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?