If you want to understand how
our planet will turn out this century, spend time in China,
India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil.
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.
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.
Touch ID doesn't work at high
altitude, finger prints are too dry.
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.
A truly great border crossing
will hold a mirror up to your soul.
A white male travelling alone in
interesting places, will always need to disprove they are a
spy. Thanks Hollywood.
It is easier to deflect demands
for a bribe when your paperwork is in order.
The art of successful borderland
travel is to know when to pass through (and be seen by) army
checkpoints and when to avoid them.
Borders are permeable.
There are parts of the world
where empires go to be bloodied and die.
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
After fifteen years of
professionally decoding human behavior, I'm still surprised
by the universality of body language.
Pretentious people are
inherently less curious.
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
Sometimes, everyone who says
they know what is going on, is wrong.
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.
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.
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.
When a fixed price culture meets
a negotiation culture, fun ensues.
The sharing economy is alive and
well, and has nothing to with your idea of the sharing
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.
You can comfortably travel here
for a month, on one month's San Francisco rent.
There is only one rule for
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.
Chinese truckers plying their
trade along the silk road deserve to be immortalized as the
the frontiersmen of our generation. (They are always male.)
There is nothing more grumpy
than a Chinese trucker in the GBAO with a flat tire.
Every car in the GBAO should
have at least one Russian speaker.
Maps.me is the closest thing to
decent offline maps.
The most interesting places have
map coordinates, but no names.
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.
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.
The most undervalued object on a
long distance Chinese train journey is a power extension
People wearing fake Supreme are
way more interesting than those that wear the real deal.
An iPhone box full of fungus
caterpillar in Kham Tibet sold wholesale, is worth more than
a fully specked iPhone. It's worth 10x at retail in 1st/2nd
Tier China. It is a better aphrodisiac too.
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
behavior 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?
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.
For every person that longs for
nature, there are two that long for man-made.
Tibetan monks prefer iOS over
Eventually, anyone that values
photos will carry a standalone camera.
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.
The growing global awareness of
After the Urumqi riots in 2009
the Chinese government cut of 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 is 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.
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 geo-tagged images from nearby
places, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away.
Facebook entering China would be
a Pyrrhic victory, that would lead to greater scrutiny and
regulation worldwide. Go for it.
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.
The rebuilding of Tibetan towns
is part Burbank central casting, part Beijing central
Tibetan monks have surprisingly
Green tea beats black tea for
acclimatizing to altitude sickness.
The most interesting
destinations aren't geo-tagged, are not easily geo-taggable.
Bonus points if you can figure that one out.
The first time you confront a
leader, never do it in front of their followers, they'll
have no way to back down.
There is more certainty in
reselling the past, than inventing the future.
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.
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.
The shelled detritus on the
floor of a Chinese railway carriage is now the exception not
Pockets of Chengdu are starting
to out-cool Tokyo.
To what extent does cultural
continuity, and societal harmony comes from three
generations under one roof?
Chinese tour bus operators are
fearless. Fearless in bringing middle aged, chain smoking,
underprepared tour groups onto high-alt mountains without
acclimatization, 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.
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.
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.
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".
The most interesting aspects of
this, or any trip will never make it onto any list.