Introducing Irkutsk

Historic if vaguely seedy Irkutsk, 1090km southeast of Krasnoyarsk, is the nearest big city to glorious Lake Baikal, though it's still 70km inland. With some fancifully rebuilt churches and areas of grand 19th-century architecture it's well worth at least a brief stop. If your Russian is poor, Irkutsk has plenty of Anglophone agencies eager to help, and now has some real (if small) hostels too.

Founded in 1661 as a Cossack garrison to control the indigenous Buryats, Irkutsk was the springboard for 18th-century expeditions to the far north and east including Alaska, then known as 'Irkutsk's American district'.

As eastern Siberia's trading and administrative centre, Irkutsk dispatched Siberian furs and ivory to Mongolia, Tibet and China in exchange for silk and tea. Three-quarters of the city burnt down in the disastrous fire of 1879. However, the 1880s Lena Basin gold rush quickly saw its grand brick mansions and public buildings restored. Known as the 'Paris of Siberia', Irkutsk did not welcome news of the October Revolution. The city's well-to-do merchants only succumbed to the Red tide in 1920, with the capture and execution of White army commander Admiral Kolchak, whose statue has recently been reerected. Soviet-era planning saw Irkutsk develop as the sprawling industrial and scientific centre that it remains today.

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