Irkutsk—Fear and Fortune in Siberia

Located near Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is a city that you absolutely must visit in order to understand Siberia. In 1661, the Yenisei Cossacks established an ostrog (wooden fortress) at the confluence of the Angara and Irkut rivers. From here, the caravan track split into two routes: a land route through the Mongolian steppes to China and a water route across the Yakut taiga towards Kamchatka and Alaska. Irkutsk became the center of colonization of a region the size of Canada and the key to Eastern Siberia—a terrifying and fantastically rich land. Siberian furs, fish from Lake Baikal, Nerchinsk silver, Lena gold, Chinese tea—all these goods passed through Irkutsk on their way to the West. The city’s sumptuous architecture, particularly on Karl Marx Avenue, dates from the turn of the 20th century and gives you a sense of the local merchants’ wealth.
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Makushin’s and Posokhin’s Trading House (built in 1903)

Before then, like the majority of Siberian cities, Irkutsk was wooden; to this day, entire streets are lined with numerous two or three floor mansions adorned with finely carved wood featuring baroque motifs.
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Buryats (the closest living descendants of Mongols) and Evenks (the word «shaman» originates from their language) live near Irkutsk. The first Japanese community outside of Japan, consisting of fishermen who were swept away by storms to Russia, is located here. Chinese merchants were also frequent visitors to Irkutsk. During the 18th century, this mixing of cultures gave rise to a unique architectural style called Irkutsk Baroque; for example, here you can see Orthodox churches decorated with Buddhist patterns. Don’t be surprised by the steeple of the Catholic church not far from the churches of the Irkutsk ostrog or by the synagogue on a wooden lane. In the 19th century, exiled Poles and Jews formed large communities in Siberian cities. Many of these exiled people became explorers of Siberia, and mountains and rivers are still named after them today. Irkutsk’s most famous exiles were the Decembrists. They were a group of noblemen, who, in December 1825 in Saint Petersburg, tried to organize something like the present-day «velvet revolutions», demanding the introduction of a constitution. The rebellion was suppressed, its leaders were hung, and the other participants were sent to do hard labor in Siberia. Many of their wives chose to follow them there. Over time, hard labor was replaced by exile, and the Decembrists who were not worn down after years in the mines and factories decided to stay in Siberian cities. The homes of the Muravyovs or Volkonskys became cultural centers of Siberia.
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The Decembrists’ House Museum (also called Trubetskoy House)

Along with officers, researchers, and generous merchant sponsors, the Decembrists turned Irkutsk into the most important cultural hotbed in the Asian part of Russia. The Trans-Siberian Railway touches upon the edge of Irkutsk—the train station extends along the banks of the Angara River, beyond which you can see the cupolas of the old city’s churches.
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Holy Cross Cathedral took 11 years to build and was completed in 1757

Nowadays, Irkutsk is still renowned throughout Siberia for its cultural life. The slightly eerie Shanhayka region, where Chinese, Gypsies, and Uzbeks congregated, is a reminder of the city’s role as a trading crossroads. Less well known is the Mongolian bazaar, where it’s possible to buy clothes made from yak wool, among other things. The furry riches of Siberia have long been depleted, but now the taiga’s most famous gift is the pine nut. Bottomless and crystal clear, Lake Baikal holds one fifth of the world’s fresh water and is known for its local fish species, such as omul. The easiest way to see Lake Baikal is from Irkutsk. If you traveled to Listvyanka, along the way back to Irkutsk you can visit the Taltsy Architectural and Ethnographic Museum, where you’ll see everything from Evenk chums (raw-hide tents) to Cossack ostrogs (wooden fortresses).
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The Taltsy Architectural and Ethnographic Museum shows how Russians, Buryats, Evenks, and Tofalars (indigenous people of the Baikal region) lived in the 17th to 20th centuries

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The women’s half of a Buryat yurt (Taltsy Museum)

A train trip along the Circum-Baikal Railway is even more interesting. By the way, it has not been circular since the 1950s: a large section of the route was flooded out during construction of the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station, and the new railway was built through the mountains. The present Circum-Baikal Railway is a cul-de-sac from Slyudyanka station to the source of the Angara River. Nonetheless, a short trip from Irkutsk on the retro steam locomotive is the ultimate way to end a journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The rails, which nearly touch the water, as well as the rocks, bridges, and tunnels, make the Circum-Baikal Railway one of the world’s most beautiful railways.
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