Burton Holmes on the Trans-Siberian Railroad

Chapter 8: Irkutsk

Nearing Irkutsk
NEARING IRKUTSK

As we approach Irkutsk, the country becomes more picturesque, and hills that are almost mountains roll about on the horizon, and the roads and crossings take on a look of trimness. Every grade-crossing and almost every switch is guarded by a man or by a woman, who with a flag stands at salute while the train passes, and then steps out between the rails and with extended flag poses as rigid as a statue, looking after us until the train is nearly out of sight.

A Wilderness of Mud
A WILDERNESS OF MUD

On the ninth evening we roll into the great Siberian city of Irkutsk—metropolis of northern Asia. We are on time to the minute; but this is not remarkable, for the schedule is so arranged that unless the brakes were not in good order, even these leisurely, inexperienced trains would have difficulty in avoiding premature arrivals. We have covered the 5,107 versts—roughly, equivalent to about three thousand miles—between M oscow and lrkutsk in nine days, that is, at an average speed of about fifteen miles an hour.

Panorama of Irkutsk and the River Angara (Left Half)
PANORAMA OF IRKUTSK AND THE RIVER ANGARA (LEFT HALF)

Panorama of Irkutsk and the River Angara (Right Half)
PANORAMA OF IRKUTSK AND THE RIVER ANGARA (RIGHT HALF)

The station is surrounded by a wilderness of mud; between it and the city flows the rapid Angara, through which the waters of Lake Baikal seek an outlet to the Arctic Ocean. I have not told of the other splendid rivers we have crossed, nor have I spoken of the Siberian cities which we passed by night or day,—of Kourgan on the Tobol River, Omsk on Om, Tomsk on the Tom, Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisei, Kansk on the Kan and Nijniudinsk on the Uda. All these I have spared you because in Irkutsk at the junction of the Irkut and the Angara, we find the prototype of all, —richer, larger, and finer. It appears almost

Panorama of the City of Irkutsk (Left Half)
PANORAMA OF THE CITY OF IRKUTSK (LEFT HALF)

Panorama of the City of Irkutsk (Right Half)
PANORAMA OF THE CITY OF IRKUTSK (RIGHT HALF)

The Main Street of Irkutsk
THE MAIN STREET OF IRKUTSK

A Typical Thoroughfare
A TYPICAL THOROUGHFARE

A Bridge
A BRIDGE

magnificent as one views it from the belfry of a church, but disillusion awaits the traveler below. I cannot understand why photographs should make the city look so trim when in reality it is so soiled and dingy and unkempt.

Russia is always striving for effect, and here in Irkutsk we get the same impression as in St. Petersburg, of a city built to order—designed to impress the observer. The same stone walls of stucco, the same marble pillars of staff,

The Cathedral
THE CATHEDRAL

the wide streets and the endless avenues, still unpaved and insistently suggestive of the wilderness of which they lately formed a part. Space is the cheapest thing in northern Asia. The Russians have been prodigal of space in laying out their cities. The Orthodox Cathedral is huge enough to satisfy the needs of a city four times the present size of Irkutsk; but the critical tourist must not forget that Irkutsk will in the near future quadruple its population.

A great city should have a museum. The government has seen to it that Irkutsk does not lack one. Within we find one floor devoted to natural history and one to ethnological collections; but the fine arts have not yet appeared in Mid-Siberia. There are also an imposing theater, several official palaces, many fine private residences, and in the main street an astounding row of big department-stores, in one of which we photographed an effective array of spring bonnets

Panorama of the Square of the Cathedral, Irkutsk (Left Half)
PANORAMA OF THE SQUARE OF THE CATHEDRAL (LEFT HALF)

Panorama of the Square of the Cathedral, Irkutsk (Right Half)
PANORAMA OF THE SQUARE OF THE CATHEDRAL (RIGHT HALF)

fresh from the milliners of Paris and Berlin, —that is, as fresh as distance and slow communication will permit. All this is most impressive, from the cathedral to the imported finery. It speaks of wealth and luxury; but the Irkutsk of the traveler is comfortless in the extreme. Yet even the abominable hotel in which we lodged and tried to eat looks almost attractive in an illustration. You do not see the unwashed linen, the grimy waiters, nor can you scent the odors that pervade the Gastinitsa Metropole. The contrasts in Irkutsk are striking, log-houses and electric lights, mud-holes before the houses of the millionaires, infinite leisure for the officials, and never-ending labor for the mujiks. The lumber industry is the most conspicuous local interest. Irkutsk is protected on the river side by the most splendid wall of logs that I have ever seen,—a mountain-range of horizontal timber rises along the river bank for several miles. It would appear as if the forests of Siberia had all been felled, and that their trees were lying prostrate for miles along the high banks of the Angara.


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