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Travel In Dushanbe, Tajikistan

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Arrival

There are some countries that you travel between and it seems as smooth as walking between two rooms in the same house, while there are others that are about as jarring as turning a corner and finding yourself unexpectedly caught in some kind of inter-cultural mosh pit. Entering Tajikistan from Kazakhstan was the later type of entry. The arrivals hall of Dushanbe was . . . a mob. Taxi drivers pulling, prying, yelling at you, and following you around.

It’s been a while since I’ve stepped off a plane and into this fray. Yelling at some bastard tugging at my sleeve felt oddly nostalgic.

I’m  still not sure why there are so many taxi drivers at the Dushanbe airport anyway — the place is pretty much in the center of the city. I just walked in. As I walked away taxis drove slowly next to me, their drivers calling out the window.

I shook my head, smiled. I’d never been here before. Country number 77, or something like that.

***
No change

They may as well be called no change countries. I’m sure there is some kind of mathematical rationale behind it, but vendors in some countries are often perpetually out of change. Guatemala is the worst. I believe it has something to do with the amounts of various denominations of the currency that is put in circulation relative to the cost of items. So if the cash economy is predominately pumped with, say, 100s and most items cost vastly less than this, there will almost invariably be a perpetual change shortage.

My first attempt at making a purchase in Tajikistan was for two SIM cards. I needed like a dollar worth of change and the lady working the kiosk didn’t have it. She did the thing where she calls out to anyone standing in line or passing by to see if they had change. Nobody did — or they weren’t giving it up. I just took my money back.

***

Who were those guys?

I saw them walking up the street in the rain. “Where is your car?” I asked. They didn’t have a car. They made up some excuse about how the driver made a mistake and dropped them off at their hotel instead of bringing them to me. It didn’t make any sense. But there was nothing to do but to shrug.

I’ve never had a company that I was going to interview offer to pick me up . . . without a car — especially in the rain. I had asked repeatedly for the address of their office so I could go to them, but they refused to give it to me. They seemed to act as if it was a point of hospitality to come and get me, but as I walked through the rain looking for a cafe I wasn’t so sure about this anymore.

I traveled down to Tajikistan from Kazakhstan to do a story on a major Kazakh logistics company opening up a north-south intermodal transport route that would better link Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia — a potential new economic corridor of the New Silk Road.

This was especially interesting to me because it got its start after the recent political crisis between Turkey and Russia momentarily halted transport via a more westerly corridor. At the core of the New Silk Road concept is that when one trade route goes down another will start up and pick up the slack — very similar to how the ancient Silk Road functioned.

The Astana headquarters of the logistics firm granted my request to meet with their representatives in Dushanbe, and as soon as I arrived my phone was ringing. When the people on the other end told me that they were the people I had come to meet I had no reason to doubt them.

But something was off here. This wasn’t how the company that I’ve been working with for nearly two years operates. They are usually first class all the way. It was clear that I was dealing with something different in Dushanbe. However, it was easy to rationalize that their PR system may not have been as well set up very here because of the simple fact that there probably are not that many foreign journalists coming to Tajikistan to do stories about logistics.

We walked to a mall down the street and went to a cafe. I began interviewing them, and it was at that time that my suspicions began gaining some solid ground. They didn’t seem to really know the subject matter that the were supposed to have been directly involved with. One of them was looking up answers to simple questions on his phone or calling other people, and I picked up on the fact that they were taking what I was saying and repeating it back to me.

I asked them bluntly if they were really from the company they said they were from.

One of them then proudly declared that he was their manager for Tajikistan.

I got the feeling that I should get away. I tried to end the interview multiple times, to stand up, and say goodbye. Generally, this is enough to send the message that the interview is over. But it didn’t work. “Sit down,” the manager once said sternly when I got up to do a final handshake. It seemed as if they were holding me there for some reason, and they kept trying to lock me into going other places with them, meeting their friends, etc. It began requiring concerted effort to keep the smile on my face.

While mentioning or including commentary from a company in an article or book could serve as a good, indirect promotion for them, the dynamics of my interviews are generally set up where it feels as if the interviewee is doing me a favor — he / she is providing me with the information that I need for my stories, they are providing me with a service. This meeting is Dushanbe felt like it was the other way around, like I was doing them a favor, as though I was hired to go there just to promote them. They talked multiple times about me putting them and their “rich” friends in Forbes Magazine. I grew agitated.

Then they offered to take me out to somewhere that would have produced a very intriguing story. As they spoke I saw the narrative developing — I knew what I could do with it. I gambled on the small potential that things were legit, that my suspicions were baseless, and I agreed to meet them the following day.

But I just didn’t feel good about it. I couldn’t imagine getting into a car with these guys — if they could even come up with one — to go out far out of town to some place that I wasn’t familiar with. I couldn’t even find the town they said they were going to take me to on a map. I talked to someone else in the industry of the person that they were supposed to take me out to interview — someone who was touted to be a well-known friend of the president — and he never heard of him.

The next day, an hour before we were to meet, it was snowing. I cancelled, citing the weather as the reason.

They came back immediately with an alternative plan. Apparently, in the five minutes since I canceled they set up a presentation for me at a local logistics company.

I declined.

They tried guilting me, saying that some guy worked very hard to set up the presentation just for me.

I said that I didn’t care.

“Let’s just meet and talk then.”

No way.

I knew this dialog well. It was the same kind of maneuvering that touts and crooked taxi drivers and prowling creeps use all over the world. It was this multi-tiered, if not A then B, if not B then C method of persuasion, where the intensity of what is being proposed decreases with each level, eventually becoming so basic and easy to do that it becomes very difficult to politely justify saying no.

Something wasn’t right.

I sent a message to Astana. The lady running media relations there is incredibly sharp. “I notice everything,” she once told me. My message wasn’t in the least alarming, but I knew that she would read between the lines. I simply stated the name of the guy who said he was their regional manager and a little of what we were planning. If something wasn’t legit I knew she would catch it.

An hour later I received a voice message from her:

“I don’t know who you’re meeting with there but they don’t work for us.”

***

First meal

First meal in #Tajikistan. Something tells me it’s not going to get that much different from here on out.

***

Dad’s a cop

I saw these young Tajik guys pushing this sports car down the street. It had run out of gas. Something about the irony struck me as funny. I laughed at them. They jokingly made room for me to help push. I took them up on the offer. We pushed the car to the nearest gas station, filled it up, and then drove through the streets at high speed blasting Tajik pop music. “Don’t worry about police,” one of them tells me. One of their fathers was a cop.

***

What is an American bar?

Growing up in the USA I have to admit that I don’t inherently know what an American bar is, but it is something that is becoming more popular around the world, like Irish or English pubs. This Tajik bartender told me that it was a dream to open up an American bar in Dushanbe.

“What’s an American bar?”

“The American bar is simple. It has simple decorations, simple beer, maybe some whiskey. It has beer pong.”

Sounded like a place that we’d just call “bar,” which I suppose was a very adequate definition.

***
Dushanbe, not bad

Like almost every other post-Soviet country, Tajikistan is in the process of a massive reformation. While they’re not going the way of countries like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Georgia as far as giving foreign companies massive concessions and tax breaks to come and set up shop, some — like Coca-Cola — are moving in.

What’s perhaps more interesting than this is the budding grassroots service economy here. All over the larger cities of Central Asia you find streets that are full of innovative local cafes, bars, and restaurants. With the lacking presence of big international brands, the commercial landscape remains open for local entrepreneurial actors to get the bulk of the action.

“People are less afraid that if they start a business and make money that the government will take it away from them,” the director for the American Chamber of Commerce told me. Apparently, this used to be common here.

This array of diverse local businesses is something that is not common in this world, where the standard fare is either international or regional chain stores or local businesses all trying to do the same bland and boring thing as each other. These guys in Central Asia are not afraid to try something new with a creative type of bar, cafe, or restaurant — themes and concepts abound. You can go from one place to another to another and they all will be fundamentally different. It’s like they are trying to mimic what they think the outside world is like but they really don’t have a clue — it’s like they see something in a movie and then go an do it. But because of this the product that they deliver comes off as truly unique and, for the traveler who has grown used to monotonous commercial landscapes, starkly refreshing.

I spent my days in Dushanbe trudging through sidewalks caked in snow from cafe to bar, bar to restaurant, relaxing, talking to the people around me, taking notes, and working. The mishap with the misrepresented logistics guys — who they actually were I will probably never know — simply left me without much to do in Dushanbe, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

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Next Era Of Travel: Post-Soviet States

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“Shit. I made friends,” I sent a BBM message to my best friend from home. He knew what I meant: making friends in the post-Soviet realm often means drinking massive amounts of vodka.

Alcohol is probably the greatest social tool ever conceived. It not only makes you dumb enough to open up more than you otherwise would but it has its own set of rituals that are loaded with unspoken meaning. These rituals and their associated meaning doesn’t change for geographic location or culture — they are universal. Basically, they give you the opportunity to communicate to someone what you think of them, they demonstrate and often establish status and role, and they can be used to engage or disengage from a person or group. Social interactions can be awkward without these easy to understand non-verbal cues that use alcohol as their medium, and the intoxication aspect has little to do with this.

But I need to get better at drinking vodka if I wish to continue working in the post-Soviet realm. I’m usually pretty hardy and robust in this department — I understand that if drinking is to be of any value to me that I need to remain clear-headed enough to remember — but most men and women here seem able to outdrink me by far. I’ve simply never seen people able to drink so much. I’m stating the obvious here, as this complies with the stereotype that we all know, but it’s still truly phenomenal to see it happen right in front of you.

I can’t hang.

My next region of focus will more than likely be the post-Soviet states. I shouldn’t really call this the next region that I will be focusing on, as I’ve predominantly been in these countries over the past year and a half — going to 10 out of the 15 of them. The only post-Soviet states that I’ve not been to yet are Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Moldova, and Russia itself. The latter one is huge, and is a place that I’ve been pushing back going to until I have an “era” of travel to devote to it.

I like to focus on regions in blocks of five years, so I’m probably looking at the next three and a half years of travel going from the east of Europe to the edges of the Middle East, South Asia, and China. We’re talking a lot of ground here.

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Riding the WE-WC Highway (again)

“We’ll go on the new road. It’s not officially open yet but the driver said that he went down it the other day and it was fine,” Karl spoke as the driver in front of us nodded his head.

The new road that he was talking about was the Western Europe-Western China (WE-WC) Highway, aka the New Silk Highway — the great transport corridor that will stretch from the Yellow Sea at Lianyungang in China all the way to the Baltic Sea at St. Petersburg, Russia, 8,445 kilometers away.

At the place where the old Soviet road meets with the WE-WC Highway our driver pulls off to the side of the road, steps out, and procures an orange flashing light — like the kind used on construction vehicles — from rear of the SUV and sticks it to the roof. Apparently, we now look official enough to drive down the unopened highway.

What was traveling down this road like?

Imagine a race track that went straight ahead without any obstacles or other vehicles for a hundred kilometers. The road was immaculate — wide, completely smooth, a fully modern roadway cutting through a completely undeveloped and for the most part unpopulated stretch of the world. Speed limits were irrelevant. At one junction we flew passed a police car that was parked in the median. Apparently, the light worked.

The WE-WC Highway.

For a stretch, the WE-WC Highway runs parallel to the new train tracks that extend to the Chinese border. At one point we all got out to watch a train carrying containers speckled with Chinese characters pass by.

This was the third time in an 18 month period that I would travel along the Almaty to Khorgos span of the WE-WC Highway. The first time in May of 2015 it looked a little different: A young Uighur pointed it out to me from the bus we were riding in, but when I looked out the window all I saw were five-foot-high piles of dirt.

The WE-WC Expressway is a major part of the Western Europe-Western China Transport Corridor, which Kazkahstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev described in a 2012 speech as the “construction of the century.” It is to be part of a new multimodal, high-speed nervous system, which will link together other highways, rail lines, and transport hubs as it ties together China, the CIS, Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East — helping to turn Kazakhstan into the logistical heart of the Eurasian landmass.

“Kazakhstan is coming from a landlocked country and is becoming the most linked-in country on the whole continent. If you take Russia, the largest country; China, the largest economy; India, one of the largest populations, and you put these three together, right in the middle is Kazakhstan. It’s this place,” Karl, the former CEO of the Khorgos Gateway dry port on the Kazakhstan/China border, told me previously.

The WE-WC Transport Corridor is also one of Kazakhstan’s major contributions to the New Silk Road, which aims to increase infrastructural, economic, and political connectivity between more than 65 countries across Eurasia, covering half the population, 40 percent of the GDP, and 75 percent of the known energy resources in the world.

Illiyar, the young Uyghur who originally pointed out the WE-WC Highway to me, was anxious for those piles of dirt to morph into roadway. He was from Zharkent, a remote city 30 kilometers from the Chinese border, and his work consisted of repairing cell phones for people in Almaty. Each week, he would make the bumpy seven hour ride along the old, pothole-ridden highway into the city to pick up a load of broken phones. He complained about how long it took to cross such a short distance and claimed that the new highway would cut his trip down from 320 km to just 220 km, down from four hours to two hours each way.

“The road itself is finished,” Karl said after I mentioned the delays that had been hampering the project virtually since its inception. However, the company who received the tender for the bridges for the on and off ramps ran into some funding issues, and the delays have continued.

However, some other sections of the WE-WC Highway in Kazakhstan have already come alive.

Soon though, the entire road will be fully commissioned, and will directly connect the the seas on both sides of Eurasia, making it possible to deliver goods by truck from one side to the other in just ten days.

Read my article about the WE-WC Highway on Forbes.

***
The best view in logistics

Then I saw it: the Khorgos Gateway dry port with its giant 41 ton cranes rising up from the sparkling snow covered terrain like a mirage. Snow-capped mountains framed the scene. Everything glistened in the bright sun.

“It’s the best view in logistics.”

The last time I was here was in November of 2015. A lot has changed since then. The first time I was at “the place where the east meets the west” — the place in the dry port where the tracks coming from China are aligned with those coming from the CIS and Europe — the giant yellow cranes were in piles, yet to be assembled. Now they are up and running day and night, as container volume passing through here doubles by the year.

This dry port is right on the Kazakhstan / China border, and specializes in processing China-Europe trains.

When Karl first arrived in Khorgos three years ago the place was little more than sand dunes and mountains. The nearest Kazakh city is the diminutive 30,000 person Zharkent, which is a 30 minute drive away. While Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural and commercial capital, is more than 300 kilometers distant. 230 backhoes cleared away the dunes and flattening the earth, preparing the place for the new city that would soon be built there — a new city in one of the most remote parts of the world.

Khorgos sits 670 kilometers west of Urumqi and 300 kilometers east of Almaty, far out in the Saryesik-Atyrau desert in the shadow of the Dzungarian Alatau Mountains, a tick or two from the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, the farthest point on earth from an ocean — which is to say, proverbial no-mans-land.

But the dry port in this far flung place is now running at full speed. The surrounding SEZ has been commissioned. The new residential area has been built and people just began moving in. That improbable Khorgos dream, which was much doubted all through its initial stages, has happened. It’s there, it’s real, it’s working — you can go out there and look at it.

“We’re building the next Dubai,” Karl once blurted out when given a speech in nearby Zharkent. This line resonated, and kind of became the project’s defect slogan.

The idea is the same: go out to a strategic area and build a world-class transportation hub. Add warehouses. Add factories. Add housing. Add facilities. Add people. This is how new cities are born, and this is the model for pretty much every new station along the New Silk Road.

***
Crane ride at night

“Are you afraid of heights?” Gulina taunted me at first sight. She was the crane operator that was going to teach me a little about her work. Even though I’ve spent the past two years traveling to dry and sea ports from one side of Eurasia to the other, I’ve never actually been up in a gantry crane before.

Gulina was working the night shift, so I was going to get the duel bonus of not only being able to get into the crane to see how they work but to see the dry port under the lights at night.

I tried to start my interview but Gulina preferred poking fun at me. She picked on my thin, trendy blue jeans. It was fiercely cold out, so she had a point. They were kind of dumb.

“What do you like about operating a crane?”

“It’s extreme, and I love it.”

“Was it difficult to become a crane operator because you’re a woman?”

“No. My teacher was a woman!” she exclaimed with a laugh.

She told me that in the Soviet times most crane operators were women. Apparently, there is even an old documentary about it.

“Why were they mostly women?”

“Because women are more accurate.”

We entered the port and climbed the stairs up to the crane high above. I stopped for a moment at the top and looked out over the port. The powerful lights radiated off the thin layer of snow and ice that covered the ground, proving a type of backlighting that seemed to make the entire place glow. I got into the cabin of the crane, and Gulina began her work.

“Do you want to see me put one in a wagon?”

“Do you want to see me put one on a platform?”

“Want to see me put one on a truck?”

She gave me a full demonstration.

“I’m nervous,” she said.

“Don’t be,” I replied. “I can’t do what you do.”

She then laughed and grabbed my knee. “I can’t do what you do either.”

I thought she was talking about being a traveling journalist. But then she finished her statement with a cackle:

“Going out in the cold with these thin pants!”

“I like my job . . . and my warm pants,” she added.

***
Unit 45

I’ve written about this company and their highly-sophisticated, climate controlled, remotely operated shipping containers before on Forbes. This is one of the new technologies that is enabling the New Silk Road to come alive. Producers in China now no longer need to worry about temperature when shipping high-tech products to Europe, and producers in Europe are now able to ship fresh meat, wine, and high-value produce to China. It may seem simple, but these containers really are a turnkey type of innovation, and will soon cause a ripple effect through the supply chains of Eurasia.

While I’ve seen these containers stacked up in many dry ports in Asia and Europe, I’ve never actually seen them on a train before. When I was up in the crane with Gulina there was a full train loaded with Unit 45 containers below us. As she moved boxes from place to place, I got to watch this train depart for Europe.

It may sound simple, but this was actually something kind of special for me.

Read my article about Unit 45 on Forbes.

***
Return to the ICBC

The International Center for Boundary Cooperation (ICBC) is a free trade zone that straddles the border of China and Kazakhstan, and is shared by both countries. The last time I was here was in May 2015, and the Kazakh side had nothing but a stale tent selling some junk that nobody wanted to buy sitting next to a burning pile of garbage. Now, it has a large trade center that is open to vendors and customers, a large Japan / Kazakh warehousing and distribution enterprise that’s in operation, and two more large trade centers and a hotel under construction.

Imagine that.

Read my first article about the ICBC on Forbes.

Read the article about my return to the ICBC on Forbes.

***
Zharkent

The nearest established town to Khorgos is Zharkent, a small city of 30,000 people. Zharkent is an old Silk Road town, and the legacy of those ancient trade routes still live on here — the town’s main street is even called the “Silk Road.” The new projects that are emerging on the Chinese border are reviving this old trading post, suddenly making it relevant again. This is a place in rapid transition. After a long decline into oblivion — being the proverbial last stop at the end of the earth — the outside world has again come to Zharkent as the chasm between continents has been bridged.

“It all started when the Turkish and Italian guys came to build the WE-WC Highway,” said Naziyam. “Then people in Zharkent realized that they could make money.”

Like in the past, the people here are still traders. They do runs over the Chinese border to the new city of Horgos or even all the way to Urumqi to buy merchandise that they can resell in Kazakhstan for a profit. Recently, they are starting to do more business in the ICBC, where a huge portion of the town’s residents now work.

“When we first started there was no traffic,” Karl began. “Now when we went down the road from Zharkent to Khorgos we got stuck in traffic. My driver turned to me and said, ‘See boss, it’s starting.’”

With Karl at the place where the east meets the west.

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There Is Nothing On The Internet

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I’d just traveled across Kazakhstan, went out to the remote border region with China, went down to Tajikistan and back. Each stop of the way, just about every day, was packed with interviews, site visits, all that stuff that I find fun and fascinating.

But I was beat. I sat in a cafe and order a coffee. It arrived. I pulled out my phone and began browsing for something recreational to read. I read the Bills news, there wasn’t much going on besides some bloggers musing about how good we ain’t. I didn’t feel like reading the real news and I definitely didn’t want to read anything that was at all associated with my work.

“There’s nothing on,” I said to myself as I sheathed my phone.

I then caught myself, somewhat startled by my own cerebral statement. That was exactly what people used to say back in the day when network TV ruled. We’d say, “There’s nothing on,” when the programing on the three stations we could tune in with our rabbit ears all sucked. I haven’t heard anyone say that in a decade.

The internet is an infinitely expanding universe, of course there had to be something “on.” But I sat there and couldn’t think of anything.

What I wanted was a story. Just a contiguous narrative that I could follow and check in on — something that wasn’t too heavy but may nonetheless teach me about something or get me thinking about something remote from anything that I was doing. What I wanted was an old-time blog, like the kind that we were making in the mid-2000s, when the internet was uncharted territory to explore. What I wanted was the kind of blog where someone you found kind of interesting or odd just talked about what they were doing and thinking. Something that you could easily follow day to day — a temporary escape.

I’m not sure where those writers have gone.

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Travels Around Astana In 2017

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“Boston is cold and boring,” she said. “There is nothing to do. You can’t even spend any money there.”

She grew up in Almaty, in the south of Kazakhstan.

It’s funny to hear someone who is from a place that is thought to be one of the preeminent backwaters of the planet — the land of Borat — visiting the great, advanced America and finding it starkly behind the times, under-stimulating, boring. But I had to agree with her, compared to Almaty — a city that’s lined with fun, creative, local cafes, bars, clubs, and shops — Boston does come off as a little stale.

The world changes faster than our perceptions can keep up with.

***

“How old is that Radisson?” I asked, pointing at the giant hotel rising up on the other side of the river.

“It’s really old,” she said. “Maybe five or ten years.”

It is a vast understatement to say that Astana is young. It was named the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, as the president issued a decree to turn the 100,000 person town of Akmola into the new seat of government. People who worked in the government, which was previously located in Almaty, were then formally migrated to the new city in the frigid north.

The city that Nazarbayev built was something taken out of the pages of a 1950s-era novel about the future. It is exactly what cities were supposed to look like in 2017. The master plan was the work of no other than Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who has an entire collection of strange new cities to his name — including the concentric circle CBD of Zhengdong New District in China. There are bright, contorted skyscrapers, twin conical towers plated in gold, a giant shopping mall in the world’s largest tent, a giant, gold-ornamented mosque, and colossal, anachronistic Western housing complexes that rise up into the sky — all sitting side by side. It is truly something to marvel at; Astana looks like nowhere else in the world, and each time I go there I feel this sense of displacement, as it is difficult to believe that what I’m looking at really exists.

“This all wasn’t here even eight years ago, there was nothing here before,” is one of the most popular things that people tell you here.

Read more about Astana’s architecture

***
I expressed my continued wonder over Astana to a former journalist from Almaty. She thought I was naive.

“You can do things like that when you have an unlimited amount of money!” she exclaimed.

I guess she was right.

***


“There are not even many people living here and we already have this traffic problem.”

Astana does have a traffic problem. The streets are plenty wide enough, often being six to eight lane thoroughfares, but there simply isn’t enough of them. This is the unintended consequence of the Soviet system of super-blocks. While they look grandiose from above and theoretically make sense — have giant roadways on the peripheries and large, contiguous living spaces in the centers — they just don’t work in the automobile era. All the cars are funneled onto the same roads, and even a city that doesn’t have that many people or that many cars becomes locked in traffic.

It often takes over a half hour to get just about anywhere in Astana by car, even though you’re only going a few kilometers.

While China is engaging in a national program to break up super-blocks to relieve traffic congestion, Astana is still building new ones. There is an entire quadrant of the city that has not even been built yet.

***
“Now that I came back and it’s all being done, it’s like a fairytale.”

Inspired by the president, Kazakhstan began planning their pan-Eurasian logistics apparatus around seven or eight years ago. This plan would see landlocked Kazakhstan as the center of a great network of transport corridors and logistics hubs that would connect the country with the Yellow Sea at Lianyungang in China, the Indian Ocean at Bandar Abbas in Iran, the Baltic Sea at Klaipėda in Lithuania, along with dry ports and logistics zones arranged strategically throughout their country, Tajikistan, Iran, and Europe.

However, when a group of inspired young Kazakhs working for a newly formed think-tank called the National Center for Transportation Logistics Development began promoting this idea to the country and the world beyond few took them very seriously.

In 2017, these dreams are now a reality. It’s happening. The ports and transportation connections that once seemed like little more than lofty ideas in the presentations of impressionable youths, are now physical entities handling thousands of tons of cargo. Some of those kids are now leading some of Kazakhstan’s most dynamic transportation companies.

“Do you know of any other country that has done that?” the media relations manager for KTZ Express once asked me.

I thought for a moment. “No. No, I don’t.”

***
I had coffee with a friend in the Rixos Hotel in Astana yesterday as the Syrian peace talks were taking place in the room next to us. The place was packed with press and security. I was stopped at the metal detectors that were set up at the door just for the event, and if the friend I was there to meet didn’t walk over to intervene it would have been a challenge to get inside.

I arrived just in time. I watched a mob of media with their big cameras and other appendages go flooding into the room next to us. On the TV in the hotel’s Irish pub was a live feed of what was going on directly on the other side of the wall. It was like looking in through a window. We watched until the feed went dead when the media was given the boot.

Felt strange not covering this event, but that’s not really my beat. Although I probably should have gotten in touch with someone to see if they wanted the story — it would have given them the article without having to pay to fly someone in and it would have been an easy one for me to get. I suppose I was too focused on the #NewSilkRoad.

However, as I sat there on a couch in the bar, drinking two super expensive cappuccinos that my friend paid for, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach because I knew I missed something. This meeting represented something at the core of this New Silk Road movement. Countries like Kazakhstan are becoming internationally relevant neutral terrain between contending global powers. To the north is Russia, to the east is China, to the south is Pakistan and India, to the west is Europe. Kazakhstan sits in the middle, friendly with countries on all horizons — so neutral as to host a major peace talk being presided over by Russia and Turkey, a kind of Switzerland of Asia. This geopolitical position was cultivated by intentional design, and as I sat there in the Rixos Hotel I knew that there was not any better example of it actually working.

Countries filling this multi-vector position are the links which hold the entire Silk Road network together.

***

Many times when doing interviews with people in prominent positions here, I stop them short and ask how old they are. They know what I’m getting at and they tend to laugh.

In 1993, Kazakhstan understood that the country needed not only to change the ways things were done but the mentality of the people who were pulling the strings. The country was mired in the old top-heavy thinking of the Soviet era. Culture is real. To these ends, the president began a scholarship program called Bolashak, which means “the future” in Kazakh, which aimed to send promising students abroad for their university educations. The thinking was that they would learn how things were done in the West, grow accustom to international standards, then return to their homeland to revitalize the country. Since the program began, over 10,000 students were sent abroad, completely funded by their government.

Now many of these kids are back, and many are actually being rewarded with the promised positions of power — which is something remarkable in and of itself. The people who are starting to run this country are young. The much heralded “new generation” has arrived.

The new CEO of Khorgos Gateway is 34. The vice president of KTZ Express is 31. The current finance minister, a Bolashak product, is 38 years old. Kuandyk Bishimbayev, the previous finance minister and another former Bolashak student, is 36. He was recently charged with corruption.

***

I once thought that the lack of major international cafe chains in Almaty was due to the place being too chic to want them — as in a post-globalization, trendy sort of way. The streets of that city are lined with interesting and creative local cafes, which, when taken altogether, surpass about anything that the West can dish out. But I was wrong. The major coffee chains didn’t avoid Almaty because of a lack of marketability but because the logistical apparatus that they depend on simply wasn’t set up yet.

I learned this at the new Astana logistics center — a massive transportation and warehousing operation on the barren outskirts of the city. This place opened around a year and a half ago, and almost as soon as it did many major chain cafe, supermarket, and retail chains began moving in — including Starbucks. As I walked through the halls of one of the warehouses there I saw an array of glass windows and shelving, which were destined for the first H&M store in Kazakhstan, which is set to open soon.

I once mistakenly thought that the presence of major international chains in a place was a testament to culture or economics. While it is certainly impacted by these two things, it is first a matter of logistics. New logistical and transportation infrastructure has the power to change commercial and cultural paradigms, it has the power to open the floodgates — almost literally.

***

Astana is cold.

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Media Appearances, January 2017

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Before heading out of the USA, I found myself with some excellent media opportunities in January. Here they are below:

TBS eFM This Morning (Seoul), January 10, 2017

This was an interview with a big morning radio talk show out of Seoul, South Korea about the new China to UK direct cargo train. Listen here or below:

 

AM 620, The Pulse (Bangor), January 10, 2017

I went on an AM radio station in Bangor, Maine, and talked about working location independent, some of the background behind my previous book about China’s ghost cities, as well as my “big break.” This one was a really good time, the host was excellent, and I suggest listening if you have a moment.

 

ABC Radio (Australia) Morning Breakfast, January 4, 2017

I was a guest on ABC Radio in Australia for the second time. The first time I went on with them was last September, when I talked about why China is building a new Silk road. This time I talked about the new freight train service linking China with London and what this emerging new network of trans-Eurasian rail lines really mean. You can listen here or below:

 

Fox/ABC Bangor, January 3, 2017

I went on the local Fox/ABC Bangor television morning show to talk a little about being a traveling journalist/author, as well as about coworking and working location independent in general. Read their story and watch here or just watch below:

The Globe and Mail (Canada), January 2, 2017

China’s growth breathes new life into old ghost towns was the name of an article that I was interviewed for and quoted in by one of Canada’s flagship publications.

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I’m sitting in the airport in Boston, getting ready to begin bout five of my research travels for my upcoming book on the revival of the Silk Road. I thought that I was basically finished with my Central Asian travels for this book, but then I started to realize that some of the projects that I’ve been covering have undergone some major changes since I last visited them and I also hadn’t fully nailed down the link between the ancient Silk Road and the new one. So I’m going back to Kazakhstan, then to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

I know that I still have a bout six to do for these research travels — Afghanistan and Pakistan — but I’m saving that for last.

***

I sometimes sit at the gate for the aircraft that I’m about to board watching everyone lining up, wondering if I’m really going to get on. Why do I keep leaving my family? My comfortable little homes? My kids? Why do I need to keep going off into Central Asia? I sometimes fool myself into believing that I’m not going to really get on the flight. But I always do. I go out. I do my work. I write my stories. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

However, by the time I land I know that I will be switched into work mode, deeply grateful that I have a situation that allows for both a family life and an away from family life, and I will churn through the next six weeks like some kind of machine before rejoining my family in Puerto Rico, of all places.

***
I don’t understand why people stand in those long lines at the gate waiting to get on a plane. They sometimes stand there for a half an hour, sometimes longer. They stand there, burdened by their baggage, looking bored and miserable, for no reason at all. Maybe I’m mistaken, but it is my understanding that we all have tickets that designate each and every one of us a particular seat on the plane, and that we don’t get a better or worse seat based on the order that we board the aircraft. I believe that nobody gets left behind here, right?

On top of this, many airlines now board passengers by row or section, making these line-ups even more mysterious. When each section is called, the neat, orderly line just breaks into pieces anyway, and any previous order that was established rapidly breaks down into disarray as passengers from in front and behind surge forward when their number is called.

I suppose it’s some kind of herd mentality at work: we see other people doing something so we do it too for fear that they are going to get something that we won’t or that they know something that we don’t. Or perhaps it’s just an ingrained cultural pattern:  humans like lines, because a line carries the promise that there is a prize to be had once you make it to the front.

I can’t complain — it just frees up more seats for me to sit in and wait comfortably until boarding begins, when I will then step forward and cut in front of everybody anyway.

***

The flight from Boston to London ended up in Gander. Gander, Canada. Someone on board required emergency medical assistance. We’ve been grounded here for around a half hour so far.

Not much to see. The action seems to be happening in first class, behind the curtain, but there’s about thirty heads askance-ly stuck out into the aisle in front of me trying to see what they can see.

Imagine having a medical emergency on an airplane and being kicked off in fucking Gander, Canada. I probably would have hedged my bet on at least getting to Reykjavik. I’m not sure if being fucked up in Gander, Canada is necessarily an improvement in state.

***

The plane sat on the tarmac in Gander for three hours. The individual with the emergency was carted off, the plane refueled, then we just sat there.

I would like to think that the person with the medical emergency was stricken by some surprise ailment that they couldn’t have planned for, but it was probably some elderly or obese person with preexisting health conditions who had no business flying in the first place. The pilot’s call to see if there was a doctor onboard first went out twenty minutes after takeoff.

But what was interesting is that although an entire plane full of people were severely inconvenienced because of this — dozens would miss their connecting flights and literally hundreds would need to re-work their schedules — nobody complained. I heard some people talking about how they had people waiting for them or would have to make other plans or would miss their next flights, but nobody was really complaining. It was remarkable.

***

We arrived at Gatwick just late enough for me to miss my connecting flight.

***

The plan was to go from Boston to London to Istanbul to Almaty, but this wasn’t going to happen. I intended to connect onto a different carrier in London, so neither airline had any responsibility for me. However, Kiwi.com, the ticket booking service that I used, specializes in hacking together creative flight paths, and guarantees their inter-airline connections.

I talked with one of their reps named Margaryet while standing in the no-mans-land corridor between debarking the plane and immigration. Their policy is to either find me a new flight or reimburse me up to double the cost of the leg that I missed. Not bad. She suggested flying out the following morning, and offered a 50 Euro accommodation voucher on top of that.

I declined. I’m on my way to Central Asia, and London seemed like nothing but an expensive delay. What am I going to do in Gatwick? Eat falafel and drink coffee at fucking Pret a Manger? I wasn’t in any real rush, but I just wanted to get there.

“Get me to Kazakhstan today. I don’t care where in Kazakhstan, just get me to Kazakhstan.”

Air Astana, she said. Hurry to Heathrow.

I hung up and did the hour and forty-five minute train / tube ride across the city.

I pulled up to the Air Astana desk, passed over my passport, requested an aisle seat, and sheepishly asked what my final destination was. I knew it was either going to be Astana or Almaty, and I really didn’t care which — but I kind of had to know.

***

When I think of cold, I think of Astana. It’s the coldest capital city on the planet. It’s this dreamy, frigid sub-arctic tundra-y kind of place. It looks more like a stage-set from a movie than something real — the fact that it’s one of the newest and most sophisticated cities on the planet just adds to the surrealness. This is the second time that I’ve showed up here in the middle of winter.

I grew up in Buffalo. It’s cold there. But not cold like Astana.

Read more about Astana here.

***

I do next to no pre-trip planning. I just buy a ticket, throw some clothes into a bag, and go. My core travel gear never gets unpacked. My work rig is in my EDC bag and is always ready to go. My travel planning almost entirely consists of doing little more than a load of laundry. Everything else can be figured out along the way.

But then I step into an airport somewhere, say I’m here, and start looking around — thinking about what I’m actually going to do. I find a window and look out of it. I smile and get excited. I start seeing paths extending out across maps. I say I love this shit and head out into the cold.

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China accounts for one-third of the world’s economic growth, so data related to its GDP is likewise met with a massive amount of interest around the world. But this has also become a point of contention, with many saying that China’s economic data — which is mostly collected by the Chinese government — is unbelievable, that it’s altered to make the country’s economy look better than it actually is. This is to the point that if you cite China’s official GDP growth rate in an article or conversation you are sure to find someone piping up claiming that it can’t be believed, as though it was concocted out of nowhere to fill the same function as a propaganda poster.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with this perspective — maybe they’re right? Providing a platform for debate is one of the primary functions of the modern journalist. The problem that I have with this is as follows:

A) I have yet to read or hear anything from anyone doubting China’s GDP statistics cite any reliable data — or, very often, any data at all — to back up their claims. Basically, they’re saying, “We don’t believe the Chinese government because it’s the Chinese government.” Which is fine, but doesn’t leave us with much to work with. I don’t believe that some American lady standing on the side of a highway outside of Beijing counting trucks is going to present a more believable data set on China’s growth rate than that of China’s Bureau of Statistics — even if the later are a bunch of lying commies who for some reason find it worth their time to try to dupe the West.

B) This perspective has become trendy. The believability of China’s GDP data has become a social topic that people talk about over drinks. Everybody is name-dropping someone who knows the real figure or someone who “doesn’t believe it.” Like with most trends, contrary positions are often met with condescending smirks or scoffs — as though you’re too naive or uninformed to be an insider to their exclusive group of non-believers. Now this, in and of itself, doesn’t mean that this perspective is inherently incorrect, but it does diminish the propensity for a productive conversation on the topic.

As usual, the Yale economist Stephen Roach put this well:

The fixation is on headline GDP. The 30-year trend was 10 percent, the latest number was 6.9 percent or 6.8 percent if you want to look at a quarter-to-quarter basis. There are those that tell you that the number is a third of that, and somehow they know more than the Chinese statisticians do. I would dismiss that.

The story of China is not the slowing of top-line GDP, but the shift in the mix of GDP from manufacturing to services, from investment and exports to consumption.

I’ve written for years about the inaccuracies of U.S. economic statistics. I think that China has comparable problems in majoring its economy with accuracy, but not for reasons that most would lead you to believe, because it’s a conspiracy on the part of a bunch of communists that are trying to pull wool over our eyes or whatever. It’s very difficult for them, it’s very difficult for us to measure the pace of economic activity in a system where the structure is changing as rapidly as it is in China. Services are notoriously hard to measure, and that’s true in the United States, and that’s true in China. Shifting to this hard to measure service sector is a big challenge for government statisticians all over the world.

The World Bank and economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco sort of conclude that there is standard error around the growth rate of about 1 percentage point in either direction in terms of GDP. And I think that that’s a fairly reasonable guess as to how far the numbers are off. The important thing to note is that the numbers, as flawed as they may be, are doing a good job of capturing this big shift from this slower growth in the Chinese economy and a shift in the mix again from manufacturing to services, from investment and exports to consumption, and I think that we have to look at the numbers with that in mind. They’re giving you a good approximation of the big stories that are emerging right now in China.

GDP growth rate is just another macro-economic indicator to be taken together with many others — like the employment rate, tax revenue, income growth, consumption, the state of the housing market, corporate profitability — to determine the trajectory that a country’s economy is on at any point in time.

China’s GDP growth rate says that the country is economically leveling off, maturing, diversifying, and is taking some major hits while going through a historic transition, while still growing at an incredible clip. You can see this from the street — which is the only point of view that really matters.

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The above map is what my route of travel during bout four of my New Silk Road research travels actually looked like, while below is what I thought these travels were going to look like before going into them:

europe-nsr-travels

A big difference.

I have no idea where to start summing up this most recent bout of research travels for my upcoming book on the New Silk Road. I criss-crossed the region from Western Europe to the Caucasus multiple times, leaving a path of travel that has more of the attributes of a knot than a nice smooth line.

Let’s start:

I flew into Amsterdam, and then went to The Hague, Rotterdam, Brussels, Duisburg, Berlin, Lodz, Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn, Helsinki, Vilnius, Kiev, Tbilisi, Anaklia, Kutaisi, Berlin, Warsaw, Terespol, Sosnowiec, Krakow, Prague, Belgrade, Pristina, Skopje, Nicosia, Girne, Larnaca, Poli, Paphos, Larnaca, Athens, Tbilis, Baku, Naftalan, Baku, Tbilisi, Yerevan, Dusseldorf, Boston — 19 countries in 5 months — in that order.

Most of the time I was working on my book about the New Silk Road, sometimes I just jumped on a bus, train, or boat to go somewhere just for kicks, sometimes I was traveling with my wife and two daughters. Taken altogether I’ve accumulated a massive amount of data, observations, and interviews to spend the next month or so processing.

New Silk Road research travels bout five are set to begin in December or January. It will more than likely be the most challenging so far, going down the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, hopefully Turkmenistan, and then back to Kazakhstan.

It’s going to be cold.

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CSIS Reconnecting Asia Event

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A couple of weeks ago I was in Washington D.C. doing an event at the Center for Strategic International Studies. It was the official launch of their new web portal, Reconnecting Asia, which maps and tracks developments along the New Silk Road, and I was one of the panelists.

Watch the event here (skip through it if you just want to see me, I believe I start talking for the first time at the 36 minute point):

For those who haven’t been following here, I’ve been working on a book about the New Silk Road — the infrastructural, economic, and political mega-project that is restructuring the dynamics of the Eurasian continent. So far, I’ve traveled through around 20 or 30 countries working on this project. Most of my articles about this are being published on my channel at Forbes.

Visit the CSIS’s Reconnecting Asia portal. It’s really showing how this paradigm-shifting project is coming together.

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