Notes From an Expedition: Driving to Distraction

by David A. Andelman

IRKUTSK, Russia—I prepared, fraternally, to jump in the right passenger’s seat next to our driver who met our Aeroflot flight that landed in the chilly pre-dawn hours Sunday in the Siberian capital. Then I jumped back as he began to chuckle. In front of me was the steering wheel. That was his seat. Mine was on the left-hand side where most Russian drivers would ordinarily be sitting, since Russian roads are the same as the United States and most of Europe.

But it turns out that eight of ten (more or less) cars in Siberia have the steering wheel on the right—like Britain or, more importantly here, Japan. Anna, the young hotel clerk who drives us down to Lake Baikal later that day, explains that her car, and most others around here, come from Japan. Hers is a 2001 model Honda and she paid 210,000 rubles (about $7,000) when she bought it in 2008. “It is a very good car,” she says seriously. Her brother-in-law took the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok and bought it there. Indeed, tens of thousands of used Japanese cars find their way to Siberia each year instead of the compactor—a neat bit of recycling that has enabled millions of Russians to own cars that otherwise would be far beyond their modest means.

So in Listvyanka, a small lakeside settlement about an hour southeast of Irkutsk, with the feel of the Jersey Shore or the Rockaways, about the only right-hand drive cars are sparkling new Mercedes, BMWs or Lexus SUVs—cars of the rich who summer by the shores of Lake Baikal.

Indeed, there’s much to recommend about this extraordinary body of water. It is the oldest, at 25-million years, and in volume the largest—containing some 20 percent of all the world’s fresh water, fed by more than 300 streams. More than a mile deep at its extremes, it also boasts the most extraordinary clarity and pureness, lending its surface a brilliant blue color as the sun refracts off its surface. Bottled under the brand “Legend of Baikal,” it is also the home of some species of fish found nowhere else on earth, some 300 species of protozoa, and an equivalent number of crustacea. The golomyanka, or oil-fish, is almost entirely gelatinous, its body allowing it to exist at extraordinary depths and pressure. Then there’s the taimen, which we expect to encounter widely in Mongolia as well. This giant Siberian salmon has been bagged at lengths of six feet or more. A particularly evil looking specimen, stuffed and mounted, snarls with its immense fangs at visitors to the marine aquarium where live versions of many of the fish in the nearby lake swim placidly in front of visitors.

It’s been a decades-long battle to maintain the purity of this lake—pitting local environmentalists and interest groups from around the world against powerful political forces including friends of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and big businesses who have sought gamely for years to tap the lake. A pulp and paper factory has been built on its shores, but after years a compromise was reached whereby the water could be drawn from the lake, but would be recycled within the plant and none of the effluent would be discharged. Equally, a massive oil pipeline that had been routed just past the lakes shores through the endless forests of larch, pine, and Russia’s omnipresent white birches, has been re-routed further afield.

As it happens, here President Dmitri Medvedev seems to have far less support than in Russia’s cosmopolitan capital of Moscow. Gyerman, a Russian police detective from Irkutsk, admits he’s a big fan of Putin, who began his career as a KGB officer. He has the strength, Gyerman believes, to bring some order and authority to the nation. But Anna turns up her noses at both of them. A committed conservationist, she supports Valeriya Novodvorskaya, founder of the liberal Democratic Union.

A lakeside lunch, sampling several species of Baikal fish, lures us eventually onto the Yael, armed with our fly rod and a collection of woolly bugger, which seem to be universal catnip to the fish we ordinarily run across in the Broadhead creek near our house in Pennsylvania. The 30-foot Yael, and its 40-foot big brother the St. Nicholas, are berthed at the Anastasia Hotel on the northern fringes of Listvyanka. Captain Alexander and his first-mate fire up the Yael and in a half hour we were heading north into the southern stretches of the lake. It is unlikely in a brief afternoon spin that we’ll make any major headway into the heart of Baikal, since it stretches some 395 miles off to the north. But within a half hour, when the captain cuts the engine and we drift, the sonar shows the waters beneath our keel already at more than 1,400 feet. We throw a line over the side and watch as it trails out through the waves.

We quickly realize we were outmatched. Lashed to the Yael’s fantail are a half dozen rods—deep sea gear—that make our little four-weight fly pole look seriously underpowered. After a few minutes and few more casts, we reel in and the captain fires up the engine. Though the sky is a brilliant blue overhead, the waves have already picked up, and we are tossing. A storm is due that night, and Baikal is already giving fair warning. Indeed, the deep-sea gear that the Yael carries is by no means misplaced. Baikal gives every suggestion of being an ocean, or at least an inland sea—in every fashion but the salt water. Its waves stretch on to the horizon to the north and throughout the day, a thin mist hangs over the sky. Or as the lake’s poet laureate and most determined conservationist, Valentin Rasputin, wrote in World Policy Journal two years ago:

Baikal offers us room to grow and develop, along with something to cultivate within ourselves and to treat with care. The miracle, the inexplicable magnificence of this treasure, is that we receive warmth and joy from it as if from a sun that never sets, that we feel a rush of childlike excitement and uplifting spirit.


David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, has just completed the second leg of a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China. Monday evening, he boards a train on the Trans-Mongolian line that two nights and one long day later will take him Wednesday morning into the capital of Ulaanbaatar.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sergey Gabdurakhmanov]

You can read his next dispatch, Through the Looking Glass, here, or visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.

Related posts