We will start and finish our Sayan Oka river trip in one of the nicest cities of Siberia – Irkutsk. It is the gateway to the rivers of the Eastern Sayan Mountains and regions surrounding Lake Baikal.
Irkutsk began as a tiny fortress in 1661 at the confluence of the Irkut and Angara Rivers. For many years Irkutsk was the center of exploration for Eastern Siberia and in 1783 the Russian-American Trade company was founded here. This company also explored Alaska, Fort-Ross in California, and islands along the western American coast.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Irkutsk became the center of Siberian exile and many that opposed the Csar were exiled to the “Katorga” (the Csar’s Gulag). These exiles definitely formed a positive cultural spirit in the city. The famous Russian writer Anton Chekhov visited the city in 1890 on his way to exhile to Sakhalin island and described Irkutsk as a surprisingly cosmopolitan city. In fact, by the 1900s, Irkutsk was nicknamed “The Paris of Siberia”. Irkutsk is also unique due to its ensemble of Siberian wooden architecture and there are only a few places in Siberia with such gorgeous buildings.
Now Irkutsk (population 600,000) is a large center for tourism mostly since it is the gateway to Lake Baikal. It is also a significant cultural center with theaters, scientific institutions (including neutrino and solar observatories), colleges, and a 100 year old university. The Art Museum in Irkutsk has the largest collection of Asian art in Russia and the old part of Irkutsk has many beautiful buildings
Irkutsk is central to Siberia so it has connections to all of Russia via air, waterways, and railroad. The airlines connect Irkutsk with China, Japan, and South Korea. You also may reach Irkutsk by train from Beijing (2 days), Ulan –Bator (1 day), and of course from any big Russian city.