Siberia Belies Its Somber Image

The dark, frozen place of exile is unexpectedly mild in winter, with busy streets, stylish clothes and a wild beauty


When my friends in Moscow heard I was going to Siberia in February, they said:" It's going to be cold." Actually it was not that cold. Awaiting an arctic blast as I stepped off the plane into the Siberian snow, I found myself feeling no more chilled then I would on a ski vacation. Instead of the dark, frozen place of exile that I had expected - home of the Gulag and the salt mine - I found streets filled with shoppers and vendors and fur- hatted peasants carrying purchases home on mules. Shops were stocked with fresh fruit and stylish clothing and crowded restaurants served hearty traditional fare like Siberian dumplings and stews.

I had come to Siberia on business to study the economic life of the region, and during my 10-day stay discovered much to enjoy. Siberia is surprisingly sunny in the winter months, when the deep colors of the forest shine against the snow. The dark green taiga. - this is what Siberians call their pine forest covering - is edged with the white of birch trees under a slate blue sky. The huge Siberian land mass, bigger than the United States and Europe together, is mostly taiga. It runs 4,350 miles east of the Ural mountains to the Pacific Ocean unchanging, hardly touched by humans.

---- Where to stay and eat: a visitor's guide ----

Hotel Intourist

44 Bulvar Gagarina, Irkutsk
tel: (7 3952) 290-171 or 230-166, fax: 277-278
is too big, but it's 200 rooms are clean and service
is efficient. An army of security guards in the lobby
sometimes makes it difficult to get in and out.
The hotel can claim an excellent restaurant, the

Siberian Traktir

tel: (3952)290-181
Try the pelmenyi
and a beefy bowl
of borscht.
Dinner for one
about $20.

In it there are a few charming little cities of wood and pastel colored brick that add a touch of softness to the harsh surroundings. Siberians, who were closed off from the contact with the West for many years, are eager to meet foreigners and hospitable enough to bring tears to your eyes [...]
It is a two hour plane trip from ... Krasnoyarsk [or 5000 km from Moscow - U.K. ] to the more culturally inclined city of Irkutsk... Irkutsk is smaller than Krasnoyarsk, with only 650,000 people, but much more developed.
Under the czars, all the exiles were sent to Irkutsk, so I expected to find the city somewhat depressing. In fact, Irkutsk is lighthearted and sunny, filled with pastel-colored 18th century buildings and delicately sculptured old wooden houses where the political rebels lived n serene exile. Like Krasnojarsk, Irkutsk was founded in the 17th century as a trading post, but it benefited from being the administrative center of eastern Siberia and from the discovery of gold in the 19th century. Elaborate brick mansions were built at the turn of the century, and the dark black wooden cabins were adorned with a local "lace" sculpture that gives them a touch of the Italian Renaissance.

Dacha Excursion:

From Irkutsk, it is possible to take a trip to the nearby town of Angarsk to sample a steamy Russian bath. The meal served after the bath was a delicious spread of local garden produce and home-made cakes. The excursion can be booked  through an English speaking guide:
Alexander Trifonov, tel: 24-39-76
Irkutsk, 69-28 5th Army Street.

About $50.

A day spent walking around the center of Irkutsk is the best way to take in its sights. Two of the most interesting log "cabins" are open to the public. They were built by the so-called Decembrists, a group of revolutionary officers who were exiled to Irkutsk after their activities led to an uprising against Czar Nicholas I in December 1825. The smaller cabin, about 1,500 square feet, belonged to the romantic Count Sergei Trubetskoy, whose wife was allowed to follow him into exile on the condition she give up her title. It is filled with period furniture, its walls covered with pictures of the exiles and their not-so-troubled lives. The Czar made them work in the mines for only a few moths, after which they engaged in literary discussions and watercolor painting. Under the Communist Government, however, exiles were sent to the gulag to work as slaves in mines and construction.
The nearby cabin of the aristocrat soldier Count Sergei Volkonsky, who took part in the war against Napoleon and was exiled for sedition, is more than twice the seize of Count Trubetskoy`s and includes a full-scale salon in the style of the 18th century, two floors filled with antiques and portraits of the family and a fascination exhibit on the exiles, many of whom were portrayed in Tolstoy`s " War and Peace".

Restaurant Aura

Proletarskaya 13th Street
(City circus building)
tel: 335-606
is one of the best reataurants in
Western Siberia. It opens from
noon to 1a.m. Specialities include
complex soups, pelmenyi dumplings,
healthy potions of fruit, and meat stews.
About $25 a person.

Just outside the city center is a church that has been partly converted into a museum. the works on display give an excellent overall view of Siberian art and culture. Some native Siberians, most notably the Evenki from around the Irkutsk region, continue to practice shamanism, though many gave it up when the Russians came in the 17th century. Much of Siberian art and culture dates to the Paleolithic period and hasn¶t changed since then. there are totems, paintings, carvings, and native Siberian headdresses. Nearby is the official Irkutsk Museum, which provides a more detailed view of the Evenki culture. Past the museums, on the city outskirts, visitors will see the onion domes of the Epiphany Church.

Irkutsk has several excellent restaurants that serve a ... sophisticated version of Siberian fare... At Aura, a restaurant in the city circus building, I enjoyed my first omul - a white-fleshed fish more tangy than salmon that is native to the nearby Lake Baikal, at 12,150 square miles the world`s largest freshwater lake.

Irkutsk Museum
2 Karl Marx Street
tel: (3952)-333-449
or: 335-916, is open
daily except Monday
from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission about $3

After that followed a main course of lamb stew with prunes that combines Asian and Russian influences...
I spent the next day at Lake Baikal, a dramatic 45-minute drive through the taiga on icy roads. ( " In Siberia, we don`t have roads, we have directions," my friend Sasha explained.
"You can see through the waters of Lake Baikal as you can see through air," Chekhov wrote when he visited at the end of the 19th century. Local people call it "the blue eye of Siberia." ( Or "the holy sea", referring to the mystical impressions one gets from the ever changing light and shape of clouds reflected in the water - U.K.) Almost ringed by the blue-green taiga, the 395-mile-long lake is deep turquoise blue, and so clear that one can see down 40 yards or more [...]

© Copyright, Andrew Rosenbaum, March, 1995, No reproduction without written permission.

Selected and designed by Uta Kohler ( )

Back to Irkutsk Home Page
1996-6-17 Uta Kohler
Corrected  by Fedor Babanine December,21 1998