Baikal Without a Seatbelt

Slide show: Images from Siberia.

“What are you looking for?” Alexander wants to know.

“Nothing,” I say, digging furiously around my car seat. We’re hurtling down a mountain road, and I’m looking for a seatbelt. I’ve found one side, but not the other.

“There’s no seatbelt,” Alex says.

Behind the wheel is Uncle Yuri, who’s apparently a fan of rally racing. He floors it uphill (and down), passes trucks on curves, and uses the many unpaved construction detours to gain position, much to the detriment of his Toyota’s suspension. The car is secondhand from Australia, with the steering wheel on the right, which means Uncle Yuri can’t see what’s coming until he’s all the way out in the passing lane.

“Russia—extreme,” says Alexander’s mother, Anna, white-knuckling it in the passenger seat. (“Nyet!” she calls out whenever Yuri attempts a really unsafe pass.)

We’re on our way to Lake Baikal. Like much else in Siberia, Baikal is “extreme.” It’s the biggest freshwater lake in the world by volume—and also the deepest, at over a mile deep. Once upon a time, it may have been the purest. Its waters, flowing from the huge Siberian forests, have a much lower than normal mineral content. The unique ecosystem supports all kinds of unusual species, from the freshwater nerpa seal to the omul, the trout-like endemic fish. Baikal holds something like one-sixth of the earth’s fresh water, and it only lets it go via a relative trickle, the Angara River, which flows out of the lake and through Irkutsk.

Faced with such a treasure, the Soviet authorities quite naturally decided to harness it for socialism. They dammed the Angara for hydroelectric power, raising the lake level and drowning crucial shoreline breeding and feeding grounds. And they decided Baikal would be an ideal site for a huge pulp and paper mill, built in the town of Baikalsk at the southern end of the lake.

Even for Russians, who have endured countless insults through history, this was too much to take. The paper mill—and the lake itself—became a focal point for a nascent environmental movement, which blossomed with perestroika. Massive street demonstrations were held, and the lake became an international environmental cause célèbre.

In the early 1990s, Baikal was listed as a U.N. World Heritage site. Much of it is now ringed by national parks, but there are plans to run an oil pipeline through one of them, en route to China. A second pipeline is supposed to go around the north of the lake, through lands occupied by native Evenk and Buryat tribes people. (Which reminds me: For an excellent history of Siberian natives, see Anna Reid’s The Shaman’s Coat.) Meanwhile, the environmental movement has fizzled in the face of dire economic problems.

It still exists, though, and before the Baikal trip, I paid a visit to the office of Baikal Ecological Wave, which occupies a small Irkutsk flat. There I met Jennifer Sutton, a 50-ish Englishwoman who’s lived in Irkutsk since 1974. She helped found the organization in 1990, and shortly thereafter popular interest in the environment faded away. Her group, with a staff of 13, is still gamely fighting the twin pipelines, as well as proposals for oil exploration near the lake’s shores. “We’re often criticized for saying Baikal is polluted,” she said. “It is clean, but it’s not Baikal clean.”

Baikal is an international symbol of perfect eco-purity, but to Russians, it’s not just that. It’s almost taken for granted now that the government has screwed it up. Of course they did. But it’s still ours.

After two hours of terror at the hands of Uncle Yuri, we crest a hill and the lake opens up below us. The road winds downhill, and we pull over in one of those scenic overlooks. We’re not alone: The lot is jammed with Ladas, Volgas, and Toyotas, all parked at crazy angles. There is beeping, revving of engines, crowds of people crossing the busy road to get to the omul vendors, whose tables line the outside of the parking area. Anna scans the tables expertly before choosing a half-dozen fish, which are wrapped up and bagged, still warm from the smoker.

Around us, groups of Russians are picnicking on the hoods of their cars, plucking at the firm white fish and washing it down with gulps of beer. One guy, apparently not a fish eater, brought his own kielbasa. It’s been raining off and on, and the lake is smooth and silver. We watch a Trans-Sib train make its way along the lakeshore then begin to climb into the hills.

We buy beer, but we’re not eating here. We get back into the car, for another hour of Yuri madness, until we finally, blessedly, pull over at a small campground. We drive through the gate, park, and step out into the driving rain. A pier leads out into the lake, and at the end of it, two men haul themselves out of the water, like big fleshy seals. They count to three … four … five, and dive in, smacking the 60-degree water with their backs.

We walk back to eat the omul under a tent, spreading out a small tablecloth and sitting on newspaper. Later I will see that we are just a few miles from the paper-mill town of Baikalsk, but you wouldn’t know it. We peel back the golden skin and pick off chunks of meat with our fingers. The flesh is moist, firm, and smokier in some parts than in others. There are potatoes and blini and beer, but the omul are the best thing. They are the best thing by far.