Irkutsk is over 300 years old and owes much of its development to its location on the tradeways to China and Mongolia. At the end of the last century, the city began to take on the aspect of a ‘boom town’ when trade in gold, diamonds and fur unexpectedly created new wealth. It was to Irkutsk that many 19th century revolutionaries, such as the Decembrists, were exiled. University of Irkutsk was the first establishment of higher education in eastern Siberia. Today, as in former times, this important Siberian city is one of world’s leading suppliers of fur. The town lies on the banks of the Angara, which is the only outflowing river from Lake Baikal.
The lake is reachable from Irkutsk by hydrofoil during summer. Statistics about Baikal are just beyond belief; with a depth of 1637m it is the world’s deepest lake. Its surface area is equal to that of Belgium and The Netherlands if put together. It is 25 million years old, and it would take 3 months to walk around its 2000km shoreline. The purity of its water is maintained by millions of tiny crayfish, providing a habitat for a wide selection of fish, including loach, sturgeon, grayling and omul (a type of salmon), one of many species unique to Baikal. Its shores are a feeding ground for wildfowl and occasional bear. Freshwater seal colonies are found around Ushkan Islands in the centre of the lake.
Olkhon Island is the site of primitive rock drawings and unique necropolis of an ancient Siberian tribe whose members are thought to have been ancestors of native North Americans. The local climate is often harsh; the surface of the entire lake freezes over in winter (trains were moved across the ice during the Russo-Japanese war). The sarma wind can sink boats and rip roofs off the buildings. While the human race dominates the lake now, it remains to be seen whether it will be a responsible custodian of the region’s flora and fauna.