Exiled to Siberia? Welcome to Irkutsk!

Saturday, September 22, 2018
Irkutsk, Irkutsk Oblast, Russian Federation
A marshrutka departing close to our Listvyanka hotel deposited us right outside Tsentralny Market, exactly where we had boarded it the previous morning. Our train from Irkutsk wasn’t due to leave until later in the afternoon and we had the best part of the day ahead of us to look around. The Information and Tourism center was only a few blocks away and not only was it a good place to start our exploration, it was also where we stored our bags for the day. The young woman at the center spoke perfect English and we were able to pick up a map and brochures about the city.
Irkutsk lies in the territory of East Siberia, which is the Asian part of Russia and is approximately midway between Moscow and Vladivastok. Located on the banks of the Angara River some 65-kms from Lake Baikal, it was founded in 1661 as a cossack settlement for trading gold and fur. In 1686 it became the capital of Oriental Siberia, an important stop on commercial trade route between the east and west. In the 18th century it gained even greater significance as a transportation and trading center of Eastern Siberia and also developed as a center of science and culture.  
The city’s history is closely linked with the 'Decembrists', revolutionary nobles who rebelled against the Tsar Nicholas I in December 1825. During this period, many Russian artists, officers and nobles were sent into exile to Siberia for their part in the revolt. Irkutsk became a major transit point for political exiles and criminals being sent farther east. 
After completing their terms of labor in nearby Chita, many Decembrists settled in Irkutsk with their families who had earlier followed them into exile. Such were the numbers that in the 1800s, 30% of the population of the city were exiles. Consequently it became a major center of intellectual and social life for these exiles, and much of the city’s cultural heritage can be traced back to this period.  
Charming wooden houses with lacy, carved decorations can still be found in the older quarters. Though atmospheric, many are decaying and in a state of disrepair. They stand in stark contrast with the surrounding Soviet apartment blocks.  The Shastian’s House (Lace House) was rebuilt from original drawings and photos in 1999. There are a few historical museums in the houses of Decembrist exiles. Volkonsky House Manor and Trubetskoy House Manor are now museums. Among the high-profile women who followed deported or exiled husbands was Maria Volkonskaya, the wife of the Decembrist prince Sergey Volkonsky and there is a monument to her in the historic center. 
Around 1900, Irkutsk was nicknamed the ‘Paris of Siberia’ due to its wide streets and ornate, continental architecture. During the civil war that broke out after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917-22, Irkutsk became the site of many bloody clashes between the Whites and Reds (aka Bolsheviks) and a number of landmarks remain from that era.
Today, Irkutsk is the 6th largest city in Siberia, home to several universities and a major branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, due to its proximity to Lake Baikal.
After weaving through the historic core of the city, we made our way towards Moscow Gate, a large arch on the banks of the Angara River on the New Embankment and the start of a nice, wide riverside promenade.   A short walk away was an imposing statue of a Cossack, a monument to the founders of Irkutsk. Across from it is the picturesque Cathedral of the Epiphany, its brilliant white walls, colorful ornate exterior and golden onion domes that were resplendent in the sun. The interior was equally impressive with a large gilded iconostasis and frescoed ceiling. Adjacent to it is a park with an “Eternal Flame” memorial to those killed in WW II. Also in the general vicinity is the Savior Church and a monument to Peter and Fevronia (Romeo and Juliet, Russian style).  A walk through Kirov park and by Kirov square rounded off our brief exploration of the city and our pace quickened as we made our way back to the tourist information center to retrieve our bags. 
We had originally planned to lunch at yet another Govinda (after our pleasant encounter with them in Ulaan Bataar) but saw that we would push too close to our tryst with the longest leg of our Trans Siberian journey. M's quick eyes spotted a Subway - synonymous with quick and wholesome food. The college age youngsters who ran the place were eager to help us foreigners and brought out the full complement of their English skills to ensure that our hunger was satisfied for a nominal sum of rubles. 
We studied the bus and tram routes that were posted on a bus stop and identified one that would get us to the train station. Our city sightseeing continued in an old-fashioned tram as it slowly wound its way to the Irkutsk train station where we were looking forward to the start of the Trans-Siberian leg of our journey. We spotted a statue of Lenin silhouetted against the sun and Babr, the Siberian cat that is the symbol of the city. That was one of the first things we had seen when we first arrived 2 days ago in Irkutsk and now it was time to say goodbye. 
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