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Irkutsk, Russia

Irkutsk was founded in 1661 as a fort to colonize Siberia. It was the main Russian fort behind the Ural mountains, so all the expeditions to colonize Kamchatka and Alaska have begun there. For centuries Russian emperors, communists exiled political prisoners to Irkutsk, thus many brainy Russians spent years in the city influencing the average IQ level of inhabitants.

Irkutsk is often called the “Paris of Siberia” as the culture and refinement at this one-time outpost not far from the frontiers of China and Mongolia 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, yet the involved nobility were exiled to Irkutsk. Two of the homes that housed some of the largest salons and 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 art remains an integral part of the city. It houses the Irkutsk Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the largest art galleries east of the Ural Mountains, the Sukachev Art Museum and the Sukachev Estate - the former home of one of the more prominent mayors, linking the Decembrists era and the modern days.

The center of the city is full of wooden houses with typical decorative carvings on the walls and window frames. Most of the buildings of this kind were destroyed in Moscow and other big cities during the industrialization of the 20th century, so it’s a rare opportunity to see what a Russian city would look like if it stayed the way it was back in the days.

Irkutsk sits in a region so cold that some parts of the ground never thaw even in the hottest summer days. It’s no surprise that the icebreaker Angara, one of the oldest in the world and a geology museum serve as important sights for tourists.

Of course, the real reason to visit Irkutsk is Lake Baikal, located nearby. The deepest lake in the world, this Russian treasure is often called the “Blue Eye of Siberia.” 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).

Traditionally, Irkutsk was the city from which the great Russian explorers set out. Even today, it is a great place to start one’s own personal exploration of Siberia and the Russian Far East.

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Irkutsk, Russia

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Irkutsk, Russia

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