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The Deception Goes Both Ways

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I imagine the guy across the table in front of me was probably the perfect example of an ideal man in Kazakhstan. He was tall, young, educated, successful, and had an important position on a project of national importance. He looked like the models in the pictures hanging in windows in shopping malls. In the USA he could be described with the term “All American.” I’m not sure if there’s a Kazakh equivalent of this phrase, but if there is he’d surely be it.

I’d just concluded my formal interview with him, and was moving into more personable territory — the point after your work is done where you bond with the person in front of you and become friends.

He told me that he wasn’t married, but I had a difficult time believing that someone hadn’t bagged him by now. I pressed him on it — surely he had a girlfriend that he was about to marry — and he finally responded:

“Do you know like in high school when you have one girl over here and another girl over there? Well, I do that.”

Right now, he has more than three girlfriends.

“Do they know about each other?” I asked.

“No, of course not!” he exclaimed. “If they know about each other they leave me.”

This is something that has apparently happened to him multiple times before. One time he was caught with by one of his girlfriends with another girlfriend at the movies. “Who is she!?!” they both yelled in unison. Another time he was caught by one girl kissing another in the street. Another time he was busted when a girlfriend looked over his shoulder at his phone and found that some girl was texting him kissy emoticons.

“Only a girlfriend would text you that!” she roared.

She was right.

“When I first meet girls,” he said, “they tell me ‘You are such a good guy.’ I tell them ‘No, I am not a good guy.’ Then when they find out about another girl I say, ‘See, I told you, I am not a good guy!'”

“So how do you manage this?” I asked him. If I so much as dance with more than one girl on any given night I invariably have one of them screaming at me “Who is she!?! Is she your girl now!?!” (Actually, my girl is in the USA with my two kids). So I couldn’t imagine successfully running a network like this long-term in a city as small as Astana.

His advice:

1) Keep your phone private.

2) Stay out of the streets with any girl. Drive up to the entrance of the place that you are going to, get in, and go right back out into your car. Don’t walk around in parks.

3) Don’t tell your friends about any of them.

The last point was the most interesting. “So nobody knows about all of your girlfriends?” Not really. This guy figured out through experience that if his friends know that he has a girlfriend then it becomes very awkward hitting on additional girls in front of them. Also, if his friends believe he is taken they often naturally pass this information on to any prospective mates within range.

We talked a little more about this. Then he said something rather intriguing:

“Sometimes, when I start being with a girl, after a few times we meet she starts asking me to buy her things. She says, ‘Can you buy me an iPhone 7?'”

The deception here often runs both ways.

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Can’t Shake Vagabond

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It happened again. I’m being interviewed by a reporter from a major Kazakhstan news agency and she starts talking about reading Vagabond Journey. I cringe. She mentions some of my recent stories. I cringe.

“That’s just a place where I say whatever I want. I don’t even edit it. I don’t even look at it before I publish,” I stammered. “Don’t you want to talk about what I write for other publications?”

Nope. She wanted to talk about some dumb fiasco in Dushanbe that I blogged about.

This wasn’t a one-off interaction. Just today I was talking with BBC China, and the lady I was speaking with kept bringing up this blog, “No, no, no,” I protested, “read what I write about this on other publications.”

Then I just laughed. It’s really no use.

I’ve published a book with a respected publisher, I write for multiple major news organizations, I’ve had stories about me published on VICE, I’ve been on “Squawk Box,” NPR, the CBC, the BBC, but all anyone seems to want to talk to me about is fucking Vagabond Journey. I can’t shake this thing. I try directing the conversation to some well-researched article that I wrote for some well-respected publication but I invariably get boomeranged right back here, to this blog.

We’re not just talking about travelers or the laobaixing here, but people in government, big business, research institutes, media, publishing — people that I respect and wish to be respected by. This was really driven deep when a guy in a relatively high position in Azerbaijan mentioned some blog post that I’d published years before.

“You read the whole thing, didn’t you?” I asked.

He had — for fun, not really for work.

Yes, this tells me something that’s extremely positive, incredible even, but…

I write this blog for myself, for fun, for my wife and kids, for my dad to read when he wakes up in the morning. It’s a place to collect a record of what I do and see and hear and talk to myself about that doesn’t fit in anywhere else. It’s just the raw background story of how my articles and books are researched — it’s not really something that’s intended for a mass audience. But by the numbers, the collective audience here is among my largest.

It really buggers your narrative when you start thinking about who’s reading. And for a personal blog, making content considerations based on who may or may not be out there kind of kills the entire process. I found myself holding back on publishing some posts and stories, and I realized then that I had a problem.

So I stopped blogging here for a while. Partially, it was a matter of time — how can I justify blogging for next to no money when I can make hundreds of dollars writing articles for big media? — partially it was to reconsider my position as a blogger.

Publishing a daily personal blog is like going around with your pants off, with it all out flapping around in the breeze. Sure, some may be impressed by what they see, but most are just going to snicker and laugh — and going around looking like this could very well get you fired.

Can I still say anything I want on here?

I’m not sure, but I do know that I’ve never really gotten anywhere trying to do what I’m supposed to.

When I look back on it, most of my biggest opportunities didn’t come from having a presence in big media or from being on TV or the radio, but from this blog, right here — the place where I just write whatever I want and hit the publish button without thinking twice.

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I’m back in Astana. Again. In the coldest capital city in the world in the winter. Again. After six weeks of traveling around Central Asia I’m back to where I started. I believe this will soon end my third bout of travel in this region. However, the forth should be coming in less than a month.

It’s Astana. It’s winter, but the sun is shining. It’s possible to exist outside. ‎Today was actually the first time in all my visits to this city that I was able to walk around and take pictures somewhat comfortably.

I have to admit that this break in the frigid cold did ease the impact from renting an apartment from some kind of conman and canceling the deal, slipping on the ice and injuring my wrist, and ‎staying in a hotel that tried to slap me with a surprise $25 charge for trying to swim in their freezing cold, dirty pool. Needless to say, I didn’t pay it.

Otherwise, I like Astana, although besides my work — which is always incredibly active here — I’ve never really found anything to do. Well, besides walk around marveling at the odd, post-Soviet architecture.

With my free time I usually just sit in the Starbucks inside the tent mall drinking giant cups of coffee or drink beer at some random restaurant all alone.

Where Almaty nights are full of chaos and smiles, fun and friends, Astana nights are like a stone faced ‎glare. There are lights shining everywhere, but not many places seem too inviting. It’s not bad…just never really found much of anything. In Almaty there’s music . . . You can’t compare these two cities. They exist in the same country but they’re on opposite poles from each other.

I’m meeting with a young guy I met in the street yesterday who is working on an exhibit for the expo in around fifteen minutes at 8:30pm, so maybe my take on nightlife in Astana will soon change.

Right now, I’m spending way too much money at Del Papa restaurant. I come in here because it looks so warm inside, and end up drinking too many beers because I don’t want to go back out in the cold.

Today I was interviewed by the Astana Times and Kazakh TV. I’m looking forward to the Astana Times story — the journalist did interviews like I do them. Just hang out, drink coffee, and talk about shit.

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A Strange Feeling Leaving Almaty For Bishkek

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I felt incredibly tense, apprehensive — a big knot in the gut — in the hours leading up to my flight from Almaty to Bishkek. I didn’t understand why. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the travel.

Travel is a relaxing, quiet affair when I’m separated from the rest of my world, just looking at what’s in front of me or daydreaming about something. While I wouldn’t go as far as to call it an act of worship, it’s something that approaches it.

No, it wasn’t the travel.

Was it the work? I’d just published one article on Forbes and wrote a blog post — the morning was productive. It wasn’t that.

Was it the upcoming television appearances? No way, I love that shit.

I ran various scenarios through my head, looking for something that matched the tension that I was feeling. I realized what it was. I just missed my kids.

I’d just talked with my one and a half year old. She kept calling out dada, dada hi, and went through the verbal motions of having a conversation. For obvious questions she’d reply “yeah” even though she probably didn’t really understand what I was saying.

My wife tells me that she sometimes goes and stands by the windows on the other side of the curtain looking out into the street, calling out for me.

I got apprehensive that if I’m gone too long she may stop missing me. I don’t want that to happen.

***
I’m back in the airport in Almaty. This place has become a kind of home for me these past two years. I have no idea how many times I’ve been there. Compared to how excellent a city Almaty is, the airport sucks. Really sucks. It’s probably the second most extortionate airport I’ve ever been in — a bottle of $1 beer should never cost $10 just because you’re a captive consumer in an airport terminal. They know that once you’re through immigration and security they have you trapped, and the prices go up accordingly.

***
I’m on my way to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. I’ve never been there before. People in Dushanbe spoke of the place as it it was Manhattan, but that doesn’t really mean much, considering.

For some reason I think I will find a good rock and roll bar there. Not sure why.

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Travel In Dushanbe, Tajikistan

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Arrival

There are some countries that you travel between and it seems as smooth as walking between two rooms in the same house, while there are others that are about as jarring as turning a corner and finding yourself unexpectedly caught in some kind of inter-cultural mosh pit. Entering Tajikistan from Kazakhstan was the later type of entry. The arrivals hall of Dushanbe was . . . a mob. Taxi drivers pulling, prying, yelling at you, and following you around.

It’s been a while since I’ve stepped off a plane and into this fray. Yelling at some bastard tugging at my sleeve felt oddly nostalgic.

I’m  still not sure why there are so many taxi drivers at the Dushanbe airport anyway — the place is pretty much in the center of the city. I just walked in. As I walked away taxis drove slowly next to me, their drivers calling out the window.

I shook my head, smiled. I’d never been here before. Country number 77, or something like that.

***
No change

They may as well be called no change countries. I’m sure there is some kind of mathematical rationale behind it, but vendors in some countries are often perpetually out of change. Guatemala is the worst. I believe it has something to do with the amounts of various denominations of the currency that is put in circulation relative to the cost of items. So if the cash economy is predominately pumped with, say, 100s and most items cost vastly less than this, there will almost invariably be a perpetual change shortage.

My first attempt at making a purchase in Tajikistan was for two SIM cards. I needed like a dollar worth of change and the lady working the kiosk didn’t have it. She did the thing where she calls out to anyone standing in line or passing by to see if they had change. Nobody did — or they weren’t giving it up. I just took my money back.

***

Who were those guys?

I saw them walking up the street in the rain. “Where is your car?” I asked. They didn’t have a car. They made up some excuse about how the driver made a mistake and dropped them off at their hotel instead of bringing them to me. It didn’t make any sense. But there was nothing to do but to shrug.

I’ve never had a company that I was going to interview offer to pick me up . . . without a car — especially in the rain. I had asked repeatedly for the address of their office so I could go to them, but they refused to give it to me. They seemed to act as if it was a point of hospitality to come and get me, but as I walked through the rain looking for a cafe I wasn’t so sure about this anymore.

I traveled down to Tajikistan from Kazakhstan to do a story on a major Kazakh logistics company opening up a north-south intermodal transport route that would better link Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia — a potential new economic corridor of the New Silk Road.

This was especially interesting to me because it got its start after the recent political crisis between Turkey and Russia momentarily halted transport via a more westerly corridor. At the core of the New Silk Road concept is that when one trade route goes down another will start up and pick up the slack — very similar to how the ancient Silk Road functioned.

The Astana headquarters of the logistics firm granted my request to meet with their representatives in Dushanbe, and as soon as I arrived my phone was ringing. When the people on the other end told me that they were the people I had come to meet I had no reason to doubt them.

But something was off here. This wasn’t how the company that I’ve been working with for nearly two years operates. They are usually first class all the way. It was clear that I was dealing with something different in Dushanbe. However, it was easy to rationalize that their PR system may not have been as well set up very here because of the simple fact that there probably are not that many foreign journalists coming to Tajikistan to do stories about logistics.

We walked to a mall down the street and went to a cafe. I began interviewing them, and it was at that time that my suspicions began gaining some solid ground. They didn’t seem to really know the subject matter that the were supposed to have been directly involved with. One of them was looking up answers to simple questions on his phone or calling other people, and I picked up on the fact that they were taking what I was saying and repeating it back to me.

I asked them bluntly if they were really from the company they said they were from.

One of them then proudly declared that he was their manager for Tajikistan.

I got the feeling that I should get away. I tried to end the interview multiple times, to stand up, and say goodbye. Generally, this is enough to send the message that the interview is over. But it didn’t work. “Sit down,” the manager once said sternly when I got up to do a final handshake. It seemed as if they were holding me there for some reason, and they kept trying to lock me into going other places with them, meeting their friends, etc. It began requiring concerted effort to keep the smile on my face.

While mentioning or including commentary from a company in an article or book could serve as a good, indirect promotion for them, the dynamics of my interviews are generally set up where it feels as if the interviewee is doing me a favor — he / she is providing me with the information that I need for my stories, they are providing me with a service. This meeting is Dushanbe felt like it was the other way around, like I was doing them a favor, as though I was hired to go there just to promote them. They talked multiple times about me putting them and their “rich” friends in Forbes Magazine. I grew agitated.

Then they offered to take me out to somewhere that would have produced a very intriguing story. As they spoke I saw the narrative developing — I knew what I could do with it. I gambled on the small potential that things were legit, that my suspicions were baseless, and I agreed to meet them the following day.

But I just didn’t feel good about it. I couldn’t imagine getting into a car with these guys — if they could even come up with one — to go out far out of town to some place that I wasn’t familiar with. I couldn’t even find the town they said they were going to take me to on a map. I talked to someone else in the industry of the person that they were supposed to take me out to interview — someone who was touted to be a well-known friend of the president — and he never heard of him.

The next day, an hour before we were to meet, it was snowing. I cancelled, citing the weather as the reason.

They came back immediately with an alternative plan. Apparently, in the five minutes since I canceled they set up a presentation for me at a local logistics company.

I declined.

They tried guilting me, saying that some guy worked very hard to set up the presentation just for me.

I said that I didn’t care.

“Let’s just meet and talk then.”

No way.

I knew this dialog well. It was the same kind of maneuvering that touts and crooked taxi drivers and prowling creeps use all over the world. It was this multi-tiered, if not A then B, if not B then C method of persuasion, where the intensity of what is being proposed decreases with each level, eventually becoming so basic and easy to do that it becomes very difficult to politely justify saying no.

Something wasn’t right.

I sent a message to Astana. The lady running media relations there is incredibly sharp. “I notice everything,” she once told me. My message wasn’t in the least alarming, but I knew that she would read between the lines. I simply stated the name of the guy who said he was their regional manager and a little of what we were planning. If something wasn’t legit I knew she would catch it.

An hour later I received a voice message from her:

“I don’t know who you’re meeting with there but they don’t work for us.”

***

First meal

First meal in #Tajikistan. Something tells me it’s not going to get that much different from here on out.

***

Dad’s a cop

I saw these young Tajik guys pushing this sports car down the street. It had run out of gas. Something about the irony struck me as funny. I laughed at them. They jokingly made room for me to help push. I took them up on the offer. We pushed the car to the nearest gas station, filled it up, and then drove through the streets at high speed blasting Tajik pop music. “Don’t worry about police,” one of them tells me. One of their fathers was a cop.

***

What is an American bar?

Growing up in the USA I have to admit that I don’t inherently know what an American bar is, but it is something that is becoming more popular around the world, like Irish or English pubs. This Tajik bartender told me that it was a dream to open up an American bar in Dushanbe.

“What’s an American bar?”

“The American bar is simple. It has simple decorations, simple beer, maybe some whiskey. It has beer pong.”

Sounded like a place that we’d just call “bar,” which I suppose was a very adequate definition.

***
Dushanbe, not bad

Like almost every other post-Soviet country, Tajikistan is in the process of a massive reformation. While they’re not going the way of countries like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Georgia as far as giving foreign companies massive concessions and tax breaks to come and set up shop, some — like Coca-Cola — are moving in.

What’s perhaps more interesting than this is the budding grassroots service economy here. All over the larger cities of Central Asia you find streets that are full of innovative local cafes, bars, and restaurants. With the lacking presence of big international brands, the commercial landscape remains open for local entrepreneurial actors to get the bulk of the action.

“People are less afraid that if they start a business and make money that the government will take it away from them,” the director for the American Chamber of Commerce told me. Apparently, this used to be common here.

This array of diverse local businesses is something that is not common in this world, where the standard fare is either international or regional chain stores or local businesses all trying to do the same bland and boring thing as each other. These guys in Central Asia are not afraid to try something new with a creative type of bar, cafe, or restaurant — themes and concepts abound. You can go from one place to another to another and they all will be fundamentally different. It’s like they are trying to mimic what they think the outside world is like but they really don’t have a clue — it’s like they see something in a movie and then go an do it. But because of this the product that they deliver comes off as truly unique and, for the traveler who has grown used to monotonous commercial landscapes, starkly refreshing.

I spent my days in Dushanbe trudging through sidewalks caked in snow from cafe to bar, bar to restaurant, relaxing, talking to the people around me, taking notes, and working. The mishap with the misrepresented logistics guys — who they actually were I will probably never know — simply left me without much to do in Dushanbe, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

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Next Era Of Travel: Post-Soviet States

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“Shit. I made friends,” I sent a BBM message to my best friend from home. He knew what I meant: making friends in the post-Soviet realm often means drinking massive amounts of vodka.

Alcohol is probably the greatest social tool ever conceived. It not only makes you dumb enough to open up more than you otherwise would but it has its own set of rituals that are loaded with unspoken meaning. These rituals and their associated meaning doesn’t change for geographic location or culture — they are universal. Basically, they give you the opportunity to communicate to someone what you think of them, they demonstrate and often establish status and role, and they can be used to engage or disengage from a person or group. Social interactions can be awkward without these easy to understand non-verbal cues that use alcohol as their medium, and the intoxication aspect has little to do with this.

But I need to get better at drinking vodka if I wish to continue working in the post-Soviet realm. I’m usually pretty hardy and robust in this department — I understand that if drinking is to be of any value to me that I need to remain clear-headed enough to remember — but most men and women here seem able to outdrink me by far. I’ve simply never seen people able to drink so much. I’m stating the obvious here, as this complies with the stereotype that we all know, but it’s still truly phenomenal to see it happen right in front of you.

I can’t hang.

My next region of focus will more than likely be the post-Soviet states. I shouldn’t really call this the next region that I will be focusing on, as I’ve predominantly been in these countries over the past year and a half — going to 10 out of the 15 of them. The only post-Soviet states that I’ve not been to yet are Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Moldova, and Russia itself. The latter one is huge, and is a place that I’ve been pushing back going to until I have an “era” of travel to devote to it.

I like to focus on regions in blocks of five years, so I’m probably looking at the next three and a half years of travel going from the east of Europe to the edges of the Middle East, South Asia, and China. We’re talking a lot of ground here.

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Riding the WE-WC Highway (again)

“We’ll go on the new road. It’s not officially open yet but the driver said that he went down it the other day and it was fine,” Karl spoke as the driver in front of us nodded his head.

The new road that he was talking about was the Western Europe-Western China (WE-WC) Highway, aka the New Silk Highway — the great transport corridor that will stretch from the Yellow Sea at Lianyungang in China all the way to the Baltic Sea at St. Petersburg, Russia, 8,445 kilometers away.

At the place where the old Soviet road meets with the WE-WC Highway our driver pulls off to the side of the road, steps out, and procures an orange flashing light — like the kind used on construction vehicles — from rear of the SUV and sticks it to the roof. Apparently, we now look official enough to drive down the unopened highway.

What was traveling down this road like?

Imagine a race track that went straight ahead without any obstacles or other vehicles for a hundred kilometers. The road was immaculate — wide, completely smooth, a fully modern roadway cutting through a completely undeveloped and for the most part unpopulated stretch of the world. Speed limits were irrelevant. At one junction we flew passed a police car that was parked in the median. Apparently, the light worked.

The WE-WC Highway.

For a stretch, the WE-WC Highway runs parallel to the new train tracks that extend to the Chinese border. At one point we all got out to watch a train carrying containers speckled with Chinese characters pass by.

This was the third time in an 18 month period that I would travel along the Almaty to Khorgos span of the WE-WC Highway. The first time in May of 2015 it looked a little different: A young Uighur pointed it out to me from the bus we were riding in, but when I looked out the window all I saw were five-foot-high piles of dirt.

The WE-WC Expressway is a major part of the Western Europe-Western China Transport Corridor, which Kazkahstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev described in a 2012 speech as the “construction of the century.” It is to be part of a new multimodal, high-speed nervous system, which will link together other highways, rail lines, and transport hubs as it ties together China, the CIS, Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East — helping to turn Kazakhstan into the logistical heart of the Eurasian landmass.

“Kazakhstan is coming from a landlocked country and is becoming the most linked-in country on the whole continent. If you take Russia, the largest country; China, the largest economy; India, one of the largest populations, and you put these three together, right in the middle is Kazakhstan. It’s this place,” Karl, the former CEO of the Khorgos Gateway dry port on the Kazakhstan/China border, told me previously.

The WE-WC Transport Corridor is also one of Kazakhstan’s major contributions to the New Silk Road, which aims to increase infrastructural, economic, and political connectivity between more than 65 countries across Eurasia, covering half the population, 40 percent of the GDP, and 75 percent of the known energy resources in the world.

Illiyar, the young Uyghur who originally pointed out the WE-WC Highway to me, was anxious for those piles of dirt to morph into roadway. He was from Zharkent, a remote city 30 kilometers from the Chinese border, and his work consisted of repairing cell phones for people in Almaty. Each week, he would make the bumpy seven hour ride along the old, pothole-ridden highway into the city to pick up a load of broken phones. He complained about how long it took to cross such a short distance and claimed that the new highway would cut his trip down from 320 km to just 220 km, down from four hours to two hours each way.

“The road itself is finished,” Karl said after I mentioned the delays that had been hampering the project virtually since its inception. However, the company who received the tender for the bridges for the on and off ramps ran into some funding issues, and the delays have continued.

However, some other sections of the WE-WC Highway in Kazakhstan have already come alive.

Soon though, the entire road will be fully commissioned, and will directly connect the the seas on both sides of Eurasia, making it possible to deliver goods by truck from one side to the other in just ten days.

Read my article about the WE-WC Highway on Forbes.

***
The best view in logistics

Then I saw it: the Khorgos Gateway dry port with its giant 41 ton cranes rising up from the sparkling snow covered terrain like a mirage. Snow-capped mountains framed the scene. Everything glistened in the bright sun.

“It’s the best view in logistics.”

The last time I was here was in November of 2015. A lot has changed since then. The first time I was at “the place where the east meets the west” — the place in the dry port where the tracks coming from China are aligned with those coming from the CIS and Europe — the giant yellow cranes were in piles, yet to be assembled. Now they are up and running day and night, as container volume passing through here doubles by the year.

This dry port is right on the Kazakhstan / China border, and specializes in processing China-Europe trains.

When Karl first arrived in Khorgos three years ago the place was little more than sand dunes and mountains. The nearest Kazakh city is the diminutive 30,000 person Zharkent, which is a 30 minute drive away. While Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural and commercial capital, is more than 300 kilometers distant. 230 backhoes cleared away the dunes and flattening the earth, preparing the place for the new city that would soon be built there — a new city in one of the most remote parts of the world.

Khorgos sits 670 kilometers west of Urumqi and 300 kilometers east of Almaty, far out in the Saryesik-Atyrau desert in the shadow of the Dzungarian Alatau Mountains, a tick or two from the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, the farthest point on earth from an ocean — which is to say, proverbial no-mans-land.

But the dry port in this far flung place is now running at full speed. The surrounding SEZ has been commissioned. The new residential area has been built and people just began moving in. That improbable Khorgos dream, which was much doubted all through its initial stages, has happened. It’s there, it’s real, it’s working — you can go out there and look at it.

“We’re building the next Dubai,” Karl once blurted out when given a speech in nearby Zharkent. This line resonated, and kind of became the project’s defect slogan.

The idea is the same: go out to a strategic area and build a world-class transportation hub. Add warehouses. Add factories. Add housing. Add facilities. Add people. This is how new cities are born, and this is the model for pretty much every new station along the New Silk Road.

***
Crane ride at night

“Are you afraid of heights?” Gulina taunted me at first sight. She was the crane operator that was going to teach me a little about her work. Even though I’ve spent the past two years traveling to dry and sea ports from one side of Eurasia to the other, I’ve never actually been up in a gantry crane before.

Gulina was working the night shift, so I was going to get the duel bonus of not only being able to get into the crane to see how they work but to see the dry port under the lights at night.

I tried to start my interview but Gulina preferred poking fun at me. She picked on my thin, trendy blue jeans. It was fiercely cold out, so she had a point. They were kind of dumb.

“What do you like about operating a crane?”

“It’s extreme, and I love it.”

“Was it difficult to become a crane operator because you’re a woman?”

“No. My teacher was a woman!” she exclaimed with a laugh.

She told me that in the Soviet times most crane operators were women. Apparently, there is even an old documentary about it.

“Why were they mostly women?”

“Because women are more accurate.”

We entered the port and climbed the stairs up to the crane high above. I stopped for a moment at the top and looked out over the port. The powerful lights radiated off the thin layer of snow and ice that covered the ground, proving a type of backlighting that seemed to make the entire place glow. I got into the cabin of the crane, and Gulina began her work.

“Do you want to see me put one in a wagon?”

“Do you want to see me put one on a platform?”

“Want to see me put one on a truck?”

She gave me a full demonstration.

“I’m nervous,” she said.

“Don’t be,” I replied. “I can’t do what you do.”

She then laughed and grabbed my knee. “I can’t do what you do either.”

I thought she was talking about being a traveling journalist. But then she finished her statement with a cackle:

“Going out in the cold with these thin pants!”

“I like my job . . . and my warm pants,” she added.

***
Unit 45

I’ve written about this company and their highly-sophisticated, climate controlled, remotely operated shipping containers before on Forbes. This is one of the new technologies that is enabling the New Silk Road to come alive. Producers in China now no longer need to worry about temperature when shipping high-tech products to Europe, and producers in Europe are now able to ship fresh meat, wine, and high-value produce to China. It may seem simple, but these containers really are a turnkey type of innovation, and will soon cause a ripple effect through the supply chains of Eurasia.

While I’ve seen these containers stacked up in many dry ports in Asia and Europe, I’ve never actually seen them on a train before. When I was up in the crane with Gulina there was a full train loaded with Unit 45 containers below us. As she moved boxes from place to place, I got to watch this train depart for Europe.

It may sound simple, but this was actually something kind of special for me.

Read my article about Unit 45 on Forbes.

***
Return to the ICBC

The International Center for Boundary Cooperation (ICBC) is a free trade zone that straddles the border of China and Kazakhstan, and is shared by both countries. The last time I was here was in May 2015, and the Kazakh side had nothing but a stale tent selling some junk that nobody wanted to buy sitting next to a burning pile of garbage. Now, it has a large trade center that is open to vendors and customers, a large Japan / Kazakh warehousing and distribution enterprise that’s in operation, and two more large trade centers and a hotel under construction.

Imagine that.

Read my first article about the ICBC on Forbes.

Read the article about my return to the ICBC on Forbes.

***
Zharkent

The nearest established town to Khorgos is Zharkent, a small city of 30,000 people. Zharkent is an old Silk Road town, and the legacy of those ancient trade routes still live on here — the town’s main street is even called the “Silk Road.” The new projects that are emerging on the Chinese border are reviving this old trading post, suddenly making it relevant again. This is a place in rapid transition. After a long decline into oblivion — being the proverbial last stop at the end of the earth — the outside world has again come to Zharkent as the chasm between continents has been bridged.

“It all started when the Turkish and Italian guys came to build the WE-WC Highway,” said Naziyam. “Then people in Zharkent realized that they could make money.”

Like in the past, the people here are still traders. They do runs over the Chinese border to the new city of Horgos or even all the way to Urumqi to buy merchandise that they can resell in Kazakhstan for a profit. Recently, they are starting to do more business in the ICBC, where a huge portion of the town’s residents now work.

“When we first started there was no traffic,” Karl began. “Now when we went down the road from Zharkent to Khorgos we got stuck in traffic. My driver turned to me and said, ‘See boss, it’s starting.’”

With Karl at the place where the east meets the west.

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There Is Nothing On The Internet

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I’d just traveled across Kazakhstan, went out to the remote border region with China, went down to Tajikistan and back. Each stop of the way, just about every day, was packed with interviews, site visits, all that stuff that I find fun and fascinating.

But I was beat. I sat in a cafe and order a coffee. It arrived. I pulled out my phone and began browsing for something recreational to read. I read the Bills news, there wasn’t much going on besides some bloggers musing about how good we ain’t. I didn’t feel like reading the real news and I definitely didn’t want to read anything that was at all associated with my work.

“There’s nothing on,” I said to myself as I sheathed my phone.

I then caught myself, somewhat startled by my own cerebral statement. That was exactly what people used to say back in the day when network TV ruled. We’d say, “There’s nothing on,” when the programing on the three stations we could tune in with our rabbit ears all sucked. I haven’t heard anyone say that in a decade.

The internet is an infinitely expanding universe, of course there had to be something “on.” But I sat there and couldn’t think of anything.

What I wanted was a story. Just a contiguous narrative that I could follow and check in on — something that wasn’t too heavy but may nonetheless teach me about something or get me thinking about something remote from anything that I was doing. What I wanted was an old-time blog, like the kind that we were making in the mid-2000s, when the internet was uncharted territory to explore. What I wanted was the kind of blog where someone you found kind of interesting or odd just talked about what they were doing and thinking. Something that you could easily follow day to day — a temporary escape.

I’m not sure where those writers have gone.

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Travels Around Astana In 2017

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“Boston is cold and boring,” she said. “There is nothing to do. You can’t even spend any money there.”

She grew up in Almaty, in the south of Kazakhstan.

It’s funny to hear someone who is from a place that is thought to be one of the preeminent backwaters of the planet — the land of Borat — visiting the great, advanced America and finding it starkly behind the times, under-stimulating, boring. But I had to agree with her, compared to Almaty — a city that’s lined with fun, creative, local cafes, bars, clubs, and shops — Boston does come off as a little stale.

The world changes faster than our perceptions can keep up with.

***

“How old is that Radisson?” I asked, pointing at the giant hotel rising up on the other side of the river.

“It’s really old,” she said. “Maybe five or ten years.”

It is a vast understatement to say that Astana is young. It was named the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, as the president issued a decree to turn the 100,000 person town of Akmola into the new seat of government. People who worked in the government, which was previously located in Almaty, were then formally migrated to the new city in the frigid north.

The city that Nazarbayev built was something taken out of the pages of a 1950s-era novel about the future. It is exactly what cities were supposed to look like in 2017. The master plan was the work of no other than Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who has an entire collection of strange new cities to his name — including the concentric circle CBD of Zhengdong New District in China. There are bright, contorted skyscrapers, twin conical towers plated in gold, a giant shopping mall in the world’s largest tent, a giant, gold-ornamented mosque, and colossal, anachronistic Western housing complexes that rise up into the sky — all sitting side by side. It is truly something to marvel at; Astana looks like nowhere else in the world, and each time I go there I feel this sense of displacement, as it is difficult to believe that what I’m looking at really exists.

“This all wasn’t here even eight years ago, there was nothing here before,” is one of the most popular things that people tell you here.

Read more about Astana’s architecture

***
I expressed my continued wonder over Astana to a former journalist from Almaty. She thought I was naive.

“You can do things like that when you have an unlimited amount of money!” she exclaimed.

I guess she was right.

***


“There are not even many people living here and we already have this traffic problem.”

Astana does have a traffic problem. The streets are plenty wide enough, often being six to eight lane thoroughfares, but there simply isn’t enough of them. This is the unintended consequence of the Soviet system of super-blocks. While they look grandiose from above and theoretically make sense — have giant roadways on the peripheries and large, contiguous living spaces in the centers — they just don’t work in the automobile era. All the cars are funneled onto the same roads, and even a city that doesn’t have that many people or that many cars becomes locked in traffic.

It often takes over a half hour to get just about anywhere in Astana by car, even though you’re only going a few kilometers.

While China is engaging in a national program to break up super-blocks to relieve traffic congestion, Astana is still building new ones. There is an entire quadrant of the city that has not even been built yet.

***
“Now that I came back and it’s all being done, it’s like a fairytale.”

Inspired by the president, Kazakhstan began planning their pan-Eurasian logistics apparatus around seven or eight years ago. This plan would see landlocked Kazakhstan as the center of a great network of transport corridors and logistics hubs that would connect the country with the Yellow Sea at Lianyungang in China, the Indian Ocean at Bandar Abbas in Iran, the Baltic Sea at Klaipėda in Lithuania, along with dry ports and logistics zones arranged strategically throughout their country, Tajikistan, Iran, and Europe.

However, when a group of inspired young Kazakhs working for a newly formed think-tank called the National Center for Transportation Logistics Development began promoting this idea to the country and the world beyond few took them very seriously.

In 2017, these dreams are now a reality. It’s happening. The ports and transportation connections that once seemed like little more than lofty ideas in the presentations of impressionable youths, are now physical entities handling thousands of tons of cargo. Some of those kids are now leading some of Kazakhstan’s most dynamic transportation companies.

“Do you know of any other country that has done that?” the media relations manager for KTZ Express once asked me.

I thought for a moment. “No. No, I don’t.”

***
I had coffee with a friend in the Rixos Hotel in Astana yesterday as the Syrian peace talks were taking place in the room next to us. The place was packed with press and security. I was stopped at the metal detectors that were set up at the door just for the event, and if the friend I was there to meet didn’t walk over to intervene it would have been a challenge to get inside.

I arrived just in time. I watched a mob of media with their big cameras and other appendages go flooding into the room next to us. On the TV in the hotel’s Irish pub was a live feed of what was going on directly on the other side of the wall. It was like looking in through a window. We watched until the feed went dead when the media was given the boot.

Felt strange not covering this event, but that’s not really my beat. Although I probably should have gotten in touch with someone to see if they wanted the story — it would have given them the article without having to pay to fly someone in and it would have been an easy one for me to get. I suppose I was too focused on the #NewSilkRoad.

However, as I sat there on a couch in the bar, drinking two super expensive cappuccinos that my friend paid for, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach because I knew I missed something. This meeting represented something at the core of this New Silk Road movement. Countries like Kazakhstan are becoming internationally relevant neutral terrain between contending global powers. To the north is Russia, to the east is China, to the south is Pakistan and India, to the west is Europe. Kazakhstan sits in the middle, friendly with countries on all horizons — so neutral as to host a major peace talk being presided over by Russia and Turkey, a kind of Switzerland of Asia. This geopolitical position was cultivated by intentional design, and as I sat there in the Rixos Hotel I knew that there was not any better example of it actually working.

Countries filling this multi-vector position are the links which hold the entire Silk Road network together.

***

Many times when doing interviews with people in prominent positions here, I stop them short and ask how old they are. They know what I’m getting at and they tend to laugh.

In 1993, Kazakhstan understood that the country needed not only to change the ways things were done but the mentality of the people who were pulling the strings. The country was mired in the old top-heavy thinking of the Soviet era. Culture is real. To these ends, the president began a scholarship program called Bolashak, which means “the future” in Kazakh, which aimed to send promising students abroad for their university educations. The thinking was that they would learn how things were done in the West, grow accustom to international standards, then return to their homeland to revitalize the country. Since the program began, over 10,000 students were sent abroad, completely funded by their government.

Now many of these kids are back, and many are actually being rewarded with the promised positions of power — which is something remarkable in and of itself. The people who are starting to run this country are young. The much heralded “new generation” has arrived.

The new CEO of Khorgos Gateway is 34. The vice president of KTZ Express is 31. The current finance minister, a Bolashak product, is 38 years old. Kuandyk Bishimbayev, the previous finance minister and another former Bolashak student, is 36. He was recently charged with corruption.

***

I once thought that the lack of major international cafe chains in Almaty was due to the place being too chic to want them — as in a post-globalization, trendy sort of way. The streets of that city are lined with interesting and creative local cafes, which, when taken altogether, surpass about anything that the West can dish out. But I was wrong. The major coffee chains didn’t avoid Almaty because of a lack of marketability but because the logistical apparatus that they depend on simply wasn’t set up yet.

I learned this at the new Astana logistics center — a massive transportation and warehousing operation on the barren outskirts of the city. This place opened around a year and a half ago, and almost as soon as it did many major chain cafe, supermarket, and retail chains began moving in — including Starbucks. As I walked through the halls of one of the warehouses there I saw an array of glass windows and shelving, which were destined for the first H&M store in Kazakhstan, which is set to open soon.

I once mistakenly thought that the presence of major international chains in a place was a testament to culture or economics. While it is certainly impacted by these two things, it is first a matter of logistics. New logistical and transportation infrastructure has the power to change commercial and cultural paradigms, it has the power to open the floodgates — almost literally.

***

Astana is cold.

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Media Appearances, January 2017

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Before heading out of the USA, I found myself with some excellent media opportunities in January. Here they are below:

TBS eFM This Morning (Seoul), January 10, 2017

This was an interview with a big morning radio talk show out of Seoul, South Korea about the new China to UK direct cargo train. Listen here or below:

 

AM 620, The Pulse (Bangor), January 10, 2017

I went on an AM radio station in Bangor, Maine, and talked about working location independent, some of the background behind my previous book about China’s ghost cities, as well as my “big break.” This one was a really good time, the host was excellent, and I suggest listening if you have a moment.

 

ABC Radio (Australia) Morning Breakfast, January 4, 2017

I was a guest on ABC Radio in Australia for the second time. The first time I went on with them was last September, when I talked about why China is building a new Silk road. This time I talked about the new freight train service linking China with London and what this emerging new network of trans-Eurasian rail lines really mean. You can listen here or below:

 

Fox/ABC Bangor, January 3, 2017

I went on the local Fox/ABC Bangor television morning show to talk a little about being a traveling journalist/author, as well as about coworking and working location independent in general. Read their story and watch here or just watch below:

The Globe and Mail (Canada), January 2, 2017

China’s growth breathes new life into old ghost towns was the name of an article that I was interviewed for and quoted in by one of Canada’s flagship publications.

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