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Vagabond Journey Travel Stories and World Culture

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Arrival In Tbilisi

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There are times when you land on a plane in a place and it’s business as usual — you stay in your seat when everyone is jostling for position in the aisle, pulling down their bags in a hurry as if they can go somewhere before the door opens. Sometimes you land in a place and you just want to get out there — you find yourself standing with the other idiots in the aisle, jostling for position, trying to get off the plane nanoseconds before the people behind you. Arriving in Tbilisi I found myself among the later group.

I’ve never been to Georgia before — this extremely complex country that sits in probably the most ethnically diverse corridor in human history. The Caucasus — the area between the Black and Caspian Seas — is one of humanity’s dominant historic superhighways. Peoples from all across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe have used it as a land bridge to access regions beyond their geographic spheres. Including a curious group of milk drinkers who took over much of the known world because their armies had a mobile source of food.

As successive movements of people came through here over the ages they’ve littered their people at every step, like seeds dropping out of a hole in a pocket. Some of those seeds grew up into little communities who can still be found today where they were deposited — many being very different than those on the next valley beyond.

This is no different today — with Turkey, the Middle East, Russia, and Central Asia encroaching on all sides.

This is a fascinating, complex part of the world, and I couldn’t wait to get out there.

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My social strategy was changed some years back when I read a study about people’s perceptions of themselves in terms of being introverts/ socially awkward or extroverts/ socially skilled. It turns out that almost everybody thinks they lack adequate social skills — even those that others think are exceptionally lucid in this area.

That changed my life because it made me realize that everybody feels at least as awkward as I do, that I am no more of an misanthrope than anyone else, and that this wasn’t something that made me me or something that was my pet limitation, but was something overtly mundane that everybody felt. In other words, it’s normal.

This knowledge changed the terms of social engagement on my end. Imagining that the person I was communicating with may very well feel awkward and insecure oddly makes me feel poised and confident. While it may not always be true, of course, the device works.

In the arenas of travel or, in many cases, work, the spoils go to the people who show no social hesitation or fear. If you want to get what you want you need to engage people you don’t know. Sometimes you get shut down — the girl shakes her head and waves you off, the exec looks down at you, says “Right, right” and walks away — but most of the time you’re going to get at least somewhere.

It’s interesting that many people seem to be hesitant to make the first move in a social situation. If you are the social aggressor you have the advantage — the other person doesn’t know what’s coming, you have the ball, so to speak. Starting a conversation is the easy part.

There are times when we enter into potentially social places and find everyone sitting around on their mobile devices, not talking to anyone, in their own little cerebral sectors. They seem unsocial. You look around and say, “Wow, what a bunch of dicks.”

Really, many are just waiting for some one to talk to them but are too awkward to make the first move — perhaps thinking that everyone would rather spend their days on Facebook. They came into that same room, looked around, arrived at the same analysis as you, and joined the crowd.

Or at least this is the best thing to convince yourself of if you want to interact (it may not really be true but in the end doesn’t really matter much).

In this situation you also have to act immediately. If you come into the room, sit down, get all cozy on your mobile device as you pick up the vibe, then you’ve established your precedent — which is something that’s incredibly difficult to break later on. You need to enter the room with your social guns blazing.

I recently walked into an extremely small cafe in Kyiv. I took my cappuccino, squeezed by the barista, and found a chair in a room that was seriously hardly a few square meters big.

There was a 20-something guy on his computer to my left, and the young barista was to my right. They seemed to be friends.

While I can’t say that they seemed awkward I definitely disrupted their scene. I could have sat there, drank my cappuccino, then departed into the night like is the standard operating procedure for this engagement, but that didn’t seem right to me.

Instead, I began talking. They were shy at first, but I kept at it. They opened up. The guy was named Sasha, the girl Anna. They were from the same bumfuck town somewhere in Ukraine. They met when they were fifteen and moved to the big city together. He makes websites; she makes cappuccinos. They giggled in unison. They’re now engaged to be married. They told me some stories of their hometown and Kyiv.

I finished my coffee and they recommended that I go to a bar down the street. When out in the street I decided to take their advice.

When halfway through my drink in the bar they came walking in. They did this for no other reason than to say goodbye and to take a photo of them with me.

That’s travel.

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35 Years Old — Birthday Post

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I turned 35 years old on May 23rd. I didn’t celebrate. Instead, I did exactly what I like to do: I went to an economic forum on the New Silk Road, exchanged business cards, did some short interviews, made some friends. To put it simply, I worked.

I’m 35 years old and I do exactly what I want to do — so much so that the potential of a birthday celebration derailing this seemed like an annoyance. I did what I would have done normally — I ate cheap slop at the hotel, I drank the usual amount of coffee and beer, and I rushed back to my room because I had to finish an article. It was a normal day and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it any other way.

It may seem like I’ve achieved some kind of pinnacle for success. But I say this every year:

Birthday post 2007


Birthday post 2008

Another birthday post from 2008

Birthday post 2009

Birthday post 2010

Birthday post 2011

Birthday post 2012

Chatwin said that a man shouldn’t serious consider writing a book before the age of 35. I jumped the gun on this, but I understand what he was getting at: you need to have really lived before you can really write. Writing isn’t something that comes out of your head while sitting in an empty room all alone. No, it’s something that you have to live. And as Teddy Roosevelt once said, “A man doesn’t fully live until the age of 35.”

I understand that I am no longer a young man. I’m just a man. A normal, mid-range man. I have a wife , two kids, and all the things that I want. I travel wherever in the world I want to go to. I write about what I want to.

I’m writing the word “want” repetitively here. When I set out at 18 I had one intention: to do whatever I wanted. At 35 it may still be too early to tell but up to here I’ve done just that.

Birthdays are signposts of achievement for travelers — as travel is ultimately about one thing: the acquisition of knowledge in relation to time and space.

I wrote that in a birthday post at the beginning of this Vagabond Journey project. It’s still true.

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I found myself back on the New Silk Road in Ukraine. After a diversion up through the Baltic states I’m back to work.

I met with the Center for Contemporary China on Friday and then on Monday and Tuesday I was at two forums devoted to discussing and promoting Ukraine’s position on the New Silk Road.

It’s an interesting situation in Europe regarding Silk Road participation. Whereas in Asia, many of China’s joint ventures, projects, etc were the result of top-down governmental fiat, while in Europe they are coming from bottom-up pushes from the local business communities and upstarts involved in relevant government ministries saying “You have to do this, we can’t let this opportunity pass.”

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The title about says it all.

I was walking though a small sidewalk market near a metro stop on the north side of the Dnieper River in Kyiv. The sun was shining, it was the middle of the afternoon, ladies were out selling flowers, young couples were sipping cappuccinos around the coffee carts, vendors were hawking their cheap cutlery and other household wares.

Suddenly, the crowd abruptly parted and a heavy set fifty year old guy was struggling to get up from his knees from right below me. I initially thought he fell down on his own — maybe a heart attack or another sort of medical emergency. He rose and stumbled for a few steps, then anxiously turned to look behind him.

From around a corner a smallish man with his head covered in what appeared to be a white fishnet stocking was running towards us with a crowbar in his hand. The stocking only covered his head and neck, leaving his face exposed, kind of like a scuba diver’s hood. He ran straight for the old guy wobbling next to me and viciously struck him in the side with the crowbar. He yelled something. The old guy raised his fists as if to fend off the attack. The man with the crowbar struck him again, yelled something, and then proceeded to pummel him.

The crowded parted to watch. We winced as we heard the flat thump of metal against flesh and bone. The two fell back into a flower display, the old woman who ran it began screaming at them to take their beating elsewhere. Another man jumped in and began punching the old guy. The recipient of the blows eventually falling to the ground, whereupon the man with the crowbar thumped him over and over.

At that moment the realization arose that what I was watching was merely a beating. This wasn’t murder. The audience was not going to get a grand finale of brains. The blows from the crowbar purposefully landing on arms and torso rather than head. But this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t absolutely violent and didn’t give you that tight feeling in your gut that you get when watching something heinous.

Of course, as people, we watch these things. There was a crowd. Thump, thump, thump went the crowbar, the man beneath was fully subdued.

Then something inexplicable happened. The hooded enforcer rose up from his labor, held out his arms in a pose of dominance, and, out of the entire circle of spectators looked directly at me. Was it the look on my face? Did he never beat someone with a crowbar in front of a foreigner before? We made eye contact for a moment. I looked at the crowbar still firmly clenched in his hand. I felt a chill and the urge to flee.

But soon after laughed at myself — the guy wasn’t going to beat me just for watching him beat someone else. I walked back to see how the ordeal would end. The old guy was on his feet. A stream of blood was emanating from his face and covering the hand he was using to stem the flow. He was talking with the hooded man, who was now holding his weapon loosely by his side. They both then nodded and the victor swiftly led the man he bloodied down a side alley and into an obscure entrance of a nearby building.

It seemed to have been a dispute over money; a good chance mafia related — who else has the impunity to beat people in the streets in broad daylight with a crowbar?

Then, what is truly interesting here, is that the street instantly returned to its previously peaceful state. The women went back to selling their flowers, the couples returned to sipping their cappuccinos, the vendors went back to hawking as though people beating other people with crowbars here is something that happens as regularly as the passing of a warm summer day.

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Coffee In Kyiv, Ukraine

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There are no Starbucks in Ukraine. There are no Starbucks in Ukraine and there’s no need to be. Kind of like Almaty.

Kiev has to be the coffee capital of the world. The streets are literally lined with places to get decent, cheap coffee. You can get coffee in cafes, restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores, street stalls, as well as cars and trucks, which have full barista set ups hanging out of their rears. I would bet that on each block of Kyiv there’s an average of five to ten places to get coffee — oftentimes they are right next to each other, lined up for customers to chose from (apparently at random). 60 cents to $1 per cup — the appropriate price for coffee — is the cost, and there’s a full range of options, from expressos to cappuccinos. And everybody is drinking coffee, everywhere.

I asked a local woman why this was, thinking that there may have been some kind of old and deeply seeded coffee drinking tradition here.

“I really don’t know,” she said. “It is kind of a new thing in the past few years. It never used to be like that.”

Me: “What is your favorite kind of coffee to make?”

Kyiv barista: “My favorite drink to make is the … cappuccino.”

“Why?”

“Because when you give someone a cappuccino they smile.”

Kyiv’s coffee culture works well for me. When I’m in a place that I can afford it, I am always either drinking a coffee or a beer. Which one it is often doesn’t really matter. I go from one to the other throughout the day, walking around, writing, watching the world move by. I like to think that their respective effects cancel each other out.

That said, beer too is cheap and ubiquitous in Ukraine. Really, this is my kind of place.

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The View From My Window: Kiev

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If I ever go off the grid, this is a little clue as to where I could be found: 22nd floor, Tourist Hotel Complex, Kiev, Ukraine.

I have an odd attraction to Soviet architecture. This may have partially been what it was that kept me tied to China’s new cities for so long. I didn’t just spend two and a half years traveling to China’s ghost cities just because it was a good story but because there was something about these places that I enjoyed — the larger-than-life-ness, perhaps.

Within the parameters of Soviet architecture my favorite type of building is the hotel. The Soviets built hotels like they built everything else: to impress. There is space in these places, they are often huge and have all kinds of common areas and places to be outside the room. They are places to hang out in, to communicate, and to be entertained.

The Tourist Hotel Complex is an old Soviet hotel, albeit one that is very stripped down to the essentials. There are no gargantuan crystal chandeliers or kitsch. It sits right on the north side of the Dnieper River, kind of removed from the core of the city but not remote. There is a metro stop at its foot. Every room is spacious, with a desk, tables, and chairs, and giant windows that give an incredible view of the city beyond.

It’s the windows that get me. I can sit in this room, typing, basking in the sunlight, with a warm breeze coming in.

It is amazing how many hotel rooms don’t have any windows, how many hotels that are just made for sleeping. Soviet hotels were made for living.

The Tourist Hotel Complex in Kiev.

The Tourist Hotel Complex in Kiev.


I stayed my first two nights in Kyiv in a four dollar per night hostel. Cheap, but I’m not sure if it was necessarily a good value.

The hostel was mostly full of young Ukrainian workers. They seemed to be living there. I believe I was the only foreign traveler. These types of hostels are normal in the big cities of the world. They are usually the cheapest places to stay, and they are packed with locals who can’t afford to be anywhere else. In China, I’ve seen young workers deck out their bunks to function as full fledge rooms — some of the occupants have been there for years.

Ukraine seems to have an interesting communal culture, of which I haven’t yet experienced anything similar. In close quarters people just don’t seem to care if they are doing something that could bother someone else. At one, two AM multiple people were listening to music on their laptops in the dorm room. They would call out to each other and talk loudly — without any regard that they are waking up the other people in the room.

At first, I thought that the girl in the bunk below me was just a prick, playing American rap music and talking to some fat guy through the night. I became annoyed, then I realized later on that as more people poured into the room they all were acting like that — and nobody seemed to care. I suppose that was normal.

I’m not sure how this works, but I don’t have to, as cultural contrasts are usually inexplicable.

The next night I was prepared. I came back half drunk at midnight. I fit right in.

Strangers laugh together here. It seems like a small thing but it’s actually relatively rare. In the week that I’ve been in Ukraine, numerous times I’ve noticed people who clearly didn’t know each other make jests or jokes about something and laugh. These people talk to each other in elevators. That’s not common.

That said, the culture here seems incredibly open. Definitely different than Russia, to which the culture here can easily be compared against.

“We are different than the other countries around us,” a Ukrainian friend told me. “Russians, Polish, they sometimes don’t like other people. In Ukraine, we don’t care about anything like that. We don’t care if you’re black or Chinese or Jewish, it’s all the same to us.”

He wasn’t giving me a Bob Marley line, he was really saying something.

Ukraine is an easy place to talk with people. You step into a convenience store and see this big babushka behind the counter scowling at you. But if you say hello and ask her to help you pick out the best kind of beer or something her face lightens up. You ask her name, you tell her yours, then every other time you walk into her shop she greets you with a smile.

Kyiv proved to be surprisingly affordable. I’m eating full meals for $2, getting lattes for 80 cents, and beer for 70 cents to a dollar for a 500 ml draft. My room at the Tourist Hotel Complex was $16 per night, and, as previously stated, dorm beds come as cheap as they get.

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“Mommy why do you act really really stupid in dreams?” my six year old daughter asked.

She just had a dream where she had a choice to go to her home and be all safe and sound or to go into a haunted forest. She chose the later route, of course.

“Why didn’t i just go into my home instead of going into the forest?” she asked.

That question there is really THE conundrum of humanity. It’s an extension of Pascal’s “Why can’t a man just sit quietly in a room?”. If we so choose, we could live these peaceful, integral lives, with enough to eat, enough of everything to go around, and everybody being safe and sound in their homes. But we don’t. Instead, we go into the haunted forest over and over and over again.

Like my daughter in her dreams, I always choose to go into the haunted forest. I stand at this crossroads daily. I could be home, live a calm, secure-ish, anonymous life. But I don’t. Every time — every single time — I choose to go into the haunted forest.

It’s just a hardwired malfunction of our species. It’s always been there, and probably always will be. It serves a function.

But, also like my daughter, as I stand there in the dark gloom of the unknowable woods I can’t figure out why I travel the roads I do.

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In Ukraine

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As a child I had an odd fascination with Ukraine. It wasn’t necessarily a fascination about anything that had to do with Ukraine — I knew nothing about the place — but it was a fascination with fact that Ukraine would definitely be extremely different than where I came from.

Of all the countries I chose Ukraine as being the most indicative of adventure, the place that you would go to jump over the world’s fence, so to speak.

I would trace maps as a kid, and next to the Iberian peninsula and the fjords of Norway, Ukraine was always my favorite place to draw. There was just something about its squat, globular shape with pieces sticking out into the Black Sea that I liked. I would trace it’s shape and color it in. Always light blue. I would imagine going to the interior of that strange shape.

I’m now riding the bus into Kiev from the airport. I’m here. Finally. Kid me was right, it does look a little different than Albion, New York.

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If you wake up in the morning, go over to the window, and find Vilnius outside you must have done something right in life. This place is, by far, the best city of its size that I’ve been to in over 16 years of travel through 69 countries.

These are big words, but I can back them with a simple “Go there, then tell me if I’m wrong.”

The city is the perfect mix of the ancient and modern, international and local — rather than rejecting one extreme for another, this place seems to absorb and embrace them all. The sharp line between the old town and the new even seems permeable.

Contrasting with Riga or even Tallinn, Vilnius’s old town is still a vibrant residential/educational/commercial (i.e. real) center. It has tourism capacities, to be sure, but it hasn’t been converted to a place that serves the sole function of peddling things to international passersby.

There is a university right in the middle of the old town, which provides a good mix of people — tourists and students generally want the same things: places to hang out, eat, drink beer, and sip coffee. This also keeps the prices in the range of normal and the street show that often accompanies tourist zones at bay.

People smile at people here when they make eye contact. This is an extreme deviation from many other Baltic and former Soviet states — or many other places in the world for that matter.

Is this the place we’ve all been looking for?

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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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