Events 2022


80 years of Social Anthropology in Fribourg, University of Fribourg

In 2022, the Unit of Social Anthropology celebrated its 80th anniversary! The ROADWORK team was happy to participate in the preparations of the jubilee and celebrate this round birthday with the Unit’s team.

18 NOVEMBER 2022

Symposium “The Belt and Road Initiative: Local and Regional Perspectives from Central Asia,” University of Fribourg


After 4.5 years, the ROADWORK project is ending in February 2023. In this final symposium that gathered development aid practitioners, academics and policy makers from Europe and Central Asia, we summarized the main research findings of the project and discussed their political relevance. The guest speakers from Central Asia, and our guests from the Swiss government agencies and research institutes contributed further invaluable insights. We would like to thank all the participants for generously having shared their knowledge and time with us. It was an unforgettable event!

The ROADWORK team gave the following talks: “Maintaining the Flow: Invisible Labour and Critical Relations in the Supply Chain Economy” (Verena La Mela), “Maintaining Roads and Destroying Ecosystems in Northwest China” (Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi), “BRI Roads at the Edge of Central and South Asia: Patchworks of Institutions, Expectations and Ideologies” (Till Mostowlansky), “Understanding the National Narrative of the BRI from China’s Borderlands” (Thomas White), “China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway: the ‘Missing Link’ in the New Silk Road” (Emilia Sulek), and “More-than-BRI: Local Perspectives on Road Projects in Kyrgyzstan” (Zarina Urmanbetova).

15-16 NOVEMBER 2022

Workshop “January 2022 protests in Kazakhstan: forerunners and aftermath, University of Zurich
Verena La Mela
In January 2022 lethal protests swept across Kazakhstan. Shortly after it turned unexpectedly silent. Together with PhD students from the University of Zurich, Verena organized a workshop to discuss the relevance of their ethnographic data from Kazahstan for the January 2022 protests. Verena´s talk was titled “Discontent on the Sino-Kazakh border” and drew on research funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation in the context of the ROADWORK project. The workshop was funded by the Graduate School of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of the University of Zurich.

14-17 OCTOBER 2022

Workshop “Roads, Political Imaginaries, and State Building,” University of Toronto, Department of Geography and Planning

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Zarina Urmanbetova

Agnieszka acted as a discussant and Zarina as a paper presenter at this fantastic workshop organized by Kathrin Rankin and Nadine Plachta from the Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto.

The workshop brought together key nodes of scholarship exploring the ethnographic dimensions of road and infrastructure development in Asia, and gathered both academics and practitioners from the Canadian construction industry.


Visiting Scholar in the Department of Geography & Planning, University of Toronto
Verena La Mela
In fall 2022 Verena spent five weeks as a visiting scholar in the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto upon the kind invitation by Prof. Katharine Rankin. During her stay, Verena worked on forthcoming publications, participated in departmental activities, such as the organization of the Himalayan Studies Conference, and made ample use of Tortonto´s well-equipped Robarts Library.

14-17 SEPTEMBER 2022

Workshop “Infrastructure and the Animal,” University of Fribourg
Emilia Sułek, Thomas White and ROADWORK Team

During this workshop we asked what does thinking ‘with’ animals and infrastructure reveal about the expectations and failures of modernity. The event gathered scholars from both Europe and Asia and was followed by a  special issue of a peer-reviewed OA journal Roadsides “Infrastructure and the Animal,” edited by Emilia Sulek and Thomas White. During the workshop, Emilia, Verena and Tom presented their research papers, while Agnieszka and Zarina acted as discussants.

The published special issue can be found here:

The workshop was possible thanks to the generous support of the Swiss National Science Foundation and the University of Fribourg.


Interview for

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Alessandro Rippa

We were excited to talk with Beril Ocaklı from about China’s global role and the myths that have emerged around the Belt and Road Initiative since its launch in 2013. This conversation was a continuation of a larger discussion that we initiated with the publication of two factsheets in the summer of 2022: and

The published interview in English (‘China in Central Asia: Fact-checking and myth-busting’) can be read here:

25-26 AUGUST 2022

Conference “Knowledge Production in/on Central Asia: Forms, Purposes and Practices,” University of Fribourg

Verena La Mela
This year´s conference of the Central Asian Studies Network in Germany was hosted by the Department of Geosciences at the University of Fribourg. Together with Indira Alibayeva and Bakhytzhan Yakupov, Verena gave a talk about “Working together in the field in Kazakhstan”. In the talk they reflected about the advantages and the challenges of team working in the field and beyond.

26-29 JULY 2022

17th EASA Biennial Conference EASA2022: Transformation, Hope and the Commons
Zarina Urmanbetova and Verena La Mela

Zarina and Verena attended the 17th EASA Biennial Conference “Transformations, Hope and the Commons.”

Verena travelled to Belfast to participate in the panel “Logistical Transformations: Supply Chains and the Politics of Circulation,” in which she gave a talk about power shifts and frictions in supply chains on the Sino-Kazakh border titled “’We can’t wait any longer’ – Logistical transformations in Kazakhstan.”

Zarina was part of the two-session panel “Promising Growth: Anthropological Reflections on Sprawling Infrastructure and Inequality.” Her presentation “Wanted and Unwanted Connections: Where are People’s Eyes, Hopes, and Plans Directed” was delivered online as the conference was held in a hybrid format. The session broadly discussed the concept of growth concerning unequal promises of progress and grounding reflections on the concepts of “infrastructural promises.”

3-10 JULY 2022

Roundtable: Everyday state surveillance and securitization in and beyond Tibet, The 16th International Association for Tibetan Studies, Prague

Emilia Sułek and Galen Murton
Taking the everyday surveillance of Tibetans as a starting point but intentionally shifting attention beyond the limits of Tibetan-inhabited regions, this roundtable brought together scholars of China and neighbouring countries who examined and compared how Chinese power operates socially and spatially in the contemporary moment.

23 – 25 JUNE 2022

Conference panel: Infrastructural Development and Human-Nonhuman Coexistence in Asian Borderlands, the 7th Conference of the Asian Borderland Research Network ‘Borderland Futures: Technologies, Zones, Co-existences’, Chung-Ang University, Seoul, South Korea

Emilia Sułek, Thomas White and Verena La Mela

Emilia and Tom attended the conference on site and co-hosted a panel together, which explored the ways in which infrastructure mediates the relations
between humans and nonhumans, and enquires into the politics that have have emerged in border regions in response to the threats to both wildlife and domestic animals posed by infrastructural development. 

Often situated far from sites of industry and urban development and their concomitant environmental harms, borderlands across Asia are sites of significant biodiversity, as well as practices of extensive pastoralism characterised by a high degree of animal mobility. In recent years, however, many border areas have become sites of a range of large-scale infrastructure projects, including expressways, railways and mining-related infrastructure.

Verena virtually attended the conference virtually and gave a talk about “Khorgos: Branding, Expectations and “Civilization” in a Chinese-Kazakh Zone” as part of the panel “Beyond Exception: The Chinese “Zone” as Export Model across Asian Borderlands.”

23 – 26 JUNE 2022

CESS Tashkent Regional Conference
Zarina Urmanbetova

The 7th regional summer conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society, organized in collaboration with the European Society for Central Asian Studies, was held at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Over 300 researchers from around the world and the Central Asian region attended the conference. The event was originally scheduled for summer 2020 but was pushed back to summer 2022 owing to the pandemic.

Zarina Urmanbetova actively participated in the conference in many roles. During the roundtable discussion “China and BRI’s growing footprint in Central Eurasia: an interdisciplinary dialogue on governance, markets, and souls,” she spoke about “The BRI name(s) and funding in Central Asia.” She chaired the conversation at the panel ‘Infrastructure of Memory: Central Asia – Common and Special.” Moreover, Zarina organized a roundtable discussion on “Being a Woman Researcher in Central Eurasia.”

15 – 17 JUNE 2022

CUSO Workshop “Infrastructure and Life,” organised in collaboration with the Swiss Graduate School in Social Anthropology

A group of promising PhD researchers were invited to present their research to transdisciplinary panel of international scholars. The event took place in the Europe’s highest permeant settlement – the village of Juf in the Canton of Graubünden, Switzerland. The invited PhD candidates presented on a wide assortment of topics including the politics of dam building in Turkey, the social life of roads in Kyrgyzstan, the wild infrastructures of Paraguay, and science-fiction theme parks in China.

Zarina Urmanbetova and Björn Reichhardt from the ROADWORK project organized this highly successful event. Other ROADWORK team members – Emilia Sulek, Judd Kinzley and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi – served as discussants. Prof. Tina Harris from the University of Amsterdam has given an inspiting keynote speech. The workshop concluded with a guided tour of the hydropower dam at Lago di Lei in Avers Valley.

15 – 17 JUNE 2022

Talk “After the enclave: labourers, locals, and the political ecology of the BRI” at the University of Manchester

Thomas White

Thomas was an invited participant at the workshop China as Context, held at the University of Manchester and the LSE in London, where he gave a paper which discussed the relationship between road construction camps and local herders in a remote part of Inner Mongolia.

JUNE 2022

Prof. Judd Kinzley (University of Wisconsin, Madison) visits the ROADWORK project

In early June we welcomed the second visiting scholar on the ROADWORK project – Prof. Judd Kinzley from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. During his stay in Fribourg, Judd worked on an article exploring the long-distance connectivities across the Eurasian continent during the WWII period. He also acted as a discussant during the CUSO workshop ‘Infrastructure and Life’.


Prof. Eric Schluessel (George Washington University) visits the ROADWORK project

In May we welcomed Prof. Eric Schluessel (George Washington University) as the first visiting scholar in the ROADWORK project. During his stay at the University of Fribourg, Eric collaborated with the ROADWORK team and worked on a research article in which he explores the mobility of Uyghur traders in the Tarim Basin in the late nineteenth century.

20-22 MAY 2022

Fourth China Made Workshop: “From the ‘China Model’ to ‘Global China’”
The Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

This wonderful workshop hosted by the Asian Institute and the ‘China Made’ Project gathered international scholars to discuss the question ‘What is global China?’ based on their various research projects in Asia and Africa. The workshop was devoted to developing new ways of thinking about ‘global China’ and understanding the impact that this concept has had over the past years on both academic and political debates.

20 MAY 2022

2022 SEASGRAD Conference: Southeast Asian De/Neo/Inter/Post-Colonialism(s)

Zarina Urmanbetova

The Southeast Asian Studies Graduate Student Association (SEASGRAD) at the University of California, Riverside hosted its third annual conference, Southeast Asian De/Neo/Inter/Post-Colonialism (s), on May 20–21, 2022.

The conference was virtual, and Zarina Urmanbetova participated as a discussant on the panel “Spatial and Environmental Justice”. The papers were delivered by graduate students and researchers from different universities in the US and Southeast Asia. The panel addressed various environmental, material, ecological, socio-cultural, political, and spatial issues the region is currently grappling with as a result of past colonial practices, policies, and legacy.

Zarina reviewed the papers’ themes, charted the course for the discussion, and noted that the decolonial and postcolonial approaches of these works are also relevant to Central Asia. Zarina attended the conference as part of her stay as a visiting scholar at the Southeast Asian Studies Program at UCR.

5-6 MAY 2022

“The BRI & peripheral imaginaries: Evidence from the developing world” at the University of Virginia

Zarina Urmanbetova

The one-day workshop, which began on the afternoon of May 5 and continued through the first half of the following day, brought together scholars of various disciplines on the green and historical campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The workshop “BRI & peripheral imaginaries: evidence from the developing world” was organised as part of the University of Virginia’s Assessment of China’s Belt & Road Initiative project. Our colleague, Galen Murton from James Madison University, co-organized the event.

The workshop was held in hybrid format, with some participants joining in presentations and discussions via Zoom. Participants shared their research findings from different places such as Kenya, Fiji, Pakistan, Namibia, Nepal, and Kyrgyzstan. In addition, representatives of such projects as AidData, which collects and indexes data about BRI projects worldwide, introduced their work and possibilities of using information from their platforms for researchers. On the second day of the workshop, Prof. Brantly Womack, Emeritus Professor of Politics at UVA, gave a keynote talk.

From the ROADWORK team, Zarina delivered a presentation on Kyrgyzstan’s Alternative North-South Road and the importance of the new connection for the people of the villages along the road and for the state.

APRIL & MAY 2022

Field research Nurly and Khorgos (Kazakhstan)

Verena La Mela

As Covid restrictions eased, Verena grabbed the chance to continue her ethnographic field research in Kazakhstan. This time she focused on the local effects of the multiple infrastructure projects which mushroomed around the south-eastern Kazakhstani village Nurly, among them a railway line, a highway, a gas pipline and a wind park.                   

28 APRIL 2022

Invited Talk “The Rough Side of Silk: Connectivity and (Dis)Repair on Central Asia’s New Roads”, Weltmuseum, Vienna

Emilia Sułek

Emilia Sułek gives a talk during a symposium accompanying the exhibition Dust & Silk in Weltmuseum, Vienna.

Can BRI roads live up to to the high expectations placed in them? Do they bring peace, development and prosperity for all? While the media coverage related to the BRI-project focuses on construction-related expenditure, kilometres of roads (built or only planned) and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, in her talk in Vienna Emilia Sulek showed some phenomena that are only visible after the camera lights go out: the more down-to-earth side of these new roads and their mundane effects on the ground.

The exhibition Dust & Silk was organized in cooperation with the research project Dispersed and Connected, Institute for Social Anthropology, Austrian Academy of Sciences.

25 APRIL 2022

Yartsa Gumbu: A case of an economic agency on China’s political periphery

Emilia Sułek

Discussion (with invited guests) on the book by Emilia Sułek Trading Caterpillar Fungus in Tibet: When Economic Boom Hits Rural Area (Amsterdam University Press)

The 21st century has seen a number of booms in pharmaceutical products, with their roots in so-called traditional medicine, but processed for the capitalist market. One of such products is yartsa gumbu or caterpillar fungus. Like Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s work on matsutake, Sulek’s monograph tells more than the story of a medicinal fungus in demand on the Chinese market. It also (or perhaps above all) tells the story of the relationship between the state and the citizen, especially the Chinese state and the Tibetan citizen in a region often treated as politically marginal and lacking economic vigour.

Emilia thanks Agnieszka Halemba and the Polish Academy of Sciences for the invitation.

22 APRIL 2022

Guest lecture “The rough side of the New Silk Road,” Chair of Chinese Culture and Society, University of St. Gallen

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

In her lecture, Agnieszka discussed the expansion of infrastructure networks in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, and focused on the politics of infrastructure decay and maintenance in this geopolitically crucial region, which has been the target of violent state repressions since 2016.

1 APRIL 2022

Talk “Fragile Connectivity: Maintaining Roads and Relations in China’s Northwest” at the Department of Anthropology, SEATRiP program, University of California in Riverside

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka gave a talk at the University of California in Riverside, hosted by The Southeast Asian Studies program. It was the first face-to-face event on the UCR campus in two years due to the pandemic. The local complied with all local regulations to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

Agnieszka’s lecture inspired an exciting discussion with faculty and students from different countries and departments, including undergraduate and graduate students.

The audience were very interested in the topic of maintaining infrastructures in the context of relations with the environment and various social and human factors. There were also several engaging questions about migration and the relocation of particular groups because of environmental and other factors from the territory Agnieszka spoke about in her presentation. 

We are grateful for the warm welcome we received on campus and for the opportunity to share our research with colleagues and students at the University of California, Riverside.

22-25 MARCH 2022

Association of Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Honolulu, Hawai’i

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Verena La Mela

Agnieszka participated in the roundtable “The Social Lives of Asian Infrastructure: A Roundtable on Methodology” with an input on team fieldwork and ethnographic mapping. It was a great pleasure to confer the panel on site and have the opportunity to listen to the interventions bother panelists: Prof. Christina Schwenkel (University of California, Riverside), Prof. Rashmi Sadana (George Mason University) and Prof. Julie Y. Chu (University of Chicago).

Verena attended the conference virtually with a talk about “Bounded Mobilities in Khorgos.” Her presentation featured in the panel “Chinese Infrastructure and Mobility.”

14 MARCH 2022

Anthro-Geo-Colloquium I at the University of Fribourg

Emilia Sułek

During the first Anthro-Geo-Colloquium organized by social anthropologists and human geographers from the University of Fribourg Emilia talks about road infrastructure, donkey hide trade, and pharmaceutical industry in China. 

8 MARCH 2022

Talks “Maintaining relations: Life with and without roads in Northwest China” and “The Afterlife of the Coloured Steel Hut: Infrastructure construction and provisional rurality in Inner Mongolia,”MIASU Research Seminar, Unit of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Thomas White

After two years of waiting and hoping that on-site events will be possible again, Agnieszka and Thomas gave their talks in the MIASU Research Seminar. Agnieszka’s talk “Maintaining relations: Life with and without roads in Northwest China” focused on the complex politics of infrastructure maintenance in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In his talk “The Afterlife of the Coloured Steel Hut: Infrastructure construction and provisional rurality in Inner Mongolia,” Thomas explored the second life of abandoned road construction materials as they enter the lives of Mongolian pastoralists.

5 MARCH 2022

Visiting Scholar in the Program of Southeast Asian Studies, in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, University of California in Riverside
Zarina Urmanbetova

Zarina is spending the spring quarter as a visiting scholar at the University of California in Riverside, in the Southeast Asian Studies Program, in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. While at UCR, she will be working on her dissertation chapters under the mentorship of Prof. Dr Christina Schwenkel.

Zarina is attending the graduate course on Professionalism in Anthropology by Prof. Schwenkel and participating in the launch of the infrastructure reading group at UCR’s Department of Anthropology. We hope that Zarina will have a fruitful stay at UCR.

28 FEBRUARY 2022

RDWK Team Colloquium VIII: Collective brainstorming
The second RDWK team colloquium in 2022 was of an experimental format: We had a collective brainstorming session in order to explore the notion of “centrality” within Belt and Road Infrastructure (BRI) projects. We questioned the dominant geo-political narrative of BRI “connectivity” and explored how “being central” is experienced and phrased by actors enlivening spaces represented as transit zones.

22 FEBRUARY 2022

Intervention  “Khorgos – the Making of an Equal Twin on the Sino-Kazakh border,” Book launch of Twin Cities across Five Continents: Interactions and Tension on Urban Borders
Global Studies Institute, Geneva


Verena La Mela

The Global Studies Institute in Geneva hosted the book launch of the second volume Twin Cities across Five Continents, edited by Ekaterina Mikhailova and John Garrard. There, Verena presented her Twin Cities book chapter “Khorgos – the Making of an Equal Twin on the Sino-Kazakh border.” Aligned with the book’s theoretical orientation, in her chapter she presents Khorgos as a case study of a twin city with a dominant (Chinese) and a subordinate (Kazakh) part. Despite visible inequality in terms of infrastructure development, Verena argues that we need to pay attention to and recognize Kazakhstan’s efforts to promote its own narrative of the trans-boundary cooperation and the related infrastructure construction.

17 FEBRUARY 2022

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 007 Episode 001

ROADWORK Team and friends
The new infrastructure reading group year continued with texts by Sheila Jasanoff “Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity” (in Dreamscapes of Modernity. Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (2015) edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim) and by Austin Zeiderman “Concrete Peace: Building Security through Infrastructure in Colombia” (Anthropological Quarterly (2020) 93(3): 497-528).


Call for papers for ROADSIDES Collection No. 008 on “Infrastructure and the Animal”

Emilia Sułek and Tom White

Emilia and Tom announce the call for papers for ROADSIDES Collection No. 008 (Fall 2022) called “Infrastructure and the Animal”. In this special issue the editors ask what thinking with animals and infrastructure can reveal about the expectations and failures of modernity.

More info under the link:

The contributors will be invited to Fribourg to present their papers at a workshop under the same title.

31 JANUARY 2022

Conversation about Natalia Bloch’s book “Encounters across Difference. Tourism and Overcoming Subalternity in India”

Emilia Sułek

Emilia has the pleasure of being a discussant in a conversation about Natalia Bloch’s book “Encounters across Difference. Tourism and Overcoming Subalternity in India” (Rowman and Littlefield 2021). She talks about tourism infrastructure, informal economy, agency and the Tibetan diaspora in India. The meeting was organised by the Asian Studies Committee of the Polish Academy of Sciences. 

27 JANUARY 2022

RDWK Team Colloquium VII: Talk “Choke Points: How things move in Chinese borderlands and what happens when they don’t,” Judd Kinzley, University of Wisconsin
University of Fribourg, online
Our ROADWORK team colloquium reconvened in January 2022. The starting talk was delivered by our colleague Judd Kinzley who focused on the power of international markets in Chinese border regions. Using the examples of petroleum in Xinjiang and hog bristles in Sichuan, his talk revealed how local actors in these regions have created and exploited “chokepoints” in the flow of these goods for their own benefit. The phenomenon is part of a larger story about capital flows, production, transport infrastructure, and the agency of local agents.

19 JANUARY 2022

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 006 Episode 003

ROADWORK team and friends
Our first infrastructure reading group in 2022 kicked-off in a hybrid mode at one of our group member´s place in Zurich and online. We heralded the year with texts by Hannah Knox “Traversing the infrastructures of digital life” (Digital Anthropology (2021), edited by Haidy Geismar and Hannah Knox) and Akhil Gupta’s “Infrastructure as Decay and the Decay of Infrastructure” (in Decay (2021), edited by Ghassan Hage).