Tapping in the footsteps of the Khan
The steppes are a long way from Swindon.
Dateline: Woking, 11th September 2022.
When I was around 10, and I think this must have come via my grandparents, the Reader’s Digest World Atlas arrived in our house. I still have it today. I adored this atlas and pored over the pages again and again and again. I can still picture the book taken out of its cardboard sleeve (I still have this too) and spread open on our dining room table.
Growing up in a council house in a post-war London overspill new estate in Swindon, the pages of that atlas were a wonder to me. Bearing in mind that I never went out of England until I was at university (and then only to France) and that the first time I flew anywhere was when I first flew for work when was 23, the pages of that atlas had a profound effect on me.
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I now look at the pages covering the Soviet Union and think about how I had studied them as a boy, fascinated by St. Petersburg but never imagining that one day I would actually go there and visit The Hermitage, fascinated by the pages covering the Caspian Sea and Lake Baikal, fascinated by the pages reaching to China while assuming that I would never get to see the Great Wall for myself.
The Great Wall of China in 2011.
Anyway, I’m telling you this for a couple of reasons. Having read Peter Frankopan’s fantastic “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” a few years ago, I’ve become ever more interested in the history of Central Asia that I never learned at school. I’ve just finished reading Jack Weatherford's “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens”, a follow-on from his excellent "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”, and I’m now reading Marie Favereau’s “The Horde: How the Mongols changed the world”.
Having written about Kublai Khan and the introduction of paper currency in “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin”, my book on the history and future of money, I was particularly interested to read Weatherford’s comment that:
The Mongols exercised ownership of the trade system, but since they knew nothing about commerce, they let the merchants run it. The Mongols simply supplied the infrastructure of safe routes, frequent resting stations, ample wells, relief animals, a speedy postal services, stable currency, bridges and equal access for merchants, without regard to their nationality of religion.
Apart from helping me to understand how things got to be the way that they are today, these books bring back the memory of a small boy looking at the central Asian steppe in that world atlas from half a century ago and never for one moment thinking I would set foot on it.
Kazakhstan in 1969.
Well, last week I was in Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan, where I had been invited to give a keynote speech at the “Persona Non Data” conference about the data economy.
Interview with local media in Almaty 2022.
I was particularly excited to be in Kazakhstan because many years ago I wrote a blog post about the country because it had the the highest penetration of EMV terminals in the CIS and environs (at that time more than nine in ten POS terminals had already been upgraded to chip) and I couldn’t resist making fun of America by posting a picture for the well-known fictional character “Borat” to take with him on his next visit to America...
Yes, it was a chip and PIN terminal. Anyway, some 16 years after I wrote that blog post, I finally got to make a chip and PIN transaction in Kazakhstan for myself!
In fact, I only used chip and PIN. I never got any local currency the whole time I was there, I just used my cards everywhere I went and of course they worked perfectly every time. For example, I stopped in for a coffee whilst having a wander around the leafy streets near my hotel. It had an excellent menu.
Coffee in Almaty 2022.
Having figured out the options and ordered, I paid for the coffee and cake by tapping a contactless card on one of the ubiquitous contactless terminals and sat down in smug contemplation of the long journey from blogging about to tapping in Kazakhstan.
Contactless in Kazakhstan 2022.
As it happens, I was the only person who did this. All the time I was in the coffee shop, I was the only person who tapped, swiped or inserted anything, because everyone else who bought coffee while I was there used QR. QR codes for payment were everywhere, from the main streets to the tourist attractions to the mountain tops.
QR above Almaty 2022.
Figures from the US show that back in 2019 about half of all smartphone users had scanned a QR code but in 2025 according to eMarketer pretty much all of them will be scanning away. Given that Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are now planning to link their respective QR code payment systems, meaning that people from any of these countries will be able to pay in any other of these countries (without the need of an intermediary settlement currency), maybe Kazakhstan is once again telling me something about the future of payments.