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Aktau: Where The Streets Really Have No Name

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I landed in Aktau, got in some guy’s truck that he called a taxi, and began riding into town. I pulled out my phone to track the half hour ride and get the lay of the land.

“Unnamed Road” was the label given to the highway I was traveling down.

“Stupid Google Maps,” I thought, how could this road not have a name? It’s the main highway going from the airport to the city — of course it’s called something.

But the mapping app was correct. The road didn’t have a name. None of the roads in Aktau do.

This is a city that was founded in secret — one of the Soviet Union’s infamous closed cities. At that time, it was basically a nuclear power plant, a uranium mine, and a camp for the people who worked in those two places. The city was arranged in districts and apartment complexes that were organized by number, rendering the streets which they were located on irrelevant for navigational purposes. If you wanted to go to District 9, you just went to District 9.

Apparently, this was a system that nobody found any need to update as Aktau opened up and grew into the oil producing epicenter that it is today.

So how do you find your way around a city where the streets have no name?

There’s a system to it. Rather than going to a particular road and finding an address on it, you first go to the district, called a micro-raion, and then to the apartment or commercial building, and then to the specific apartment or business you’re aiming for. So a common address would look something like “15-10-38.” The first number is the district, the second the building, and the third is the house or business.

This system works because Aktau hasn’t lost its work-camp-like set up. People still live in apartment blocks which are still arranged in well-organized clusters. From what I can tell, finding your way around here is about as easy as anywhere else. Well, for the locals anyway.

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“This is a new city,” said one of the lawyers I was riding with into Aktau from the airport at night. The city lights could be seen glowing in the distance, like a giant orb rising up from the desert. “It’s kind of an artificial city.”

“In the Soviet era it was a closed city,” he added nonchalantly.

“What does that mean? Closed city?” I asked.

“It means it was a secret city. Nobody knew about it.”

The role of Aktau, which now sits on Kazakhstan’s Caspian coastline in the west of the country, was nuclear energy production. There was a giant nuclear power plant here and also an uranium mine. Besides the people who worked there, nobody knew it existed. It was a giant planned city in the desert — more or less a giant work camp — that was closed off to all outsiders.

These closed cities of the Soviet Union began in the 1940s under Stalin. Places with sensitive high-tech, nuclear, or military capacities were often surrounded in barbed wire and removed from all maps. To send mail to one of these places, you had to send it to a post office in other city, which led to them being dubbed simply as “post boxes” — as that’s pretty much all they were to the outside world.

The people who lived in these places needed special passes to exit and reenter, and were forbidden to tell anyone where they resided. However, they received a 20% higher pay rate for their troubles.

While most of the Soviet Union’s closed cities have opened up, there are still around 40 of them that are publicly known in Russia today, containing a total population of around 1.5 million people. They are now known as ZATO, the Russian acronym for their official name: “closed administrative-territorial formations.”

However, it is often posited that Russia has an additional 15 closed cities, however they are still about as secret as they’ve always ben. Imagine that, secret cities where thousands of people live in the era of globalization. They’re still out there, and probably exist in more countries than just Russia.

Aktau is now about as open as a city gets. It’s packed full of foreign oil companies and foreign oil workers. There are international style bars and restaurants, but the set up and structure of the city is still maintains its work camp legacy.

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Of Barstools And Honor In Central Asia

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“This is Kyrgyzstan!” she roared.

“You don’t understand, you can’t do that in Kyrgyzstan!”

From the sounds of it, you would think that I had made some kind of grave cultural faux pas, you would think that I had deeply rippled the social fabric. In a way, I had — although I couldn’t make any sense of it, which is perhaps a defining attribute of an intercultural miscue.

I had a stool at the rock bar in Bishkek on a busy night. Something that’s apparently highly sought in this part of the world. But eventually I grew weary of sitting in the same spot and decided to sacrifice my equity for a change in scenery. While I was gone some guy and his girl came and claimed it. No problem, right?

Wrong.

This girl that I was talking to earlier had seen what had happened and took it upon herself right the order of things.

“You can’t let him do that to you!” she continued yelling at me. “You can’t let him take your chair. This is Kyrgyzstan!”

No amount of explaining that I didn’t care and didn’t really want my chair anymore did any good. This wasn’t a
matter of a seat at a bar, it was a matter of honor and self-respect.

This girl, who when she found out that I was an American, told me that she had grown up near Alaska (in Russia), wouldn’t take no for an answer. She physically dragged me over to the guy, tugged at his sleeve, and began yelling at him in Russian. As she did she kept pointed back at me. The dude and I are now looking at each other. The girl then gave me a big shove in the direction of my unwitting and unwanted adversary, and left us to man it out.

I tried to get out of it by giving him my best “Yo, this fucking chick is nuts” look, and he seemed to have done the same.

“You have to make him move! That is your chair!” I could still hear this girl screaming from somewhere in the bar.

The dude, of course, couldn’t move. He’d look like a wuss. We were thus launched into a standoff that had brought countless friends to blows and numerous ships to war. It was a matter of principal; the barstool itself was just the symbolic apparatus for the ritual. The prize here was honor — or, more accurately, the fear of losing honor. One man took something that was possessed by another man, and we were going to see who was the stronger by whoever ends up with it in the end — whether they want it or not is irrelevant.

This is a scenario that I’ve seen play out over and over again as I’ve traveled in Central Asia. Bar stools seem to be a prime catalyst of physical conflict here. In Almaty, I watched as a mild mannered friend had to fight some guy who had toppled him from his seat. In Astana, I watched as some poor girl was verbally decimated by some lady whose seat she apparently sat in for a moment.

Where I come from, if you don’t properly maintain your seat at the bar you move on to find another. In Central Asia, you beat the bastard, least you join me in forever being known as the sorry sap who moved his feet and lost his seat.

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There is this feeling that you sometimes get when sitting in an airport, getting ready to leave a country. You’ve just unloaded the last of your local currency on a coffee and a Corona, and you’re looking out the window, just thinking about what happened. You think about all stupid shit you did, all the things that still don’t make any sense, and all that you experienced and, quite possibly, learned. You lay it all out and try to process it, you separate the fact from the fiction but end up realizing that, yes, you really lived all of that. You then feel this smug little smile stretch across your face.

This feeling that I shoot for in every country. I suppose it’s the feeling of victory for a traveler. This is how I always want to feel while sitting on he departure floor of every airport. It means you did something — pushed a few boundaries, perhaps — made a few friends, and ultimately did something worth retelling.

***
My self-gratifying little daydream was jarringly interrupted.

Two airport police officers were standing in front of me, snapping me back to reality. One was older and fatter and the other, the sidekick I’m presuming, was younger and skinner.

The fat one demanded my passport. I complied, and continue drinking my beer, trying to give off the impression that their presence was no more alarming to me than that of an old acquaintance. Disposition here is key — if I get too passive and yes sir and no sir them, then they are going to do whatever they want to me; if I disrespect them I’m going to get demolished.

As the skinny cop dug through my sandwich-thick passport trying to find the single stamp that he recognized in the hundreds of others, the fat cop tried asking me questions in broken English. I act slightly irritated and tell to hold on a minute as I made a phone call. I called my wife for the hell of it. She didn’t answer. She never answers.

I then became aware of the fact that the lady working at the cafe I was in had conveniently disappeared right before the cops appeared. I knew the situation; some would call it a shake down.

The setting was perfect: a cafe that nobody ever went to in an obscure corner of the departures floor. The place was deserted except for me and the cops. Nobody was watching us, and nobody knew I was there. They’ve probably nailed piles of suckers with this trap before.

You hear these stories all the time about the police in Bishkek robbing travelers, but you generally file them away as Lonely Planet nonsense. The police here hadn’t so much as looked at me until now, as I stood right at the gateway out of their country.

The fat cop then got to it.

“Do you have narcotics?” he asked with a big smile on his face. “You know, [sniff, sniff, goes through the motion of doing a line of coke on the table].”

“No, I don’t,” I replied vehemently, as though his question both irritated and offended me.

But I knew I had to do something.

“No, I don’t have narcotics. Do you want to know what I do for work?” I asked rhetorically. “Do you want to know my job? I am a journalist, I write for XXXXXX. Do you know this magazine? It is very famous. Here, I will show you.”

I pulled out my phone and loaded my author profile on the site, then coolly slide it across the table to him. I pointed out the site’s logo, waited for a flash of recognition, scrolled down a little and pointed to my picture, waited for a flash of recognition, and then had him scroll around a little.

He then made a call over his walkie talkie. A moment later this young, English speaking superior officer was standing in front of me. I stood up and we did a handshake that he turned into a thumb lock and a chest bump. No joke. He called me “man.” The two other cops dissipated as quickly as they had manifested. Their superior took a seat in the booth in front of me and we talked about nothing other than his previous visit to the USA. We exchanged phone numbers. He returned my passport and apologized for disturbing me.

“Please understand that we need to do this to keep the airport safe.”

We rose and he said goodbye as though we were now bros. We did the handshake, thumb lock, chest bump thing for a second time. I scurried away and checked into my flight and crossed into no-mans-land. It was time to get out of there.

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Bishkek Is The Real City That Never Sleeps

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I arrived in Bishkek at night but that didn’t matter. Kyrgyzstan’s capital is open 24 hours.

While we seem to like the sound of New York being the city that never sleeps, it simply isn’t true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wandered around that place at 3am with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Bishkek, on the other hand, really never sleeps. You don’t have to bother inquiring about the hours of most bars, cafes, supermarkets, and restaurants because they never close. They have florescent signs out front that say they’re open 24 hours, and they really are.

In my week in Bishkek I was not able to get a satisfactory explanation about what the city’s service sector has against closing.

“Everywhere else in the world places close at night, why don’t they here?”

“Maybe we just like to go be able to go to bars at any time we want,” one guy told me. “We just like to be able to sit at talk in cafes until 4am.”

They seemed amused that I found this aspect of their country to be so novel, but it kind of is. In 78 countries I have yet to find a city with such a high prevalence of businesses that never close.

This fact alone makes Bishkek the ideal city for the writer. You can show up at a cafe at 2am, write through the early morning hours, eat breakfast, and then go home to bed. You can show up at a bar at 7am and drink until lunch. If you get hungry at five in the morning you can just go to the nearest supermarket.

The writing life generally frees you from having a steady schedule. The only thing hemming you in are the opening and closing times to the places you’d like to frequent. In Bishkek, this is no obstacle. There is no regular wake up time, no logical bed time. I can play out any cycle of the day at any time, I can exist on any time zone I choose. Bishkek provides a unique sense of temporal freedom. There is something about this that I like.

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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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