Irkutsk is one of the largest cities in all of Siberia, with a population of almost 600,000 people. A fellow by the name of Ivan Pokhabov built winter quarters here in 1652. It became a center for both gold and fur trading. Then in 1661, Yakov Pokhabov (what a great name, Yakov) built an ostrog, the Russian name for a small fort. The ostrog gained official town rights from the government in 1686.
The first road connecting Irkutsk and Moscow was built in 1760. It was called, strangely enough, The Siberian Road, and brought many new products from China, including gold, diamonds, furs, wood, tea, and silk. But in the early 19th century, many Russian artists, officers, and nobles were exiled here as part of the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. As a consequence, the city became a major center of intellectual and social life for the exiles. The city derived much of its cultural heritage from these exiles.
By the end of the 19th century, there was one exiled man for every two locals. Both the Decembrists and the Bolsheviks strongly influenced the culture and development of the city. During the Russian Civil War, Irkutsk was the site of many bloody and furious battles. Then during the Communist years, Irkutsk became heavily industrialized.
The Irkut River, from which the town derives its name, is a smaller river that joins the Angara River directly opposite the city. To this day, the two main parts of the city are referred to as “Left Bank” and “Right Bank.” By and large, Irkutsk is located in the thick taiga that is typical of eastern Siberia.
Interestingly, the climate of Irkutsk has changed from a borderline subarctic climate, to a humid continental climate since 2000. Irkutsk is also the administrative center of the oblast. The largest industry in Irkutsk is Irkutsk Aviation Industrial Association. Here, they manufacture the Su-30 family of interceptor/ground-attack aircraft.
The Trans Siberian Highway (M 53 and 55) connects Irkutsk to other regions in Moscow and Mongolia. But most travelers arrive in Irkutsk, like me, via the Tran Siberian Railway. Coincidentally, it is about halfway between Moscow and Vladivostok. As the travel books say, it is a good place to stretch your legs.
It is a very walkable city, with bike rentals available as well. It is often called the Paris of Siberia. I hope to find out why. The famous wooden buildings are remnants of the Decembrist movement. Participants in the movement against the Tsar were exiled here. They turned Irkutsk into their cultural center.
Wood carvings and lacquer boxes are the typical souvenirs of this part of Siberia. Another curious item are the kamusi boots, made by native Siberians from deer, elk or other fur. Likewise, there are a wide variety of places to eat, including Chinese, Japanese, Siberian, Buryat, Mongolian, Russian, and European cuisine.
Some famous people have come from this region, including Rudolf Nureyev, Vitus Bering, Ivan Chersky, Alexander Middendorf, Count Amursky, and Johann Georgi. Little known is that fashion designer, Pola Jaludsky, designed the 1944 Inaugural gown for Bess Truman. The gown is on display at the Smithsonian.
The central market with its rows of fish is a star attraction in this town. Here, one can buy any type of Baikal fish available, as well as caviar. Irkutsk is not famous for its nightlife. The food in cafes and restaurants is purportedly good and inexpensive. We shall see.
I landed here on Sunday morning, prior to being transported over the Lake Baikal. I am back the day before resuming my rail adventure since I have to catch the 6:30am train to Yekaterinburg. It is the same train schedule that I arrived on. Stay tuned for a story or two!