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We spent the next days with Alexei: a karaoke party featuring five kinds of caviar, a sauna night with a bunch of fat men in towels, a sushi meal at an expensive restaurant for the nouveau riche and their imitators, and a turn at the disco with our own tanklike bodyguard, Alexei's friend Sam. It was the good life, but we were antsy to leave. We were eating one afternoon at Café Nostalgia, a quiet spot with portraits of the tsars on the walls, when my phone rang. It was Babyface: "The buyer is here and wants to leave today."

We had minutes to get ready. We wolfed our food, ran uphill to the hotel, and grabbed our backpacks. Alexei met us there in his Toyota, and then he sped us to Babyface's meeting point, a bus stop on the outskirts of town. Babyface was waiting, as was a thin man he introduced as Evgeni: our ride. There was little time for goodbyes. We hugged Alexei, threw our bags in the car, and began rumbling west.

It was rush hour as we pulled out of Vladivostok, and Evgeni—a first-time peregonchik—seemed unaccustomed to sharing the road. Traffic circles required his utmost concentration. Our caravan consisted of us and a middle-aged man named Vadim who drove a yellow 1997 Mitsubishi Fuso Fighter, a light truck fitted with a crane. In the bed of the Fuso was a gray Honda CR-V: double the profit for the same amount of driving. Evgeni was piloting a tiny, silver Nissan Cube identical to the ones at the market, and soon he was tailgating Vadim so closely that we feared an accident. He kept both hands on the wheel and stared dead ahead, expressionless. He had a narrow, sharp-featured face, a week's worth of scruff, and the smell of a man who had just ridden the train 3,000 miles from the Altay without showering or changing clothes. I offered him some peanuts. He wouldn't take them—too distracting. The only things that drew his eyes off the road were cigarettes, which he fumbled for every few minutes and ashed out the window lest they dirty the interior.

Evgeni lit a cigarette as he filled our first tank of gas, which Aaron and I bought: 376.48 rubles, or $16. Civilization had given way to rolling, wooded tiger country, its broadleaf trees bathed in rich evening light. Oncoming traffic disappeared in the face of a steady, westbound flow of transit cars, their hoods, grilles, and side panels covered with cardboard and athletic tape: protection from flying rocks. We passed a series of villages: timber homes set in yellow fields. Pensioners with Soviet-built cars waited alongside the road and tried to sell onions or potatoes to the stream of shiny Japanese imports.

Soon we reached a police checkpoint, where officers with wands and barricades and blue uniforms waved down whomever they pleased to collect "fines." Our car was stopped, and after five minutes in a back office with his transit documents, Evgeni—an obvious mark if ever there was one—came back looking shaken.

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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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