June 10, 2010 The Saga Of Savropol & Russian GPS

Posted in Rodger's Russia Book | Posted by rodger |


We are in StSDC10130avropol for a few days to visit an orphanage. It is a gorgeous thousand year old city on the southern edge of Russia. I’ll write more about it later.

I guess the best way to describe Stavropol is to start with the hotel that we are in. For $120 a night, it is a first class European style hotel. The best short picture that I can give is that the shower stall has 10 shower heads – 8 for body massage, one hand held, and an overhead rain head. It also has built in lights, fan, water pump and individual water heater- and there is a Lamborghini in the parking lot.

This is NOT Prochlodney. There are thousands of cars and damned near no Lada’s to be seen. The average car is newer, cleaner, and better kept than a car in California. The people are well dressed, and the restaurants are full. We ordered Caesar salad and beer from a mini-brewery on our first evening here, and we could have had real steak, pizza, pasta, hamburgers or hot dogs at the many restaurants that line the streets. This is rich Russian city and it hovers between Europe and Russia in attitude.

One of the subtler differences showed at the breakfast buffet. This place puts on a great breakfast. Unlike the anemic tables of bagels and cereal the Holiday Inn’s call breakfast, this place offers 5 different salads, sausages, boiled eggs, two kinds of egg custard, pasta, sweetbreads, French toast, cereals, rolls, fruit, and too much more to list.

However, the difference is not in the food, but in the people. I have only been to three buffets before in Russia. Three years ago and last year, the buffets had to have little cards explaining that no one was counting the number of grams you ate and that you could come back as often as you wanted – and sometimes the waitresses had to convince skeptical guests that they were serious about that all-you-can- eat thing. Not here. The average guest here is an experienced traveler who is very familiar with the breakfast buffet. They wander in, fill their plates and sit down for a little business conversation over breakfast – and they leave tips.

From the front steps of our hotel, you can see dozens of new business buildings and apartment houses. There are a lot of older buildings here too, but they are not the decrepit wrecks you see elsewhere in Russia.

We even ran across a modern movie theater. It was in a business building downtown, but once you got inside, it could have been in Orange County. It was an eight screen multiplex showing all of the latest 3D movies from Hollywood. On the way to the theater, there was a modern snack bar and gorgeous marble bathrooms. The main difference between this theater and the ones in Orange County was that this one is newer and fancier.

I’m going to miss this place when we have to head back out to the boonies.

I rather wondered where all the money came from and I learned that this is a rich town that has earned it pay. It is heavy into industry, including mechanical engineering, metal-working, chemistry, electric power engineering and oil and gas. It is also the 4th largest supplier of food and food processing services in Russia. They have one of the best technical universities in Russia and have colleges of medicine and dentistry. They have been a prosperous and hard working people here since the city was established by retired soldiers in 1775.

There have actually been people living here for well over a thousand years and the name derives from a Byzantine Greek settlement that the Russians mistakenly thought had been named “city of the cross” in Greek. There is no sign of earlier habitation in ruins or history. To Russians, history starts when the Czar established a fort on the site of a Cossack settlement. There is not much sentiment about pre-Russian pasts.

One of the people who shared his story with us was one of our marshutka drivers. He said that his job was literally Hell on Wheels (Russian driving is so competitive that it is being considered as an Olympic sport), but he gets two days a week off and earns about 50,00 rubles ($1,800) a month. That’s about three times the average wage in Russia.

From the look of the cars and clothes, most other people seem to be doing about as well as him.

Then we found out what had not changed in this modern city. Larisa’s bridge fell out this morning and we needed to find a dentist to glue it back in. and we suddenly found ourselves back in old Russia.

She asked at the front desk for the location of the nearest dentist. There were two young men there. One gave her vague directions and a casual point. The other drew her map to a dentist office that was about five blocks away.

We took the map and started out. The first direction was to go three blocks east. Unfortunately, despite the nice neat map, the street ended in one block. We crossed the light at the end of the street and Larisa asked a woman going by where the building was. She said that the street ended, but that we should continue to walk through park in front of us. Half way through the park, Larisa stopped a man who looked like a college professor and asked again. He said that one of the streets on the map was the street at the north edge of the park and that we should go “that way”. As we left the park, a young college student that Larisa stopped pointed to a huge medical center and said that was the building.

When we got there, it turned out not to a dentist office, but the major medical center of the region. After standing in line for about 15 minutes (there were two people in front of her), Larisa was told by an adamant clerk that they didn’t do that kind of work there, and that the dentists didn’t come in until 1:00 and that they would not do it then either.

On the way out, Larisa stopped at an information desk to ask where a real dentist office could be found. At first the clerk there could not believe that anyone would disrupt her peace and quiet with such a question, but she soon softened up and gave Larisa directions to another building, – sort of. She made a lot of gestures about like a carrier flight controller bringing in a jet and told her to go to the Salva restaurant and turn right.

We left the building and turned right, that being the best guess as to where the woman had been gesturing. There had been a lot of gestures, but we had no idea which way she was pointing. At the first corner, Larisa asked two tattooed men where the restaurant was and they had no idea. We continued across the street and turned right because that’s where Larisa thought she saw the restaurant.

The first person we came too was a lady in a grey striped sweater and skirt, who said that we had turned the wrong way out of the building, and the restaurant, was the other way.

O.K, back to the medical center and trek on. The first person Larisa stopped said we were going the right way. While I tried to buy a coke, Larisa asked a vendor sitting at a sidewalk table and someone else – who thought we were going the right way – probably. By that time, I suggested that we were walking too much and that we should just ask a cab driver to take us to the nearest dentist. The cab driver would not take us, because the office we were looking for was only 200 meters from where we were. He pointed out another street to turn on –and he was right.

About two blocks down (after a short stop to purchase a pen – where Larisa swore later that she didn’t ask directions), we came to the main dental school and treatment center.

It was about 7 blocks, with three turns and a park, and the way I count it, about 9 people told us how to get there. Russia doesn’t have much GPS yet, but the old PPS (Personal People Search) is still working.

Oh, and they fixed her bridge, treated a couple of small ulcers they found and charged her 550 rubles – less than $20.

I guess that I have to explain that my wife is not a crazy Russian – at least not about directions.

What she did was common and for a good reason.

During Communism a lot of information that we consider either public or inconsequential was classified: Things such as the location of the local tire manufacturing plant, the locations of many government offices and road maps.

Now that communism is dead, maps are no longer illegal, but they are not common and they are very hard to find. The country has its own new GPS system in orbit, and Medebev is publicly insisting the people use it, but I have not yet seen a private car with a GPS system and have not seen one for sale anywhere.

Old attitudes die hard and the real attitude here is “What do you need a map for? You going somewhere you shouldn’t go? Maybe doing a little terrorist sabotage, Yankee?”

Since I first wrote this, I have seen a GPS, sort of. The taxi driver that took us back to the bus station had a GPS on the dash. It turned out to be a home grown system. He and his boss have cobbled together a GPS that uses Google Earth maps, and they have written software that allows them to add street names to the map. The driver told us that he and his boss have a web site to sell the systems. However, not many people have been willing to purchase the systems, and they were worried. He knew, he said, that owning a map was no longer a crime, but he was worried that selling them might be.

The arrogant attitude of public transport officials has not been helpful. In San Francisco or London every station has a map of the system on the wall and little folding maps of the bus routes are everywhere. Generally, Russian buses and Marshutkas have route numbers on them, but there is no way to tell where the route goes – except to ask the people waiting at the bus stop or to stop the driver and ask him where he is going.

In Prochlodney, I have a wallet card that I made myself. Using times given by Uncle Victor, I made a cheat sheet with the times of buses and marshutkas to and from the Bazaar. The times do not always seem accurate and I just found out why. Victor made the list by sitting out at the bus stop most of the day and asking marshutka drivers how often they drove by that stop.

It is changing – slowly. Savropol is the first place that I have seen buses and marshutkas with silk-screened route lists on the windows. The Savropol bus that we rode last night had a list of all of its major stops printed on the window in bright yellow paint.

Not here in the sticks.

Mother in law just went out to get cherries for this afternoon’s baking. She took a ladder, not a shopping basket.


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