I just completed my second round of research travels for my upcoming book on the New Silk Road. One Belt One Road, the Belt and the Road, whatever you want to call it, it’s the series of logistics, manufacturing, and cultural zones that are being linked by new and/or improved transport corridors from China to Western Europe. It is an extremely loosely defined, atypically flexible international production to further build and solidify China’s global political and economic presence as well as a way for traditionally marginalized countries to join in and benefit from increased international connectivity (and massive amounts of funding from Chinese and international development banks).
These travels lasted for nearly two months and took me across China and Kazakhstan — partially retracing the route that I traveled for my first bout of NSR research in May. I went to Suzhou and was shown the beginning of the Su’Man’Ou train line to Europe (one of 14+ direct train routes linking the continents), then to Chongqing and Chengdu to gander at some of the high-tech manufacturing zones that are feeding products onto Europe-bound trains, then to Xi’an to take a look at the initial stages of a massive new urban area that is being built to be the centerpiece of the entire New Silk Road, then to Lanzhou to watch mountains being moved (literally — they’ve removed over 700 of them in four years) to make way for a new international logistic hub, an FTZ, and a Silk Road tourism center, then to Khorgos Gateway in Kazakhstan to observe the beginnings of what is set to become the crossroads of Eurasia, then to Almaty and Astana where I met with business owners reviving old Silk Road industries and some of the government officials and corporate execs who are making this thing happen.
The NSR is a funny project. For all the talk about it on the surface, in the media, and in the big meetings of big government and big business, what is actually happening on the ground is often very opaque, under-publicized, and being done without the knowledge of pretty much anyone not directly associated with the projects themselves. “It is very unclear, it is very unclear,” is how even people who lived in direct vicinity to NSR projects in China would often respond to my questions.
In the international arena — especially in Western Europe — many seem to feel as if the NSR is the same old “Eurasian Land Bridge” unrequited romance, but on the ground, beyond their range of vision in the remote stretches of China and Central Asia, the wheels are spinning fast. It’s a project that’s so large and expansive that once it’s firmly in place it is something that people are just going to assume has always been there.
This is a very different project than ghost cities was. To find ghost cities all I had to do was head out to the outskirts of pretty much any Chinese city and look — almost invariably there would be a new town being developed. The people in these places were also precisely the ones I needed to talk with — developers and construction workers, architects and engineers, investors and the advance guard of residents. It was more or less open access throughout, and my appearance was often such an anomaly that I was very rarely ever even kicked out of places that I really wasn’t supposed to be.
This NSR project is much different. This is a massive trans-continental endeavor that is happening on the other side of high fences and behind closed doors. There is no backdoor here to slip through. I have to walk right in through the main entrance. I have to make the calls, get the introductions, and obtain the connections to observe pretty much anything or to meet the people I need to talk with. This hasn’t been as difficult as it may seem — having written a book that received a decent amount of media attention and writing for big news sources tees things up rather adequately. My days now consist of suits and boardrooms, CEOs, PR reps, managers, and government officials in addition to the laobaixing I’m used to running with. I’m humbled by the realization that I wouldn’t have been able to do a project like this even a year ago.
Access is ultimately what travel is about — access to people, places, events, perspectives, and knowledge. There is perhaps no better ticket to this access than journalism, and more and more I’m finding that the writing is just the excuse to go out to the fringes of the planet to see what is going on.