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.