Wakham Corridor.

61 Glimpses of the Future

In the last five weeks I’ve travelled 7,000km overland through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan’s GBAO region and China’s western provinces. After a year of working flat out the journey was part vacation, a desire to fill in few gaps of my knowledge of the region and a Studio D assignment.

For those that don’t know, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) is a remote, sparsely populated, mostly Pamiri, Kyrgyz-speaking region of Tajikistan. Home to the Pamir mountains, it has decent argument for calling itself the “the roof of the world”.

I thought about separating this list into tech & behaviour, but they’re way more interesting mixed together.

Without further ado:

  1. If you want to understand how our planet will turn out this century, spend time in China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil.
  2. If you’re wondering how long the Chinese economic miracle will last, the answer will probably be found in the bets made on commercial and residential developments in Chinese 3rd to 6th tier cities in Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai and Tibet.
  3. There’s something childishly delightful about travelling through 20km of no-mans land. Like opening an atlas and discovering a country you’ve never heard of but feel compelled to visit.
  4. Touch ID doesn’t work at high altitude, finger prints are too dry.
  5. You no longer need to carry a translation app on your phone. If there’s someone to speak with, they’ll have one on theirs.
  6. A truly great border crossing will hold a mirror up to your soul.
  7. A white male travelling alone in interesting places, will always need to disprove they are a spy. Thanks Hollywood.
  8. It is easier to deflect demands for a bribe when your paperwork is in order.
  9. The art of successful borderland travel is to know when to pass through (and be seen by) army checkpoints and when to avoid them.
  10. Borders are permeable.
  11. There are parts of the world where empires go to be bloodied and die.
  12. The premium for buying gasoline in a remote village in the GBAO is 20% more than the nearest town. Gasoline is harder to come by, and more valuable than connectivity.
  13. After fifteen years of professionally decoding human behaviour, I’m still surprised by the universality of body language.
  14. Pretentious people are inherently less curious.
  15. Everything is fine, until that exact moment when it’s obviously not. It is easy to massively over/under estimate risk based on current contextual conditions. Historical data provides some perspective, but it usually comes down to your ability to read undercurrents, which in turn comes down to having built a sufficiently trusted relationship with people within those currents.
  16. Sometimes, everyone who says they know what is going on, is wrong.
  17. Every time you describe someone in your own country as a terrorist, a freedom is taken away from a person in another country. Every country has its own notion of “terrorism”, and the overuse, and reaction to the term in your country helps legitimise the crack-down of restive populations in other countries.
  18. China is still arguably the lowest-trust consumer society in the world. If a product can be faked it will be. Out of necessity, they also have the most savvy consumers in the world.
  19. After twenty years of promising to deliver, Chinese solar products are now practical (available for purchase, affordable, sufficiently efficient, robust) for any community on the edge-of-grid, anywhere in the world. Either shared, or sole ownership.
  20. When a fixed price culture meets a negotiation culture, fun ensues.
  21. The sharing economy is alive and well, and has nothing to with your idea of the sharing economy.
  22. In Xinjiang the line between the Chinese police and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is marked, not by uniforms or equipment (that appear to be interchangeable), but by the crispness of the salute.
  23. You can comfortably travel here for a month, on one month’s San Francisco rent.
  24. There is only one rule for a foreigner driving in the GBAO: give a lift to every local that wants one, until the car is full. It’s common to travel main thoroughfares for a day and only see a couple of vehicles.
  25. Chinese truckers plying their trade along the silk road deserve to be immortalised as the the frontiersmen of our generation. (They are always male.)
  26. There is nothing more grumpy than a Chinese trucker in the GBAO with a flat tyre.
  27. Every car in the GBAO should have at least one Russian speaker.
  28. Maps.me is the closest thing to decent offline maps.
  29. The most interesting places have map coordinates, but no names.
  30. There are are number of companies with a competitive smartphone portfolio. The rise of Oppo can be explained by its presence on every block of 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th tier Chinese cities.
  31. It is a matter of national pride for a Kyrgyz border guard to solicit bribes from your local travel companions out of sight of the foreigner.
  32. The most undervalued object on a long distance Chinese train journey is a power extension cable.
  33. People wearing fake Supreme are way more interesting than those that wear the real deal.
  34. An iPhone box full of fungus caterpillar in Kham Tibet sold wholesale, is worth more than a fully specced iPhone. It’s worth 10x at retail in 1st/2nd Tier China. It is a better aphrodisiac too.
  35. One of the more interesting aspects of very high net worth individuals (the financial 0.001%), is the entourage that they attract, and the interrelations between members of that entourage. This is my first time travelling with a spiritual leader (the religious 0.001%), whose entourage included disciples, and members of the financial 0.01% looking for a karmic handout. The behaviour of silicon valley’s nouveau riche is often parodied but when it comes to weirdness, faith trumps money every time. Any bets on the first Silicon Valley billionaire to successfully marry the two? Or vice versa?
  36. As a recruiting drive the Chinese TSA should simply open a cafe chain called S.W.A.T., staffed by black clad, pudgy, mirror-shade wearing wannabes, bulking up on bubble tea.
  37. For every person that longs for nature, there are two that long for man-made.
  38. Tibetan monks prefer iOS over Android.
  39. Eventually, anyone that values photos will carry a standalone camera.
  40. In order to size up the tribe/sub-tribe you’re part of, any group of young males will first look at the shoes on your feet.
  41. The growing global awareness of “Beijing time”.
  42. After the Urumqi riots in 2009 the Chinese government cut off internet connectivity to Xinjiang province for a full year. Today connectivity is so prevalent and integrated into every aspect of Xinjiang society, that cutting it off it would hurt the state’s ability to control the population more than hinder their opposition. There are many parts to the current state strategy to limit subversion, the most visible of which is access to the means of travel. For example every gas station between Kashi and Urumqi has barbed wire barriers at its gates, and someone checking IDs.
  43. TV used to be the primary way for the edge-of-grid have-nots to discover what they want to have. Today it is discovering geotagged images from nearby places, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away.
  44. Facebook entering China would be a Pyrrhic victory, that would lead to greater scrutiny and regulation worldwide. Go for it.
  45. The sooner western companies own up to copying WeChat, the sooner we can get on with acknowledging a significant shift in the global creative center of gravity.
  46. The rebuilding of Tibetan towns is part Burbank central casting, part Beijing central planning.
  47. Tibetan monks have surprisingly good game.
  48. Green tea beats black tea for acclimatising to altitude sickness.
  49. The most interesting destinations aren’t geotagged, are not easily geo-taggable. Bonus points if you can figure that one out.
  50. The first time you confront a leader, never do it in front of their followers, they’ll have no way to back down.
  51. There is more certainty in reselling the past, than inventing the future.
  52. When you apply for a Chinese visa only say you’re visiting Shanghai. Never put Tibet/Xinjiang. You can enter through any port, and travel wherever you like when you get there.
  53. All visitors to Tibet proper are supposed to go in a tour group and hire a local guide. With the right agent you can become a tour group of one and on arrival tell the guide you don’t need their services. It helps to look like you’re going to behave.
  54. The shelled detritus on the floor of a Chinese railway carriage is now the exception not the norm.
  55. Pockets of Chengdu are starting to out-cool Tokyo.
  56. To what extent does cultural continuity, and societal harmony comes from three generations under one roof?
  57. Chinese tour bus operators are fearless. Fearless in bringing middle aged, chain smoking, underprepared tour groups onto high-alt mountains without climatisation, letting them loose and not worrying too much about whether they’ll make it back in one piece. A spicy pot noodle is assumed to solve everything.
  58. If you want to understand where a country is heading pick a 2nd or 3rd tier city and revisit it over many years. Chengdu remains my bellwether 2nd tier Chinese city. It’s inland, has a strong local identity and sub-cultures, and has room to grow. Bonus: its’ only a few hours from some of the best mountain ranges in the world.
  59. Japan remains the lead use case for a depopulating society, with 40 million less people in the next 50 years. It has the opportunity to be a world leader in figuring out how to make depopulation work at a societal level. China will lose an estimated 400 million people by 2100, from its peak of 1.4 billion in 2020.
  60. The difference between 2.5G and 3G? In the words of a smartphone wielding GBAO teenager on the day 3G data was switched on her town, “I can breathe”.
  61. The most interesting aspects of this, or any trip will never make it onto any list.

I’m a writer, photographer and the Founder of Studio D. I travelled these 7,000 km with a single piece of hand-luggage, the D3. Photos from this trip here. Want more? Subscribe to the Borderlands mailing list. If you liked this click [heart] so others can do.

I wrote The Field Study Handbook to help others see and experience the world differently when they travel.

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