≡ Menu

Vagabond Journey Travel Stories and World Culture

FEATURE STORIES

http://www.vagabondjourney.com/travelogue/wp-content/uploads/hallstatt-austria-china.jpg What Happens in China’s Western Replica Towns
How China’s Lanzhou New Area Is Moving Mountains For A New City
One Way That China Populates Its Ghost Cities

BLOG – Daily missives from around the world

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

I just spent the past eight days working on a documentary with BBC World in Khorgos, on the Kazakh border with China.

The film is about how a clutch of large-scale development projects that are changing the surrounding society and impacting lives. It’s one of the best examples of how the New Silk Road is changing places, cultures, and people.

What’s extremely interesting about Khorgos is just how remote and improbable it is. The place sits a tick or two from the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility — the farthest point on the planet from an ocean; perhaps the very definition of remote. Just five years ago there was nothing there. If you look at a satellite image from then of where Khorgos is today you will see nothing but sand dunes. At that time Khorgos wasn’t on any maps, it didn’t even have a name. Literally, it wasn’t even a place yet. But today the place is emerging as an epicenter of cross-border trade, and the people there are leveraging the new opportunities.

The shooting locations for the film range from a state of the art, $250 million dry port and a booming free trade zone to the camp of a family of nomadic camel herders. The landscape is a montage of snow capped mountains, deep ravines, desert. . . There are train rides and crane rides and horse rides.

I have to admit that after that it’s a little difficult returning to text-based journalism.

I will have a vlog entry up about this soon.

For now, a special thanks goes out to my old friend Dmitri, who reads this blog and really bailed out BBC and myself big time with a huge favor. Thank you, man, we all really appreciated it.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
0 comments

Kazakhstan Blocked In Parking Solution

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

ALMATY, Kazakhstan- Kazakhstan doesn’t have much in the way of big cities — or even a lot of people, for that matter. But the country’s two metropolitan centers have already become clogged with cars. While both Almaty and Astana have central street grids designed either by the Soviets or off of the Soviet model — huge, wide streets, superblocks, etc — the amount of cars have already grown beyond the carrying capacity. For the most part, there simply are not enough roads. While China has sought a solution to this problem by breaking up superblocks Kazakhstan hasn’t yet got into this program (and Astana is actually continuing to build more).

What this means on the ground is not only that it often takes a ridiculously long time to get just about anywhere in these cities, but that sometimes you walk out to your parked car and find yourself blocked in by another parked car.

But Kazakhstan has a solution for this.

A few weeks ago I walked out to Verena’s blue Lada Niva to find that someone had parked behind it in such a way that she was completely unable to pull out. We were stuck. What do you do here? Just wait for the guy to show up?

Apparently not.

Verena noticed a laminated piece of paper with a phone number on it positioned on the dashboard. She called it. It was the driver. He rushed over and moved his car. We were free.

Verena asked him if he put his phone number on the dash just for that reason. He said that he did. Whenever he parks behind someone he throws up his number in the window. Apparently, this constitutes good manners here.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
0 comments
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

My boots and jacket are freshly waxed. It’s time to go back out on the “New Silk Road.” I was out there last just a couple of weeks ago — knocking around Central Asia, visiting ports and markets . . . and, yes, places where I have to admit I had a little too much fun.

I sit with my wife and feel a little bad that I’m leaving again — so soon after I’d just returned. She has to do a lot of extra work when I’m away; my daughters miss me. Like every other time I leave, just before going out the door I think of all the other professions that I could do which would enable me to stay around a little more. I never really come up with any. I’m otherwise pretty useless.

“I’m perfectly suited for my job,” I said.

“You don’t have a job,” my wife rapidly retorted. “You have something that you just made up. So of course you’re well suited for it.”

I’ve probably never heard my job described better.
***

I believe this will be bout 6 of my New Silk Road travels, but the purpose will be a little different this time. Rather than gathering stories and information for articles and a book I will be working on a documentary with BBC World.

I’m regularly contacted by film crews, and I often talk with them, give some advice, share some contacts. But these guys seemed different. They seemed interested in really working together. I liked the sounds of this. So I’m going back to Khorgos on Kazakhstan’s remote borderlands with China.

I’m not sure anymore how many times I’ve been there while working on this New Silk Road project. For the past two years it feels as if I’m somehow tied to the place — which isn’t the worst fate a writer can have, as what’s going down there is truly a fascinating story of development and trade, cultures transitioning, and lives being changed. Good stuff — apparently even good enough for the BBC.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
0 comments

Americans Divided?

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

“We think that we are so divided in the United States, but when we sit here in this airport and look around we can’t tell who is who. That’s not really so divided.”

My brother in law said this to me as we sat in a food court eating cheap Mexican fast food at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. He was right. The divisions and polarizations that the United States currently believes it is experiencing is not even close to countries that are truly divided.

There are many countries where contending social factions look completely different from each other, have radically different histories, and speak entirely different languages. You walk into room and you can easily tell who is who.

Whether we wish to admit it, Americans are all bonded by an overarching identity. When I first heard someone say this long ago before I began traveling I thought he was nuts — “Of course I’m completely different than them!” I believed. But ultimately I was almost exactly the same as those who I targeted as “them.”

The cultural divides in the United States are relatively thin. Politically, both sides of the line are essentially the same: tribalistic, moralistic, biased-news-loving boneheads who go out into the street, hold signs, and kick and scream whenever they don’t get what they want.

This is what Americans do.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
1 comment

My Uncle Went To The Moon

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

My uncle has a tattoo of fucking Saturn or something on his arm. One day when we were kids my sister asked him why he had it. He told her that everybody who’s been to the moon has a tatoo like that. He told her that he used to be an astronaut. She believed him. She believed him so much that the next day of school she sheepishly approached her teacher and told her that she had a special message for the class to hear. She proceeded to get up in front of everyone and proudly proclaim that her uncle had been to outer space and had visited the moon, no less.

Of course, her uncle hadn’t really been to the moon or even to outer space, for that matter — he just had a tattoo of fucking Saturn or something.

I was reminded of this story when I told my seven year old daughter that her great uncle was one of the inventors of the atomic bomb. The difference was that what I told her was true. But if my daughter really did go in front of her class and deliver this message I’m sure she’d probably be laughed out of the room, as my poor sister was in the third grade.

I haven’t yet explained to her that her great grandfather — the old guy that we go out to the coast to visit on Sundays — won a Presidential Medal of Science, a MacArther Genius Award, and was part of a group that won a Nobel prize for discovering human-impacted rapid climate change, cutting world hunger in half, and coming up with key protocols for disaster relief.

But, then again, telling my daughter this would hardly receive a shrug. It’s not like he has a tattoo of fucking Saturn or something.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
1 comment

Puerto Rico Vacation Ends

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

My week long vacation to Puerto Rico has come to an end. I’m on a flight to Boston. In two weeks I should be heading back out to Central Asia. Back to work.

I couldn’t imagine a better vacation. The kids had fun on the beach, everybody got along, everybody did what they wanted to do.
We essentially just rented an apartment on the beach and let everyone go wild. There were no programs, no tours, no schedules, no obligations. One day we drove to the rain forest, and that was it for organized activities. We all just kind of hung out with each other, all doing our own respective version of nothing — I wrote, my one and a half year old ate sand, everyone else sat in a row reading their novels.

We returned to San Juan the day before our flight and the same went there. I played in the pool at the hotel with my seven year old and then just walked around the old city.

I was able to do enough work to get through the day — I don’t have the type of job where days off are realistic — and then went out and played. Although I have to admit that I relaxed as well.

It was a real vacation.

 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
0 comments

On Cultural Appropriation

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

“One thing that I would really get mad if everyone appropriated is challah bread,” my wife said.

I didn’t say anything.

When two groups meet one of the first things they do is copy each other — each side takes what they find useful, beautiful, or trendy and incorporate it into what they make and do. This is one of the main mechanisms through which cultures evolve — and cultures are always evolving.

It’s normal, so normal, in fact, that looking at the ways which one culture replicated the art and technology of another is one of the main ways that archaeologists produce models of who cultures interacted with, where they went, and something about the dynamics of what they did.

The flows of intercultural influence that can be seen via copying is a clear sign of power dynamics.

When a weaker culture takes from a stronger one it demonstrates a form of reverence, obedience, or simple practicality — if someone does something better you should copy it.

But is that really appropriation? Not really.

When the Roman empire was in decline there are reports that it was trendy for youths to go around wearing the clothes of “barbarians” in the name of rebellion, fashion, cuteness.

That’s appropriation.

The difference? Power dynamics.

The power of an alpha culture is bolstered when it is the copied and when it is the copier.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
0 comments
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

I kind of resist getting on the new trends in travel. I have my old ways, they work, and I seldom have any real need to change them. But once in a while something comes up that rattles everything. Short-term apartment rental sites, like Air B&B, or those like Booking.com which offer short-term apartment rentals has been such a disruption.

Renting out apartments for a month or two has always been one of my common travel practice, but using short-term rentals sites to find them is something new — you used to have to look on bulletin boards in cafes and supermarkets to find them.

Some years ago this practice also wasn’t that common. Few travelers were really doing this, and it was very easy to get nice places dirt cheap.

Now that this practice has become widespread and there are people all over the world renting out their unused homes to travelers — and obtaining homes just to rent out — travel is being changed.

Short-term apartment rental sites are now allowing large amounts of travelers to stay in places they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. There is usually a distinction between tourist / commercial zones and residential. Short-term apartment rental demolishes this division. Almost inherently, apartments are in residential areas where people actually live. These were for the most part no-stay zones for travelers showing up in places where they don’t know anybody.

When you travel you basically need three fundamental services: transportation, food, and, if you’re not just camping, accommodation. Ultimately, you can get transportation to just about anywhere. Everybody eats, so anywhere that has people is also going to have food. The element that’s keeping a broader swath of the world at bay from travelers is accommodation. The places of the world that have hotels and hostels and guesthouses is just a sliver of the total places available.

Short-term apartment rental essentially puts more places on the travel map. New towns and parts of cities are being opened up to visitors that were basically closed before due to a lack of accommodation and a reason to go there.

My family and I never would have stayed on the beach in Vega Alta in Puerto Rico if it wasn’t for the apartment that we rented there via Air B&B. There were no hotels. We probably never would have known the place even existed.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
0 comments

Vega Alta, Puerto Rico

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

VEGA ALTA, Puerto Rico- It’s a soft sand beach with deep blue waves flapping gently against it. The sun is shining, a slight breeze. There is a broken down beach bar on one side and a broken down beach bar on the other side. There is a clutch of derelict beach houses, a few luxury ones. 500 meters away is a national park with trails that wind through a small forest that hugs a rocky shoreline. I’m told that there are giant lizards over there but I never saw one. I watch some local kids have a sandball fight. One runs over my one and a half year old daughter. I’m drinking a six pack of Coronas that I bought from the shitty grocery store around the corner that seems to be the only place to get food. It seems to be the style here to blast music from your car as loud as you can — the louder you can make it the cooler you can think you are. The people here are a mix of locals, what seems to be long-term seasonal visitors from elsewhere, and those who came over from San Juan 20 minutes away.

I can’t argue with this place. Who could?

I suppose I have to admit that I’m on a beach vacation. I’m suppose I’ve been on these before, but I never called them that. When I used to focus on writing about the traveling lifestyle I used to call this work. Seriously. It seems ridiculous now. Work is going into the depths of some half-developed middle-of-nowhere and trying to figure out what’s going on. Sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico watching my kids play feels like coming in from a storm — just what a beach is supposed to feel like.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
0 comments

Family Arrives In Puerto Rico

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

My daughter sees me standing at the doorway at the baggage claim at the airport in San Juan. Her face lights up, she yells “Dada!,” runs for me, and jumps in my arms. A few moments later little one and a half year old Rivka wobbles out and yells “Hi dada!” She hugs my legs. At the rental car station she roves around still yelling “Hi dada!” over and over, sometimes running across the place back to me to hug my legs again.

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve seen them last. I’ve been in Central Asia doing research for a new book. They really miss me when I’m away.

Something about this tells me that I’m at least doing something right.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone
0 comments
Previous Posts