Baikal is amazing, and it is no wonder that the Siberian did not regard it as a lake, but rather glorified it as a sea. The water is unusually transparent, so that one can see through it as if it were air. Its color is a pale turquoise, pleasant to the eye. Its shores are mountainous and covered with impenetrable and endless forests. It has an abundance of bears, sables, wild goats, and all manner of wild creatures.
– Anton Chekhov
Paris is a city that is often used to denote “culture” and “refinement.” A number of cities have been designated as the Paris of their area of the world: Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East,” Kansas City as “Paris of the American Great Plains,” and more than a dozen locations as the “Paris of the East,” including Baku, St. Petersburg, and Riga. For eastern Russia, though, there is no contest - the “Paris of Siberia” is Irkutsk.
The culture and refinement that gave this once lonely fortified settlement not far from the frontiers of China and Mongolia its exotic atmosphere came from the Decembrists, a group of Russian revolutionaries that tried to topple the Russian Empire in 1825. Many of the leaders of this rebellion were executed in St. Petersburg, but many more of the involved nobility were ordered to be exiled here. Two of the homes that housed some of the largest salons and other social gatherings of this era, the Volkonsky House and the Trubetskoy House, still stand, the former of which remains one of the more popular museums of the city.
Even today, the arts remain an integral part of the city. The Irkutsk Philharmonic Orchestra performs within a designated concert hall in the city center, and one of the largest art galleries east of the Ural Mountains, the Sukachev Art Museum, is the home of a number of works of art, ranging from lesser-known Dutch masters to works by Chinese and Mongolian artists. Indeed, the Sukachev Estate, the former home of one of the more prominent mayors of this Siberian city, still stands as a link between the era of the Decembrists and modern days.
Of course, Irkutsk sits in a region so cold that parts of the ground never thaw, even in the hottest of summer days. That the icebreaker Angara and a museum for geology serve as important sights for tourists shouldn’t be a surprise. The Angara sits as one of the oldest ships of its kind in the world. Built in England in 1900, it operated on steam created from coal furnaces, and was a pioneer vessel in its type of service.
Of course, the real reason to visit Irkutsk is not so much the city as it is the country. Not far outside the city limits is Lake Baikal. The deepest lake in the world, this Russian treasure is often called the “Blue Eye of Siberia,” and it is said that putting one’s feet in the water from its shores will add five years to your life (a particularly memorable experience in the winter months). Travel to its shores can be carried out either by boat or by bus. Either way taken, one of the prettiest places to see the lake is from the village of Listvyanka. For many years, the site of both the premier Russian research facility on the study of freshwater lakes and a classified resort maintained by the Federal Security Service, its shores have attracted escape-seeking poets and politicians alike, as well as quite a few international travelers. Listvyanka boasts not only a lakeshore decorated in wintertime with beautiful ice sculptures, but also the largest solar observatory in Asia, the Baikal Astrophysical Observatory. The views of the lake from this spot are breathtaking.
Carnival. Day of Irkutsk. June 2, 2012 from Alex Trifonov on Vimeo.
Traditionally, Irkutsk was the city from which the great Russian explorers set out, from the renowned Alaska-bound fur traders of the Russian American Company such as Alexander Baranov and Grigory Shelikhov (the latter of which is buried at the Znamensky Monastery in the city) to Vitus Bering in his second expedition. Even today, it is a great place to start one’s own personal exploration of Siberia and the Russian Far East.