How plugging into air travel hubs scales my range of reportage.
In my case, I didn’t need to be convinced of the aerotropolis argument. My lips were already stained by the kool-aid. I’ve spent enough time in Asian cities that have massive centers of gravity emanating from their airports to know that this is really happening. It makes sense — and I know this because I am one of those individuals that have found themselves tethered to the airports of the world.
I went from being a traveler who only flew when the overland path was blocked or I wanted to make a jump between continents — and I usually did this somewhat grudging. I absorbed the prejudices of the travel writers from the era that preceded me who seemed to find a point of smug pride in positing air travel as a shortcut or even a cheat unbecoming of real travelers. Then one day I realized that I liked flying, that I liked the jolt of rapidly arriving somewhere vastly different than the place I departed from, that I liked the action of airports . . . that I liked cheating my way across the world.
Although the real shift in perception came a few years later when I re-conceptualized how I could utilize airports and air travel.
I was at the CIFIT trade show in Xiamen, and I found myself staring at a giant ten foot high lit up map that showed all of the flight routes which spidered out from Xiamen’s airport. I followed the lines to Jakarta, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Tokyo, and Singapore. I’ve seen hundreds of displays just like this one over the past 16 years of travel, but this was the first time I realized how I could really use it.
I had previously made the transition from being a traveling writer who just went wherever I wanted just to see what was there to being a journalist who primarily traveled to collect information for articles and books. In essence and execution, the two forms of travel have little in common.
While I had been doing the “spokes of the wheel” method of journalism, where I have a base of operations somewhere and then travel regularly in and out covering stories or doing research in places that were within easy range of ground transport, I had not thought much about the advantages of expanding this strategy. Perhaps for the first time I was based in a city that had a well-connected airport and a profession that would make flying out for projects economically viable.
As I looked at that air route map I saw no reason why I couldn’t extend my range out to the ends of all of those lines, why I couldn’t extend the “spokes of the wheel” method out to a dozen different countries in an entire region of the world. By operating out of a good air travel hub I could establish myself concurrently in Singapore, Seoul, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai . . . I could come up with a set of story topics, hop on a plane, be on the ground in a matter of hours, do my research, return, write, publish . . . over and over. This exponential increase in my geographic range could exponentially increase my ability to chase high-value types of stories — as well as any other intrigue that catches my attention.
I gave this strategy a trial run in Xiamen, from where I could get to just about everywhere in the region for $100 – $250, and it worked incredibly well. It was replicatable, it was scaleable, an the next time I evaluate a place as a potential base of operations I would only have two questions:
How good is the airport?
How close to the airport can I get a room?
Being in a good air travel hub gives me this odd feeling of power. It’s the power of access: I can plug into a good air travel hub and be directly connected to an entire region of the world. This has altered my perception of spatial geography — after bouncing back and forth along those spidery lines the places they lead start feeling as if they are the next town over rather than being 800 miles away.
The New Silk Road book that I’m working on now has been built on air travel. In my three bouts of travel so far on this project I’ve probably flown at least 50 times, and I will probably add on another 50 flights by the time the year is up. It’s been pointed out that using land transport would be a more “genuine” way of documenting the New Silk Road, but this misses the plot entirely: the New Silk Road is a network of connectivity — a network of connectivity that’s held together by what runs through its airports.