London, England (CNN) -- They don't call it being "sent to Siberia" for nothing.
We learned this on the first day of our trip to Novokuznetsk, in the western part of this 5.1 million square-mile region of Russia, while filming a documentary about how and why the youth of this economically depressed city were in the death grip of a heroin epidemic.
It's a story squarely at odds with the rebranding of Russian youth as prosperous super humans living in a world of money, success and freedom. In reality, Russia now consumes 21 percent of the world's heroin. And with a southern border more than 4,000 miles long, an area greater than the distance from New York to London, it's little wonder that Moscow's attempts at interdiction have largely failed.
A sense of Soviet-era poverty pervades in Novokuznetsk: the moldering grey housing blocks, the wake-up call of barking wild dogs, the 6 a.m. hotel breakfasts of Spam and hard-fried eggs speckled with dill. But we weren't here for fun. No one has much fun here.
Before we set off on our trip, we heard whispers of a new drug called krokodil -- a synthetic opiate made by mixing petrol, codeine pills, and eye drops -- that earned its reptilian nickname by turning users' skin scaly, eating them from the inside, and rotting the brain and limbs, before precipitating a painful death.
When researching the krokodil story, we heard grim tales of zombified addicts building DIY coffins to bury their friends, disfigured and brain-damaged ex-users, and religious cults disguised as rehab clinics. During a weeklong trip to Novokuznetsk, we found all of this -- and more.