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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."

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