I have a friend in the tire business in Vladivostok. Alexei Gorbunov is 26, bearded, and not much of a dancer, and when we first met in the bar of the M.V. Rus car ferry in the middle of the Sea of Japan, he was drunk out of his mind. He was not alone. The dance floor was filled with gyrating car traders and scrap metal dealers and a troupe from Moscow’s Bolshoi Circus, which was taking the slow boat home after a tour in Japan. There were a few foreigners on board—a Finnish girl running from a boyfriend in Tokyo, a Japanese family about to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Germany, a Serbian motorbiker on his way back overland to Belgrade—but the vibe and pounding techno were perfectly Russian. The crowd drank vodka. The acrobats threw backflips.
Outside there were used Japanese cars everywhere. There were cars on the roof deck and cars on the bow, cars around the swimming pool and cars next to the lifeboats. Inside the pool, which had been drained the day before we set sail, were two identical SUVs sandwiching a white Honda minivan. Down in the hold were more used cars, eight circus tigers, five bears, 13 trained house cats, and hundreds of Alexei’s tires. Judging from the bottle after bottle of expensive champagne that Alexei bought, shook up, and sprayed all over the circus girls, the tire business is lucrative.
A day’s sail away was Vladivostok, the beginning of the newly opened Trans-Siberian Highway—arguably the longest highway in the world. The five-year-old road, the first to connect one half of Russia to the other, was the reason this ferry transported so many used cars: No one wanted them in Japan, where regulations make it difficult to keep vehicles for more than a few years, and now there was a cheap way to get them to market in Russia’s big cities. The highway was the reason Alexei sold so many tires: Rather than go west via semitruck or train, most of the imports are simply driven across the void. The highway was also the reason photographer Aaron Huey and I were here: Banking on a glut of empty westbound seats, we planned to hitchhike 6,000 miles to Moscow. Exploring Siberia was once synonymous with the Trans-Siberian Railroad, a form of travel as controlled and preprogrammed as the economy once was. Hitchhiking was the other extreme—as freewheeling and sometimes desperate as Russia’s new reality—and from the moment we hit shore, we’d have no idea how to find our next ride.
The next afternoon on the ship, Aaron and I found Alexei in a café with octopus drawings on the wall and windows that looked out at the cars in the swimming pool. He bought us a lunch of raw salmon, laughingly pointed out mistakes in our Russian phrase book, and then pulled the SIM card out of the back of his cell phone and handed it to me. I could stick it in my own phone to have a local number. “This way I know how to call you,” Alexei said. “And you can call me.”
After a few days in Vladivostok, we called him. The city of nearly 600,000—officially “closed” and foreigner free in Communist times—was now vast and growing and beset by Toyota traffic jams, its hotels filled with Japanese tourists, Chinese businessmen, and, for whatever reason, North Korean gymnasts. We met Alexei at a downtown sweets shop across from the modestly named Square of the Fighters for Soviet Power in the Far East, which was covered with children’s chalk drawings of Siberian tigers—we’d just missed September’s annual celebration of the 500 or so cats that remain in the region. The shop occupied a corner of a department store, Gostiny Dvor, which for decades sold some of the only consumer goods in Vladivostok. We ordered green tea and chocolate cake, and to a background of nostalgic, organ-heavy folk songs, Aaron and I quizzed Alexei about the car business. Where had all the Isuzus and Subarus from the ferry gone? Did Vladivostok have giant auto auctions, big dealerships, hidden lots? Would anyone want to give us a ride?
The buyers, Alexei said, were mostly small-time entrepreneurs from cities thousands of miles to the west. They met similarly small-time importers in a sprawling open-air lot, known as Green Corner, that inhabited a weed-ridden hillside in the suburbs. It was a giant automotive flea market—resurgent capitalism at its finest—and on weekends there were as many as 10,000 vehicles. The outsiders came in groups of three or four or five, arriving by train and returning in caravans—one man per car on the long, lawless road. Some carried guns to scare off bandits. They drove west for a week, resold their cars, and came back, frantically living the revamped Russian dream: Go east, young man. Then go west. Then east again. Then west again. To describe these drivers of fortune, there was even a word, peregonchik, meaning “mover” or, more poetically, “car shepherd.”
Alexei offered to take us to Green Corner. He could introduce us to his friends. “Everything is possible,” he told us. “You just have to find the right guy.”
Look at a map of Russia and you see that most of the country, roughly 75 percent, is Siberia. It is a cold place—this much we know—and in our imagination it consists of bears, taiga, and shuttered gulags: wilderness via benign neglect, the last big empty. But this image is incomplete. It ignores Siberia’s populated core—Novosibirsk and Omsk are both million-plus-person cities—and ignores the cultures reemerging in the relative open of post-Soviet Russia. Most of all it ignores the encroachment of the rest of the world. European railroaders and tourists from neighboring Japan, China, and South Korea are now so common in Vladivostok it can be hard to find a hotel room. The new highway, a Silk Road for an economy running on petroleum rather than on cloth and spices, is just one line being drawn across the expanse. Another is the trans-Siberian pipeline, a $15.5 billion, 2,580-mile-long, four-foot-wide tube that will parallel the highway for a large portion of its route, moving Russian oil to Asian and American buyers. A second pipeline, this one for natural gas, may soon cut across Siberia’s pristine Ukok Plateau on its way to China. There are plans for new roads to the north and west and new oil wells in every direction.
The Far East region that contains Vladivostok is roughly the size of Western Europe, with a shrinking population just smaller than Switzerland’s. Tigers poached here end up in China, as do the pine trees cut illegally in its vast forests. In Plastun, a port town near a tiger reserve in the Sikhote-Alin mountains, ships leave with logs and return with Japanese cars. Up the Pacific coast, Russian fishermen meet Japanese processing ships in the middle of the ocean and transfer their catch—it never even touches Russian shores. Roads have recently punched into the region’s last two unlogged watersheds.
Farther to the west, in the remote Amur Basin adjacent to China, hydroelectric dams are being built to export power across the border. On the quiet southern shores of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater body in the world, the central government has announced a new, 270-square-mile special tourism zone. There are plans for faster and bigger roads, ski resorts, five-star hotels, golf courses, spas, yacht moorings, sports halls, and a center for Tibetan medicine. Within 20 years, two million annual visitors are expected. Siberia is opening.
The 19th-century novelist Nikolai Gogol once wrote that Russia suffers two misfortunes: “fools and bad roads.” Of all the projects breaking ground in the country’s wild east, the Trans-Siberian Highway is the most overtly patriotic, the most closely tied to its rebounding sense of self. “Russia,” says Serge Poleshuk, the rotund deputy head of Rosavtodor, the federal highway agency, “is coming back into the ranks of the superpowers.” The highway will help the nation sell more oil, timber, and minerals to the world—more leverage to fuel an increasingly assertive foreign policy—but more important, it shows what Russia is capable of. Vladimir Putin himself was there for the official unveiling. In late February 2004, days before the election that gave him his second and final term as president (though not, it turns out, as leader), he stood in the snows near the city of Khabarovsk, cut a ribbon colored in the white, blue, and red of the Russian flag, and declared it possible to drive from sea to shining sea. He said the superhighway would be fully paved by 2008, uniting the country in this century as 1903’s Trans-Siberian Railroad did in the last.
The long-standing barrier to this national moment—the gap Putin claimed to have defeated—is the Amur, a 1,300-mile-wide swath of swamps and unbound taiga a few days north of Vladivostok. The Amur is the peregonchiks’ greatest challenge. Since 2001, the highway agency has spent roughly 10 percent of its $2.5 billion annual budget taming it, cutting a path through 700 miles of wilderness and improving hundreds of miles of existing jeep tracks. They’ve logged and graded and paved. They’ve blasted and bridged. But a true highway—something more than the Amur’s current hodgepodge of smooth blacktop, mud, potholes, and single-lane gravel—is many years and an estimated $1 billion away. For now, it’s mostly a bad road and a great metaphor. Like Russia’s rebirth, it’s more than a little rough.
Even after the peregonchiks exit the Amur and the highway begins to look more like a highway, there are still 4,000 miles to go: through renascent Buddhist country in the Buryatia region, near iconic Lake Baikal, then through villages of Old Believers—Russia’s Amish, a 17th-century breakaway sect of the Orthodox Church who found refuge in Siberia—and then toward the population centers of Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk. Then past a spur road leading south to the animist Republic of Tuva, and past another spur leading toward the 14,000-foot peaks of the Altay region. Then into the Ural Mountains—the traditional border between Asia and Europe, between Siberia and more domesticated parts of Russia—where the highway becomes many highways: through Chelyabinsk, the industrial birthplace of the Katyusha rocket (a mujahideen favorite), through Kazan, the mosque-dotted center of oil-rich, Muslim Tatarstan, and through Vladimir, a gilded medieval capital. All lead to Moscow.
Alexei was simultaneously one of the best and scariest drivers I have ever known. It was a Saturday morning when he picked us up at our overpriced Vladivostok hotel, a ridgetop tower that smelled strongly of smoke (they hadn’t mentioned the recent fire when we checked in). His car was a white Toyota luxury sedan with gold trim, leather seats, and an official piece of paper marked “Tranzit” stuck to the windshield—a recent arrival. Its steering wheel, like that of all Japanese imports here, was on the right, the wrong side in left-hand-drive Russia. Its stereo pumped out loud electronica that heightened the feeling of being in a video game, of it being OK to weave through traffic at 80 miles an hour. We raced down the hill, taking in views of Orthodox churches and windswept Golden Horn Bay, and entered a crowded six-lane road. We swerved from lane to lane, passing everyone. After ten minutes we took a roaring left up a hill and were surrounded by used cars.
Green Corner was unimpressive at first, but we soon understood its size. It was not one lot but many, each hidden by a fold in the hill. One area held Japanese cranes and heavy equipment. Another was almost exclusively SUVs. There were loudspeakers offering instant, walk-up credit, men selling insurance from trailers, and guard dogs leaping out at anyone who got too close to a Camry. There were mechanics, restaurants, and acres of tires and rims. There were Mazda MPVs, Mitsubishi Delicas, Nissan Serenas, Suzuki Samurais, Daihatsu Terios, and Toyotas plastered with Japanglish stickers: “Reasons why I choose this car is that it will totally satisfy my requirements for outdoor living,” and “Well, tomorrow, where shall we go?”
Alexei introduced us to a friend, Andrei Shtirkhunov, who was wearing black jeans, a black Versace jean jacket, a black Versace cap, and a black Dolce & Gabbana belt. He was hawking ten nearly new Toyota Land Cruisers, almost all of them silver or white, almost all of them with CD/DVD packages. Shtirkhunov told us he’d been in the car business since the birth of capitalism in 1991—a golden period of zero import tariffs, 100 percent profits, and exponential growth. Cars were shipped west on the train, still cheap in those days, or, during the long winter, driven through the Amur on frozen rivers. (Even today, the highway is faster and smoother in winter—ice and snow fill in the potholes—but caravans are mandatory; if a peregonchik breaks down while alone, he’ll freeze to death.) Sell one car back then and you could buy two. Sell two and you could buy four.
“It was the ’90s,” Shtirkhunov said. “We were all teenagers running around with shaved heads and leather jackets.” Sailors were the only people bringing vehicles from Japan, and when their ships pulled into port, armed gangs sometimes attacked, stealing the cargo. He went into business with his four best friends, two of whom eventually died of gunshot wounds. The others got rich. Shtirkhunov told us he’d even become a candidate for city council. “So how did you raise the money to buy your first car?” I asked. “We attacked a ship and stole our first car,” he said.
It was easy to spot the peregonchiks at Green Corner: packs of hard-faced men in fake Adidas tracksuits who never took their eyes off the wares. We tried to stop a few to ask if they would be driving west—”Excuse me, where are you from?” “Excuse me, are you driving to the Amur?”—but they barely acknowledged us, grunting that they were too busy to chat. In one back lot, a seller wearing a gold chain and a Slayer T-shirt suggested that we become peregonchiks ourselves: We’d earn a couple thousand dollars if we resold his Honda in Novosibirsk. He said 10,000 rubles (about $400) would buy us a letter from the mafia guaranteeing safe passage through the Amur.
We began to make real progress when we met a woman wiping down a black Nissan Cube, a tiny box with tiny wheels. She seemed to want to help us. Once the Cube was clean and gleaming in the sun, she led us over to another Cube dealer, a man with such doughy, red cheeks that we immediately christened him Babyface. He had a buyer coming in from the Altay in a few days.
“You will pay for some of his gas?” Babyface asked.
“Of course,” we said.
“I think he will be interested.”
We spent the next days with Alexei: a karaoke party featuring five kinds of caviar, a sauna night with a bunch of fat men in towels, a sushi meal at an expensive restaurant for the nouveau riche and their imitators, and a turn at the disco with our own tanklike bodyguard, Alexei’s friend Sam. It was the good life, but we were antsy to leave. We were eating one afternoon at Café Nostalgia, a quiet spot with portraits of the tsars on the walls, when my phone rang. It was Babyface: “The buyer is here and wants to leave today.”
We had minutes to get ready. We wolfed our food, ran uphill to the hotel, and grabbed our backpacks. Alexei met us there in his Toyota, and then he sped us to Babyface’s meeting point, a bus stop on the outskirts of town. Babyface was waiting, as was a thin man he introduced as Evgeni: our ride. There was little time for goodbyes. We hugged Alexei, threw our bags in the car, and began rumbling west.
It was rush hour as we pulled out of Vladivostok, and Evgeni—a first-time peregonchik—seemed unaccustomed to sharing the road. Traffic circles required his utmost concentration. Our caravan consisted of us and a middle-aged man named Vadim who drove a yellow 1997 Mitsubishi Fuso Fighter, a light truck fitted with a crane. In the bed of the Fuso was a gray Honda CR-V: double the profit for the same amount of driving. Evgeni was piloting a tiny, silver Nissan Cube identical to the ones at the market, and soon he was tailgating Vadim so closely that we feared an accident. He kept both hands on the wheel and stared dead ahead, expressionless. He had a narrow, sharp-featured face, a week’s worth of scruff, and the smell of a man who had just ridden the train 3,000 miles from the Altay without showering or changing clothes. I offered him some peanuts. He wouldn’t take them—too distracting. The only things that drew his eyes off the road were cigarettes, which he fumbled for every few minutes and ashed out the window lest they dirty the interior.
Evgeni lit a cigarette as he filled our first tank of gas, which Aaron and I bought: 376.48 rubles, or $16. Civilization had given way to rolling, wooded tiger country, its broadleaf trees bathed in rich evening light. Oncoming traffic disappeared in the face of a steady, westbound flow of transit cars, their hoods, grilles, and side panels covered with cardboard and athletic tape: protection from flying rocks. We passed a series of villages: timber homes set in yellow fields. Pensioners with Soviet-built cars waited alongside the road and tried to sell onions or potatoes to the stream of shiny Japanese imports.
Soon we reached a police checkpoint, where officers with wands and barricades and blue uniforms waved down whomever they pleased to collect “fines.” Our car was stopped, and after five minutes in a back office with his transit documents, Evgeni—an obvious mark if ever there was one—came back looking shaken.
The gravel began at exactly 8 p.m., just after sunset. We could see the taillights ahead start bobbing up and down in the washboards, and the Cube began to shake. Evgeni slowed to a ludicrous six miles an hour. Other peregonchiks flew past in waves. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Aaron moaned. We hit pavement again after a few miles, but for the rest of the evening it was back and forth: asphalt, gravel, asphalt, gravel. When the road was good, Evgeni might speed up to 55 or even 75 miles an hour. On gravel he rarely topped 15.
We slept that night as the peregonchiks did—in our car—in the parking lot of a roadside café. Aaron was in the backseat of the tiny Cube, I took shotgun, and Evgeni stayed in the driver’s seat he had occupied for the previous eight hours. We Americans had sleeping bags; Evgeni had a gray sweater and track pants. He left the motor running and the heat blasting. When it got hot, he turned the car off. When it got cold, he turned it back on, alternately shivering and sweating until dawn. The 30 or 40 drivers around us were doing the same.
The landscape changed over the next days: fewer hills, fewer houses, smaller stands of trees breaking up expanses of savanna, fog hanging 20 feet above the long grass and rising like smoke off ponds and slow-moving rivers. It was summer elsewhere, but a few hundred miles north of Vladivostok, it had become autumn in full. Trees’ leaves were orange or gone altogether, and forests of larch were changing phase—Christmas trees turned yellow. Aaron and I spent hours staring out the windows, barely talking except to point out the odd farmhouse, tractor, or cemetery. We tried to find the names of the villages we passed on our map, but they were usually too small, or Siberia was too big.
We drove through the Khabarovsk Territory, where until a recent crackdown mafia had exacted a tax on passing peregonchiks, then through Birobidzhan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region—a Stalin-built homeland meant to offer a Marxist alternative to Zionism—where we leaned out the windows to snap photos of Yiddish signs and the giant menorah in front of the train station. Here freedom of movement had meant freedom to flee to Israel; the population was now more than 90 percent ethnic Russian. We passed but didn’t see the new rocket-launching cosmodrome near the village of Svobodnyy the former site of a 200,000-inmate gulag. Our surroundings became ever swampier, darker, more leafless—burned not by fire but by deadening cold. Civilization was soon reduced to gas stations and diners, all catering to peregonchiks, all as new as the highway itself. Two nights in a row, Vadim chose modern NK Alliance gas stations as our resting point, and Aaron and I pitched our tent next to the Fuso, peering out at a forested wilderness lit fluorescent green by 24-hour lights.
The Cube rolled forward into the innermost Amur, and Evgeni looked increasingly like a bleary-eyed heroin addict from the movie Trainspotting. I tried to make conversation. Did he have a buyer lined up in the Altay? “Nyet,” he said. “Na bazaar.” He planned to take the Cube to the bazaar. He’d just sit there and wait a week or three until someone bought it. The car had cost him about $5,700, and he hoped to sell it for a thousand more—a one-off deal that would take at least a month of his life. He had a wife and two young daughters. I got the impression that all his savings, and perhaps his extended family’s, were invested in this Cube. It put his grandmotherish driving in perspective.
Five days from Vladivostok, we saw our first wreck—a charred minivan smoldering alongside the car it’d been towing, a two-for-one setup gone bad—and began passing armadas of heavy equipment: graders, bulldozers, and dump trucks moving masses of gray rock. Tajiks and Uzbeks, the guest workers of Russia, rumbled by in yellow steamrollers. At nearly the center of the Amur, we reached a piece of highway so intense and impressive that Aaron and I decided to hop out of the convoy and camp. It was the Trans-Siberian Highway’s last major hurdle, the wild Amur’s last stand: a mountainside that blocked the highway’s path, forcing work crews to slice a gash through it with all the dynamite they could muster. A fleet of dump trucks stood by to carry away the rubble, and the peregonchiks had to wend up a single-lane track at the edge of it all, peering 300 feet down into the cut. We hid our tent in a stand of quaking aspen and kept a running tab of passing transit cars: one or two or three a minute, an average of 77 an hour, a torrent of plastic and metal.
The next morning, after a few luckless hours trying to flag down a new ride, Aaron drew a big dollar sign on a piece of paper and began waving it in the air. We got a car to Baikal almost immediately. The driver who stopped was named Ivan, and for two days in his very fast convoy, speeding through wide open territory that looked increasingly like Montana but with Cyrillic signage and meaner dogs, he quizzed us about America. Is gas cheap? (Slightly more than in Russia.) How much do cell phone minutes cost? (About a third as much as in Russia.) What kind of cars did we own? (Japanese cars, both of us.) We passed through villages of Old Believers—gingerbread homes, gardens, babushkas in headscarves, a stereotype of rural Russia—and we told Ivan that this was the most expensive country either of us had visited. In cities, hotels and restaurants seemed priced for that small sliver of society that could afford most anything. Everyone else stayed home or slept in cars.
Ivan bragged that his ex-girlfriend had been a guard at the Chinese border near Vladivostok, and that she’d extracted bribes from everyone who entered. “Is border guard a prestigious job in America?” he asked.
Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia and gateway to Lake Baikal, our first civilization in days, is a city famous for its vacuum cleaners. It also has the world’s largest Lenin head—12 tons of cement in the main square—and a factory that once made the strongest locomotives on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. According to our de facto guide, Darima Nomoeva, a 22-year-old manager of a tour company whose office was in the lobby of our shabby but expensive hotel, the locally built vacuums worked for decades (her mother’s had lasted 30 years). But now the factory, along with the locomotive plant, was closed. Like the Lenin head, they were relics, and Buryats were embracing another identity.
Tibetan Buddhism has been here since well before 1741, when it was recognized as one of Russia’s official religions, and lately, like their Mongolian cousins, locals are reconnecting with the old beliefs. On our first day, Darima took Aaron and me to a monastery, the Ivolginsky Datsan. We wound out of town through rust-colored fields—this was still big-sky country—and she admitted that she didn’t speak the local language. Though a full-blooded Buryat, mistaken for Japanese when in Moscow, she’d spoken Russian growing up—part of the confusion of being a young Siberian raised by old communists. She was finding her way. Her previous job, at a TV station owned by the mayor, had been “boring”: They reported the mayor’s successes while their rival station, owned by a political opponent, reported failures. In her new position with tourism pioneer Svetlana Timofeyevna, one of the first to bring foreigners through Buryatia in the early ’90s, she’d gotten in trouble for quadrupling the office Internet bill. Darima had a picture of Che Guevara on her $400 Nokia phone, and she liked Hubba Bubba gum. She was a fan of Mongolian alternative rock and Chinese hip-hop. But she was also religious, or at least newly traditional. When we passed a set of prayer flags, she borrowed a few coins from me and tossed them out the window as an offering.
The datsan was observing one of six annual holy days: the celebration that marked autumn and the Buddha of the Future. The grounds were swarming with novices in maroon robes and local worshippers in jeans and leather jackets. In the main temple, two dozen senior lamas were praying; loudspeakers carried their chants throughout the complex. Everywhere were Dalai Lama photos, along with prayer wheels, stupas, and Buddha statues. There were visiting monks from India, Tuva, and Mongolia. In a room in the datsan’s brick schoolhouse, novices made thangkas (paintings) for three new temples now under construction.
In the 1930s, Darima told us, Buryatia had 37 major datsans and a hundred country temples, and all were razed by Communist authorities. She said 400 lamas, Orthodox priests, and Old Believers were put on a boat and sunk to the bottom of the Selenga River, and 10,000 monks were killed or sent to the gulags. A nearby factory turned religious icons into furniture. In 1945, after an appeal to Stalin by a delegation of Buryats, this datsan was reopened as the only legal Buddhist site in the Soviet Union. For the last five years, it had been in the midst of a tremendous rebuilding.
In an incense-filled cabin, we met with the leader of Siberia’s one million Buddhists, Damba Ayusheyev, the 25th Pandito Hambo Lama. He told us of the miracles Buryatia was witnessing. Chief among them was the exhumation of the 12th Pandito Hambo Lama, who before his death in 1927 directed students to check on his body someday. When disinterred in 2002, Ayusheyev said, the body was perfectly intact, muscles and skin showing no signs of decay. More recently, images of a bodhisattva had been discovered on a rock in the Barguzin Valley near Lake Baikal: the fulfillment of a prophecy. “We were told that Buddhism would move north,” Ayusheyev said. “Look at India, it is no longer so Buddhist. Look at Nepal, it is the same. Look even at Tibet, it has been taken over by China. But up here in Buryatia, it is coming back.” Along with pipelines, roads, and foreign-built cars, religion is creeping into Siberia. “I am not saying that Buryatia is the center of Buddhism,” he continued. “But in 20 or 30 years, it might be.”
We spent the next four days at Baikal, the deepest and largest lake in the world, home to a fifth of the planet’s surface fresh water, ocean blue and so vast as to seem immune to change. Once a winding, six-hour drive away from Ulan Ude, it was soon to become hours closer on a new spur highway. On our way there, we saw scenes reminiscent of the Amur: trees ripped out at their roots, wide corridors of stumps destined to be highway, meandering former roads now cut off and unused, laborers in orange vests warming themselves by campfires. The special tourist zone slated for major construction, though, was still undeveloped but for a new datsan. For now, our destination, Zabaikalsky National Park, famous for its mountainous Holy Nose Peninsula and freshwater Baikal seals, was equally quiet. With Darima and another local guide, Sasha Beketov, we overnighted on a 79-foot Yaroslavets-style fishing boat—the classic Baikal tourist experience, complete with vodka, hot springs, a fish cookout, and more vodka—before driving up the beautiful Barguzin Valley, a Tetons-like landscape of pine forest and broad grasslands fronting a wall of toothy peaks.
We had come to the valley, the birthplace of Genghis Khan’s mother, to see the bodhisattva described by Lama Ayusheyev. It had been discovered in 2005, and already the holy site had three gleaming new temples and a path choked with pilgrims. We joined them and ascended into a forest. After 15 minutes, we came to a stand of pines whose trunks were wrapped in cloth and prayer flags. Families of Buryats circled clockwise around a Cube-size boulder, and I glimpsed a dark, oddly shaped smudge about the size of my hand: a prophecy realized, something that may or may not have been a goddess on a rock.
If Siberia is Russia’s frontier, the frontier of the frontier is Tuva, a place most famous for being remote. In its brief time as an independent nation in the early 1900s, it produced stamps prized by collectors, and later its nomadic Turkic people’s throat singing earned global renown. But Tuva is probably best known for being the obsession of physicist Richard Feynman, who famously and failingly tried to visit its endless steppe and its capital, Kyzyl, in the 1980s, as described in the book Tuva or Bust! Today people visit Tuva partly so they can say, “I visited Tuva,” and Aaron and I were no better. We learned that Kyzyl even had an obelisk proclaiming it the geographic center of Asia—which in fact it is, provided you use a certain 1855 map projection by Scottish clergyman James Gall, which nobody ever does.
From Buryatia, Tuva was about a thousand miles to the west and 500 miles to the south. Aaron and I needed a good ride, and we found one with the unlikeliest of hitchhiking aids: the police. At a checkpoint at the edge of Ulan Ude, aided by fast-talking Darima, we convinced the officers to flag down some peregonchiks. In ten minutes we had our guys. Our unwitting hosts were slightly older and more tattooed than previous drivers—a tougher, gruffer sort of peregonchik. The three men warmed up once we said we really would pay for gas: For once, a police checkpoint yielded money rather than took it away. Soon the boss, a gold-toothed man named Volodya who wore slippers and a full tracksuit, was handing me his cell phone so I could surprise his wife: “Hello, I’m a foreigner driving with your husband!”
We crossed between the more populated western shores of Baikal and the beautiful Khamar-Daban mountains—snowy and treeless, with sharp ridges that climbed to 6,500-foot peaks—then entered the grimy metropolis of Irkutsk at rush hour. Here, 3,000 miles from Vladivostok and 3,000 from Moscow, 80 percent of the cars clogging the streets were Japanese. “Davai, davai, davai,” Volodya yelled: “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”
Volodya had tattoos around his fingers—a sign of having been in prison—and for the next two days he used these fingers to play with his Toyota’s dash-mounted LCD. The all-in-one GPS-unit-TV-radio-RPM-gauge-thermometer was in Japanese; the menus were impossible to navigate. Driving at 65 miles an hour through rain, potholes, and our first snowstorm, Volodya fixated on finding the temperature display. For hours he distractedly clicked through screens: Beep, beep, beep, beep. Aaron and I feared for our lives. “If he keeps doing this, I’m just going to kill myself,” Aaron said. But eventually Volodya found the right display—it was freezing outside, surprise, surprise—and we soon reached the city of Krasnoyarsk, a modern place with ski areas and sushi bars and Cuban-themed discos next to onion-domed churches. This was the turnoff to Tuva.
We veered south, vaguely paralleling the Yenisey River, the fifth longest in the world, and spent two more days gaping out the windows at landscapes we never would have pegged as Russian: vast, shallow, electric blue lakes, Mongolia-style grasslands, and then the spiny peaks and Yosemite-like cliffs of the Ergaki Nature Park, a two-year-old regional preserve, Russia’s first and certainly most stunning. It was part of a new, 7.5-million-acre string of protected areas—the cornerstone of a World Wildlife Fun strategy that favors ecotourism over extraction in increasingly mineral-crazed Siberia—and turbazas, or mountain lodges, were blooming on both sides of the pass. A day hike with a ranger had us sinking up to our knees in autumn snow.
We wanted to find Feynman’s vision of Tuva, untouched and uncivilized, and the warning of the taxi driver who dropped us at our Kyzyl hotel—”Don’t walk the streets after dark!”—seemed to fit. Tuva’s drunks were many and violent. For three days we explored the city of beautifully painted old homes and ugly, hyper-geometrical Communist concrete only when the sun was up. At night we took cabs or simply sprinted from place to place, making wide detours around packs of staggering young men.
The drunks were a nice touch; they gave the visit a proper frontier vibe. But elsewhere, as we had seen across Siberia, capitalism was making a convincing rise. Everything “cultural” was on sale. There were throat-singing lessons for tourists—many of whom, during the summer high season, were Feynman-inspired Americans—and for-pay ceremonies at the gaudy, riverside Tos Deer shaman center. We visited a community center hoping to find local throat singers, but heard only the moaning of two new students, a German guy and a Japanese girl—and the director wanted us to pay 800 rubles, or $34, just to listen. We finally asked locals for a true shaman, one not in the Lonely Planet, where we could learn—as journalists, not tourists—about Tuvan animism.
Our hunt led us to the Mijit-Dorju center and a serene, gray-haired woman named Nadia Sat, who sat in an orange sweater in her colorful office and expressed her love for shamanism: “There is energy in water, energy in wood. You get to be in nature. Shamanism is not about sermons. It’s about using the littlest things in nature to heal.”
She asked us our birth years—1975 and 1976—and wrote them down on a piece of paper, then stared at them for a very long time. She started whispering to herself and stabbing at the paper with her pen. It began to feel less like an interview and more like a doctor visit. She told Aaron and me that it was our destiny to head west. We hadn’t mentioned our trans-Siberian trip, so this seemed prophetic. She told me I had been rushing around too much, but that I would soon get to slow down. This also made sense. She tied yellow thread around our wrists, then pulled some poppy seeds from a drawer and wrapped them in tiny white satchels, which she blew upon, chanting our names. She handed them to us. The white color would deflect evil.
“Do you have any advice for the road?” Aaron asked. “Remember that there are two roads,” she said. “The poppy can be a drug or it can be a flower.” She burned a sprig of sage, and smoke filled the room as Aaron and I got up to leave. I asked if we could make a small donation for the advice.
“Just pay from your heart,” she said.
“Well, we don’t know what would be appropriate,” I said.
Our shaman gave a beatific smile, and her eyes rose to meet mine. “Three thousand rubles would be fine,” she said. “That’s what foreigners usually pay.” For 20 minutes she wanted $125—our budget for the next three days. We mumbled something about lacking the right change. She wouldn’t hear it. I’d walked right into this one. “Three thousand would be best,” she said.
True to Shaman Nadia’s precious advice, Aaron and I headed west, and her bracelets gave us luck from that moment forward. Back in Krasnoyarsk, police at a checkpoint scored us a rare caravan bound for European Russia. The road was now paved and fast, and the mountains were behind us. Nearly 1,500 miles of snow and muddy fields passed in a blur. Somewhere, it was hard to pinpoint a place or moment, the frontier ended. The wave of Japanese cars petered out—ours were the only peregonchiks on the road—and we witnessed a change in tides: Used German sedans with transit plates now barreled toward us in the opposite lane. Eastbound semitrucks towed trailers stacked with SUVs. Our right-hand-drive vehicles were suddenly out of place, not to mention dangerous. Stuck looking out the wrong side of the windshield, our drivers couldn’t see around what they were trying to pass. Cities were more frequent, and just as gas station tent sites became scarce, motels appeared. Truck stops took up both sides of the road, offering bright lights and kebabs roasted over a fire.
Past the Urals, our rides were all with truck drivers: a dancer turned shop owner, a young Russian with an American 18-wheeler, a pair of Muslim brothers from Tatarstan. We rolled through Ufa and Kazan and Cheboksary and Nizhniy Novgorod and Vladimir and Elektrostal until the countryside was all onion domes, train tracks, and power lines—sprawl indistinguishable from Moscow itself. Just after dark on one of the first days of November, after five weeks on the road, Aaron and I climbed down from the cab of a semi onto an apartment complex lawn. We put on our packs, strolled down the sidewalk to the metro, and rode it to the center of Moscow.
Early in our trip, surrounded by acrobats, caviar, saunas, and men in tracksuits, Aaron had said something very wise: “You know, Russia is sort of like a skit about Russia.” Moscow was not like that. Rebounded from the spiral of the ’90s, flush with oil money, it seemed like any other big European city, if perhaps more expensive. It had McDonald’s and Sbarro pizza and endless shopping malls. The coffee shop Shokoladnitsa, an icon of perestroika, had become a ubiquitous chain, the Starbucks of Moscow. This was what Siberia’s natural wealth—easier to reach with every mile of new road or pipe—had bought.
There were still oddities: the babushkas who fought over the coins tourists tossed at the Kremlin’s Resurrection Gate; the new holiday whose name no one knew and whose celebration brought out thousands of marching, increasingly confident ultranationalists; the art students who told us they paid for school by painting frescoes on the ceilings of McMansions. (One described a castle that every day rotated 360 degrees with the sun.) But there was predominantly the same mass of tuned-in, cell-phone-carrying, English-speaking youth found all over Europe, neither morose nor exotic nor burdened with memories of Communism, just affluent and part of the world. The immigrants, the poor, the Russians still playing by the old rules—these people were shunted to the suburbs.
On a rainy Friday night, one of our last in Russia, Aaron and I rode the metro to the end of the Green Line, where the buildings were still sullen and Soviet. Up a set of creaky stairs we found the home of Anton Krotov, the 31-year-old founder of the Academy of Free Travel and a hitchhiking legend with a messianic beard. His grimy apartment held half a dozen backpackers—Krotov welcomes anyone who wants to crash on his floor—and on a table were copies of the 17 books he has written about his journeys. A large wall map showed his and other club members’ travels: Georgia, Iran, Sudan, Kenya, Angola, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and back and forth across Russia. Krotov espoused a philosophy of living with and off the locals—of never paying for anything you didn’t have to pay for. He once spent two weeks in a Tanzanian jail for sneaking up Mount Kilimanjaro without a climbing permit.
Aaron and I had hitched across the whole of Russia, trying to see what was becoming of it, trying to live like peregonchiks, and we figured Krotov would be impressed. He was not. “What you did is very easy now,” he said. “It is not like many years ago.”
The Trans-Siberian Highway made it too easy. It made everything too easy. “Now there are many roads, many cars,” he told us. He pointed on the map where further highways and pipelines would eventually cut across Siberia. “Supermarkets are coming. Electricity is coming. The Internet is coming. Credit cards are coming. Everything is becoming the same: Chinese goods and American freedom. Very cheap. Very easy.” Krotov showed us photos of the Amur in the ’90s, of a wintertime transit by foot, of snowdrifts and jeep trails and blown-out bridges. Once, he said, not so long ago, crossing Siberia was truly an adventure.