I never would have thought that a place as old and worn and textured as Aleppo could be destroyed.
The last time I was there was in the spring of 2009, long before the recent revolutions and civil wars and ISIS. It was a big ancient city that has been continuously inhabited since the 6th millennium BC and looked it. It was full of historic buildings and alleyways and souqs and friendly people who would come up to me just to say hello. They called me an “Obama” for being an American and there was zero animosity expressed due to my nation of origin and nobody gave a shit that my girlfriend was Jewish. “You look like Israeli people,” I remember one guy saying right before he invited us to tea. The place was chaotic but the mood was calm, and if I’ve ever been in a city that I could define as being happy, this was it. There just seemed to be this deeply worn, antiquated pattern to the place — everybody seemed to have been doing what they’ve always been doing — and it seemed as if everything would always be this way. It was a false premise.
A couple of weeks ago I interviewed a group of refugees from Aleppo who have been stuck in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for over three months. It was difficult to match what they told me of their city with what I had experienced, the gulf between two being so incredibly vast. When I walked away I felt the customary sad feelings about the place being blown to rubble and the pattern of life forever disrupted — the death, the despair, the fact that a family of five were living in an airport in far away Russia because their city had been bombed to oblivion. . . but I also realized the value of having known Aleppo the way it was before.
As my initial journey of months has extended into decades I’m becoming aware of an aspect of travel that I never really accounted for previously: the opportunity to watch places change.
This is an era where no patch of countryside is guaranteed to be that way a year from now. Cities are encroaching almost everywhere, surrounding the countryside, asphyxiating the land with fresh seals of concrete and asphalt. Bombs continue falling. Tourism continues its invasion. Nothing we observe and experience today can be taken for granted that it will be there tomorrow . . . at least not in the same capacity.
China has wiped over a million villages off its map in the past decade, has systematically demolished and rebuilt its cities in the past thirty years, and continues replacing the old with the new, the new with the newer as part of an all out national economic program. Upwards of 2,000 sq kilometers of land is requisitioned and demolished for urban development in China each year. Between 2005 and 2010 China dismantled more than 16 per cent of its housing stock, which is more than 1,850 sq kilometers of floorspace – enough to blanket Greater London. Many Chinese cities that have histories which span thousands of years now have little to show for it. Yangzhou has been on the Yangtze river for two millennia but you’d be hard pressed to find anything older than 30 years outside of a restorated tourist site.
“My students often tell me that they have visited a really old building when they go to one constructed in 2005 or so,” Austin Williams, a professor of architecture at Jiaotong-Liverpool University, once told me. Out of curiosity, he gave his students an assignment to find the oldest building they could in their hometown when they went back one year for Spring Festival. One student came back and reported that he couldn’t find anything over five years old.
Back in 2005 when I was a student at Zhejiang University I used to enjoy going for long walks in the city’s undeveloped northwest quadrant. I remember how the roads were hardly more than winding paths, I remember eating noodles with truck drivers and villagers, I remember curiously peering at the pink lighted prostitution shacks (which were, literally, shacks). I went back in 2013 to find this entire gone. It’s now another middle class high-rise development — the sort which is so normal and ubiquitous that you just assume they’ve always been there.
I remember wandering around Shanghai over a decade ago, going to these vibrant historical neighborhoods and truly unique markets. I’ve been retracing my steps ever since — most of these places are now shopping malls.
My first morning in China I woke up in Yangshuo. I looked out my window at a scene snatched from a landscape painting — a small town of mud brick houses and tile roofs before a background of soaring karst mountains. A highway now plows through the middle of this place and it’s a crowded tourist epicenter.
I can imagine that early visitors to Fenghuang say the same, lamenting the florescent lights and riverside nightclubs and how such an intriguing and historic architectural masterpiece has been turned into a Disney-esque tourist trap.
I was in Jinghong, on the Laos and Burma border in southwestern China, in 2004. It was nothing but a run down, tropical river city with all the charm and romance that you’d associate with such. I read now that it’s been turned into a modernized regional epicenter of trade and . . .
Gland I went there when I did.
What a quintessential phrase of modern travel.
I only went to the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia. I can’t have any regrets — I was in high school during the war and hadn’t yet taken my first steps off the farm — but only going there after everything was all shot up, bombed out, and divided apart made me realize that I missed something. Without seeing the place as it was before I couldn’t have a full impression of how the place was when I was walking through the streets. I was missing something, and I knew it.
For all the dubious qualities of this rapid cycle of construction and destruction of this era of human civilization this is an exciting time to travel. Each place we leave behind we do so with the abject knowledge that it may not be the same the next time we return. In this way, travel becomes a way of embracing — or at least being forced to be aware of — the ephemeral. We show up, look around, then leave; return, look around, and compare the images. Travel is nothing if not riveting; the practice allows you to observe the changes in the world because you don’t experience the gradual transitions. It shows you the full extent of how fast — how very, very fast — changes can occur.
It is common to think of the places that we see around us right now as being fixed and somehow immutable, as though they will always stay as saw them, as though our cerebral snapshots caste them in a permanent plexiglas box. But it’s all churning, falling to ruins, being smashed to bits, and blown apart. That’s the standard practice of life, and it’s not the vertigo of returning to places and seeing them changed that’s of essence, but the awareness of time passing. Among the biggest gifts of travel is the experience of change, being able to see a little closer where the world is coming from and where it’s going.