email a friend iconprinter friendly iconRoad-Tripping the Trans-Siberian Highway
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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.

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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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