The mere mention of Siberia evokes a sense of remoteness and extreme cold, images of snow-covered terrain, a vast and sparsely populated land, as well as chilling memories of exile and forced labor. The territory and its sub-zero temperatures can be fascinating and threatening at the same time and it all depends on your tolerance for extreme cold temperatures and willingness to venture into difficult terrain in remote areas. Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, could be your springboard into this mystical land.
Tourists who are not from cold climates may find Irkutsk, a city in central-eastern Russia, tolerable and welcoming, especially in autumn, when even short periods of Indian summer can be expected. But expect otherwise in the port city of Yakutsk, the world’s coldest city, 1,857km away; the town of Oymyakon, which is further east, is colder than Yakutsk. Oymyakon is famous as the “coldest permanently inhabited place” anywhere in the world.
Where is Irkutsk?
Irkutsk, which is the capital of the Russian province of Irkutsk Oblast, is located in the central-eastern part of the country and in southeastern Siberia. This early center of Siberian trade is almost halfway along the 9,000+ km Trans-Siberian Railway route stretching from western Russia to the Far East. The growth and importance of the city since its origins in the 17th century is due to its location on the banks of the Angara River and on the Trans-Siberian route. Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, which lies about 60 km to the south, also has a profound influence.
what to see
Irkutsk is the cultural center of Eastern Siberia. Its tourist attraction lies in its well-preserved cultural and historical heritage. Ironically, the city’s culture was shaped by talented Russian elites and artists exiled to Siberia after the Decembrist revolt (December 26, 1825) against the Tsar. Another large wave of deportations to Siberia was soon to follow with the establishment of the Soviet Union a few years after the fall of the Tsarist regime in early 1917.
In the early 20th century, Irkutsk was touted as “The Paris of Siberia” for its early brush with modernity in the former Russian Empire after recovering from a major fire in 1879. Unfortunately, forest fires in the Irkutsk region are a persistent threat, destroying vast expanses of the Russian taiga, one of the largest forested parts of the world.
Various churches, museums, and theaters in this compact city should be on the priority list for your city tour.
The art, iconography, and architecture of the Orthodox churches here are sure to impress worshipers and fans. The beautiful churches survived the closure of the Soviet era or the risks of demolition. The ones you must visit are the Holy Cross Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God, the Epiphany Cathedral, the Church of the Savior of the Holy Face.
Irkutsk, in fact, is a city of museums. The Irkutsk Art Museum, which is one of the oldest of its kind in Russia, has a large collection of artworks, especially from the Buryats, the two main indigenous ethnic groups in Siberia. Its stone and wood constructions in themselves are a sight to behold and are located in the heart of the city. Other popular museums include the Irkutsk Regional Memorial Museum of the Decembrists and those on special topics.
Two special tourist attractions, both located on the outskirts of the city, are the ‘Angara’ icebreaker museum and the Sanitary Landfill Museum. The first, one of the world’s first icebreakers, was at work on Lake Baikal from 1900 to 1962. The Landfill Museum is the Siberian version of the famous Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India. The outdoor installation, which aims to promote sustainable practices, has installations made from waste.
Animal lovers should visit the nerpinario or sealarium, that is, the aquarium of the seals. The freshwater seal, known as the nerpa, is found in Lake Baikal.
Within the city, the well-maintained embankments of the river are also popular places to relax among locals and tourists. On the banks of the Angara, take a look at the majestic monument to Tsar Alexander III that was installed to commemorate his conception of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Another monument with historical importance is one of Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who was considered the supreme ruler of Russia by the counter-revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War (1918-1920). His execution by the Bolsheviks in Irkutsk in early 1920 proved to be a turning point in the conflict.
Tree-lined streets lined with old wooden houses with exquisite traditional Siberian architecture are also rare delights in the city. The imposing Stalinist architecture is in the middle.
The prime spot for taking selfies is before the sculpture of a mythological monster called Babr, which has become the striking symbol of Irkutsk.
Outdoor activities such as hiking and boating are abundant, especially in and around Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pribaikalsky National Park, which borders the pristine lake for more than 400 km, is rich in biodiversity.
If you come to Irkutsk in winter, don’t miss the Ice Sculpture Festival on Lake Baikal. Other winter entertainment popular in other parts of Siberia include ice fishing, reindeer racing, and dog sledding.
How to travel
In Irkutsk and in other Russian cities there are many public transport options. The city has trams, trolleybuses, taxis in addition to taxis and buses. Marshrutka (van used as shared taxi) is highly trusted by the public as they are affordable and provide last mile connectivity. Self-balancing personal transporters are also popular.
Most of the city’s tourist attractions are nearby and mostly in and around the center.
The bus station (avtovokzal) is in the center of the city.
ALERT: Those who venture to remote parts of Siberia or northern Russia should be prepared to face dangerous terrain; mud paths; rides on frozen bodies of water, including rivers and permafrost (soil that is permanently frozen); mandatory winter closures of certain sections, especially in areas in subarctic zones; threats posed by wild animals; very long nights etc.
Where to stay
Irkutsk has ample places to stay for tourists. Hotels and hostels are available. The iconic Soviet-era Angara hotel is located in the heart of the city, Kirov Square, near the large administration building of the Irkutsk region. This hotel is a mini entertainment zone in itself with restaurants serving European, Russian, Japanese or Chinese food; a bar; pool club; supermarket and a number of other facilities. Kirov Park is just opposite.
Food: varied fare
With rivers and lakes nearby and seas not far away, Irkutsk or any other Siberian city has a good selection of seafood. Traditional Russian, Siberian and European foods are also available in Irkutsk restaurants. Mongolian and Japanese cuisines are also offered. Foodies should head to the 130th Kvartal (neighbourhood), a busy street lined with restaurants, cafes, and bars housed in ornate old wooden buildings. Souvenir shops and art galleries are in the middle.
The weather and what to wear
Siberia is three times larger than India and Russia is about five times larger than India. In such a huge area that comprises about 9% of the Earth’s land surface, the climate could vary in several places. As for the weather, in general, you can expect freezing cold throughout the year, but not all parts, except the polar and subpolar areas, will always be covered in snow. In 1933, Oymyakon recorded -67.7°C; this is the lowest temperature ever recorded in any human settlement if research stations in Antarctica are excluded.
If you arrive in Irkutsk at the end of September, bring a waterproof jacket, gloves, thermal clothing, and winter boots. Snow boots are essential if you are heading to remote polar or sub-polar areas.
Lately, Irkutsk and other parts of Siberia have been witnessing erratic weather patterns.
how to reach
You can get to Irkutsk by plane or by train along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Irkutsk International Airport and Irkutsk Railway Station are very close to the city center. The train journey from Moscow to Irkutsk takes about 4 days.
Irkutsk is 5 hours ahead of Moscow time. Other Siberian cities, including Krasnoyarsk, Yakutsk and Novosibirsk, also have air connectivity, but disruptions and flight delays are expected as winter progresses.