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Arrival On Kinmen 2017

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We arrived. At this point I don’t often describe journeys as being long. If it’s a journey, it’s long. That’s normal. But the journey down from Bangor, Maine to Kinmen island of Taiwan was long — proverbially and otherwise. 

A month or so ago my wife informed me that the status quo of me traveling around the world working on various projects while leaving her in Bangor with the kids had come to its end. She just wanted to return to the USA to have our second child, not to stay there indefinitely. She wanted to get back to traveling. 

Story here:

She said that she didn’t care where she goes just so it wasn’t Bangor, Maine. So we put it to a vote:

Kinmen won, so here we are. 

The trip here?

Well, a big weather delay out of Portland left us with thirty minutes between the time our flight touched down in JFK and the scheduled departure of our next flight to Seoul. We had to change terminals. We shouldn’t have made it. But Korean Air held the flight. We made it. 

Skip ahead a long flight and long layover and like a full day later and we’re in Taipei. We stay there for two days and then flew to Kinmen, which is around three kilometers from the Chinese mainland. 

My daughter Petra is a born traveler. She takes the road well. Traveling is just normal for her. Through the dirges she sits and reads or sleeps, when she’s bored she starts conversations with the people around her, when it’s time to run, she runs. 

“Can I call myself a world traveler?” she asked me the other day, showing that she’s starting to identify with — or is succumbing to — the title. 

My daughter Rivka, on the other hand, is a little more, let’s say, normal. She cries, she whines, she wails when on planes and busses. She squirms, she demands constant attention, she gets ravaged by jet lag. Rivka is a bit of a landlubber. She wasn’t born on the road, and it shows. 

I won’t get into the rigors of the trip here — it’s nothing beyond what anyone would expect. But we’re here now: a traditional Chinese courtyard house on a sort of remote, highly traditional island. The place is a version of paradise. I’ve written about it extensively here:

http://www.vagabondjourney.com/asia/east/taiwan/kinmen/

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Filming A Documentary In Songdo

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I just finished up two weeks of filming a couple of short documentaries in Songdo — a massive new city built on reclaimed land near the Incheon airport in South Korea. While I’ve worked on documentary projects, video news items, and other film related endeavors before, this was the first time that I ever attempted to shoot a film solo.

I quickly discovered that there is a reason why filmmakers tend to work within crews: it’s not an easy thing to do alone. It’s basically three jobs rolled into one: setting up the engagements, doing the interviews and arranging the scenes, and doing the actual filming. Basically, you’re answering the phone and responding to texts, talking with the people in front of you, setting up multiple cameras, asking questions, and plotting out a narrative at the same time. This project made all of my other solo journalistic endeavors seem rather simple, but by extension it was probably one of the more rewarding pursuits I’ve done yet.

I’m trying to develop a faster, cheaper, better model for making films. I’m not attempting anything that hasn’t been done before, but I’m tying to find my own way of doing it. I just spent a year working on a big documentary project that apparently got canned due to a lack of funding. The producers were looking for someone to give them $3 million, and when that didn’t happen the project fizzled out. The film would have been a record of a major global paradigm shift that isn’t being properly documented, and in a way the film had a long-term value far beyond whatever educational or entertainment value it would have provided in the present. It was to be a history in the making.

The fact that it won’t be made due to what seems to me to me an archaic funding model left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. That bad taste isn’t directed towards the people who were working on the film but towards the conventional method that filmmakers have for acquiring funding, which seems to be little more than an ongoing cycle of begging and waiting. We waited, waited, and it never happened.

That said, I tend to have a rather excessive “just go out and fucking do it” type of disposition that occasionally isn’t calibrated to reality.

That said, the sheer ignorance of the thin threshold between possible and impossible is probably an extremely valuable asset, and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now if I plotted out my steps with any semblance of rationale. The journey here was nothing if not absurd.

However, I know that one thing is for sure: new funding models for journalism are needed. We live in a strange time when quality international coverage is perhaps wanted and needed more than ever but its value is less than ever. When even the largest, most respected publications are struggling financially, those who can come back with the story for less are going to be those with the opportunities — or, putting another way, are going to be the ones actually out doing the cool shit. Which is, ultimately, what I’m in this for.

So I went out and filmed the Songdo docs alone. I made some mistakes, but most were of the type that you analyze, laugh about, and never make again — i.e. the valuable kind. I’m editing these films now, and should have them finished by the middle of next month.

So what is Songdo?

I’ve been covering new cities for the past five or so years. First in China, which was the topic of my first book, and then along the Silk Road. Songdo is one of the most successful examples of a new city that was rapidly built up from nothing and really exemplifies the process of modern new city building — both the positives and the negatives.

This is important because there are currently dozens of massive new cities being built across Asia and Africa as a way of handling the excessive amount of urbanization that is quickly becoming the hallmark of the 21st century.

New Songdo rising in the distance.

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Khorgos Gateway BBC Documentary

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The documentary that I worked on with BBC World in Kazakhstan aired on television around the world a couple of weeks ago. If you missed it — or are part of the entire generation that has no use for a television — you can watch it via the link below.

Khorgos Gateway: Where East Meets West from Chris West on Vimeo.

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I just spent the past eight days working on a documentary with BBC World in Khorgos, on the Kazakh border with China.

The film is about how a clutch of large-scale development projects that are changing the surrounding society and impacting lives. It’s one of the best examples of how the New Silk Road is changing places, cultures, and people.

What’s extremely interesting about Khorgos is just how remote and improbable it is. The place sits a tick or two from the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility — the farthest point on the planet from an ocean; perhaps the very definition of remote. Just five years ago there was nothing there. If you look at a satellite image from then of where Khorgos is today you will see nothing but sand dunes. At that time Khorgos wasn’t on any maps, it didn’t even have a name. Literally, it wasn’t even a place yet. But today the place is emerging as an epicenter of cross-border trade, and the people there are leveraging the new opportunities.

The shooting locations for the film range from a state of the art, $250 million dry port and a booming free trade zone to the camp of a family of nomadic camel herders. The landscape is a montage of snow capped mountains, deep ravines, desert. . . There are train rides and crane rides and horse rides.

I have to admit that after that it’s a little difficult returning to text-based journalism.

I will have a vlog entry up about this soon.

For now, a special thanks goes out to my old friend Dmitri, who reads this blog and really bailed out BBC and myself big time with a huge favor. Thank you, man, we all really appreciated it.

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Kazakhstan Blocked In Parking Solution

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ALMATY, Kazakhstan- Kazakhstan doesn’t have much in the way of big cities — or even a lot of people, for that matter. But the country’s two metropolitan centers have already become clogged with cars. While both Almaty and Astana have central street grids designed either by the Soviets or off of the Soviet model — huge, wide streets, superblocks, etc — the amount of cars have already grown beyond the carrying capacity. For the most part, there simply are not enough roads. While China has sought a solution to this problem by breaking up superblocks Kazakhstan hasn’t yet got into this program (and Astana is actually continuing to build more).

What this means on the ground is not only that it often takes a ridiculously long time to get just about anywhere in these cities, but that sometimes you walk out to your parked car and find yourself blocked in by another parked car.

But Kazakhstan has a solution for this.

A few weeks ago I walked out to Verena’s blue Lada Niva to find that someone had parked behind it in such a way that she was completely unable to pull out. We were stuck. What do you do here? Just wait for the guy to show up?

Apparently not.

Verena noticed a laminated piece of paper with a phone number on it positioned on the dashboard. She called it. It was the driver. He rushed over and moved his car. We were free.

Verena asked him if he put his phone number on the dash just for that reason. He said that he did. Whenever he parks behind someone he throws up his number in the window. Apparently, this constitutes good manners here.

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My boots and jacket are freshly waxed. It’s time to go back out on the “New Silk Road.” I was out there last just a couple of weeks ago — knocking around Central Asia, visiting ports and markets . . . and, yes, places where I have to admit I had a little too much fun.

I sit with my wife and feel a little bad that I’m leaving again — so soon after I’d just returned. She has to do a lot of extra work when I’m away; my daughters miss me. Like every other time I leave, just before going out the door I think of all the other professions that I could do which would enable me to stay around a little more. I never really come up with any. I’m otherwise pretty useless.

“I’m perfectly suited for my job,” I said.

“You don’t have a job,” my wife rapidly retorted. “You have something that you just made up. So of course you’re well suited for it.”

I’ve probably never heard my job described better.
***

I believe this will be bout 6 of my New Silk Road travels, but the purpose will be a little different this time. Rather than gathering stories and information for articles and a book I will be working on a documentary with BBC World.

I’m regularly contacted by film crews, and I often talk with them, give some advice, share some contacts. But these guys seemed different. They seemed interested in really working together. I liked the sounds of this. So I’m going back to Khorgos on Kazakhstan’s remote borderlands with China.

I’m not sure anymore how many times I’ve been there while working on this New Silk Road project. For the past two years it feels as if I’m somehow tied to the place — which isn’t the worst fate a writer can have, as what’s going down there is truly a fascinating story of development and trade, cultures transitioning, and lives being changed. Good stuff — apparently even good enough for the BBC.

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Americans Divided?

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“We think that we are so divided in the United States, but when we sit here in this airport and look around we can’t tell who is who. That’s not really so divided.”

My brother in law said this to me as we sat in a food court eating cheap Mexican fast food at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. He was right. The divisions and polarizations that the United States currently believes it is experiencing is not even close to countries that are truly divided.

There are many countries where contending social factions look completely different from each other, have radically different histories, and speak entirely different languages. You walk into room and you can easily tell who is who.

Whether we wish to admit it, Americans are all bonded by an overarching identity. When I first heard someone say this long ago before I began traveling I thought he was nuts — “Of course I’m completely different than them!” I believed. But ultimately I was almost exactly the same as those who I targeted as “them.”

The cultural divides in the United States are relatively thin. Politically, both sides of the line are essentially the same: tribalistic, moralistic, biased-news-loving boneheads who go out into the street, hold signs, and kick and scream whenever they don’t get what they want.

This is what Americans do.

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My Uncle Went To The Moon

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My uncle has a tattoo of fucking Saturn or something on his arm. One day when we were kids my sister asked him why he had it. He told her that everybody who’s been to the moon has a tatoo like that. He told her that he used to be an astronaut. She believed him. She believed him so much that the next day of school she sheepishly approached her teacher and told her that she had a special message for the class to hear. She proceeded to get up in front of everyone and proudly proclaim that her uncle had been to outer space and had visited the moon, no less.

Of course, her uncle hadn’t really been to the moon or even to outer space, for that matter — he just had a tattoo of fucking Saturn or something.

I was reminded of this story when I told my seven year old daughter that her great uncle was one of the inventors of the atomic bomb. The difference was that what I told her was true. But if my daughter really did go in front of her class and deliver this message I’m sure she’d probably be laughed out of the room, as my poor sister was in the third grade.

I haven’t yet explained to her that her great grandfather — the old guy that we go out to the coast to visit on Sundays — won a Presidential Medal of Science, a MacArther Genius Award, and was part of a group that won a Nobel prize for discovering human-impacted rapid climate change, cutting world hunger in half, and coming up with key protocols for disaster relief.

But, then again, telling my daughter this would hardly receive a shrug. It’s not like he has a tattoo of fucking Saturn or something.

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Puerto Rico Vacation Ends

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My week long vacation to Puerto Rico has come to an end. I’m on a flight to Boston. In two weeks I should be heading back out to Central Asia. Back to work.

I couldn’t imagine a better vacation. The kids had fun on the beach, everybody got along, everybody did what they wanted to do.
We essentially just rented an apartment on the beach and let everyone go wild. There were no programs, no tours, no schedules, no obligations. One day we drove to the rain forest, and that was it for organized activities. We all just kind of hung out with each other, all doing our own respective version of nothing — I wrote, my one and a half year old ate sand, everyone else sat in a row reading their novels.

We returned to San Juan the day before our flight and the same went there. I played in the pool at the hotel with my seven year old and then just walked around the old city.

I was able to do enough work to get through the day — I don’t have the type of job where days off are realistic — and then went out and played. Although I have to admit that I relaxed as well.

It was a real vacation.

 

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On Cultural Appropriation

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“One thing that I would really get mad if everyone appropriated is challah bread,” my wife said.

I didn’t say anything.

When two groups meet one of the first things they do is copy each other — each side takes what they find useful, beautiful, or trendy and incorporate it into what they make and do. This is one of the main mechanisms through which cultures evolve — and cultures are always evolving.

It’s normal, so normal, in fact, that looking at the ways which one culture replicated the art and technology of another is one of the main ways that archaeologists produce models of who cultures interacted with, where they went, and something about the dynamics of what they did.

The flows of intercultural influence that can be seen via copying is a clear sign of power dynamics.

When a weaker culture takes from a stronger one it demonstrates a form of reverence, obedience, or simple practicality — if someone does something better you should copy it.

But is that really appropriation? Not really.

When the Roman empire was in decline there are reports that it was trendy for youths to go around wearing the clothes of “barbarians” in the name of rebellion, fashion, cuteness.

That’s appropriation.

The difference? Power dynamics.

The power of an alpha culture is bolstered when it is the copied and when it is the copier.

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