The history of Irkutsk’s foundation dates back to 1661, when a Russian pioneer named Yakov Pokhabov built a stockaded town (‘ostrog’ in Russian) on the right bank of Angara River, the only river flowing out of Lake Baikal. But the ostrog gained official town rights from the government only in 1686.
With the construction of the Siberian Road between Moscow and Irkutsk in 1760, town’s economy prospered. And when Siberia was administratively divided in 1821, Irkutsk became the seat of East Siberia’s Governor-General.
In 1820s, after the Decembrist revolt against the Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, many Russian artists, officers and nobles were exiled to Siberia, and for them Irkutsk became the major center of intellectual and social life. In fact, much of the Irkutsk’s cultural heritage, such as the old wooden houses, adorned with hand-carved decorations, comes from them.
There was one exiled man for every two locals in Irkutsk by the end of the 19th century. For many years people of different backgrounds lived in Irkutsk, influencing the culture as well as the development of the city. Eventually, the result was that Irkutsk became a prosperous cultural and educational center in Eastern Siberia.
In 1879 a major fire took place in Irkutsk. It destroyed city’s administrative and municipal offices as well as other building, including the library, the museum of the Russian Georgraphical Society’s Siberian section.
The fire destroyed the three-quarters of the city, but with the arriving of electricity in 1896, Irkutsk quickly recovered. In 1898, the first Trans-Siberian train arrived in the city, and by 1900, it earned the nickname of “The Paris of Siberia.”
Today, Irkutsk is listed as one of the historical cities of Russia, although its original look is lost and gone. Especially, after the fire of 1879. Before the tragic event the structures in the city mainly remained wooden. By the end of 2011, there were 761 monuments of wooden architecture in Irkutsk. But the objects of cultural heritage are widely endangered nowadays. Between 2004 and 2011 over 300 such sites were destroyed. And just as in the city of Tomsk, wooden houses here are endangered by regular arson.
The 1,779 km long Angara River, the only river flowing out the Lake Baikal and the tributary of the Yenisey River, flows through Irkutsk. It leaves the Baikal near Listvyanka, passed through Irkutsk Oblast and Krasnoyarsk Krai, and near Strelka it falls into the Yenisey.
After spending six days on the road hitchhiking from Moscow to Siberia and crossing more than 5200 km I finally arrived in the city of Irkutsk, one of the biggest cities in East Siberia. A good sister of mine was waiting here for me, with whom we were going to hitchhike to Ulan-Ude and the Lake Baikal together. But before hitting the road, we spent one day in Irkutsk, and I had the chance to explore the city.