Heading north out of Vladivostok, the road to Khabarovsk is reasonably smooth. Deceptively smooth. The first 20 kilometers or so, until the turnoff for the airport, are almost as comfortable a ride as any US or European motorway. Not until later, far from where city drivers make the short trips out to their dachas, does the pavement start to disappear for stretches at a time, leaving the dirt-caked cargo trucks to jostle across the region like giant, unwieldy off-road vehicles.
Zhenya has been a truck driver for 11 of his 31 years, hauling containers from the ports of Vladivostok and Nakhodka. The truck he drives is a 1988 Russian-made Kamaz that is showing its years: long cracks spread across the windshield and the speedometer needle never leaves zero.
The truck runs well, but loud. "A loud engine is a strong engine, right?" says Zhenya over the din, grinning to reveal a row of silver-capped teeth.
Zhenya sits ramrod straight as he drives, one hand on the wheel and the other more often than not holding a cigarette. He waves to most of the trucks going in the opposite direction, sometimes honking his horn when he sees a good friend go by. "After 11 years," he says, "you get to know just about everybody on the road."
"I like driving trucks," he says. "If
I didn't like it, I wouldn't be doing it." It's a simple statement, one that
reveals the defining logic of Zhenya's worldview: Things are the way they are for
a reason, and there's no sense in trying to make them into something else. Ask
him if he is making good time on a trip, and he'll respond, "Whether we are or
not, we're going as fast as we're going." Ask him why a row of streetlights are
sitting unused along a dark stretch of road, and he says, "Because nobody has the
money to turn them on."