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Of Desert Towns And New Cities

There are two sides to new city building: what is to become and what was there before. Straddling the divide between the two is what I do for a living.

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DUQM, Oman- I woke up on my final day in Duqm with the realization that there were two things that I was missing: 1) a visit to the Chinese section, and 2) a visit to the old town of Duqm.

I wasn’t getting into the Sino-Oman Industrial City on this visit. Not enough time. My free days here were on Friday and Saturday — days off — on what happened to be a holiday weekend. It just wasn’t going to happen. But this wasn’t as big of a deal as it may at first seem.

What is often misunderstood about China’s Belt and Road is that the projects tend to be very insulated from the broader countries / societies / economies that they are being built in. The Chinese generally pay a massive amount of money for their own section of a much larger development zone, erect a fence, and do their thing from within. They bring in Chinese companies and Chinese workers and do China’s bidding in an odd sort of parallel universe. The Chinese are basically ghosts in these places — they come, they go, and nobody really knows what they are doing. They could vanish tomorrow and hardly anyone would notice. Far from building “people-to-people” exchanges from China to Europe, up to this point the Belt and Road has amounted to little other than a string of walled-off industrial Chinatowns across Asia and Africa.

The broader New Silk Road — outside of the gates of the Belt and Road — is where the action is really happening. In these other development areas we’re seeing companies and people from all over the world jumping in, working together, and building what could become the cities and economic zones of tomorrow. We have Western firms, South Asian workers, Indian developers, Middle Eastern backers, and local governments blended together, sharing ideas, and creating places that are very similar to our romantic renditions of the market towns and caravansaries of the ancient Silk Road.

For the traveler, these places are something out of a fantasy: you can walk down a newly built street and talk with Pashtuns, Sikhs, Bengalis, Pakistanis, Americans, Italians, Filipinos, Arabs, Germans, Koreans, and an array of locals — be they Bedouin, Kazakhs, or Georgians. You can go from person to person, group to group, speak in multiple languages and have conversations about an array of places that span the globe. I know of few other social environments that have such a high concentration of cultural diversity — that have so many people from so many parts of the world working together on the same thing.

Road construction in Duqm. Construction of the new city of Duqm.Pakistani road worker in Duqm.

The work camp in Duqm was literally placed in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but desert around it in any direction. To get anywhere I had to stand on the side of the highway, stick out my thumb, and hope.

This is Duqm. 

I caught a ride with an old local who drove an old truck. Pretty much everybody drives the exact same Toyota truck here in Duqm but this guy’s appeared to be among the first to make an appearance out here. The thing was beat — the seats and dashboard had a thick patina over them — and kind of reminded me of the vehicles my dad would drive when I was a kid.

I told him that I was heading to the old town of Duqm — a highway stop-off that had an intersection, a general store, and a mosque. He dropped me off and I waved goodbye. I then looked at my surroundings. Dust from the desert blew through the streets. A pickup truck would occasionally drive by. A guy stuck his head out from cafe and looked at me. I looked for tumbleweeds. Mosque in the old town of Duqm.  General store in Duqm. 

I walked into the general store and bought a root beer. It was the closest thing to beer that I could find. The young guy behind the counter noticed my camera and asked me to photograph him.

I then walked off through the town without much of a plan. I was basically just looking for people to talk to. I wanted to know what they thought of the giant new city that was being built across the highway.
Guy who works at the general store in Duqm.

I walked over to a car wash — the only place that seemed to have anything going on at it in the afternoon. I’m in the desert — afternoons are hot here, only dummies go outside in the afternoon. I saw an older guy washing a truck that had what looked like a refrigerator in the back of it. I walked over and started talking with him and asked if I could take some photos. He didn’t have a problem with it.

As I was doing my thing the owner of the truck — a be-robed Bedouin with dark sunglasses — came up from behind me and started freaking out that I was taking pictures of his truck. I looked at him and bowed a little apology but I didn’t scurry away. I knew this type. Instead, I began photographing the other workers who were washing the truck, given them attention, ignoring the angry Bedouin. When I finished I turned to the Bedouin, shook his hand, and made to leave.

He called me back.

He wanted me to take his picture too.

I walked down the street and came to a row of shops that were open. I hung out with some guys who worked in a laundromat for a little while.

I walked back out into the street and saw a family sitting outside of a small hardware store. I walked up and started talking with them. We joked around a little, the kid tried grabbing at my camera and the grandfather swatted him.

I continued my walk and found a couple of guys who worked in the new city strolling through the streets. I took their picture.

The old town of Duqm is also undergoing rapid development. New people are moving in and new houses are being built. New cities tend to have colossal radiuses of synergy which extend far beyond their immediate footprints. I found some guys building something and tried to get them to talk with me. They just wanted to work.

When I was at the edge of town a pickup truck pulled up from behind me. I turned around quickly.

“Get in,” the driver commanded.

It was one of the Bedouins from the hardware store.

“Why?” I asked.

“Get in,” he commanded again.

“Why?” I asked again.

“Get in. We go see camels.”

I got in.

He drove me across the town and then turned off the paved highway. We drove through a sandy field. I bounced up and down in the passenger seat.

“Where are we going?”

“Camels, camels.”

He then slammed on the brakes in front of a small concrete house. We got out and walked in. A couple of guys were sitting on the floor around a platter of dates. I sat down with them. The room was bare. Bedouins don’t have furniture — they have no need for it. A couple more men walked in.

We hung out. Ate dates. I tried to get them to tell me what they thought of the giant new city that was suddenly being built across the street — about the Bedouin villages that had been razed and the fishermen who were put out of work — but they were more interested in feeding me dates.

We then all got up and walked out to the trucks and piled in. We went off-roading again. I bounced around in the passenger seat again, trying hard to take steady footage of the driver. The Bedouins began racing each other. We ran over hills and through small ditches as the two trucks tried to cut each other off. The Bedouins were laughing.

Then in the distance I saw a couple of solitary trees that had three camels standing around them. The trucks slammed on their brakes and skidded to a stop before the ungulates.

We got out of the truck and the Bedouins made for one camel in particular. There were two nice, calm-seeming camels and one angry, mean-seeming camel. They chose the mean one.

One Bedouin tried to mount it from behind but the thing snorted, yelled, and tried to buck him off. He had a hard time holding on but eventually clawed his way up to the top.

He jumped off and another Bedouin tried to climb on. The thing snorted, yelled, and tried to buck him off. He eventually made it up as well.

Then he got down and signaled to me to get on. The entire group of men and a couple of kids were standing around in a semi-circle expectantly.

Now, these two Bedouins who climbed the camel had presumably been riding these things since birth and they had a hard go at it. There was no way that I was going to pull it off. I would look like a moron — which was probably the point.

“No way,” I said. “I’m just going to take pictures.”

If I was a Bedouin who lived way out in the desert of Oman — in a place so remote and random that it was as though God flicked a ball of lint and it landed here — I would probably find fun in similar pursuits.

Additional photos

Pakistani road workers.  Foreman of the Pakistani road workers.  Pakistani road worker. 

The building of a new city.  Road work in Duqm. They are still laying down the basic infrastructure grid here.  Road construction.  Sudanese school teacher who somehow ended up in Duqm.  Shopkeepers in the old town of Duqm.  Shopkeeper in the old town of Duqm.  The old town of Duqm is just a blip on the highway in the middle of the desert of southern Oman. 


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Filed under: Deserts, New Cities, Oman, Travel Diary, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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