Our first Russian city on our Trans-Siberian Railway journey westbound towards Moscow, was Irkutsk. It is one of the largest cities in Siberia and Russia as a whole. Nearly all trains stop here and it is also the gateway to the nearby famous Lake Baikal.
Founded from 1652 as a trading settlement, in the early 19th century many Russian artists, officers and nobles were sent into Siberian exile here for their part in the Decembrist Revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. Much of the city’s cultural heritage comes from these exiles; from the peeling timber houses with colourful window shutters to the ornate churches with hand-carved facades.
Although three quarters of the city was destroyed by fire in 1879, it was quickly rebuilt. The first train arrived in 1898 and by the turn of the 20th century, Irkutsk had earned the nickname “The Paris of Siberia”. The beautiful myriad of churches that fill the main centre made an enjoyable day of exploring.
We first scoped out our surroundings with a climb to the tower of the Church of our Saviour, overlooking the confluence of the Angara & Irkut Rivers. Built in 1706, it is the oldest stone building in Eastern Siberia and located on the site where the first Irkutsk fortress once stood.
The Church of the Epiphany was colourful inside and out. The detailed religious frescoes filled every available space on the walls and high into the ceilings; typical Russian Orthodox style and quite unique. Initially a wooden temple built in 1693, it was rebuilt in 1718 as a stone cathedral after in burned down.
Prince Volkonsky’s manor, built in 1838 in the village of Uric and later transported to Irkutsk, is now Irkutsk’s Regional Historical and Memorial Museum of Decembrists. It was the centre of cultural and social life where many balls and plays were held and popular musicians performed. The interior reflects the furniture and look of the time and an insight into the new life the exiles made out in Siberia.
Next church up was a beauty! The Church of the Kazan was a longer stroll out of the main centre but worth it. Massive and colourful inside and out, we witnessed locals coming in to pray to the icon of Virgin Mary and lighting candles beneath elaborate architecture and more colourful frescoes.
The more we walked around, the more we couldn’t believe the sheer number of historic churches and old buildings that make Irkutsk so picturesque. Its a shame that so many tourists on the Trans-Siberian Railway would only use Irkutsk as a one night stopover to sleep and not take the time to see it at all. There was so much to miss out on! And quite easy to navigate as most of the sights can be found by following the Tourist Green Line, painted on the ground with information plaques.
After a long day of walking, it was time for a more relaxing few days before we got on the train again. We squeezed into a crammed minibus and bounced out of the city into the Siberian wilderness towards our next destination; Lake Baikal.
Visited 19th August 2014.