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Travel & Orientation

Wyoming-Saratov Study Abroad Program

A Traveler's Impressions of Russia

My name is Ben Kinney, and I was in Saratov from June 2004 through May 2005, and just wrote a few of my impressions down to pass on to summer students. I was so overwhelmed with all of the bad information I got about this country, I want to make sure it doesn't happen to other people. Russia is a great place, but very few people seem to know much about it (especially the US State Department).

The most important thing to keep in mind when you decide to go to Russia is that you are not going to be in America. I know it sounds obvious, but if you go to Russia expecting it to be just like America, you are going to be both disappointed with your trip and miss a lot of the little differences that make Russia unique. Be prepared and be flexible to different circumstances.

 

Culture

This is up to you. Finding out the similarities and differences between Russians and Americans is one of the reasons you are coming to study here. The culture is awesome and certainly unique. Talk to your host family after a few weeks and ask them what makes you different and what their stereotypes of Americans are. This is also good conversation material for you guys in the street cafes and bars. One thing you are not likely to experience (though it has happened) is hostility to foreigners. Don't be loud and show respect for their country by speaking their language. My experience has been that Americans are more of a curiosity than anything. People will want to know where you are from, why you are here, etc.

 

Access to money

Bring what you need in Dollars and exchange it or use your debit card, ATM card or credit card. The ATMs are everywhere, so don't worry about not being able to get cash if you need it. At the worst, you can open a bank account and have the money wired to you from your bank in America. The international office can help you if you have an issue that comes up.

 

Utilities

Russia is an industrialized country. Remember, this was America's greatest enemy for almost 50 years. You will have electricity, hot and cold running water, dial up internet access, etc. The hot and cold water may be off occasionally, especially during the summer, so just be prepared. If you really need to shower or something, go to another student's apartment. Again, be flexible. The electricity runs on a higher voltage than in America. Make sure that if you bring electronic devices, they can convert to a 220 volt, 50 cycles/second AC circuit. I think you can buy converters at Radio Shack or something. I didn't bring one, but I know they are available. The outlets are different too, so make sure you bring an adapter.

 

Shopping

Like I said, you are not going to another state in America and unfortunately Wal-Mart hasn't made its way to Saratov yet. However, you should be able to find just about anything you are looking for in the city. There are numerous bazaars where you can buy clothes, Detskii Mir and the Covered Market have a wealth of different products you might need, and there are supermarkets all over the city. Your host family will know where to buy things, just ask them or look around yourself.

 

Medicine

I would take a bottle of pain reliever and maybe some allergy medicine if you have allergies, especially to pets. I would also take enough prescription medication for the summer if you are taking that. You can buy just about anything at the Aptekas (drug stores), but better to have that stuff with you. You probably won't get sick while you are here, but your host family and the university can help you if you do. If you are not sure what you need for medicine, break out your dictionary and write down some of your symptoms and ask your host family or the people at the Apteka what they would recommend.

 

Food

As far as Russian food goes, just be open-minded about trying new things and don't be afraid to tell your host family what you like or don't like. Soups and salads are big in this country, and vegetables are ridiculously cheap at the covered market or on street corners during the summer. You aren't going to be in America, so don't expect American food unless you go to Papa John's or McDonalds (both of which are here). Be open-minded and try everything once.

 

There are grocery stores all over the city, finding one close to your apartment should be one of the first things you do when you get to Saratov. Your host family will take care of you as far as food goes, but I bought lots of bottled water over the summer and it is nice to get something if you get hungry between meals or want a snack. The real grocery stores (like Yablochka and Super 7) have almost everything you would expect in a grocery store in America. The covered market next to the circus at the end of the Prospect has some interesting things and is definitely worth a trip, even if you don't buy anything there.

 

I think it is possible to drink the water out of the tap, but I would recommend filtering or boiling it, preferably both. Bottled water is pretty cheap though, so if you are lazy like me and don't want to go to the trouble of boiling and filtering, just buy it.

 

Things I found helpful to have:

1. Pocket-sized dictionary. This will be your best friend while you are trying to communicate. Katzner is great for translation and long explanations, but mostly a waste of space over the summer because you can't carry it around. Your professors should know which pocket dictionaries are good. If you forget, pick one up in Moscow or you can buy one in Saratov. Better to bring one from the states though.

 

2. Normal sized backpack. You will need to carry stuff around, and you will probably look like a tourist or foreigner anyway. Most of the students at SGU have backpacks, so you won't look too out of place. Messenger bags are ok too; just take whatever you use in America. If you can find a normal sized backpack with one of those water bladder things in it, it would be great for your excursions.

 

3. English reading material. I know you are in Russia and supposed to be learning Russian, but you will get sick of it every now and then and probably want something in English to read. You are going to have free time over summer, on your boat trip, and on the trains, so having something not in Russian to read is nice.

 

4. Gifts. Think America. Girls like smelly stuff and flowers, guys like CDs and DVDs (both are extremely cheap in Russia) and items from your University are always good for your host family. You don't need something huge, just something they might not be able to find in Russia. Be prepared for birthdays or other personal holidays over the summer and Russians like the same things as Americans. DVDs (if they have a DVD player or computer), CDs, and flowers are always safe options.

 

5. Other items. While Russia is an industrialized country, it might help to hit the camping aisle at Wal-Mart before you leave. Here is a short list of things I found it helpful to have:

Pocketknife or leatherman tool, travel TP, good flashlight, camping clothesline, a small first aid kit, inflatable travel pillow, Nalgene bottle, small umbrella, sandals/house shoes, swimming suit for the beach and the banya, hand sanitizer, batteries for you personal electronics (MP3 player, CD player, camera, etc.), a box of pens, extra bag for your dirty clothes, etc.

*if you are pressed for space, you can get most of these items in Saratov.

 

6. Take your Russian book from class and maybe that 501 Russian verbs book. Both are extremely helpful to have.

 

Just think of things that you might need and be prepared for contingencies. It is possible to buy more things in Russia than in America, so you should be able to find almost anything you need if you have the patience to look for it.

 

Other things

Take food and house shoes or sandals on the trains. You probably won't need much food on the boat trip because they feed you pretty well. If you have never been on a boat for long periods of time or get motion sickness, take Dramamine for sure and watch your alcohol consumption, just out of personal experience. The trains, on the other hand, get pretty expensive to eat on and don't always have the food you would want. Better to take your own food and beverages on the train. Sandals would probably be my recommendation because you can wear them in the shower on the boat and around on the train.

 

Russians generally don't drink as much alcohol as you were told and you won't be forced to drink anything, but you probably will drink a lot anyway because you are with other Americans. There is no real drinking age in Russia (though I think technically it is 18). When you drink though, try to keep it under control to avoid a late night run in with the militsia or make yourself an easy target for a criminal. If you drink too much, make sure you stay in a group and look after each other.

 

Make sure to take your ISIC card or, for those of you staying into the fall semester, your Saratov State University Student ID. If you are staying into the fall, you should request an SGU ID as soon as you get to Saratov at the beginning of the summer session. The museums, especially up in St. Petersburg, give a better discount than with your ISIC card and some even let Russian students in for free. Just carry your ISIC card or SGU ID and use it when you go places, even if the other students don't. Also, check with restaurants to see if they offer a student discount, the few rubles every time you eat can add up pretty fast.

 

Health and Fitness

If you want to lift or exercise in a club, there are different sport clubs around Saratov. Volga Sport is one of the nice ones I remember, but it is expensive. I think it is on Gorkova and Sovietskaya. I lifted at a club called Мускул (cool name) that was an old bodybuilding gym. It is on near the militsia station. To get to that one, you go down Moskovskaya until you hit Oktiabrskya, turn left and then go right, down the alley next to the militsia station. It is the second door on your right (it will say the name on a sign; the club is downstairs). You can lift there three times a week for about 500 rubles a month, so it is pretty cheap. There are other places around Saratov, so just ask your host family or the international center. Saratov also has a track next to Lipki Park at the end of the prospect if you want to run, though I would suggest doing it in the morning or evening because it is hot during the day. If you need supplements or equipment or anything, there is a place on the Prospect called Sportland or a huge place on Chernyshevskaya, called "Sportmaster", that have athletic type stuff and protein. Nike and Adidas also have stores if you want to buy workout clothes there, but it is fairly expensive.

 

Personal Safety

Saratov is just like any other city in America as far as personal safety goes, only with the added wildcard of the Militsia (Police). Try to avoid being drunk on the streets very late at night, especially alone, and try not to attract attention to yourself. People will steal your wallet or money if you make yourself a target. Don't carry large amounts of money around and leave things like your passport (make sure you have the copies with you) and credit cards at home, unless you really need them.

 

In general, just be aware of you surroundings and keep an eye on the people around you. A note on the cops. The militsia have the right to stop you at any time and ask you for your documents (this is where the copies are handy) without cause. Just be polite and show them your documents. In my time in Saratov, I have not been stopped by the Militsia, but it happened frequently in Moscow and Petersburg. Generally, I try to avoid the police if possible. They might be friendly and helpful, or they might take your money (especially if you are drunk late at night), better to just avoid them altogether. If you do have an incident, tell your host family and call the University right away. They will help you from there.

 

Clothes

You are probably going to stand out as an American or foreigner, almost regardless of what you might wear. Saratov is hot and humid in the summer, and very few buildings have air conditioning, so go for comfort. Russians don't really wear shorts, so pants are suggested. However, you might want to invest in a pair or two of light fabric pants when you get to Saratov. It sure beats the heavy denim or canvas stuff. Also, you are probably going to have to do your own laundry (by hand) unless you are lucky enough to have a host family that has a washing machine. No one in Russia has dryers though, so take your camping clothesline and hang your clothes up in your room or on the balcony where your host family does. Don't bother taking detergent with you; you can buy it at one of the kiosks near the Covered Market. Besides, you aren't supposed to have detergent on the airplane anyway. Anyway, take stuff that is going to be comfortable over the summer and in hot, humid weather.

 

Exchange Money - exchange a little right at the airport, even though it isn't going to be the best rate or hit the ATM (bankomat) right away. You will need Rubles to pay for things in Moscow and on the train to Saratov. ATMs are plentiful in Saratov, Moscow, Petersburg, and about anywhere else you travel, so just make sure you have your debit card and credit cards ready.

 

Finally, I am adding a little section because there have been problems this year locating people at the airport and occasional problems with people meeting each other and flight delays and everything else. If you have any problems at the airport, exchange some money, buy a phone card and call the international office. The number for the International Office at SGU is: 8452.51.17.41.



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