Irkutsk is theoretically a perfectly affordable city—cheaper than Moscow and big cities in the US—but it was pricier than I expected, and I had to watch my spending more than I did in Bishkek. The ruble is currently approximately 60 to $1; I’ve given estimated prices below in dollars.
Groceries and Food
My major expense here was groceries, which, of course, you won’t have to deal with if you’re living in a host family with a meal plan. Some general prices:
Pasta—$0.65/kg (if you buy the big unmarked plastic bags, not the name brands)
Cheese—around $3–4 for a smallish block
Granola bars—range from $0.50 to $1 each
Coffee—around $10 for a 240-gram bag that lasts at least two weeks
Frozen pelmeni (my major food group)—a few dollars for a bag that lasts for a few meals
In terms of eating out, the university stolovaya is quite cheap, around $3 for a complete, if smallish, lunch with a main dish and a side. You can also get pirozhki and other smaller items for less than 50 cents each.
A lot of the cafes and restaurants, both around the university and in the city center, were a little more expensive than I anticipated—though not really expensive in real terms. At most places, you’ll be able to get a full meal, drink included, for around $10, as long as you don’t want a giant steak or something like that. My friends and I often found ourselves sticking to the hot zakuski, side dishes, and pelmeni rather than the bigger, meatier main dishes, but even those aren’t likely to set you back more than $12 per order (plus more for a drink and/or other add-ons). I think you’d have to work pretty hard to spend even $20 for dinner out. There are also plenty of smaller stands around the city, like Zakucity (Закусity) and its ilk, that sell big wraps/shawarma for only a few dollars.
A regular coffee is usually somewhere around $2, or $1 at a takeaway place or food stall; you can get fancier coffee drinks for $2–$3. Pitchers of mors or big pots of tea are also a few dollars each at most restaurants.
The general theme here is, again, that things are not as excitingly cheap as I wanted them to be (although this is perhaps tainted by the fact that I came here from a program in Bishkek, one of SRAS’ most affordable locations) but way cheaper than they’d be in the US. Beer, mixed drinks, and shots at a bar will run you somewhere between $2 and $4, most likely, unless you’re frequenting fancier places than I am or have really upscale tastes. Antrekot (Антрекот), for example, a popular spot which has a very long drinks menu, will run you around $1.50 for a house beer and $4 or $5 for a decent cocktail.
The theater is where you really get value for your money—tickets for a play at the drama theater won’t be more than $10 or so, and same goes for most shows at the musical theater, including ballets.
The IMAX movie theater is a bit pricey, also about $10, but standard movies are more like $4 or $5.
Bowling is about $5 то $10 per hour at 7 Milya (7 Миля), depending on time of day; ski rental at Dinamo (Динамо), a local facility, is only $3.50 per hour, and entrance to the complex itself is free.
Daily Life and General Expenses
Transportation is always 15 rubles (about 25 cents), whether trolleybus, marshrutka, or tram. There are two main cab companies in Irkutsk, 500-600 and 500-700 (those are the numbers you use to call them)—700 is a little pricier but they arrive faster; 600 is cheaper and slower.
Toiletries aren’t too far off in price from their US equivalents. Some US brands are available, but they’re pricier—and why wouldn’t you want to experiment with the local Siberian brands?! Notebooks and stationery are easily available at ProdaLit, a bookstore across Kirov Square from the university, and are similarly pretty cheap.
Books are cheaper in Russia than in the US; I developed a Russian-language mystery novel habit, and would buy them for around $1.50 each at Chitay Gorod (Читай Город). Hardcovers and gift editions can be pricier, but even most hardcover contemporary novels will only be somewhere from $5 to $10. (There’s also a small English-language section at Chitay Gorod.) I also discovered Labirint.ru, where if you buy more than $15 dollars of books you get free courier delivery within a few days. But remember that paying excess weight charges on your baggage going back to the US is pretty expensive… Also, if you are in the dorms it can be harder to arrange delivery of anything.
Haircuts are much cheaper in the US, at least for women. I got a pretty good one at a hair salon near campus, Art Salon, for about $12.
Clothes-shopping options vary widely. The city center has some really fancy boutiques; Modniy Kvartal (Модный квартал), the mall in 130 Kvartal, has both midrange and pricier options, including an H&M where prices are similar to in the US. Shanghai City/Kitay Gorod (Шанхай Сити / Китай Город), near the Central Market, is cheaper and lower quality, but a more fun experience.
Internet and Phone
If you are on a standard SRAS program, you won’t need to buy your own SIM card or phone, but I wanted Internet on my personal smart phone, so I bought my own plan. I paid $3.50 a month for 3 GB of data; my plan also gave me enough texting and phone calls that I never had to add any additional money to my account beyond that. A data plan can be considered a bit of luxury as well as most cafes have free Wi-Fi, and the university has free Wi-Fi on the fifth floor. If you and all your friends have MTS, calls and texts are actually free, assuming you have some small sum of money in your account to keep your service active.
Especially since I had to have consistent Internet access to write the world’s leading site on Eurasian pop culture (as part of my Home and Abroad Scholar experience with SRAS) I found it really useful to have backup Internet sources—data from my phone (to create a mobile hotspot) and a Yota modem. (You can buy them at electronics stores for about $30 these days, and then pay for service separately, with a higher price for higher speeds—$13/month, one of the cheaper options, will get you enough bandwidth to stream video.) The tiny library at the university doesn’t have Wi-Fi, so I occasionally liked bringing my modem to school so I could get some work done there (it’s otherwise quiet and pleasant). But, again, most cafes will have Wi-Fi, so if your powers of concentration are better than mine, the modem is totally avoidable.
There are plenty of gyms scattered around Irkutsk, but I’m a martial arts fanatic and opted for a boxing gym called Rocky, not too far from the school. Classes/training sessions were $12 each, or $85 for a month of unlimited classes. (There’s also a yearly option that would pay for itself after four or five months.) Overall, I liked the gym, and it has really clean, modern facilities, but the price was higher than I expected. On the bright side, I am hella jacked now.
I haven’t bought many souvenirs (I plan to fill my suitcases with books, Siberian hair-care products, and vodka produced from Lake Baikal water), so I don’t know much by way of prices. The Central Market has a huge outdoor farmers’/crafts market where you can probably get most of your souvenir shopping done and, I would guess, for relatively cheaply; bargaining is usually acceptable at these places. The market is surrounded by shopping centers and rows of stores, and there are several souvenir lavkas in the area. Most grocery stores actually have little aisles with souvenirs—Baikal magnets and pins, that kind of thing. There’s also an outdoor art market right near the giant Lenin statue. Nearby Listvyanka and Taltsy are great places to buy souvenirs, as well.
This section probably won’t apply to most of you, but if you do decide to go the route of renting an apartment, I have a few tips. I rented my apartment—a small but newly renovated studio in the city center—through AirBnB (whose Russian site is closing down, so this may stop being an option soon). The major Russian real-estate sites, like Yandex and Cian.ru, also have tons of listings in Irkutsk. Most of them show prices for a full year, and landlords will probably increase the monthly price if you want to rent for a shorter time period.
Finding the apartment through AirBnB was easy, but I found myself getting the “American price”—my landlord, upon reading my first message in my imperfect Russian, said, “Oh, actually, the price listed on the site is wrong! It’s actually waaaaay higher!” and I said “… Of course it is.” I was also charged an additional and totally outrageous $90/month to be registered legally in the apartment. But one has to be registered and only the landlord could register me – so I was kinda stuck. Ultimately, I sucked up the price and things went pretty smoothly for the most part (the landlord was available to help with problems, mostly Internet outages, via Telegram), though it does feel weird to pay rent in cash. I paid $490/month for the first two months and $580 for the last two for a new, renovated studio in the city center. I think that if you have plenty of time to look around, you can find something for significantly cheaper, but I was stressed and in a time crunch (and wanted to live alone), so I just took it. I strongly recommend getting a signed copy of the rental agreement, clearly stating your monthly rent, just in case.
All my bills were included in my rent—heating (and lots of it), electricity, and Internet, and I did have a washing machine, though of course no dryer (which are rare in Russia). There were brief power outages occasionally throughout the semester, and frequent Internet outages. My landlord could usually get that taken care of within a day or two, but it was kinda annoying—thus my long list of Internet options above.
The biggest disappointment I had is that travel was much more expensive then I anticipated. I envisioned getting all over Russia in my semester here, but it just wasn’t feasible. Train tickets to nearby Ulan-Ude were about $60 round trip (the hostel was about $10/night), but there are only so many cities within a day’s train journey from Irkutsk, and tickets rapidly increase in price the longer the trip. Look for tickets on pass.rzd.ru or tutu.ru.
Plane tickets were much pricier than I anticipated. Round-trip to Moscow will probably be a minimum of $200, and likely way more (although Moscow-Irkutsk is double the distance between NY and LA, which tend to be about $200-400 round trip in the US). Connections between other Russian cities are much less developed. In fact, I never found anything less than $320 to Vladivostok, and that included a very long layover in China, so you wouldn’t be able to do that until late in the semester, when you’ve gotten your multiple-entry visa. Tickets to Vladivostok without that stopover were much more expensive ($400+, including horrifically long layovers) and deals were hard to find, though SkyScanner usually had the best prices. Plane tickets to Ulaanbaatar are pretty cheap directly through AeroMongolia’s site ($150-ish round trip), but, again, you won’t be able to leave the country until pretty late into your program.