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The Central Station Of The New Silk Road Comes To Life
http://www.vagabondjourney.com/travelogue/wp-content/uploads/hallstatt-austria-china.jpg What Happens in China’s Western Replica Towns
How China’s Lanzhou New Area Is Moving Mountains For A New City

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia- I sometimes meet refugees in airports. Real ones, like Hasan, who spent nearly a year trapped in the interzone of Moscow Sheremetyevo. I have to admit, these refugees are sometimes a little hard to spot in airports in the early morning hours, as they often look like everybody else.

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I find it amusingly onerous when the designers of social spaces, technologies, urban areas … create things along the lines of how they want people to use them or behave rather than how they really do.

Airports are often some of the worst offenders. They are often designed with idealistic visions of how the relevant authorities and designers envision passengers using the space — walking rapidly through the check in, security, and right up to their gate and getting on their flight with a smile on their face — rather than what actually happens, when the stark confluence between idealism and reality crash head on.

Social engineering tends to have an amusing way of backfiring.

It’s a fact: passengers often find themselves stuck in airports overnight.

It’s a fact: people get tired at night.

It’s a fact: people are going to sleep in airports.

But rather than acknowledging these facts and setting up facilities to meet real life user demands and giving people comfortable and respectable places to sleep, airports often do the opposite: purposely create mechanisms which make it as difficult and uncomfortable as possible to sleep.

Clearly, it doesn’t work:

So rather than providing smooth, soft benches, they install seating that’s made of hard plastic that has deep inverted butt divots and metal arm rests. Rather than having a few open areas with soft flooring everything is hard tiled and open areas are blocked off, packed with some moron’s sculptures, plants, or advertisements. Rather than have massive overnight layover lounges, they just ignore the fact that people are sprawled out all over the floor.

Passengers — many of whom paid a relatively large amount of money for the privilege of flying — are thus reduced to eyesores as they contort themselves around furniture purposefully designed to be uncomfortable and stretch out over footpaths, getting in everybody else’s way. These are generally not the type of people who are prone to laying around on the floor of public spaces, but, in the sphere of air travel, all self-respect is usurped by biological necessity.

Why has this become normal?

The airport in Kuala Lumpur could be really nice. But at 2AM the hallways are full of passed out air travelers. Grown men and women are huddled up in corners and under staircases, rendering a state of the art transport hub into a temporary Skid Row. They are cumbersome to step around. They look miserable.

I took my kids to the play area in the airport, but they couldn’t use  any of the stuff set up for them there, as there were people sleeping all over it. I couldn’t blame them though — the plastic children’s play apparatuses seemed to be the most comfortable looking things to lay on.

Well, at least they haven’t started charging people to sleep on the floor in accordance with their weight … yet.

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In Taipei Papa Whale

TAIPEI- Taipei seems as if it’s becoming a place that I will start passing through regularly. It’s a grade-A air hub for regional Asia travel and the place is real comfortable. It’s the China that my wife likes.

It has to be stated:

The people of Taiwan, while mostly Chinese, behave completely differently than the PRCs. The culture feels completely different. People stand in line, in the cities they don’t scream when they talk, they don’t grab my kids and demand that they take photos with them. They treat people with … respectful distance. While I enjoy the raw social nature of the PRC, I find the difference in Taiwan fascinatingly stark. One culture, two trajectories, obvious impact. “China Light” is how a much-traveled friend recently put it.

The first time I rode through Taipei I mistook it to be a sort of butt town. For some reason, I just figured Taipei would be more advanced in several core urban categories than what it is. Compared with the big cities of the PRC, the place is at least a decade behind. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing … just a surprising thing.

We stayed at the Papa Whale hotel. It was kind of a surprise for my daughter Petra, who admired the giant, city-block-long whale that was painted down the side the last time we were in Taipei. The place is part of this emerging trend of hipster hotels that are popping up all over the world. Kind of like M Hotel in Europe. Papa Whale has the style of a 70s porno flick rolled up within an overarching nautical theme. It’s kind of sex-hotel-y, kind of disco-y, kind of seafarer-y. There are mirrors on the ceiling of the rooms, see through glass bathroom walls, and whales. 100% hip.

However, there are cheap rooms in the basement that are the same price as the local holes next door. We stayed in the basement.

Mirrors on the ceiling of the rooms.

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VLOG_024: In Search Of Wind Lions

VLOG_024 is about traveling around Kinmen Island in search of wind lions.

It’s a little family heavy, but think of this as a goodbye from my wife and kids as they exit this vlog. Unless relevant to the broader story about a place, topic of focus, or event, they will no longer be appearing here. This is for a variety of reasons.

I put this video together mostly for myself — it was a real fun day with my family.

The next videos that will appear on this vlog will be in the vein of what they were from 2007 until a few months ago … only slightly better shot and edited.

That said, if there is ever anything that you would be interested in finding out more about in the countries that I’m traveling through, just let me know and I will include it in a future vlog.

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So my family began traveling with me once again a couple of months ago. We had a choice of a couple different strategies:

A) We could set up a base of operations in a grade-A air regional travel hub somewhere in Asia — such as Singapore, Taipei, or Kuala Lumpur — for the next six months to a year that I could use to travel in and out of to do my projects and my family could concoct a semblance of a regular life.

B) We could change countries each month, making stops in 11 countries across Asia, hunkering down in a short-term apartment rental each time. Basically, go back to the strategy that we were running when Petra was 10 months – 3 years old.

I was expecting my wife to go for the former but she chose the later. She’s still a traveler, and she’s had enough of being stashed places as I go out and do my work.

So that left us staring down at an open map of Asia. We sketched out a route through Kinmen, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives …

This plan will, of course, be wholly and completely disrupted and reassembled ad nauseam as we go.

But there is perhaps no better feeling than looking at a map and knowing that you can go anywhere.

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A Brief Ode To The Moped

I used to hate these things. Mopeds.

I always regarded them as a major urban annoyance — another thing to dodge when walking, another thing polluting the city with their smoke-spewing two-stroke engines.

But then I actually used one.

For a month on Kinmen I had a moped.

Yes, I’d underestimated this form of transport. It is really the ultimate form of warm climate transportation. They are fast – I could go 90 km/hr on the one I was using — they are small and versatile, can be packed into small places, and are incredibly cheap to operate. I believe I could fill the tank for two bucks.

The thing was incredible. I mean, I really enjoyed riding it. It was just … fun. It also allowed me to take a closer look at the place that I was in, providing me with a deeper impression. It was fast enough to get places and easy enough to slow down and stop enough to pull over and get out wherever I chose. For my work, it allowed me to collect a larger amount and a broader range of content.

The moped has many of the benefits of traveling on a bicycle without some of the drawbacks. Riding a bicycle long distance is a slow, boring, isolating, dangerous, tiring dirge that you can’t even get any travel cred for it because everybody is doing it.

Mopeds — and, yes, ebikes — are perhaps  the ultimate commuter vehicle for the urban working class. Cities should be designed around them rather than these mass-public transit systems. No matter how good and technologically advanced public transportation can be, it’s still going to suck.

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Ex-sadded To Leave Kinmen

“I don’t know how I feel. I feel ex-sadded,” Petra said on the way to the airport. It was a go-day. We were leaving Kinmen, and ex-sadded, a portmanteau of excited and sad was probably the best way to put it.

Excited to go someplace new.

Sad to leave a good place behind.

I really like that place that we were leaving, and this past time there was something really special. I really like the old houses, the traditional villages, the countryside, the beaches, the people — the story of Kinmen. There are no big ticket tourist sites and really nothing for attraction-seeking travelers to do, but the place is real. It’s for travelers who travel to learn about something… or just to talk to people…or to be left alone and talk to yourself.

My family went through some challenges as well — getting there was a real journey and finding a place to stay was tough — which oddly adds a little something to the experience. If life was easy people wouldn’t need each other.

We came into Kinmen, set ourselves up, lived well (enough), learned something, left a little life behind, and then split. We topped off the cycle there, now we’re heading out to start it all over again somewhere else.

I write these words with kind of an uneasy feeling. I did not complete my project on Kinmen. I made progress — set things up in case my film pitch to BBC gets accepted — but I didn’t box up what I intended to ship out. I know the reason, but I hate to admit it:

I had to put more time into processing content than collecting content.

There are two sides to what I call monetizing the experience:

  1. Going out, collecting data, impressions, and experiences worth sharing.
  2. Processing and sharing those experiences via an array of different formats on an array of different mediums.

It’s basically a strategy to go out into the world, learn a little something, live a little something, and make money too.

When I arrived on Kinmen I had just come off a few big projects that I hadn’t yet fully processed: I still had a book to finish, I had a short film about Korea to put together, I had many long overdue articles, which all fell on top of the continuous requirement to publish a certain amount of content each day just to stay afloat.

If you collect more content than you process then you put yourself in a deep hole and you go broke.

If you focus too much on processing content then you’re not going to be out having the experiences and collecting the data worth processing.

The key to adequately monetizing the experience is having both sides in equal portions.

I came into Kinmen top-heavy — I had more of a need to process and publish content than collect new content, and my project suffered because of it.

But this just gives me a reason to return.

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VLOG_023 is about what happened on Kinmen during the Chinese Civil War and a look at what was left behind: abandoned military bases, tunnels, and a legacy that defines the place today.

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The Corner Restaurant

This is the restaurant that I go to for an afternoon beer when I can no longer continue on with a shift of work at the laptop. I can put in ten hours straight, from 4am to 2pm, but that’s about the limit. 

I physically need to take a break even though my wheels are still spinning. I know that I still have a little left in the tank, so I head out to this restaurant and write in a notebook or blog from my phone. 

I like this place. It has all the grace of a hole in a wall, but the older couple running it always smile at you. I’ve never seen the guy wear a shirt. But, then again, I’m not sure if I’d recognize him if he was. 

However, none of the guys who go to this restaurant really wear shirts. They sit in there bare chested slurping noodles and drinking beer. Some have roughly done, traditional Chinese style tattoos over their backs.

My kind of place. 

I show up ragged from the laptop road, get my 95 cent can of beer, sit back and relax. I write some scripts, sketch out some plans, figure out where I need to go and who I need to meet to keep moving on. 

I don’t wear a shirt.

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Abandoned Military Camp

KINMEN, ROC- I go for rides with my daughter Petra on the moped after I finish working for the day. We mostly just buzz around the countryside in the early evening, looking for stuff we didn’t know about or anything that could be described as strange, interesting — anything but boring. 

“Boring” has become one of the eight-year-olds most uttered statements. 

Today we found and old abandoned military camp. It looked like a place that soldiers once lived. But it had been deserted long ago. The doors on the buildings were wide open, pieces of walls and roofs were starting to crumble. 

There is this feeling that you get when walking through places that people once lived but don’t anymore. It’s the knowledge that life happened there. You can still feel it in a way. It brings you to attention; sparks imagination…

I tried to explain this to my daughter. 

“Booorrrriiinnnngggg,” was her reply. 

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Rivka is two years old today. You don’t know much about her.

While I extensively documented the rise of Petra on this blog, I’ve published very little up to here about Rivka. That’s just the breaks for the second child, I guess.

But it was more than just this. My wife didn’t want to birth a child in China — understandably — so we packed up camp and went to her parents’ house in Maine. Rivka was born a couple of months later.

The lifestyle dynamic during this time was set: I would travel out on my projects and they would stay put in Maine, save for a three month stretch last summer when they traveled with me in Eastern Europe and Cyprus.

This worked for me. My work has gotten a little more intensive and the travels are often not suited for an entire family.

It was also a good test: would they prefer having a home somewhere?

The answer, as it turned out, was an unequivocal no. They never really took to life in Maine. My daughter Petra never really established those friendship bonds that sedentary people tend to have; my wife had little interest in reestablishing herself in the town that she grew up in. It was almost like they were travelers who just didn’t go anywhere.

It was time to go.

So around two months ago they split.

We went to Taipei and then Kinmen. In a few days we go back to Taipei and then Australia.

Life has normalized. We’re back to how we were living during Petra’s first three years.

While Petra was a born traveler when young — never really cried on airplanes, took long bus journeys well (besides the puking, which she couldn’t help), and loved trains — Rivka was a little more ordinary. She would try to get out of her seat when the seatbelt light was on on airplanes, she cried on buses, she threw things on the floor on trains. She wasn’t bad, just normal.

It made us realize how unusual Petra was in this regard.

It also made us realize that we could have a bit of a problem. How can you travel with a kid who doesn’t want to travel?

Eventually, a change started happening. She’d get off a bus here on Kinmen and start calling out to get back on it. She’d see a bus and she’d run after it, yelling “Bus, bus” with a big smile on her face. She’d start talking about airplanes positively. She began having a blast riding in cars. Going for rides on the moped that I rented is probably her favorite thing to do . . . She stands up with her hands on the handlebars and just looks around loving it.

She started liking the act of traveling. It seems to have eventually clicked for her: traveling is something that you do, like an activity, and not a disruption … and it can be fun.

Let’s see how the flight to Australia goes.

But one thing makes me feel positive about it: she really takes an interest in other people. She watches people. When they do something interesting or strange or something she doesn’t get, she walks up to them, points, and tries to talk. That, right there, is the recipe for enjoying travel.

So Rivka turned two today. She got pancakes in the morning, visited a pet shop, went to the beach, ate at a restaurant that she likes (because they use plates for kids in the shape of airplanes and cars), had some cake in our guesthouse, played with the presents that I rode a motorcycle through a typhoon to get, and now she is yelling things that she finds funny from her bed.

Birthdays kind of bookmark the places that we travel. For some reason I try to remember where I was for each of my birthdays. For Rivka, she turned one in Pristina, Kosovo; she turned two in Kinmen, Republic of China.

 

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