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.
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.
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.
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.