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BLOG – Daily missives from around the world

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“Where are you going next?” I’m asked pretty much daily.

Responding to this question is usually straight forward: I just say where I’m going. However, this time doing so
didn’t feel quite so matter of fact.

I’m going to Puerto Rico. I’m going to the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico straight from the frigid tundra of Astana in the winter. As I looked around at the ice that covered everything it just felt sort of unbelievable that I would soon be walking around in shorts and sandels and playing in the waves. When I told people this I felt as though I was lying.

But it’s true. I’m on my way to San Juan. I’ll be meeting my wife, my daughters, and in laws there.  I guess you could say that I’m going on vacation.

I’m actually surprised that I was invited to go.

“Really? You really want me to go?”

I was kind of flattered, so much so that I decided to take a break from Central Asia.

***

I’m now going back to what could be called the real world. My fifth bout of New Silk Road research travels — yet another foray into the “other world” — is coming to a close. I met with and interviewed key sources in Astana, took a trip back out to the Khorgos Gateway dry port, returned to the China / Kazakhstan free trade zone and was surprised at what I found, was taught about modern Kazakhstan art by a woman who is prohibited by law from wearing underwear in public, met with the COO of the Khorgos SEZ and other friends in Almaty, was deceived in Dushanbe, accidentally spent a week partying in Bishkek, went out to Aktau and visited the port, and returned to Astana where I did some media engagements with Kazakh TV and the Astana Times as well as hung out a little more in the conspicuously empty first McDonald’s in Kazakhstan.

I just went through just six weeks with my head down running. Now I’m transitioning back to the real world — the world where I’m a dad and a husband, the world where I work out life with other people, and can’t just do anything I want to whenever I want to (well, sort of).

Transitioning between these worlds often require complete personal paradigm shifts — Edward Norton / Brad Pitt kind of shit. It’s really two diametrically opposed lifestyles that get smashed together as one regularly becomes the other, ad infinitum. When I first go out on these research trips I’m a little reluctant, heavy hearted, like an animal being released into the wild from captivity who hovers around its crate sniffing the air for a while. I say I don’t want to go. But once I’m out for a while it’s sometimes hard to go back inside.

***
I just passed through immigration here in Astana. I paused for a moment at the no u-turn sign that was stamped on the floor at the brink of nomansland. I stepped over it. I’m leaving Central Asia again, and again I feel a little heavy inside about it. I had fun here during this bout of research travels — perhaps a little too much fun.

But I should be returning to Central Asia in three weeks. Too soon to shed any tears of preemptive nostalgia.

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Too Much Fun In Central Asia

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“You’re having too much fun there,” my best friend from home commented on my recent bout of travel in Central Asia.

He was probably right.

While I have to say that I ultimately have fun everywhere I travel, this state of being runs in a higher gear in Central Asia. It’s no mystery why: I just really like the people here. I like talking with them, I like going out and doing things with them, I like drinking with them. It’s really that simple.

Sure, I like everyone, everywhere, but there is just a way that the society in Central Asia — and in the post-Soviet states in general — reacts towards foreigners that makes interacting within this sphere overtly enjoyable: they treat you like a normal human. You’re not viewed as money on legs or as having two heads here, you’re just a person — a person that the people here seem to be as much interest in talking with as you have in talking with them.

Throughout the Soviet period people and cultures were really mixed up in Central Asia. Entire villages in the Northern Caucasus were transplanted in Kazakhstan, untold numbers of people were exiled here, and millions were moved around the USSR to work on various projects and initiatives like pieces on a game board. While the individual identities of the myriad cultures of this realm remained intact, they did so under an umbrella “Soviet” identity. The lasting effect today is a unique type of cosmopolitan society that is relatively open to outsiders. Mixing this with Central Asia’s built-in sense of “nomad” hospitality, and traveling here becomes something incredibly engaging.

To put it in one blunt phrase: the people of Central Asia are accessible. My playground has many swings and slides here.

***
Central Asia is a span of the world that’s prime territory for travelers who like people. This may sound like a strange thing to say — what traveler doesn’t like people? But when you look at the places that most people tend to travel to, the preference seems to be gawking at piles of old rocks than interacting with living humans. The social accessibility of tourist towns is one tick from nilch.

As far as I know there are no real big ticket tourist sites in Central Asia. Maybe there’s some ancient Silk Road cities that have been Disney-fied by UNESCO in Uzbekistan or something, but that’s about it. This lack of big attractions seems to keep mass tourism at bay and visitors from being solely viewed as customers. I don’t believe that Central Asia is the last frontier of tourism — there is just too much nothing to see here. Hanging out in Astana with Jon from Moscow simply doesn’t hold much weight in a tourist brochure. This is a place that is about the people, not the attractions.

That said, once you really engage this place it is the full of those particular WTF?-type experiences that you travel for — i.e. the stuff you write home about. Sitting at a bar wearing a green army helmet while a scantly clad woman makes you chug a succession of flaming drinks while systematically bashing you over the head with shovel, a fire extinguisher, and an empty beer keg as everybody cheers is something I don’t believe I’ve ever had happen to me before.

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I saw something that I didn’t really remember seeing in Astana before: a McDonald’s. The place was in a prominent part of town, right at the cusp between the business / administrative district and a residential area, and was probably the most well-put-on-displayed McDonald’s I’ve ever seen.

I asked around about it. Was this here before?

It was new; they just opened it last year. At that time it was the first McDonald’s in Kazakhstan.

After being held at bay for a remarkably long time, the big international chains are now moving into Kazakhstan. Starbucks is now here, Zara has some stores, I just saw some of the shelving and supplies for what will be the first H&M in Kazakhstan in the Astana Logistics Center a month and a half ago. They are coming; but many seem a little late to the game.

By keeping the big chains out — by either not having the proper logistical infrastructure to support their supply chains or the government foiling attempts by local entrepreneurial players from bringing them in (as is rumored) — Kazakhstan’s local brands and businesses have had an opportunity to establish themselves in cities that are now the bearers of populations that are incredibly cosmopolitan, international, modern.

I would sometimes get a coffee at this McDonald’s, and one thing that I found striking about it was that it’s often a tick from being empty. I’d been there at breakfast time, lunch time, and dinner time. When it first opened there were lines extending out the door, I am told. Now, there is scarcely a trickle.

McDonald’s seems to be dealing with the same problem here in Kazakhstan that they’re facing in many markets around the world: as it turns out, their food actually tastes horrible.

“Do people in Kazakhstan like McDonald’s food?” I had to ask around.

“Not really. No. I think maybe half the people liked the food and the other half don’t like it.”

Most people who seemed to be coming into this McDonald’s seemed to be doing so solely to take their kids to the indoor play area — which makes sense in the cold of an Astana winter.

Without offering breakfast — the restaurant chain’s pinnacle menu options — without the appeal of the image that nearly took over the world in the early days of globalization, with the knowledge that their food isn’t the healthiest, McDonald’s in Kazakhstan is standing on the taste of its hamburgers and fries and ice cream alone. The empty seats seem to tell how well this is going.

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Aktau isn’t bad. It’s a city of 150,000 or so on the Caspian Sea — pretty much the only sign of development for hundreds of kilometers of coastline. This is where the deserts of Central Asia meet the sea. It’s all water if you look one way and all sand if you look the other. In this way it reminds me of the coastal stretches of the Atacama in China.

“This place is the desert. Nothing grows here,” the guy who showed me around Aktau port told me. “If you go out of town you will see camels.”

“Camels?”

“Yes, camels. They’re just walking around out there. I imagine they belong to somebody but they’re just walking around in the desert.”

“Camels are something normal for us,” a guy from Aktobe later told me.

It’s the real Silk Road out here.

***

I do this thing in airports that I’ve recently realized that I really enjoy. It’s basic, everybody does it, but I’ve kind of ritualized it. I don’t even really notice it until I’m in a situation where I can’t do it. Then I kind of mildly long for it. I just walk through the terminal from end to end slowly, just thinking about what I did in the place I’m leaving — solidifying the memories, constructing the lines of narrative, perhaps.

This morning in Aktau I can’t do that because I’m here with a friend — or, more accurately, some guy I met one morning while eating breakfast at the Victoria Hotel on the seaside. He works for a company that makes parts for drilling oil wells. He lives and works in Aktobe, but was in Aktau to service a well that his company provided a motor for.

“I was born on an oil field,” he said. “We all are here.”

His father is from Azerbaijan. His mother is from Russia. They met on an oil field. Hid brothers work in oil. He studied oil in university. Everything about this guy’s life revolved around oil.

“Why did you want to work in oil?” I asked him.

My question seemed to strike him as something strange, as though nobody has ever asked him that before.

“Well,” he began, “for one I find it interesting. It pays well. I also get to travel.”

Not bad.

I remember riding into Aktau from the airport in a taxi with a couple of lawyers who worked for Maersk — quelling things like labor disputes. I asked them why they wanted to become lawyers, and they just laughed at me.

“We don’t choose our jobs in Kazakhstan! Our parents choose for us.”

Both of their parents decided that they would be lawyers, so that’s what they did. One of them said that she wanted to be a doctor when she was young but her parents rejected it on the very accurate grounds that doctors in Kazakhstan don’t make any money. You will be a lawyer, they said, and that’s what she became.

***

The oil man that I met during breakfast the day before gave me a ride to the airport, he bought me a coffee, and he bought me breakfast. There’s no way to turn this down.

Hospitality is a funny thing. It’s a social set up where the giver is also the receiver, the receiver is also the giver. What is often misunderstood by Westerners is that in order to be a good guest you need to allow the host to provide for you — to buy your drinks, your food, etc. It’s what they want to do. To decline or to try to repay them in kind is an insult. You repay them by saying thank you — or when they come to your country you provide them with hospitality. We have to remember that they don’t only provide you with hospitality to help you but because it (apparently) makes them feel good, it bolsters their status locally, it’s what they’ve been taught that they should do. It is as much for them as it is for you.

“It was a real pleasure for me because of our hospitality. We should do that for foreigners.”

There are hospitality cultures, like in the Middle East or the Turkic countries, and there are non-hospitality cultures, like in the USA. For us, groveling over and spending money on some stranger from somewhere else is an expense and a chore. We don’t receive the full value from doing this because we don’t understand how hospitality really works or what it even is. Culturally, we’re  buffoons.

***

I came to Aktau to visit the port and corresponding SEZ for a story on Forbes and for inclusion in my upcoming book on the New Silk Road. The significance of this place is that it is the gateway for the emerging southern corridor of the Silk Road Economic Belt. This route is of particular interest because it completely bypasses Russia — and, therefore, Russia’s reactionary sanctions. Many of the products that the EU would otherwise ship to China overland is stifled by this major trade barrier, but going through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan via Aktau opens up an entirely new frontier.

I was given what I came for in Aktau. I won’t mention the names of the people that I met there here, but they opened the place up for me.

***

I’m getting ready to board a flight to Astana. Tomorrow I go on Kazakh TV and get interviewed by the Astana Times. Talking about the New Silk Road. The next two days I will do a couple of projects around the city — something on Expo 2017.

I like Astana. However, I understand that it has no good reason for it to exist. But there is something about this that I like.

“Imagine if the capital was moved to Aktau rather than Astana,” my main source at the port kept saying.

It’s an interesting proposition. Aktau is a city on a beautiful coastline that is completely undeveloped for hundreds of kilometers in either direction. It’s a short ride over the sea to Baku or Iran. Turkmenbashi is just down the line in Turkmenistan. There are natural beaches, flat land, and an overwhelming amount of available space. It really could have been a major cosmopolitan center vitalizing the Caspian in the heart of Eurasia.

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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 been. 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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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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