I am standing on the shores of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. On the side of the lake where I stand, there are snow-covered mountains. On the far side, cliffs and forests. But it is nightfall. It is only when the sun rises the next day that we see the scenery that surrounds us. Even so, we sense it somewhere beneath our skin. We sense the grandiose enormity of the lake’s design, the largest body of fresh water in the world, which even here, right by the bank, is several hundreds of metres deep. Snippets of school geography lessons float back to me: if everyone in the world only drank water from Baikal, it would still last for 50 years. For anyone born in Russia, Baikal belongs to that system of values that determines our identity. Mother, Father, the Kremlin, Baikal. Sure, they’re not loved equally but they are equally significant.
I am here in the village of Listvyanka, 70km from Irkutsk, with my friend and LavkaLavka business partner Sasha Mikhailov. We are here to visit a water facility that sells bottled water and meet Alexei Tusnolobov, who distributes the brand, Strength of Baikal, in Moscow. Tusnolobov and his business partners were given the facility as a sweetener when they took over an engineering plant in the Irkutsk region. The facility, near where the river Angara flows out of the Lake Baikal, extracts water from a depth of 400m before bottling it. The water is as natural as it gets with a minimum of human intervention. Although there are plenty of water bottling facilities around Baikal, this is the only one that takes water directly from the lake. All others pump it up from artesian boreholes.
But it’s impossible to talk about the water here without talking about the lake and those who live in the surrounding area. The great waters of Baikal are what shapes reality here. Everything revolves around it. It is everything here.
When Mikhailov and I arrive, we wend our way through the small dark houses. The only lit windows belong to a roadside cafe. We go in. Here in this cheap cafe, they have cold-smoked omul, a local fish, and omul pie. It’s delicious. Omul is a delicacy straight from Baikal, which is probably the only stretch of water in Russia where you can sample the local fish without worrying about the health consequences. Not near the Black Sea, the Volga or Lake Ladoga have I seen a fish play as crucial a role as the Baikal omul does here.
“The great waters of Baikal are what shapes reality here. Everything here revolves around it. It is everything here”
A plump old dear in spectacles pours us a glass of vodka each. On the television, the flamboyant, ageing pop star Boris Moiseev prances about. Mikhailov, whose spirits are soon roused by the vodka and omul pie, can’t restrain himself. “Do you really like this?” he asks. And then something unexpected happens. The old lady says, “My husband just called. He said turn on the telly. They’re about to show a good film — Anton’s Right Here [a powerful documentary about an autistic boy]. And I turned it on so I don’t miss it. I’d have closed the cafe ages ago but I don’t have a television at home.” According to Tusnolobov, it has taken 150 years for the water to reach its current depth. It was, he said, “water untouched by civilisation”. Likewise, the plump old dear in glasses, here in a roadside cafe, who has stayed on after work to watch Anton’s Right Here, also seems to be untouched by contemporary Russian civilisation.
It is night. The shore of Baikal is deserted. We’re watching Anton’s Right Here with the old lady. At that moment, a pair of men appear, staggering in an extravagant fashion. They buy a bottle of cognac and look at us as they drink it. All of a sudden one of them turns around, “Hey Muscovites!” he says. “Don’t be scared of us. We’ve left our Siberian swords at home!” Over the next two hours, we learn all there is to know about the Turkic crescent moon, the migration of peoples around Baikal, the archaeological finds at Boguchansk and the Buryatian traditions of family burial. All of this is in a state of extreme inebriation among all involved. We soon learn that the two men are local archaeologists who run a children’s centre and a museum in Listvyanka.
The next day Tusnolobov and I hurry to the small nearby village of Port Baikal where the facility is based. I tell him the story of our remarkable night, about how the woman in the cafe was waiting to watch a documentary about autism and about how two roaringly drunk locals didn’t beat us up, but instead told us about the ethnogenesis of the Buryats. “That’s par for the course,” he says. “There are a lot of reasonable people here.”
At the beginning of the century, a railway line was built from Port Baikal to Irkutsk but the port lost its strategic purpose some time ago. Only several hundred residents remain along with a station museum and a handful of shops. The only functioning local enterprise is the water bottling plant, Strength of Baikal. The plant is small and modern. It was built in the Nineties for Russian Railways and for a short time it supplied water for every train in the country. That didn’t last long though and the market soon shrunk to the Irkutsk region.
“No legends, no premium, nothing superficial ... [it's just] natural water from Baikal. We get it, we bottle it, we transport it, you drink it”
It was only with the arrival of new owners such as Tusnolobov that development started anew. Now water is delivered as far afield as China and Japan. “More than half of our water goes to China,” says Tusnolobov. “They have tremendous respect for water there and the vast majority have heard of Baikal as the world’s chief source of fresh water.” The fact that the Japanese buy water for Baikal, means even more, given how picky they are about all imports.
The company has only recently started deliveries to Moscow; it is the only bottled water I now drink. “It’s a difficult market,” says Tusnolobov. “There’s a lot going on there. We thought long and hard about how to present our water. And then we decided that we shouldn’t think up anything. No legends, no premium, nothing superficial. We’ll just release as it is: natural water from Baikal. We get it, we bottle it, we transport it, you drink it.”