurant demolished to build a new railway hotel, and the walk from the station to the palatial harbour building was alongside what will be a shopping mall of rippling steel and glass come 2014.
Next to Rivierra Park, the Rivierra Hotel, Sochi's first, was just a shell surrounded by concrete mixers. When I asked the foreman when it would be finished he pointed to a sign: "Reopening 2014," it said.
This Olympic year might be having an impact on London – but it's nothing compared to what's going on in Sochi.
Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) offers holidays in Sochi, with four-day breaks starting at £835 per person. The price includes Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) flights from Heathrow via Istanbul, transfers and accommodation with breakfast at the four-star Park Inn by Radisson in Rosa Khutor. Sochi can also be reached with Aeroflot (020-7355 2233; aeroflot.co.uk) from Heathrow via Moscow.
Crystal offers lift passes from £27 per day in Roza Khutor (rosaski.com/en) and £29 in Gasprom and Mountain Carousel (gornaya-karusel.ru). Three days' ski hire starts at £39, three days' boot hire from £23. Group ski lessons start at £25 for two-and-a-half hours.
Red tape and more information
British passport-holders require a visa to visit Russia. These can be obtained from the Russian Federation's visa processing centre, VF Services, 15-27 Gee Street, London, EC1V 3RD (020-7499 1029; ru.vfsglobal.co.uk). Tourist visas cost £76.40 and you should apply well in advance (Sochi 2014: sochi2014.com/en).
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies