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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.

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  • My son, Levi Bridges, is currently biking across Russia and Asia. He departed Vladivostok on April 1…
  • I wish Aaron Huey would give the camera and lens info he used to get the pictures. Great stuff.
  • Some of the finest photos I've seen of 21st Century FarEast Russia! I too have yet to read the artic…
  • wow! i have not even read the article yet and i am excited. it is like a chapter from a travel book.…
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