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Vagabond Journey Travel Stories and World Culture

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Hallstatt, China What Happens in China’s Western Style Replica Towns
Meixi Lake Ecocity. Image: Nick Holdstock. Can Ecocities Solve China’s Environmental Problems?
Street cleaner in front of a demolition site in Shanghai_DCE Clearing The Land: Inside China’s Mass Demolitions And Land Grabs

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I was sitting in a Rotterdam dorm room — Europe is too expensive to get a private room on a journalist’s chit — talking to a couple of British girls about the usual shit you talk to people in dorm rooms about. They were young and rightfully seemed a little proud that they got jobs and saved up enough money to travel when all their other friends were languishing away in “uni.”

I mentioned that I began traveling young as well, that I began in 1999, in fact.

Usually, when I say things like this in dorm rooms I get ohhs and ahhhs. These girls looked at me kind of mortified, as if I’d just said something grotesque.

In a mere moment it became clear why.

“Uh…when were you born?” I stammered.

1997.

For the first time ever I realized that I am not a young person anymore.

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King’s Day In The Netherlands

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Travel long enough and you learn two things: 1) countries that still have kings — even symbolic ones — love their kings, and 2) the king’s birthday is the most rowdy, craziest day of the year.

I stepped into Holland on King’s Day, the birthday of their king, the most recent in a short line of a rather artificially installed monarchy.

The fact that Holland celebrates this day is mildly ironic, as the country was one of Europe’s earliest republics. Their kingdom is relatively new, being installed in the early 19th century by Napoleon as a post for his brother. However, this doesn’t mean that this holiday isn’t celebrated to the extreme.

I wonder what I would have thought of King’s Day if a local university professor that I was arranging to interview didn’t give me due warning. I would have walked into a country for the first time that was full of tens of thousands of people dressed in orange — orange hats and orange wigs and all — jumping up and down, getting blasted drunk, and singing in the streets and would not of immediately had any clue what was going on. What would I have made of such a place?

But alas, this shock did not happen. I boarded a ferry to go to a part of the city on the other side and watched a DJ squad pump out music for dancing commuters on the boat. As we all prepared to disembark, one of the dancers grabbed the mic and yelled, “This is your last chance to dance!”

For some reason I doubted this.

I checked into my hostel and made to start working. I had overloaded that week with projects, and couldn’t spare any time. But the receptionist stopped me short:

“You need to go see it. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Alright. Where do I go?

“Just go out and follow the sea of orange people.”

Sounded easy enough.

“Why orange?” I then asked. I figured the quicker I received an explanation of the obvious the better.

“Because the king’s name roughly translates to orange. So orange is our national color. Our soccer team is orange.”

Fair enough.

“The great thing is that nobody looks good in orange,” he continued.

That, too, was true.

“I will book you into your room fast so you can go join the festivities. You have to go,” he said again.

I went.

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The train just came it a halt at Amsterdam South station. It wasn’t an abrupt halt and didn’t seem too out of the ordinary. Nobody was alarmed or irritated.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice of the conductor came over the loud speaker, “you may have noticed that our train has come to a halt already in this journey. The reason for this is that there was a person on the track and there was almost a very bade accident.”

Ears suddenly perked through the cabin, headphones were removed.

“The driver is now a little scared and cannot continue. We apologize for the inconvenience as we wait to see how this situation plays out.”

I had to wonder how many times I’ve been on a train in India or Morocco or China where the driver ran someone down without a word.

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Leaving Holland Going To Belgium

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I departed from Rotterdam this morning. I’m riding the train down to Brussels now. What can I say about Holland? It’s like walking into your room at a five star hotel: you’re immediately smacked by its sparkling cleanliness, its perfect folds and placements, its masterful order and ambiance — it seems like a place that should have a “Do not touch” sign hanging before it, a place that gives the impression that you were the first to ever defiled it. More like a showroom than a country.

“This place is perfect,” I found myself saying without the full positive emphasis of my choice adjective. I found myself really wanting to leave.

It was the same anxiety that hits when you’re almost out of a horrible/dangerous/difficult place and you pay very close attention to every detail of your actions on the fear that you’ll screw something up and get trapped there.

Why would I feel like this in what is probably the nicest country on earth? A place where people — even randoms in the streets and in the shops — were nothing but engaging, accommodating, and, contrary to how the Dutch seem to like to think of themselves, polite.

I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure why I’m going to Brussels. My meeting there was cancelled. I really don’t have anything to do there. Although I have the better part of a week before my next meetings in Germany. I suppose I will keep going to Luxembourg, finish a couple articles, make some videos for my daughter (she likes to watch me on YouTube), and, yes, maybe even a take a few moments to actually…yes, be a real tourist.

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Dutch People Think They’re Rude

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“But I’m rude because I’m Dutch.”

I heard multiple people say this to me within the span of just a few days here in the Netherlands. On every occasion the person who said this was treating me to something special, taking out time to talk with me, or in some other way being remarkably accommodating.

“Why do people here keep saying that?” I finally broke down. “You Dutch people are like the most polite people I’ve ever encountered in 16 years of travel across 61 countries.”

This is a country where people look you in the face when you pass in the streets and smile. They are generally open to random conversation. The check-out people in stores make small talk and are helpful. On the surface this is one of the most polite countries I’ve ever been in.

But what do I know? Down deep they may be cerebrally dismantling me.

Although ultimately, if Dutch people are trying to be rude then as a culture they terminally suck at it. Maybe they should go to some place like Vietnam to sit in on a few lessons.

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NSR Travels, Bout 4: Europe Begins

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I arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday morning to continue the travel portion of the research for my New Silk Road book. I showed up on King’s day — a holiday where everybody floods out into the streets wearing orange wigs and hats and parties. I will have a post and video up about this soon.

I was able to meet with the Clingendael Institute a couple of days ago, then yesterday with a professor who assembled the largest collection of Chinese Communist propaganda posters in the world, then the highly regarded architect Zef Hemel (his brother Mark designed the Canton Tower), and today I traveled down to Rotterdam to meet with a university professor who is also an economic advisor to Rotterdam Port. All have been fascinating.

2016-04-27 19.53.46 HDR

However, I’ve been absolutely busy — I suppose that’s the way to put it. I kind of enjoy being busy to point that I always have a tick over too much to do at all times. This keeps me running, pushing content when I would otherwise be doing something slightly more unproductive, like sleeping. But when deadlines are pushed simply because there is not enough space in the day, I start to realize that I’ve pushed the boundaries of “too much.”

I still haven’t grown out of my vagabond mentality. I can’t turn down an op to generate funds; I can’t say no to an interesting project. I don’t say, “Sorry, I can’t take this $65 per hour job because I have too many other ones I’m running at the moment.” I say, “yes,” on faith that I will be able to pull it off somehow. Somehow, I know I will do it, and the more difficult it is the more fulfilling it feels. I like this. It keeps me active and, pragmatically speaking, it gives me the funds to keep moving forward.

I need more than a vagabond’s fare these days.

This time I made a one week miscalculation in planning and left to start a bout of research travels before clearing out some demanding projects. I thought I timed it all right, but the lure of a $420 round tripper between Boston and Amsterdam had me pinching it a little at the end. This proved to be a week’s pinch, rather than the day or two I estimated.

So for a week, the travel, the meetings, the articles, and a big editing project all overlapped on top of each other. So the start of my first foray into the Netherlands has felt like an endurance event — running between interviews and then running back to my hotel to sit in front of the laptop until late into the night.

But I almost have the roadway cleared.

I have one more big article to finish tomorrow then I believe I will be able to return to a more comfortable level of busy.

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How To Know Winter Is Over In Maine

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People in Maine always say that it snows one last time at the end of April, right when you think winter is all over and you’ve fully stepped over the line into a new season. They know they’re going to be cheated out of their spring, they know it’s going to snow one last time.
After a stretch of nice-ish, sunny (sort of) days, it snowed again. It is April 26th. I am riding on a bus down to Boston Logan. Snow is piling up on the roadway, traffic is crawling forward, snow plows have been re-revved up and called back into action.

This is the end of winter.

Winter here doesn’t end at the equinox. It doesn’t end with the great Kenduskeag canoe race, it doesn’t even end when you’ve had multiple weeks of warm-ish days. It ends when it snows one last time when nobody expects it, when winter gurgles out its final, spiteful death rattle.

The perfect day for riding away.

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Update: This has been cancelled. My wife was extremely critical of the output and the videos didn’t meet their intended function as far as that goes. Basically, it must suck for my family to watch me traveling all over when they’re stuck at “home.” I didn’t consider this at first.

I always wonder as I’m walking away from my wife and kids and onto a bus/train/plane if they think it’s worth it.

Do they know that when I leave them I’m working extremely hard, packing in the schedule with as many points of contact hat there is often no time to eat, sleep, or recreate?

Do they know that I’m not just on vacation, hanging out with people who are not them, enjoying my time away?

Do they know that the only reason why I’m in the place that I am now, having the opportunities that I have, and making the money that I make is because I leave them to do these travels?

Even if they do is it worth it for them?

I’m not sure.

But what I do know is that my six year old daughter has taken a liking to watching my YouTube videos. So for this next bout of travels I’m going to try something new: daily vlog posts that show just what I’m doing.

I began blogging in the first place because I realized that my mother had no idea what I was doing with myself. I suppose this is an extension of that original intent.

These videos can be watched with all of my others at the Vagabond Journey YouTube channel.

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air-china-plane
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Around a year and a half ago I had lunch with an Australian pilot from Xiamen Air at a little restaurant on the eastern fringe of Xiamen island.

Naturally, we talked about the rapid expansion of China’s aviation infrastructure and industry. Over a hundred new airports are being built in the country, new domestic airlines are popping up all over the map, and more Chinese people are flying than ever.

But has this growth been too rapid? This pilot seemed to think so:

“They are bringing these kids up and they’ve never been in a little plane before,” he said. “They go straight from flight school to 747s. So they’re in the cockpit and they have no idea what they’re doing. What would happen if the captain goes out?”

While flight simulators are extremely advance and many pilots say are more difficult than flying an actual plane, this pilot didn’t seem to feel that was adequate.

“But the airlines have no choice,” he continued. “They need to keep expanding or the bigger airlines are going to take their routes. They are building so many airports. Xiamen Airlines is getting a new plane every month, and with each new plane they need six new captains. They just can’t get enough pilots. They need the pilots but they just can’t get them. So they are promoting people up through the ranks way too quickly.”

“Do you feel as if they are creating a disaster waiting to happen?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.


It must be noted that this pilot stopped working for Xiamen Air not long after we had this conversation.

I also ran over what he told me with another pilot that was flying for Xiamen Air. He disagreed completely.

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Hallstatt, China
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I’ve visited Hallstatt, China, which is a 1:1 scale exact replica of the Austrian UNESCO site and listened to the local photographers rant about how unoriginal it was. I’ve had a strange young women profess her love to me in Shanghai’s British village. I’ve gotten drunk with the overtly merry residents of Anting, a German themed ghost town. I’ve strolled through the barren main drag of a neighborhood that was a virtual copy and paste of Amersfoort while listening to a local complain about how he would rather have had a fake traditional Chinese town instead of a fake traditional Dutch town. I looked with bewilderment on what developers had done to Pujiang, building something that was supposed to look like Italy but ended up looking like a bunch of upended Legos. I once tried to enter through the faux door of a faux McDonalds beneath the faux windmills of Fengcheng, Shanghai’s Spanish town . . .

China’s penchant for imitating the traditional architecture of the West has often found itself the focus of reports in the international media, which seems to never tire of running the same clips about them over and over again. Their takes generally bounce from one side of the spectrum to the other, either severely exaggerating them — “The Chinese built an exact replica of Paris down to the Eiffel Tower” — or marginalizing them as just another type of cheap and inferior Chinese copy that’s little more significant than a knock-off handbag. Some have posited these places as homages to the West, some have deemed them to be an act of conquering, while others have used them as a testament to the enduring lack of originality of China. Generally speaking, the West has looked down its long, pointy nose at these appropriations of architectural styles they claim to be their own, and seems to take a smug sort of pride in having the genuine articles when all the Chinese can muster are fakes.

But is this really the case?

Over the past three of four years of wandering through China’s new urban frontiers I’ve inevitably found myself in many towns and villages that have been modeled off of Western architectural styles, some being virtual replicas, and their widespread proliferation, mystique, and all-out oddness led me on a mission to find out what they are about.

The streets of Shanghai's Thames Town.

The streets of Shanghai’s Thames Town.

All throughout China’s history the country has been especially good at absorbing aspects of other countries and cultures that were appealing or useful and making them Chinese. It’s not just architecture that China takes from other countries, but traditions, holidays, ideas, religions, technologies, music, art, political and economic systems . . . And like these other adopted elements, foreign-style architecture is rarely ever a direct appropriation, as China adds its own flavors and adaptions, making it suit the Chinese palate and applicable within the Chinese context.

In the case of China’s Western themed towns we need to remember that China has just recently awoken from a period of extreme architectural monotony. Communism has the tendency of wiping a country’s cultural slates clean, and this is especially true when it comes to architecture and urban design. In the mid-90s, when Chinese were allowed to own, buy, and sell property again, there was this sudden demand for houses that looked different, which were more aesthetically appealing, and represented the image of wealth and success that the new home buyers attributed to themselves.

The pragmatic, boring, virtually identical housing of the communist era did not retain much love in the new age of rampant capitalism, and Western themed architecture wasn’t the only new style that was being embraced. The floodgates suddenly opened and China became the site of an architectural free-for-all, where many different styles from many different influences, countries, and even time periods were being tried and tested — including traditional Chinese styles. Almost from the start of this era, Western-themed architecture was popular, which is a taste that has continued to this day.

Oriental Windsor Village in China Medical City, Taizhou.

Oriental Windsor Village in China Medical City, Taizhou.

Although we must not get away from ourselves and think that China’s wholesale architectural appropriation is something unique to China. It’s not. All through history countries on the rise have imitated the architectural styles of established or historic states or cultures they modeled themselves on. The United States throughout the late 19th and early 20th century was one of the biggest architectural copycat countries in history. All you have to do is walk through the downtown area of any big city of the country’s east coast to see architectural styles pilfered from various European eras back all the way to Greco-Roman times. We take this for granted now because these buildings have been there for so long, but it actually wasn’t so long ago that the USA’s architectural copycatting was the chagrin of Europe. For the record, in addition to China, at least 23 other countries have built replicas of the Eiffel Tower (the USA alone has 10); a phenomenon which got its start in the UK just one year after the original tower was put on public exhibition.

For the most part, Western style architecture in China is often nothing more than a marketing technique. China builds Western themed towns and housing developments not as a homage to the West, but because they sell. Even in the foreign themed towns that have been called “ghost cities” nearly every single piece of property had been sold. These Occidental inspired properties also often sell for way more money than developers could get for standard apartments in block-like, monotonous high-rises — which is a prime justification of the style in and of itself.

Waigaoqiao New Netherlands Town.

Waigaoqiao New Netherlands Town.

Western themed housing projects also get a lot of media attention. Nobody outside of Zhejiang province ever would have heard of Tianducheng if they didn’t build a giant replica of the Eiffel Tower. Just as nobody would probably care about China’s Hallstatt if it was just another run of the mill, standard housing development rather than being a replica of Hallstatt. Media sources from all over the world have given these places millions of dollars worth of free advertising, and tourists from around the world now flock to them just because of this.

So it’s clear why developers continue building in the Western style, but why Chinese home buyers like this style is the question. One important thing to mention here is that the Western styles that are being replicated are usually not really authentic. They are Chinese versions of Europe’s traditional architecture, like the kind that which is shown in old movies, books, and paintings. It’s how China idealizes the West, it’s an anachronism, not how it really is — or probably ever was. It’s the image behind traditional Western architecture that the Chinese want, and this is the image of wealth, worldliness, and sophistication. For the most part, China tends to romanticize old Europe in very much the same way that early 20th century Americans did. It’s the fantasy that’s in demand, not the real thing — a fact that has been demonstrated at various times when China builds authentic, modern European-style towns with disastrous results.

Besides all of the marketing and hype, China’s Western themed towns often really are nice places to be. They are the polar opposite of the conventional Chinese city. They tend to have winding, tree lined streets, quaint downtown areas, open parks, street-side cafes, places to go for strolls, very little traffic, and a really calm, peaceful ambiance. It’s understandable why Chinese people with the means would buy property in these places: they are escapes.

Windmill in Fengcheng, Shanghai's Spanish town.

Windmill in Fengcheng, Shanghai’s Spanish town.

China’s Western replica towns are generally built for the new rich who don’t care to see past their exteriors. They are taken at surface value, and are something novel that people seem to think impresses other people. Whether intended or not intended, most of these towns are not approached and treated like real places to live — a lack of population aside — but as holiday homes where the country’s rich can take vacations to and post photos of themselves in on social media. They are status symbols, and, above all else, are not taken too seriously. Westerners tend to make a bigger deal about them than the Chinese.

The question of whether China’s Western style towns are successful or not depends on how you define success. Especially in the economic climate before 2014, almost all of the properties in China’s larger scale new cities would sell fast for very high prices. So from the perspective of the developers they are very successful places. When China’s Western “replica” towns first open up to the public they are marketed to be utopias of high culture, and the target class (generally) buys them all up. But the reality is that these places are often located far out of the city center, where this “cultured class” is almost invariably tied down to.

The American-style commuter suburb was a failed experiment in China. So huge chunks of these places are owned by people who bought them as investments or otherwise have no intention of living in them any time soon or, as we’ve covered earlier, intend to use them as vacation homes. But this shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an ominous sign of economic demise — ironically, China’s new cities are often victims of their own success. But if given enough time, China’s larger-scale new cities tend to fill up with enough people and business to function as viable urban entities.

Pujiang Italy Town.

Pujiang Italy Town.

It’s now been nearly 15 years since some of China’s Western themed developments have been built, and we are beginning to see what they will become. As the inhabitant-less years roll on, the buildings begin crumbling, the appearance of luxury begins to fade, and their status begins to falter. Many, like LuodianFengcheng, and Waigaoqiao, will see run of the mill restaurants, dusty convenience stores, and kindergartens eventually move in, occupying shops that were supposed to be for luxury retail outlets. Eventually, they become “recolonized” by China and end up little more than standard Chinese towns encased within European facades where people come to get their pictures taken.

However, China’s days of constructing this European style architecture are now over. At the end of February, it came down from the country’s State council that such “West worshiping” architecture will no longer be permitted. An era has come to an end.

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BIG PROJECTS

GHOST CITIES OF CHINA
9 Reasons Why China’s Ghost Cities Are So Empty
kangbashi-ordos-ghost-city

During its urbanization boom period, China was producing enough new floorspace to cover Hong Kong two times over each year, so why are there still between 20 and 45 million empty homes across China?

What Is the Future of China’s Ghost Cities?
Ordos Skyscrapers Rising In The Distance

China has built hundreds of completely new cities across the country. What is the future of these places?

Do China’s Ghost Cities Offer a Solution for Syrian Refugees?
changzhou-ghost-city

Can the masses of Syrian refugees in need of places to live be moved into China’s millions of empty apartments?

ON THE NEW SILK ROAD
What Is The New Silk Road All About? A Good Explanation
The place where east meets west: Khorgos Gateway.

At a time where nobody really seems to know what this New Silk Road thing is, the CEO of Khorgos Gateway hits at its core.

New Silk Road Book Update: Research Travels Bout 3 Completed
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the focus of my recent bout of New Silk Road research travels.

I just finished up my third round of travels doing research for a book on the New Silk Road.

Riding the New Silk Highway: New Road Connects Europe and Asia
Riding the Western Europe - Western China Highway in November 2015.

A new expressway is being built that will connect the Yellow Sea coast of China with Western Europe. It’s called the Western Europe – Western China Road, but is better known as the New Silk Highway.

INNOVATION IN CHINA
China Finds the New Frontiers of Innovation in the Maker Movement
Shenzhen makerspace

As China transitions from being the “world’s factory” to a global epicenter of innovation the maker movement is being brought to the forefront of national attention.

How Shenzhen Became the Global Epicenter of High-Tech Innovation
Shenzhen electronics factory

Shenzhen has become a dream city for the world’s makers and other high-tech hardware innovators.

The Great Shenzhen Cellphone Parts Exchange
Shenzhen used electronics parts market

Ever wonder what happens to your phone when it dies? It very well could end up back where it came from to be sold in this informal street market.

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