In June of 2004, I decided to go and teach in Izhevsk, Russia through the Svezhy Veter Travel Agency at School Number 27. Izhevsk, a town comparable to Baltimore in size, is located just west of the Ural Mountains and is about 18 to 19 hours by train from Moscow. Yekaterinburg is approximately 8-10 hours and Kazan? is about 7 hours by train. Upon arrival, I began teaching in the school and quickly got to know some of the students very well.
The classes, usually 3-4 hours on weekday evenings, were comprised of students of all ages. Indeed, with the students from the English Club I had the opportunity to take a bike trip into rural Udmurtia (the republic which Izhevsk claims as capital), to travel by train to the Tatar city of Kazan?, and to visit the Kama river for a wonderful swimming and hiking trip.
My hosts were two young people in their twenties, and they helped me adjust to the new surroundings and a new language environment. With that said, I would emphasize the importance of having some Russian background before traveling to Izhevsk. The location is remote, given its distance from Moscow, and therefore the need for English lessons is greater than it would be in the capital. Therefore, trying to negotiate things with locals would be very taxing without some Russian. More than many other countries, Russians do try and help you and will adjust their speaking to your ability in their language. Young people, of college age, are the ones likely to have the most English background. Also, be prepared to fend for yourself regarding meals, as your host family or roommates may be very busy with work and other responsibilities.
When going about town, be careful of what you are charged at stores and in pubs, as foreigners make easy targets for a scam. Avoid taking cabs with strangers (a good way to lose a wallet) and travel in groups if out late (especially coming from a pub). There are plenty of banks and ATMs available and within reach of the centre, but credit cards are less useful and more prone to fraud.
All in All, Izhevsk is a good place to experience life in Inner Russia, removed from Moscow and the big city. People were very interested to see foreigners in the town, sometimes cautious with the volunteers and sometimes talkative. Summer is very hot, with very short nights (only 4-5 hours of darkness) and long days.
If you travel to Russia in spring or summer, be sure to stock up on bottled water and other essentials in one of the many supermarkets. Internet cafes are prevalent throughout the town, for about 35 rubles (a little over a dollar) per hour. Telephone connections will be very challenging, however, as many buildings still don?t have international dialing. Phone cards, such as Locus Link, can be easily obtained from any kiosk on the street. To call out, check with your hosts regarding the connection. If one is not available, you can ask the agency for short calls home.
If you come to Izhevsk and Russia in general with a good amount of patience, a sense of adventure and the willingness to try something new, then you will have a great time.
Volunteered: June 11 - July 31, 2004
Return visit: February 1st - March 16, 2005