Irkutsk & Lake Baikal
Irkutsk is one of the oldest cities in Siberia, pre-dating the great “opening-up” of Siberia (by Tsarist decree) in the C18th… settlers and homesteaders around Lake Baikal had been well established a century earlier. Although Irkutsk has attractions of its own, the principle reason people come – of course – is to see Lake Baikal. Irkutsk doesn’t lie directly on the Lake – it’s an hour’s drive (two hours if you take the local bus) or 45 minutes by hydrofoil which leaves from Irkutsk each morning (and effectively fulfils the role of a bus service – it’s not a sightseeing trip). Baikal is the world’s largest lake (dwarfing Lake Tanganyika, the nearest rival, by very large extents) – it is wider, longer, and deeper than any other, and contains 1/5th of the fresh water on earth. It is also home to a varied range of unique species of water-life, many of which are as unusual and peculiar as the Lake they inhabit. Even at the very depths (over a mile deep) there are life-forms eking out an existence in the total darkness – where eyes would have no possible use, and bodies require exoskeletons to deal with the water-pressure that would flatten a human in seconds. Some of these creatures can be seen preserved (they can’t survive the change in pressure) at theListvyanka Lake Museum. But there are also more conventional fish in Baikal – most notably the Omul (vaguely similar to trout) which is the Lake’s most famous species, and is commercially fished.
Don’t miss in and around Irkutsk
There are some C17th churches – perhaps not so interesting in themselves, but they are the only remaining evidence of the substantial and affluent Russian community that thrived here long before the rest of Siberia was conquered.
The Old Town
Although Irkutsk isn’t Moscow, it has a small part of the Old Town which is full of pavement cafes, street-artists, internet-cafes and bistro-style eateries, especially in summer. There are also some elaborate C19th buildings of wealthy Siberian merchants to spot in this area.
Irkutsk was one of the earliest places to which Siberian Exiles were sent. The earliest exiles included the group called “the Decembrists” – members of the Officer Corps who had tried to prevent the 1825 coronation of notorious hardliner Nicholas I, and have his brother – their comrade-in-arms against Napoleon – made Tsar instead. The ringleaders were executed, but the others were sent to Siberia. Most notable were Muraviev (his house is in Irkutsk, but closed for restoration), and Volkonsky. Volkonsky was a top-level aristocrat, and hugely popular with his regiment – the Tsar feared a mutiny if he executed Volkonsky. He also had a wife who was a French Princess, and had refused to divorce him as she was ordered to – instead she followed him to Irkutsk, earning the nickname “The Princess Of Siberia” in the process. Their wooden house – half cottage, half stockade, half mansion – is in the middle of Irkutsk, and survives in its original state. If you read “War & Peace” you will find him – under the faked name of “Bolkonsky” to avoid the censor’s pen. Why? Because author Tolstoy had himself married into the Volkonsky family, and sought a posthumous pardon for his wife’s noble ancestor.
Listvyanka is the nearest Baikal-side community to Irkutsk – now only an hour away along a good road (it used to take two hours when we first went, just 20 years ago).. Originally a C19th fishing village, Listyanka has moved-on to become a visitor centre for “townies” visiting Lake Baikal (although a small amount of commercial fishing and salvage still operates here). A large number of the traditional wooden izba village houses still survive in the village (which is really almost a town now) – there are now some modern-style shops and a rather incongruous modern glass atrium at the quayside.
… is the next village along the lakeshore from Listvyanka, but the absence of a road into the village (it lies in a bay surrounded by large cliffs on all sides) has kept “Koty” largely unchanged since the last century. There is one tiny shop selling a range of extremely basic groceries, and a postal collection once per week (by boat). Until the arrival of mobile phone signal (very weak, but just usable) there was no telephone at all in Bolshie Koty.
Goloustnoye is the furthest of the villages from Irkutsk that’s accessible by road – the trip takes averagely two hours, but poor weather can cause that time to extend quite severely. Goloustnoye is a fully working fishing village with many working boats. No concessions are made to tourists here – although there are 2-3 guesthouses where you can stay. There are 2-3 shops, all selling a very basic range of groceries, plus smoked local fish and beer. Mobile phones don’t usually work here – it’s too far from any local signal. There’s a small beach where you can swim.