Back in the day when I was a naïve undergraduate with revolutionary tendencies selling Marxist papers on the mean streets of Newcastle, it was suggested more than once by helpful locals, often in quite strong terms, that I ought to go and live in Russia.
Happily, I can now report back to my sarcastic tormentors that I have finally made the trip. And actually I enjoyed it very much, so thanks for the recommendation. Of course, the Evil Empire has changed a bit since the 1980s and to be fair I did go to the country's swish southern spa resort and host city for the next Winter Olympics, Sochi.
The sub-tropical, palm-tree-lined city, which sits in the foothills of the mighty Caucasus mountains, not far from the border with Georgia, and after that Turkey, might seem an odd choice as a winter sports capital. But the city does receive the odd dusting of snow in winter, especially on the higher ground. The Olympic park with its ice skating, hockey and curling, will sit just yards from the Black Sea – a balmy 28C in August.
Of course, to find the real winter wonderland you will have take a trip inland on the new railway line, from nearby Adler, or drive along the freshly built highway for half an hour and you arrive at the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana. This is where the gold riband events – the downhill skiing, the bobsleigh and the ski-jumping – will take place.
Snow is guaranteed, even in the event of a warm snap, by the hundreds of artificial snowmakers and, failing that, the secret cloud-bombing techniques employed by the Kremlin to control the weather, or so the locals say.
During a recent visit I had hoped to visit the Olympic construction site, unofficially – the guided bus tour didn't appeal much. But I couldn't find anyone to take me. Not because it is a closely-guarded secret, simply because the good folk of the city preparing to host the 2014 extravaganza are so fed up with living in a giant building site that they are reluctant to spend a day off touring another one.
Such weariness is hardly surprising as the country's south-western outpost is also set to hold a Formula One Grand Prix and stage World Cup finals matches in 2018. This means building sites, noise, traffic congestion and enough cranes in the city centre alone to satisfy even my two-year-old son, who adores them with a passion.
Unlike my carefree student days, I now have a family and a reason to visit the country: my in-laws live in the spa town. In just over a year, it will be a household name, but it wasn't always this way. The coastal strip was turned from a malaria-infested swamp into a swish health resort for Soviet workers by then general secretary Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. The elegant sanatoria to which the doughty heroes of Communism were despatched – complete with evocative names from a bygone age: Metalurg, Golden Sheaf, even one named in honour of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the feared founder of the KGB – remain intact, if a little shabby in parts.
An extended visit was in order so, by way of tribute to the era in which the elegant town enjoyed its heyday, I organised an overnight train trip rather than the two flights still required from the UK. The four-hour flight from London to Moscow was followed by a 24-hour trundle through the Russian heartland. A wearying journey but preferable to the aging Illyushin and Tupolev jets that make up the internal fleet. The Russian capital was a culture shock to a man more used to walking the streets of Exeter these days – a vast, hot, gridlocked, polluted but fascinating and exciting city, with more tourist attractions than you can shake a copy of the Morning Star at. It is hard to resist visiting Lenin, dead, stuffed and done up in his best suit in the temperature-controlled mausoleum on Red Square, better known to us as the vantage point for the old Soviet leaders to salute the military hardware on the anniversary of the October revolution (which was actually in November for Russians who continued to use the Julian calendar).
Hot, sticky and tired after lugging heavy bags, we boarded our sleeper train from Kazansky station, settled into our cosy, air-conditioned compartment and watched as we rolled slowly through the endless outskirts, past shiny onion-domed churches, grimy tower blocks and woodland enclaves of timber and brick-built dachas. The overhead electric train was comfortable; we dined in the buffet car and were served tea, coffee and biscuits by a delightful attendant.
I had really been looking forward to seeing the country, rather than jetting overhead. There is a lot to be said for slowing the journey down, experiencing travel. And crossing Russia like this really brings the scale of the country into focus. The state company, Russian Railways, runs a bewilderingly large network, carrying untold numbers from every corner of the continent. As we stopped off at remote outposts, budget trains with dormitory carriages packed full of passengers and bearing exotic destination cards in the windows to the far-flung reaches of the country stopped alongside, some with five days still left to travel. I awoke once, after we had ground to a halt at a darkened station in the middle of nowhere, listening to the station announcements as train after train came and went.
But from my window seat along our relatively modest trip, what I saw, mostly, was an endless line of trees, the odd town, the occasional farm, a cement factory, maybe a pond, a lone horse. Sometimes we crossed a river. Rostov-on-Don was a highlight, but by then we were far south and not far from the coast. The real beauty came when we caught sight of the Black Sea for the first time, at Tuapse. The tracks run alongside the shingle beaches for three hours. Round a final corner and Sochi looms into view, rolling green hills dotted with cranes, dozens of tower blocks emerging from the greenery, balconies facing the sea.
Sochi has changed almost beyond recognition from the genteel city it remained right up until the announcement in 2007 that Russia had secured the lucrative Games, a decision greeted with cries of joy from the Olympic delegation, and a roll of the eyes followed by a deep sigh from my wife, who knew only too well what was in store for her home town.
For the first few days of our holiday we play spot the blight, a stocktaking exercise of beloved buildings razed and views compromised as new towers inch higher. The development is truly astounding: new roads slice through the countryside and sparks fly from concrete skeletons day and night. The city is criss-crossed by a fleet of rumbling cement trucks, delivering concrete to be poured higher and higher by a migrant army of workers, mostly young lads from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who are grafting even now, seven days a week, to get things ready.
But it was still possible to get away, take the curative waters or sneak off to dine at one of the Caucasian or Georgian eateries that dot the hillsides. Barbecued lamb, pork and beef is the speciality – shashlik – as is fried cheese and a truly wonderful bread, called Hatchapuri, which is baked into a boat shape with an egg cracked into the pouch to poach and mix with cheese. Extreme care must be taken with the toasting – a serious business especially if you decide to drink vodka which could see you lifting your elbow and draining the glass, seven or eight times, depending on the mood of your hosts. It was baking hot for much of our time, mid-30s mostly with hardly a breath of wind, though the high peaks sent the odd dramatic thunderstorm to relieve the pressure.
It might seem an odd choice for a late summer holiday, but this corner of Russia is a paradise. All those years ago, when I was urged to join my then comrades, going to Russia on vacation would certainly have raised a few eyebrows if not a file at MI5. But after Sochi 2014, I get the feeling this place might even take off as a destination for international travellers and the idea may not seem quite so strange at all.