A Fun Day in Irkutsk, The ‘Cool’ Capital of the Irkutsk Oblast (Region)

Sculpture of a Siberian Tiger with a sable in its mouth..The symbol of the city of Irkutsk
Sculpture of a Siberian Tiger with a sable in its mouth..The symbol of the city of Irkutsk

 

Where in the World Is Irkutsk?

https://www.worldatlas.com/img/locator/city/061/18061-irkutsk-locator-map.jpgAs you can see according to the World Atlas, Irkutsk is midway across the vast country of Russia, which itself spans multiple time zones. It’s north of Mongolia, and directly north of China, Thailand and Southeast Asia. Because of this, it is a crossroad of various cultures, both Mongolian, Central Asian Turkic, Slavic and numerous indigenous communities. Russia comprises well over 100 different ethnic groups and languages. All recognized and supported.

By Pablitto, Marcin Konsek, Ася Волкова, Vaiz Ha, Fanzuga, Вячеслав Ребров.Pablitto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57146326. Pictured above are some of the historic buildings you see around the city.

Irkutsk, an Historic City, Deep in Siberia

The last day at Lake Baikal, our tour bus took the 8 hour trip back to Irkutsk, a city in the Russian region (‘Oblast’=region), also called Irkutsk. It’s a city of about 600,000 people. And it being in mid August, the weather was clear and delightful, not too hot, and not too cold.

At the tour office, I met the tour operator, who invited me back to Irkutsk in the winter when its winter beauty and cold temperatures make Irkutsk and Lake Baikal quite special. However, given the fact that the average winter temperature is -18 degrees Centigrade, or 0 Fahrenheit, I probably won’t take him up on his offer. The temperature sometimes goes to minus 40 degrees.

An Interesting History

When you hear about people being sent to Siberia, this is one of the places they sent people to in the past, and probably also nowadays. Still many people actually like it in Irkutsk, after all it has a year round population of 600,000 people. It was one of the main places that opponents of the Tsar, back in the 19th Century were sent to. A notable rebellion called the Decembrist Revolt was meant to further democracy in the Russian Empire. I read that while many Russians such as militiary officers, admired the US Constitution, many didn’t like the fact that it still authorized slavery.

Many distinguished Russians were sent into exile in Irkutsk for their part in the Decembrist revolt of 1825, and the city became an exile-post for the rest of the century. Some historic wooden houses still survive. When the railway reached Irkutsk, it had earned the nickname of “The Paris of Siberia.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city, so I can only give a few impressions of it.

My Arrival

I’d booked a hotel, which was pretty easy to get to. When I arrived, and showed my passport—when traveling in foreign countries, you always have to show a passport to get hotel room, they were a little surprised. Hardly anybody from Europe or the USA travels in Russia these days. It’s not impossible to get a Russian visa. As I write this, the famous journalist, Tucker Carlson, has gone to Moscow. But not a lot of Westerners go into the vast Russian hinterland.

Lacking a decent midsized backpack, I took a walk to the market area, which was pretty interesting. On the way, there was a shop. While we do sometime see Russian words that become English, like beet soup, which is ‘borscht’, or the alcoholic drink, ‘vodka’, I was a little surprised to see a sign for a store, called Second Hand…and it sounds pretty much the same in Russian.

Cyrillic 'Second Hand" store sign in Irkutsk
Cyrillic ‘Second Hand” store sign in Irkutsk

At the Mall

When you go shopping at the typical bazaars in various countries, which operate on the more informal economy–that is, these are small one person shops that have stalls or kiosks–rather than established names that are more common in corporate USA, you can find some great bargains, or pretty bad lemons. The first stall I went to, the guy showed me a backpack that looked ok, but on close examination, I saw loose, single knit stitching. That would for sure fall apart. He appeared to be Central Asian.

The next shop was run by a lady, maybe Chinese, the bag she showed me was a lot better, and it cost about $20, I still use it and it works great. So then I wanted to check out the mall. It was pretty interesting. Since I was in Russia, I wore my Cosmonaut T-Shirt, and when I went up to a coffee booth, the teenager running it smiled approvingly. No hard feelings about the Soviet Union in Irkutsk!

Walking around there, I saw a movie theater. Interestingly, they show a fair number of American movies.

Irkutsk Mall cinema theater sign
The entrance to the movie theater…”Dear Friends, we show films in English with Russian subtitles

 

Despite Sanctions, Things Don’t look So Different

Here is a short video. It shows two typical girls probably teenagers. One is light skinned and slavic, the other could be Mongolian, since lots of Mongolian type people live in this area, along with Central Asian, perhaps Turkic ethnics. Except for signage such as “Khaan Baikal”, the mall could be in many a US multicultural city. Except that Russia has been multicultural for over 500 years—without the genocide of indigenous peoples.

MacDonalds left with its tail between its legs, either out of petty spite, or perhaps pressure. But you can plainly see that Burger King and KFC are still in Russia.

The History of Irkutsk in One Tablet

Irkutsk monument inscription--history
A Tablet with the History of Irkutsk, in both Russian, English and Chinese

 

More Meanderings

Walking around the city in search of a ‘genuine’ Irkutsk food restaurant, I came across this interesting storefront.

Store front of the Irkutsk clothing shop, "Syevyenoye Siyaniye", Northern Lights
Store front of the Irkutsk shop, “Syevyenoye Siyaniye”, Northern Lights. It sells clothing and other items from Mongolia.

 

An Irkutsk Restaurant

My tour guide, Sasha, suggested a good Irkutsk food restaurant. I lost the name, but have a not so great quality video. The tables are wood and have almost cave style burned in images of reindeer. But the really interesting thing was that they were  playing English language music there. The waiter spoke a little English and he told me how much they like American culture and music. He was clearly confused and disappointed that the general feeling in the USA is one of fear of Russia, at least among the Western ‘intellectual elite’. which term referring to the West may be an oxymoron.

It always amazes me how most of my American friends and family have Russophobic views, which have been drummed into their heads like some sort of sour mother’s milk. Much of what people in the West hear about Russia is either sensationalized (Stalin killed 60 million Russians)–With that many dead people, how did Russia have the strongest economy in the world during the 1930’s, and defeat 80% of the German army in WWII? And why is Stalin given more and more recognition in recent years by Russians?

I liked Irkutsk, it’s not nearly as big as Moscow, nor as sophisticated as St. Petersburg, but it has a feeling less influenced by the Liberal West. If it weren’t so damned cold, I would consider living there. I like the mix of Slavic, Turkic and Mongolian communities and cultures along with some of the Soviet era nostalgia.

Anyway, I took a flight the next day to St. Petersburg, where I had planned to meet my online friend since 2016, Volodya Shestakov, whom I had only exchanged emails with up to that point. It is remarkable how our world views match each other, despite living in different countries.

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