On the harbingers of change.
RHODES, Greece- I’m a traveler. I built a lifestyle that’s founded on going to places. That said, the creation of a new place, a new destination — a completely new dot on the map — is inherently appealing.
As I wrote in the intro to Ghost Cities:
It was the starkly ephemeral that got me. It was the feeling that time is always rolling on and the sure-shot guarantee that the huge amounts of energy, resources and manpower being pumped into the great works of today will ultimately produce the rubble heaps of tomorrow. Everything is born and everything dies – even cities. In my home region of Western New York I was able to grow accustomed to places that had perished; in China I became familiar with those that were just being born. The effect of each was similar – places hovering in stagnancy with diminutive populations and scant levels of activity – but the questions I asked myself were radically different. While in the post-industrial wastelands of Buffalo and Rochester I would wonder what had happened and what was, in the new cities of China my fascination was framed in another grammatical tense: what is going to happen and what will be?
China’s ghost cities also presented me with another intrigue. I’ve been moving through the world since 1999, visiting and living in fifty or so countries before finding myself netted within the giant expanse of China a few years ago. There is often a subdued, archaic thirst in the traveller to be the first to make it to a place, to be the first one to chart out a new dot on the map and then return home to tell everyone about it. Though the age of discovery has long been over and done, the explorer’s conceit is still with us. While most of the places in this world are known globally, their locations marked by GPS, their terrains photographed via satellite, and their streets crawling with tourists, China has presented the passé wanderer with a loophole: new cities – hundreds of them. While it’s safe to assume that more or less every new large-scale development in China has already attracted teams of foreign planners, designers and builders, not many outside of this professional realm have actually visited these places, let alone have written about them. I have to admit here that I found it appealing to research places that have not yet been thoroughly described, photographed and conceptually nailed down. Rather than racing to be the first to discover locales lost, forgotten and obscured, the new game was to witness and describe places that were just being created.
China’s new cities are just that: new. They are still rising above the ground, rapidly transcending entropy to create order. Where else in the world could I walk through an entire city that was being built all around me? Where else could I stroll down a wide dirt boulevard surrounded by half-constructed skyscrapers in every direction? When else would I have the opportunity to see the locations of what would become booming metropolises before they even exist? We tend to think of cities as permanent entities, as though they were always there. But that is never the case. All cities rise and all cities fall, but the opportunity for anyone to be in the exact place at the exact time that either happens is rare. China provided me with this opportunity in spades. For two years I observed the rampant spread of urbanization; I talked with the city builders as they worked. I’ve watched towns and villages grow into metropolises; I’ve learned what the transition between rural and urban – the fundamental dividing line of humanity leading back to the dawn of civilization – is really like. For two years I watched places become.
There is a certain thrill to traveling to new cities. They are almost beyond belief — you look at them, walk in them, touch and feel them but oftentimes still have a difficult time believing that they exist. There’s just this strange disconnect between your senses and rationale, and the experience is kind of like a dream or mirage — is this really happening? Is this really here?… and there is often nobody else around to pinch you awake, so I just walk through them, completely alone with your sense of suspended belief.
But what’s really interesting is that, if given a few years, most of those giant, empty new cities that I’ve observed become populated. They become real places, normal places — ubiquitous places that leave no trace of where they came from or what they were before. It’s sometimes to the point that nobody would believe me if I told them that I was there when the place was completely empty.
There are still hundreds of new cities being built around the world today. As I mentioned on Forbes yesterday:
Literally, hundreds of entirely new cities have been sprouting up across Asia and Africa since the early 2000s. They are totally new dots on the map with names like Putrajaya, Naypyidaw, Nanhui, Kangbashi, Dompak, and Khorgos. There is a Forest City, a King Abdullah Economic City, a Blue City, a Gracefield Island, a Tbilisi Sea New City, a Port City, a Waterfall City, and, yes, even a Robotic Future City. In all, over 40 countries — such as Malaysia, Nigeria, China, Morocco, India, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Oman, Kazakhstan, and Kenya — have dumped billions of dollars into developing new cities from the ground up. Indonesia alone is busy at work constructing no less than 27 new cities.
These new cities are not just economic endeavors but attempts at creating completely new societies — enclaves for the newly emerged middle and upper classes, palisades for the new internationalism — in countries that are starkly transitioning from how they were to how they wish to be: modern. In a way, new cities are attempts at creating new identities, at transforming cultures, and this has basically been one of my core intrigues since I first began traveling nearly 19 years ago.
The world wasn’t yet in its new city building phase when I first left the farm in 1999. If someone told me back then that all of those third world countries that I was going to would someday be building hundreds of new, uber-modern cities I would have laughed. There was no way — no way that all of those backwards backwaters could do such a thing. When I was looking at them for the first time they could hardly build roads.
At that time I still into rejecting all indications of the “modern,” of the “internationalized,” of the “globalized” as I moved from country to country across the planet. I thought the “traditional,” “authentic,” “native” was far cooler. I possessed a very acute dichotomy between traditional and modern, local and global. I mistakenly called the transitions that I was seeing “Westernization,” and I didn’t like it.
Part of my vehemence, I have to admit, was little other than a youthful reaction against the place that I had come from. I was still rebelling in that immature, know-nothing, teenager-y kind of way — rejecting what I was taught and brought up with in order to embrace what else was out there. I wanted to believe I was acting un-American but I was actually behaving in the most American way possible. The irony of youth.
But what’s interesting here is that my vehemence against globalization became so heated that it eventually cooked itself into an odd sort of fascination. I looked too long and too hard at what was right in front of me trying to acquire more reasons to hate it that I actually became interested in it. I grew out of my value judgements, my dichotomies, and began framing what I was seeing as a unique moment unlike anything that has every happened before … and I had the privilege to sit back and watch it happen.
Then I began writing full time.
Now here I stand: someone who spends his time traveling to new cities, the very epitome of what he once despised, engaged in the task of figuring out what it all really means.
Who would have dreamed five years ago that the undeveloped shoreline of Johor Bahru would someday be artificially extended out to sea and have $100 billion worth of high-rise towers for a 700,000-person new city sprout out of it? Who would have imagined thirty years ago that China would wipe clean thousands of years worth of architectural heritage and take a million historic villages — no exaggeration — completely off the map? Who would have pondered that Nigeria, Kenya, Oman, Sri Lanka, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan would now be in the process of building some of the most modern cities in the world — cities that would make anything we have in the USA appear obsolete?
I couldn’t help it, I found something romantic and poetic about those stacks of concrete, steel, and glass; something fascinating about how they so cleanly wiped away all traces of what came before them just to start up something new. There was something about these new cities that was almost revolutionary — they were the direct indicators of a new renaissance … but one that doesn’t seem to be leading to any semblance of enlightenment.
New cities change everything. They are tools that are being used to shape the future — the playgrounds of the new world order.
I’m starting to feel as if I’m not traveling but standing still and just watching the torrents of change flow by in front of me.
You can never step in the same river twice.
Travel is not just a romance with places but a romance of with the passing of time, of the ever-changing world, of your ever-changing self.