Nick Gheissari, who has recently published a book of his photographs titled Russia and Beyond, has some very specific ideas about how people should live their lives. “Really,” he says, “a complete person is the one who has exposed himself to as many points of this world as possible. There is tremendous personal growth that one can accomplish by traveling—especially to more remote places, hidden cultures.”

This impulse—which Gheissari calls an “addiction toward completing [himself] as a human being”—led Gheissari to Africa in 1990, where he spent six months beefing up his portfolio, sharpening his skills, and, well, growing as a person. “In your lifetime, you must go on a safari,” he advises. “You must. You must see the lions in the wild. You must see the leopard, the cheetah, the hippos, the elephants. You must really go to Africa at least one time in your life to experience that.”

After cutting his teeth on savannas and jungles, Gheissari—with increased confidence in his ability as a photographer—set his sites on the just-dissolved Soviet Union. “Six months after I had finished my African journeys, Russia suddenly opened up, and I saw my opportunity to go in,” he remembers. “At the time, I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to take on a project as huge as this turned out to be—because we are talking about 11 time zones.”

The undertaking, begun in 1991 and financed with money Gheissari made selling real estate in the Washington area, was gargantuan; it took Gheissari five years and nine separate trips, some as long as six months, to click his way across a landscape almost three times the size of the United States. Russia and Beyond, which collects 151 of Gheissari’s photos, documents his odyssey. All the area’s important cities are represented—interior shots of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, exteriors of St. Petersburg’s canals—as are natural beauties like the Caucasus and Ural mountains, the cliffs surrounding the Black Sea, and the bear-populated volcanic paradises that sprout all over the Kamchatka peninsula, the easternmost tip of the Eurasian landmass.

The photos in Russia are organized by region, and then further subdivided into narrower sections, like the series Gheissari took of hand-carved window frames, or the one highlighting onion-shaped domes. Gheissari, who published Russia and Beyond himself after all the big houses in New York passed on it, also included maps, transportation information, statistics, and points of interest, making the book an unusual hybrid: a coffee-table book that doubles as a travel guide.

Throughout every section, Gheissari liberally peppers his collection with portraits of the people he met—young and old people whose openness and intelligence impressed him deeply. “It shocked me. It was amazing,” he says. “They were so curious to know who I was, as a foreigner—since the country was closed for 74 years—that they really opened their doors to me. I mean, I would meet people on the plane, and the next thing I knew I was in their homes, eating with them and drinking their vodka.”

This hospitality may explain why Gheissari, an American University alum, has decided to make his next project an extension of Russia and Beyond, this time tightening his scope to focus on either one ethnic group or theme.—Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Russia and Beyond is available at Borders for $39.95.