Irkutsk Oblast is known best for occupying the western shores of Lake Baikal and being the home of Irkutsk city, arguably the most charming and picturesque city in Siberia. The fifth largest state-like entity in Russia, Irkutsk Oblast covers 767,900 square kilometers (296,500 square miles), is home to about 2.4 million people and has a population density of 3.2 people per square kilometer. About 80 percent of the population live in urban areas.The city of Irkutsk is the capital and largest city, with about 624,,000 people.

Visitors to Irkutsk Oblast can explore the realm of the shamans on Olkhon Island, travel along the Circum-Baikal Railway, enjoy Irkutsk's ancient architecture, see the famous Baikal seal and taste the delicious Baikal omul. As a general rule, most journeys to Lake Baikal start in the Irkutsk Region. Lying in the extreme continental climate zone, the region is characterized by the temperatures reaching up to -40°C in the winter and up to +30°C in the summer. As long as you are prepared weather shouldn’t stop you and Lake Baikal and other sights in the oblast is magnificent any time of the year.

Summer is perfect for basking in the sun on Maloe More’s white sand beaches, traveling along the Circum-Baikal Railway and visiting architectural sights in Irkutsk city. Spring and fall seasons are most suited for walks on Olkhon Island. Fishing enthusiasts try to catch omul and whitefish in Lake Baikal. In the winter, you can take a long walk on Lake Baikal itself — the ice is over a meter thick — or run in the Lake Baikal marathon, with the entire 26.2 miles on ice. When the Trans-Siberian Railway was first built, tracks were laid on the lake’s ice during winter to traverse the lake. After a train broke through the ice and plunged into the lake, there was greater incentive to blast tunnels through the mountains south of the lake so railway could go there.

Irkutsk is one the main regions of Eastern Siberia, which is roughly defined by the Yenisei River to the west, the Arctic Ocean to the north, Mongolia to the south and the Far East to the east. Covered by tundra in the north and taiga forest to the south, it is a sparely populated area. Most people live along the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway, Lake Baikal or the Lena River.

Getting There: Irkutsk city is a major stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway and main hub for the region for other kinds of transportation. By Plane The flight from Moscow takes about five hours and costs a round-trip ticket costs around RUB 15,700. Aeroflot ( and S7 Airlines ( fly from Moscow to Irkutsk. By Train: Railways connect the main cities of Irkutsk Region with all regions of Russia and the former Soviet Union. A place in a compartment on a sleeping train from Moscow and back costs from RUB 15,700 per person. The one-way journey takes 3 days and 9 hours.

See Separate Articles on LAKE BAIKAL

Irkutsk City

Irkutsk City (kilometer 5191 on the Trans-Siberian Railway, about 55 kilometers upstream from Lake Baikal) is arguably the nicest city in Siberia. Located on the Angara River, not far from Mongolian border, it is home to 630,000 people and still retains a pioneer flavor and has a strong Asian influence. The river is frozen and snow is on the ground as late as May. Chekhov called Irkutsk a “thoroughly refined town” when he visited it. Outside the city is some of the loveliest scenery in Russia.

The city of Irkutsk is the capital and largest city in Irkutsk Oblast and the historical and cultural center of Eastern Siberia. The nice parts of Irkutsk are fairly concentrated. The city still has its industrial sections but they can be avoided. Its main cathedral was torn down in the Soviet era to make way for a Communist party headquarters. There are number of universities and technical schools in Irkutsk, which has a reputation for being a youthful town. The northern side of town is rough. There is a lot of heroin use and high HIV rate there. But all and all, especially by Russian and Siberian standards, Irkutsk is a real gem of place.

Once called the Paris of the East, Irkutsk is crossed by four rivers (Angara, Irkout, Ushakovka, Kaia) on a plateau surrounded in some places by rugged terrain. Near the city you can find steppe, forest-steppe, taiga, mountain taiga. Irkutsk is major crossroads. It is an important stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It also serves as a key refueling stop form planes making long flights across Siberia. There were crashes in the Irkutsk area in 1994, 1997 and 2001. Local transportation includes buses, trams, trolleys and taxis. The busy market features Chinese peddlers selling cheap clothing, batteries and VCRs. Bars have names like Good Beer, icons are sold at corner kiosks. Irkutsk also boasts its own circus, Philharmonic Hall and large stadium.

Accommodation: The 4-star Courtyard Marriott Irkutsk City Center Hotel is located in the heart of Irkutsk. A deluxe twin room costs RUB 5,580, breakfast included. The 3-star Angara hotel with rooms starting from RUB 3,600 is located on the Angara River embankment in the center of Irkutsk. The quieter 4-star Zvezda boutique hotel offers accommodation from RUB 4,490. There are travel agencies in Irkutsk that arranges homestays at various places around town.

Angara River is the only river flowing from Lake Baikal and the largest right tributary of the Yenisei River It flows through Irkutsk City and the Irkutsk region and the Krasnoyarsk region. The area of the river basin is 1,040,000 square kilometers and without the basin of Lake Baikal it is 468,000 square kilometers. The river belongs to the Angara-Baikal basin district. The length of the watercourse is 1,779 kilometers.

Over three hundred rivers fall into Lake Baikal but only one flows out: the Angara. The outflow of Lake Baikal and the source of the Angara is near Listvyanka Village, 70 kilometers from Irkutsk. There a stone tower sits above the water. According to legend, Father Baikal threw this rock after his disobedient daughter, the beautiful Angara. Despite her father's admonitions, she went to her fiancée, the Yenisei, after moving apart the mountains surrounding the lake.

History of Irkutsk

The diversity and fertility of the landscape around present-day Irkutsk made it possible to use the land from time prehistoric times. In the Irkutsk there are more than 60 fossil an early man sites complexes, including archaeological sites dating to the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Ages.

Founded by Cossacks in 1661 to subdue the rebellious Buryats, Irkutsk was used as a base for exploration into Siberia and became a major trading center in tsarist times when it mainly funneled Siberian furs and ivory from mammoth tusks as well as silk, porcelain and tea from China to the aristocracy in the east. Trade routes with Yakutia, Kamchatka and Russian America started here.

The name of the city came from the name of the Irkut River, which flows into the Angara where the first fort was founded in 1661 by Yakov Pokhabov The place was considered ideal because the land was fertile, the forests around it were full of game, and the water was full of fish. Its location at the intersection of the main trade routes didn’t hurt either. In Irkutsk received city status very early, in 1686. By 1719 it had become an important religious center. When the Moscow route was established fairs began to take place and factories, mills, breweries and a cloth hall for shops were built.

In the first half of the 19th century, Irkutsk became the administrative and cultural center of a vast territory, from the Yenisei to the Pacific Ocean. Expeditions to the Far East, to Yakutia, Mongolia, China, to Alaska, including Vitus Bering’s first and second expeditions carried out on behalf of Russian tsarist government were organized in Irkutsk. Caravan trade routes to Mongolia and China passed through the city as did emissaries traveling between Moscow and Beijing.

Many fur traders and merchants who got rich from the trade built lavish homes. Much of the city was burned o the ground in a great fire in 1879 that lasted for three days. The city was reborn when gold was discovered in the Kena River basin in the 1880s. Many of the fancy stone and brick houses in the city date back to this period. When the Trans-Siberian Railway opened up it became a major way station for trains bringing gold from western Siberia and tea and silk from China.

With the high number of merchants it is not surprising that Irkutsk became a key White stronghold during the Russian Civil War. Irkutsk changed administration twice during the civil war: first the city was briefly held by the Russian supreme ruler. But the Reds ultimately prevailed and the Whites were crushed in January 1920 when their leader Admiral Kolchak was captured and executed. During the Soviet period, the Angara River was dammed and the city was further industrialized. But at the same time, the city center retained its original layout.

Decembrists in Irkutsk

Irkutsk has a strong association with the Decembrists. One of the earliest Russian revolutionary groups, the Decembrists launched a day-long revolt on December, 14, 1825 with the goal of overthrowing tsar Nicholas I. Hastily launched after Alexander I's death, the revolt was put down by tsarist troops who first tried peaceful methods and then opened fire with artillery, leaving dozens of dead and wounded in St. Petersburg's Senate Square, where the revolt took place. Many of the participants in the revolt were idealistic young aristocrats, who called for an end to the monarchy, freedom for serfs and the establishment of a constitutional government. Stirred by ideas of freedom and equality put forth by the American and French Revolutions, the rebels also included noblemen, military officers, philosophers and poets. The average age of the ones arrested was 26. Over 100 Decembrist men that were captured were sent to Siberian camps, where they survived with the help of their wives and lovers, who made the 4,000-mile, three-month journey to join them. The Decembrists were exiled to several Siberian towns and cities but some of the most prominent ones ended up in Irkutsk.

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “Prince Sergei Trubetskoy...was one of the leaders of the revolutionaries whose failed uprising of December 14, 1825, earned them the name Decembrists. Their plan, not thoroughly thought out, was to depose the tsar and establish a constitutional form of government; when the moment for action came, they collectively balked. Had the coup succeeded, Trubetskoy was supposed to become the country’s interim dictator. Many of his comrades saw him as a George Washington figure. By logic, after the movement was crushed Trubetskoy should have been among the ones hanged. The loftiness of his family—in nobility, the Trubetskoys ranked just below the tsar—and the fact that his mother was a lady-in-waiting to the tsarina no doubt saved his life. Like many other Decembrists, Trubetskoy was sent to Siberia. His wife, Ekaterina, followed him into exile. For twelve years, he served his sentence of hard labor in prison settlements east of Lake Baikal, and in 1839 he was allowed to relocate with his family nearer to Irkutsk, where he later moved and built this house.” [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

Another prominent Irkutsk Decembrist was Sergei Volkonsky, “whose nobility of birth equalled Trubetskoy’s. The Volkonsky family descended from a prince, later a saint of the Orthodox Church, who fought the Mongols in the thirteenth century; Sergei Volkonsky’s mother, Aleksandra Repnina, also happened to be the tsar’s mother’s highest-ranking lady-in-waiting and closest friend. Like Ekaterina Trubetskaya, Maria, the young wife of Sergei Volkonsky, voluntarily shared his exile. Nekrasov’s poem “Russian Women,” in praise of the Decembrist wives, compared Maria Volkonskaya to a saint. Pushkin rhapsodized that her hair was more lustrous than daylight and darker than night. Tolstoy, whose mother was a Volkonsky, and who came from the generation that followed the Decembrists, thought so highly of Sergei Volkonsky that he is said to have based Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in “War and Peace” on him and to have used the letters and journals that Volkonsky wrote during the Napoleonic Wars in creating the character.

“For a while, Tolstoy planned to write a book about the Decembrists, but he set the idea aside because all official papers relating to them were in secret archives and thus unavailable for his research. After the revolution of 1905, when documents withheld under the tsars became accessible, Tolstoy was seventy-seven years old and no longer able to take on such a big project. Why the Decembrists interested him is easy to grasp. Though their revolution fell apart and though their punishment was a humiliation and a waste, the Decembrists were inspiring nonetheless. Of the hundred and some Decembrists found most culpable by the Committee of Inquiry that followed the suppression of the uprising, only ten were over forty years old. Almost all the Decembrists were of the same youthful generation in 1825; and if I had to pick one generation as the greatest in Russian history theirs would be it. Alexander Herzen hailed the Decembrists as “a perfect galaxy of brilliant talent, independent character, and chivalrous valor—a combination new to Russia.” Of those declared the most dangerous—in other words, the most prominent among them—the greater number lived out their lives imprisoned or exiled in Siberia.

Checking Out Irkutsk City

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “On the afternoon of August 27th, we reached Irkutsk, the onetime Paris of Siberia. Since leaving St. Petersburg, we had been on the road for twenty-two days. Irkutsk does kind of look like Paris, it turns out—if you can imagine a Paris with the Seine gigantically expanded to the horizon-filling width of Irkutsk’s Angara, and with diminished buildings and steeples poking up along the river’s distant margins on either side. We drove down the Street of the Events of December, we parked, we bought supplies. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“Seen close up, the city of Irkutsk... resembled the Baikal cliffs’ ancient and weather-beaten windings. During its early years, Irkutsk had grown unplanned, like coral, and when civic improvement tried to bring some order to the confusion the crews sent out for that purpose sometimes sawed houses in half to make crooked streets straight. In much of the city, they still aren’t. A sense of almost microscopic embroidery fills the town’s windingest lanes, where log homes sunk halfway to their eaves in the permafrost draw your attention with decorative woodcarving on shutters and doors and windows as ornate as the finest carved birch jewelry box. And yet almost every house also looked gray and older than old, though never as decrepit as the defiantly ugly high-rises that confront you whenever a big open space from Soviet times scissors across the network of lanes.

“In advertisements posted around the city, I also noticed that Admiral Kolchak, the White Army leader whose attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks ended in Irkutsk with his capture and execution, is now a beer. Admiral Kolchak Beer is brewed locally. I picked up an empty bottle of it that I found. The label has a portrait of the Admiral in his white naval uniform and even provides the history-minded beer drinker with a brief bio, which plays up his heroism in the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War, his polar explorations, and his improvement of the Russian Navy, but makes no mention of his violent exit. A beer garden on Irkutsk’s Angara riverfront sports a long striped awning with the Kolchak Beer logo repeated prominently all along it; maybe the awning is within sight of the place where the corpse of the unlucky Admiral was shoved through the ice back in 1920.”

Historical Center of Irkutsk

The Historical Center of Irkutsk was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998 According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The central part is kept as a system with a clear structure of social orientation. In the neighborhoods of implantation of wooden buildings and properties one can highlight streets and central squares which are of social importance and which are surrounded at the perimeter by stone buildings. The urban accents are temples. They highlight not only important urban nodes but also more beautiful places in the natural landscape - the meanders of rivers, the change in relief. The historical construction of buildings, given the current proportion of wooden houses and stone buildings with the functions of the whole city - this is a unique example of the optimal model of the city in ecological, social and compositional sense. [Source: City Hall of Irkutsk, Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation]

“What characterizes Irkutsk is a large quantity of architectural monuments preserved from different periods and different styles (Siberian baroque, classicism, art nouveau, "Russian style", local traditions, Gothic, Byzantine, Asian, constructivist architectural art) but despite all this does not disturb the unity of the whole city. The wooden architecture also differs in the diversity of style, typology and chronology. It is represented by a remarkable number (more than 500) of authentic constructions which form vast urban complexes according to their surface of which the part is the zone of reserves.

“With the arrival of the Communists in power and the emergence of the Soviet regime, a number of religious establishments were destroyed, new residential areas appeared, but until the 1955s town planning traditionally developed. At the end of the 1950s and in the 1960s, outrageous functional tendencies flourished in Soviet architecture. The separate constructions in the city center appearing in this period completely ignore the historic construction in the surroundings, but there remains the unity of the urban ensemble of the central part of the city. In the 1970s, the first steps were taken to restore architectural monuments - for the moment still rare and unique sites. From 1980 we already traded the restoration of the sites of the city.”

Old Houses and Churches in Irkutsk

Spask Church is regarded as “the swan song of ancient Russian architecture.” There also is an 18th century church, a mosque and a large but crumbling synagogue as well as sumptuous brick mansions that once belonged to rich merchants. A Catholic church built in the 1930s is now used as a concert hall. The working Orthodox monastery has talented choirs and priests performing christening and other ceremonies.

Irkutsk is famous for its 400 or so wood houses, richly decorated with ornate carvings and fretwork around the windows and brightly painted shudders, doors and window frames. Common motifs for both carvings and painting include tulips over the windows, fans and suns on plaited bands, irises on the walls and figures on the edges of roofs. The highest concentration of these houses is between Ulitsa Karla Marxa and Ulitsa Timiryazeva, and on Karla Libtnehta Str, Grjaznova Str., Dekabrskih Sobiti Str, Marat Str., and Gagarina Str. .

Some of the finest houses were built by the millionaire Vtorov brothers. One of their most charming houses is a neo-Russian brick structure at former Ivanovskaya Square. The millionaire Trapeznikov had his houses modeled after the Louvre. The White House (Across the street from the Irkutsk Museum) of the Great Qwarengi was so named because of its “blinding richness.” It is where the Irkutsk governor used to live. Nearby is an obelisk commemorating the anniversary of the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The faces are of famous people in both Russian and Siberia history,

Some of the reconstructed and newly built wooden houses host cafes, restaurants, bars, workshops and exhibition grounds. as well as a planetarium. The square with a statue depicting a “babr” holding a sable in its mouth has become the city's landmark. Babr is an old Russian name for panther, tiger or leopard. This mystical creature features on the coats of arms of Irkutsk City and Irkutsk Oblast.

Decembrists Sights in Irkutsk

Of particular interest to Russians are the old modest Decembrist homes, where revolutionaries sent to labor camps by Nicholas I lived during their exile and after being freed. Some of the houses have museums inside with photographs and are best appreciated with descriptions from a guide. Decembrist Sergey Petrovich Trubetskoy was prince, colonel of Preobrazhensky regiment, the hero of the Patriotic War of 1812, the participant of the overseas military campaigns, one of the initiators of Decembrist uprising. He was supposed to be executed by decapitation but was sentenced to penal servitude, which lasted for 13 years. In Siberia the prince studied peasants, pedagogy, medicine, ornithology, agriculture and the volost (a type of regional subdivision in tsarist Russia) government of Eastern Siberia. He also spent time , gardening and making meteorological observations and participated in the development of gold mines. An exposition in his house tells about the 30-year period of the Decembrists’ exile in Irkutsk.

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “Among the first places we went in Irkutsk was the house (now a museum) built in 1854 for Prince Sergei Trubetskoy...For twelve years, he served his sentence of hard labor in prison settlements east of Lake Baikal, and in 1839 he was allowed to relocate with his family nearer to Irkutsk, where he later moved and built this house. Though it may have been one of the grander houses of Irkutsk in its day, it is not overly fancy, but suggests instead the elegance of curtailed excess and of cultured taste making the best of materials at hand. The house has a brick foundation supporting smoothly joined logs that have been planed square and fitted together horizontally. Single-story wings on either side balance a central, peaked-roof section that rises to a tall second story. The over-all effect is of an eccentric Greek-revival style married to the skill and intricacy of Russian-village woodworking. I thought I’d never seen a better-looking house. I wanted to find out what it was like inside, but unfortunately it was closed for renovation when we were there. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

Prince Sergey Grigorievich Volkonsky — a major-general and hero of the Patriotic War of 1812 — was sentenced to 20 years of penal servitude. He spent 30 years in Irkutsk, 18 years (1838-1856) in mansion that is now a museum. Built in accordance with the traditions of the classical nobility mansions at that time, the house had places where the literature and music were enjoyed and theatrical parties were conducted and served as hang out for the Decembrists in Irkutsk and Siberia., The mansion has been restored so it looks as it did in the mid 19th century. It now houses the historic-memorial museum of the Decembrists that contains original belongings and hosts “Decembrists’ evening parties”, “Night in the Museum” and “Pushkin’s Days”. Shrovetide, is celebrated just as it was in the the time of the Decembrists. In the nearby square there is the monument to the wives of the Decembrists.

The Volkonsky house-museum is a block away from Trubetskoy house-museum. Frazier wrote: “The house of Sergei large and imposing, in a Russian château style, though it’s not a work of art like the Trubetskoys’. Its exhibits consist mainly of portraits and photographs of the Volkonsky family and the families of other Decembrists. The elderly lady guide who took us through gave us the biographical details of everybody. Zinaida Trubetskaya, born to Sergei and Ekaterina in Siberia in 1837, survived to 1924, long enough to receive a government pension granted by Lenin himself in honor of her revolutionary father. Among the ancillary characters, the museum also displayed the only picture I’d ever come across of Georges-Charles D’Anthès, the French Army officer and ballroom roué who killed Pushkin in a duel. Had there been matinée idols in D’Anthès’s day, he could have been one, with his wavy blond hair.

“Elsewhere on my Irkutsk ramblings, I came across the graves of Ekaterina Trubetskaya and three of her children at Znamenskii Monastery. In the first years of the Decembrists’ imprisonment, Katya Trubetskaya had been everybody’s morale-builder, with her good humor and levelheadedness, but after her children began to die and her own health failed she became indifferent to life, and she died about two years before the amnesty declared by Tsar Alexander II, on the occasion of his coronation, in 1856. Her death stunned her husband; when he went back to western Russia, he said goodbye forever to her grave.

Museums in Irkutsk

The Irkutsk Museum has interesting exhibits on ethnic groups such as the Evenk and Buryat that live in the area. The Irkutsk Art Museum, with a fine collection of Siberia art and Chinese porcelain.

Museum of Indigenous People is housed in the Church of the Savior. It has an with excellent display on Siberia art and culture, including an exhibition on shamanism, hunting and clothing of indigenous people, and a collection of stuffed animals.

Museum of Navigation , housed in the Angara, a British-built ice breaker brought in pieces by railroad and used before the Trans-Siberian was built around Lake Baikal. The museum has an ice pick used to kill 31 people and a fishing net made from cannabis plants. Visitors can also check out the engine rooms of the icebreaker.

Museum of the History of JSC Irkutsk Aircraft Production Association was founded in 1968 in an aircraft plant operated in the Soviet era by the IAPA security forces. Secrecy during Soviet times left it mark on the exposition, which is not subject to the publication of technical documents, photographs and other exhibits shops. In general, the history of the plant in the museum - is the story of the people.

The museum attracts attention as a museum of the largest enterprise in Eastern Siberia.

Irkutsk Nerpinary

Irkutsk Nerpinary was founded in 2004. The ringed seal is difficult to see in its natural habitat as it tends to hide and is frightened easily. But you can meet this animal at the Irkutsk Nerpinary. The Baikal ringed seal is a living symbol of the lake, one of the most beautiful of its inhabitants and the only species of mammals that live in the lake. In addition, it is one of the three species of freshwater seals in the world; it is endemic to Lake Baikal and found nowhere else.

The Nerpinary provides special conditions necessary for the well-being of the animals. There are special refrigeration units that maintain the water temperature at the required level. In the winter, the water has to be four degrees Celsius, and in the summer, six degrees. The Nerpinary runs a show of trained ringed seals. They can sing, dance a waltz, play with a ball and even count. You can also watch a seal painting and then place a bid to buy this work of art. An auction is held as part of the show.

Visitors are not allowed to take photos of the animals because they are naturally very shy and are afraid of flashes, so they can dive to the bottom of the pool and not emerge on the surface for a long time. However, there is a solution for those who want to take a photo with a Baikal seal. A seal cub named Laska was trained for this purpose. It got used to cameras and human attention from an early age.

Baikal seals become performers by accident. Most of them were rescued by tourists or locals in the winter. Seals often come to the surface through holes in the ice, but do not always manage to find their way back to the water before the hole gets covered with ice. Locals pick up the animals and transport them to the Nerpinary.

Near Irkutsk

Irkutsk lies 55 kilometers away from Lake Baikal. Mountain massifs of the Eastern Sayan Mountains start in the southwest of the city, the Primorsky and Baikal ranges lie in the east. Tourist agencies has a range of tours from the nearby Listvyanka settlement, among them a six-day cruise on Lake Baikal, a seven day trek in the Siberian taiga, as well as one-day hiking and motor boast excursions. There are many other tourist itineraries in the region, among them an overnight horseback tour along the taiga trails and another nature hike across the Sayan Mountains.

Zima (kilometer 4940 in the Trans-Siberian, four hours from Irkutsk) lies on the fringe of the Barguzin region at the point where the Trans-Siberian Railway crosses the Oka River.. It is a grim places with 42,000 people. It produces plastics, is a trading center for sable hunters and was the birthplace of the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Shishkin Pisanitsa (255 kilometers from Irkutsk, not far from the village of Kachug) is a series of petroglyphs made on rocks along the bank of the Lena River. The cliffs have images of animals and mythical creatures as well as hunting and military campaign scenes. The figures are either painted with ochre or carved into rock.

Taltsy Architectural and Ethnographic Open-air Museum

Taltsy Architectural and Ethnographic Open-air Museum (On the Angara River between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, 47 kilometers southeast of Irkutsk) is a unique collection of monuments of history, architecture, and ethnography. The museum welcomed its first visitors in 1980. The museum is situated on the 47th kilometer of the Baikal highway, on the picturesque right bank of the Angara river in the Taltsin nature area.

Taltsy Architectural and Ethnographic Open-air Museum contains a collection of well-preserved and restored 17th- to 19th-century churches, watchtowers, farmhouses plus a massive stockade. Nearby is a grave of "wishing trees" where people tie bits of clothes for good luck. The road to the museum was built in two months in 1960 in preparation for a visit by U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, who ended up canceling the trip because of the U-2 spy plane incident.

The museum has retrospectively recreated four historic and cultural zones: the Russian, Buryat, Evenki, and Tofalar. Buryats, Evenkis, and Tofalars are the indigenous populations of the Baikal area. Their way of life, unique practices, and beliefs are told by the Evenki and Tofalar camping grounds, the complex of Evenki burial grounds, and the Buryat summer nomad camp.

The motion to create such a museum followed the construction of a hydroelectric power station on the Angara river and the consequent flooding of the Angara and Ilim rivers. Three-hundred-year-old villages that stood on the banks of these rivers were about to be submerged. So in 1966 a decision was taken to organize a museum of wooden architecture. It was crucial to save the ancient monuments of Siberian religious and utilitarian wooden architecture, such as the Spasskaya Gate Tower and the Kazanskaya Gate Chapel of the Ilimskiy prison.

The Taltsy Museum traditionally holds folk festivities in observance of Easter, the Maslenitsa festival, the Savior of the Apple Feast day, and Trinity Sunday. The museum serves as a gathering place for masters of weaving, wickerwork, birchbark crafts, and pottery. Several of the museum's peasant houses serve as workshops where masters share the secrets of their craft and demonstrate their creations.

Baikul-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM)

Baikul-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) breaks off from the Trans-Siberian Railway at Tayshet, about 700 kilometers west of Lake Baikal and passes through Ust-Kut on the Lena River and Severobaikalsk north of Lake Baikal, and keeps going to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast about 600 kilometers north of Vladivostok.

The BAM traverses Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. It is 4,324 kilometers (2,687 miles) long and runs about 610 to 770 kilometers (380 to 480 miles) north of and parallel to the Trans-Siberian railway. The BAM was built as a strategic alternative route to the Trans-Siberian Railway, who sections close to the border with China are viewed as vulnerable to cutting .

The BAM is an astounding engineering feet and was much more difficult to build that the Trans-Siberian. It cuts through 5 mountain ranges and virgin forests, spans 17 rivers and large swamps and crosses vast stretches of permafrost. It traverses region where winter last for nine months of the year and temperature regularly drop below -50 degrees F. Thousands died making it.

BAM was built at a cost of around $15 billion (some say $60 billion) It was constructed with special, durable tracks since much of it lies over permafrost. Over a million trees were felled, 2,400 bridges were built, and seven long tunnels were carved through mountains. Railway builders had to deal with permafrost, avalanches, mudslides and earthquakes. The permafrost in some of the mountains created huge challenges for tunnel builders. In some places holes were drilled in the mountains and concrete was poured in to keep tunnels from collapsing.

BAM was built to harvest the great timber, coal, gold, mineral and petroleum wealth of northern Siberia. Construction began in 1930 and was abandoned in World War II when the rails were taken away and used in industry. Construction was restarted in 1974 and the first line became operational in 1989.

The rail lines were little used. So much money was spent on building the railway there was little left over to developed the industry it was built for. Settlements along the tracks have become ghost towns. Some are no more than foundations. There are few opportunities for passenger travel on the railway. There are few places to stop and little to see but taiga forests.

A major improvement was the opening of the 15.3-kilometer (9.5 mile) Severomuysky Tunnel in 2003. It is up to 1.5 kilometers (nearly 1 mile) deep. Construction took 27 years to complete. Prior to this, the corresponding route segment was 54 kilometers (34 mile) long, with heavy slopes necessitating the use of auxiliary bank engine locomotives.


Tayshet(kilometer 4522 on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, about 670 kilometers west-northwest of Irkutsk) is a town with 70,000. It is where the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway branches off from the Trans-Siberian and heads north to Bratsk and Severobailask.

Tayshet was founded in 1897 as a supply point and station on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Its railway station is a major railway junction. Not only does the BAM start here the Abakan-Taishet Railway to Khakassia and Tuva also starts here. The town is also on the M53 Highway (Moscow to Irkutsk).

During the 1930s–1950s, Tayshet was the center of administration for gulag labor camps Ozerlag and Angarstroy. Construction of the first section of the Baikal–Amur Mainline started in 1937 and was managed from here. According to some survivor accounts, between Tayshet and Bratsk there is "a dead man under every sleeper." The forced laborers included Japanese prisoners from the Kwantung Army and German prisoners of war. With 25 year sentences.


Bratsk (about 160 kilometers from Tayshet on the BAM railway) is a city of 280,000 established on the Angara River to take advantage of the huge Bratsk Hydroelectric Station, a project that generates so much electricity an aluminum smelter, a paper mill and other factories were built to use some of it. Consequently the city has some of the worst air pollution in Russia.

Sights include the dam and power station (the tours are expensive), the Padun neighborhood (with a pleasant promenade and some e wooden buildings), and Angara Village (an open-air ethnographic museum with a reconstructed Evenk camp).

Bratsk is somewhat of a travel center for trips into the taiga. There are hiking, canoeing and rafting opportunities. Three and 10-day tours for cross-country skiers that provide an unusual opportunity to track and photograph wild animals in the taiga snow.

Angara River is the only river flowing from Lake Baikal and the largest right tributary of the Yenisei River It flows through Irkutsk City and the Irkutsk region and the Krasnoyarsk region. The area of the river basin is 1,040,000 square kilometers and without the basin of Lake Baikal it is 468,000 square kilometers. The river belongs to the Angara-Baikal basin district. The length of the watercourse is 1,779 kilometers.

Over three hundred rivers fall into Lake Baikal but only one flows out: the Angara. The outflow of Lake Baikal and the source of the Angara is near Listvyanka Village, 70 kilometers from Irkutsk. There a stone tower sits above the water. According to legend, Father Baikal threw this rock after his disobedient daughter, the beautiful Angara. Despite her father's admonitions, she went to her fiancée, the Yenisei, after moving apart the mountains surrounding the lake.

Bratsk Hydropower Plant

Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station is the second of the cascade of hydroelectric power stations on the Angara River, the leader in Eurasia in terms of the total electricity output since the start of the first unit.

The Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station construction was decided on in September 1954, and on December 21, 1954, preparatory works have begun. The first hydroelectric unit was launched on November 28, 1961. In September 1967, the State Commission adopted the Bratsk hydro-power plant for permanent operation with an “excellent” rating. By 1970, the station paid for the costs of its construction.

Due to the unique in terms of volume and fairly stable water resources of Lake Baikal and the Bratsk water reservoir, the Bratskaya HPP plays an important role in the economic development of the eastern regions of the country. The abundance of electricity near the richest natural resources of these regions is the key to successfully reaching the nationwide goal of harmonious development of the country's productive forces and has an exceptional role in ensuring the stable and reliable functioning of the energy association of Siberia. January 13, 2010, at 9.57 in the morning, Bratskaya HPP produced a trillionth kilowatt-hour of electricity. This is a record not only for the hydropower industry of Siberia, but for Russia as a whole.

Bratskoye Reservoir (near Bratsk) is the world's largest artificial lake in terms of volume. It has a volume of 169 cubic kilometers (40.6 cubic miles), a surface area of 5470 square kilometers (2,111 square miles), and is 600 kilometers (372 miles) long and 34 kilometers (21 miles) wide.

Angara Village Architectural and Ethnographic Museum

Angara Village Architectural and Ethnographic Museum (12 kilometers from Bratsk) is an open-air museum of the translocated type, exhibiting unique monuments of history and architecture of the northwestern Pre-Baikal between 17th and 20th centuries. It is located on the shore of the Bratsk water reservoir.

The museum consists of two sectors, Russian and Evenki. Construction of the hydropower station on the Angara River threatened to wipe a whole page of Siberian history with the residential, economic, religious and defense buildings of Russian settlers. The purpose of creating a museum in the open air in Bratsk was to preserve monuments of ancient wooden architecture for the descendants.

The project of the Angara village was developed under the guidance of the architect A.P. Opolovnikov, a connoisseur of folk wooden architecture. The first monument transported to the museum was the tower of the Bratsk prison. Exhibits of special significance are monuments of peasant architecture: huts, barns, roofs of a unique tackless construction and trims with antique carvings.


Ust-Kut (between Bratsk and Lake Baikal on the BAM railway, 961 kilometers north of Irkutsk) is a port on the Lena River with 45,000 people. Founded in 1631, it is a jumping off point for trips on the Lena River, There isn't much to see in the city itself other than a shipbuilding works, museum and mud baths.

Ust-Kut is in Irkutsk Oblast. Located on a western loop of the Lena River, the town spreads out for over 20 kilometers mi) along the left bank, near the point where the Kuta River joins the Lena from the west. Ust-Kut's economy is closely tied with it position as a transport hub, with the connection of road and rail transport with river traffic on the Lena. During the summer months, passenger ferries depart downriver from Ust-Kut to Yakutsk and Tiksi. There is a road bridge over the river in Ust-Kut. There are also shipyards and food production in the town.

Ust-Kut has several stations on the Baikal–Amur Mainline railway with the main station Lena near the river port in Osetrovo. At the small settlement of Yakurim a few kilometers further, the railway crosses the Lena via a 500-meter (1,600 ft) bridge, currently the last bridge across the river for its entire length. The town is served by the Ust-Kut Airport, nine kilometers northwest of the town center.

Ust-Kut was founded in 1631 by Siberian Cossack ataman Ivan Galkin, who built an ostrog (fort) there. The fort's military importance declined in the latter half of the 17th century buts its fortune rose when it became an important river port and trade center along the Lena. In the early 20th century Ust-Kut served as a destination for political exiles, most notably Leon Trotsky. In 1951, the railway from Tayshet reached Ust-Kut. The town thus became the first and only river port on the Lena served by a railway. Ust-Kut remained the end of the line until 1974, when construction of the BAM railway began and the town served as the headquarters of the construction of the western section of the BAM.


Severobailask (on the north shore of Lake Baikal and reach by the BAM Railway) is a town of 35,000 that was created almost from scratch in the 1970s to accommodate the BAM railway and its workforce. A large percentage if the population still lives in what was supposed to be temporary housing. There isn't much to see other than a local museum, with exhibits on the BAM and stuff from local tribes, and an art gallery but boat, trekking, kayak and bicycle trips in the Lake Baikal region can be organized here.

Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: Severobaikalsk is “a town on the northern tip, the lake is almost entirely unpopulated. Among the exceptions is our boat’s owner, Aleksandr. He lives in a seasonal settlement at Cape Zavorotny, once a Soviet quartzite mining settlement built beside a lagoon. We climbed into the hills, along the old mining road, with his son, Vladimir, who gathered berries and pine nuts, which we ate sitting beside a swollen river tumbling out of the last packs of snow. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, July 8, 2007]

“The village has the broken-down look of a Soviet outpost, complete with the rusting equipment and detritus of government economic folly, but the location was spectacular. Here the mountains rise starkly from the shoreline, creating a serrated line of plush green peaks. A large swath of land north of Olkhon is a preserve, full of bears and other wildlife.

“In June, Leonid said that bears, fresh from hibernation, descend on the shores in search of caddis flies that swarm the rocks. By summer, the bears roam back into the mountains, but even in August we managed to spot some — a mother and three cubs — loping along a mountain side. At Zavorotny, Aleksandr has built a banya, a traditional bath house a few feet from the water. Inside a cabin with a sun porch on one side, there is a small parilka, or steam room, with stones heated by a wood fire, which he had started for us while we hiked. Heated well past sweating, we dashed down a path made of wooden planks and jumped in the lake, which by August had warmed to its highest temperature of the year: 39 degrees Fahrenheit. We stayed for more than two hours, until dusk gave way to night.

Lake Baikal Activities around Severobailask

Severobailask has advantages over the other places in that the pristine wilderness is much closer by and is much less visited by travelers. One the positive side there are lot of wild places that are virtually unvisited, in the negative side there are virtually no tourists facilities. Some of the main draws are out outdoor hot springs.

Trekking destination include the Frokikha mountain lake. You can also go hiking and kayak along Lake Baikal's shore and stay in huts set up by hunters. Kholodnaya (45 kilometers miles north of Severobailask) is an Evenk village with some traditional birch-bark yurts. The people make their living through raising fur-bearing animals rather than reindeer herding. North of Kholodnaya there are some remains of a gulag that was closed in World War II.

Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: We continued north the next morning to the Icy River, so named because of a climatic oddity that keeps it frozen longer than the lake’s other feeders. Then we reached the landing at Cape Cheremshany. Over the campfire that night on the shore, Leonid said that native tribes used to light fires on the shores to attract tribes from the other side to arrange marriages. I saw what I thought was an answer to ours, but it was the moon, rising like a flaming tusk from behind the faraway mountains of Buryatiya. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, July 8, 2007]

“As we turned and headed south, we came across the two extraordinary capes called Big and Little Solontsovy. Each contained a small mountain lake, formed in the subsidence that slid down the mountains, creating a small flatland covered in marsh grass and meadow flowers. We lingered for hours, spotting a pair of herons on the barrier beach. The crew collected wild thyme and black currant leaves for tea. We had returned to a place only a few miles from Zavorotny, but it felt like the most isolated place on earth.”

Baikalskoe (32 kilometers miles south of Severobailask) is delightful fishing village on the shore of lake Baikal. Comprised primarily of small traditional houses with small gardens, it is good place to walk around or convince a fisherman to take u you out in his boat for around US$20 per hour. Some guides promise to take visitors to see bears and seals.

Cape Koteknikovsky (65 kilometers south of Severobailask and reached by boat) is an uninhabited place famous for hot springs set among the lake the mountains of Baikalsky Range. The forests and waterfalls around 2,588-meter-high Mt. Chesky are said to be among the most beautiful in Siberia. You will need a guide for any serious hikes or treks. Guides and boats can be arranged Severobailask.

Patom Crater

Patom crater (210 kilometers in a straight line, or 360 kilometers by road northeast of Bodaibo0 is situated on a gentle slope of a hill in Patom Highlands. It is a huge crater and mound discovered in 1949 by Russian geologist Vadim Kolpakov in the north of the Irkutsk Region. The origin of the crater is still unknown.

The crater is a conical hill consisting of crushed limestone. At the top is funnel-like crater developed by a meteorite or a volcano. On the crater grow several 200-year-old larch trees. Kolpakov wrote of the discovery: "to get closer, I realized that the mysterious hill is not the work of man. Rather, he looked like a perfectly round neck of the volcano. "

Hypothesis of the origin of the crater a few: 1) Nuclear. Nearby there are deposits of uranium ores. It could begin a spontaneous nuclear reaction, and then - an explosion. 2) Volcanic. 3) Military explosives are destroyed, the rest of the Second World War. Scientists and military conducted in this place secret nuclear weapons testing, away from prying eyes. 4) Lightning strike. The explosion of methane or other natural fossil fuels.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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