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Irkutsk was founded in the 1661 as a fort to colonize Siberia. It was the main Russian fort behind the Ural mountains, so all the expeditions to colonize Kamchatka and Alaska have begun there. For centuries Russian emperors and communists (later) exiled political prisoners to Irkutsk, so many brainy Russians spent years in the city and this influenced the average IQ level of inhabitants. Irkutsk, a center of culture and refinement, is the “Paris of Siberia.” The culture and refinement at this one-time outpost near the Mongolian border came from the Decembrists, a group of Russian revolutionaries that tried to topple the Russian Empire in 1825. Two of the homes that housed some of the largest salons and other social gatherings of this era, the Volkonsky House and the Trubetskoy House, still stand, the former of which remains one of the more popular museums of the city.

The center of the city is full of wooden houses with typical decorative carvings on the walls and window frames. Most of the buildings of this kind were destroyed in Moscow and other big cities during the industrialization of the 20th century, so it’s a rare opportunity to see what a Russian city would look like if it stayed the way it was back in the days. Irkutsk sits in a region so cold that parts of the ground never thaw, even in the hottest summer days. It’s no surprise that the icebreaker Angara, one of the oldest in the world, and a museum for geology serve as important sights for tourists. Traditionally, Irkutsk was the city from which the great Russian explorers set out. Even today, it is a great place to start one’s own personal exploration of Siberia and the Russian Far East, especially to Lake Baikal, which is just a 1 hour ride from the city!

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