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The Cube rolled forward into the innermost Amur, and Evgeni looked increasingly like a bleary-eyed heroin addict from the movie Trainspotting. I tried to make conversation. Did he have a buyer lined up in the Altay? "Nyet," he said. "Na bazaar." He planned to take the Cube to the bazaar. He'd just sit there and wait a week or three until someone bought it. The car had cost him about $5,700, and he hoped to sell it for a thousand more—a one-off deal that would take at least a month of his life. He had a wife and two young daughters. I got the impression that all his savings, and perhaps his extended family's, were invested in this Cube. It put his grandmotherish driving in perspective.

Five days from Vladivostok, we saw our first wreck—a charred minivan smoldering alongside the car it'd been towing, a two-for-one setup gone bad—and began passing armadas of heavy equipment: graders, bulldozers, and dump trucks moving masses of gray rock. Tajiks and Uzbeks, the guest workers of Russia, rumbled by in yellow steamrollers. At nearly the center of the Amur, we reached a piece of highway so intense and impressive that Aaron and I decided to hop out of the convoy and camp. It was the Trans-Siberian Highway's last major hurdle, the wild Amur's last stand: a mountainside that blocked the highway's path, forcing work crews to slice a gash through it with all the dynamite they could muster. A fleet of dump trucks stood by to carry away the rubble, and the peregonchiks had to wend up a single-lane track at the edge of it all, peering 300 feet down into the cut. We hid our tent in a stand of quaking aspen and kept a running tab of passing transit cars: one or two or three a minute, an average of 77 an hour, a torrent of plastic and metal.

The next morning, after a few luckless hours trying to flag down a new ride, Aaron drew a big dollar sign on a piece of paper and began waving it in the air. We got a car to Baikal almost immediately. The driver who stopped was named Ivan, and for two days in his very fast convoy, speeding through wide open territory that looked increasingly like Montana but with Cyrillic signage and meaner dogs, he quizzed us about America. Is gas cheap? (Slightly more than in Russia.) How much do cell phone minutes cost? (About a third as much as in Russia.) What kind of cars did we own? (Japanese cars, both of us.) We passed through villages of Old Believers—gingerbread homes, gardens, babushkas in headscarves, a stereotype of rural Russia—and we told Ivan that this was the most expensive country either of us had visited. In cities, hotels and restaurants seemed priced for that small sliver of society that could afford most anything. Everyone else stayed home or slept in cars.

Ivan bragged that his ex-girlfriend had been a guard at the Chinese border near Vladivostok, and that she'd extracted bribes from everyone who entered. "Is border guard a prestigious job in America?" he asked.

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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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