There was another side to the debate. The paper mill is the major employer in the region.
Nearly 10 percent of people in the city of Baikalsk work there. When Sergei and I visited
to do a story, we met an elderly woman on the street. I asked what the factory means to her,
and she just kept saying, “Food . . . food . . . food.” The city's mayor, Valery Pintayev, said
that when the plant was shut down for a stint, he saw a dead community. “There were no
lights on in houses. People ruined themselves drinking. They stood at my window demand-
ing jobs. Now the social tension is gone.”
But the World Heritage program continues to threaten Russia, saying if they don't close
the plant and stop polluting Baikal, it will take the lake off its list of World Heritage sites.
On this day, in this spot, Baikal seems beautiful, reminding me of the warmth and poetry
I felt on many days living here. We find our hired driver and make the drive back to Irkutsk,
then call it an early night. At 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I take Rose to the Irkutsk airport,
kiss her good-bye and send her on her way to the United States, to get back to work on
her restaurant. It's just Sergei and me again, and I taxi back to the hotel to meet him. We
have an afternoon interview with a woman named Taisiya. She's a local activist in Baikalsk
who, we're told, has been fighting for the paper mill to close, as well as needling the local
authorities in other ways.
Sergei has reserved a hovercraft—yes, a hovercraft—to take us from Listvyanka across
to Baikalsk. I'm not sure what to expect. In our taxi Sergei is on the phone with
Andrei—our hovercraft captain—who is explaining where along the lake shore we should
have our taxi driver take us. We pull up to a little restaurant with what appears to be a
dock—of sorts—frozen into the ice.
My only previous hovercraft experience was on the English Channel—from the slower
boat I was on, I watched a sturdy vessel, carrying hundreds of passengers, flying slightly
above the unfrozen water from Boulogne, France, to Dover, England. This is a different
kind of hovercraft. I hear what sounds like a motorcycle engine roaring closer, and Andrei
pulls up on the ice behind the restaurant. He's in a small blue-and-white vessel just slightly
larger than your average station wagon. This thing is definitely jury-rigged. There is a
massive fan on the back, with what looks like an automobile muffler hanging off it. The
steering wheel inside is straight off a Lada. There are eight seats inside, with fading orange
seat covers. All in all this looks like a minivan someone drove to Woodstock, superglued
on top of a pontoon.
Andrei motions for us to get in, so we load our suitcases and ourselves on board and
settle into the orange seats. And away we go. Andrei is all business, in aviator glasses and
a camouflage snowsuit.
The ride is surreal. Closer to the shore the ice really is like glass—with cracks—and I
can literally see plant life through the surface, making me wonder about the ability of the
surface to hold an object as heavy as ours. Then we speed farther out onto the lake—with