The Paris of Siberia

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Russia  , Irkutsk,
Saturday, December 31, 2005

Irkutsk was founded in 1651 as a fort town to control the local northern Mongol people, and later became eastern Siberia's administrative centre, through gold rushes and the formalisation of trading routes (mainly furs, silk, ivory and timber) between China, Tibet, Mongolia and Russia. It also benefited greatly from the exile of aristocratic figues and Polish rebels (much of Poland used to be a part of Russia) from the west in the 19th century who promoted the arts and education and oversaw the development of a rich architectural heritage that eventually resulted in the label "The Paris of Siberia" being applied to the city.

Much of this heritage still remains despite Communist demolition of buildings deemed to be 'without historical significance' in the 1930s, such as the huge and probably beautiful cathedral which once stood adjacent to the pretty central park. However Irkutsk now has major social problems that lurk behind the attractive exterior. Still, it was relatively safe in the lead up to Sylvestr (New Years Eve) as police were out in force in the central areas of town.

City guide Stas gave us an excellent tour around the main cultural areas which are particularly photogenic in the thick blanket of snow that covers them in December. The Church of the Savour, the oldest building in town (top left) was a standout, but no more so than the un-named but cute little orthodox church peeking out of the whiteness (above right and below left).

Another standout (sore thumb?) was the Regional Administration building, a massive granite structure very much in the old school Soviet design. On the rear face is the official Shrine of Remembrance for the Great Patriotic War (the Russian term for WW2 and referring to the years from 1941-45), where an eternal flame burns in the courtyard and schoolchildren from the region each devote 15 minutes a year to stand as honour guards for the fallen. A bizarre sight indeed, but obviously the state still takes its memorial seriously.

Away from the centre you get more of a taste of the real Russia. Gorgeous women dressed to the nines glide up frozen sidewalks, click-clacking on stiletto heels without concern over the icy surface. Soviet-era buses clatter up the road past delapadated wooden mansions and more modern outdoor poker machine stands (is gambling a virtue here?). Pumping dance music emanates from bars and restaurants on every second corner, at any time of day (everyone seems to listen to electronic music, regardless of age). Few people smile, it's too cold.

However after dark the lights turn on and the people hit the streets. A maze of giant illuminated ice sculptures, this year commemorating buildings no longer found around town, have transformed the central park into a neon playground for the young and young at heart. Many sculptures have slides built into them, so teenagers with half litre beer cans in hand slide precariously down them on their feet and almost wipe out their friends at the bottom. Large bore fireworks lit unofficially explode like artillery above your head. Groups of police and drunk people walk by, each as disconcerting as the other.

Still, no-one pays you much mind and there are other things to do and see around town. I checked out a few tastefully lit buildings before retiring to dinner with Leigh and Amanda for pasta and a huge glass of sweet Bulgarian red wine, proving that there's potential for a first for anything anywhere. Despite my less than enthusiastic tone in proceeding paragraphs we did have a pretty good time here and are looking forward to future stops of our Russian itinerary (maybe not the upcoming 72 hour train ride however).

Finally, we like to once again thank Stas the BaikalComplex manager and part-time guide. We hope you enjoyed getting out from behind the desk and as you did a mighty fine job showing us Lake Baikal and Irkutsk and Amanda, Leigh and I will remember you fondly when looking back on this trip. As it's now leading up to New Year we shall start drinking your top shelf Vodka present, which was a great finishing touch to our time with you. Cheers mate.

Max the Cat

A quick word for the cutest cat I've seen since leaving Sasha at home six months ago. Love your work mate.

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