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As we get close to the end of another decade, it is worth reflecting on what my brother Michael and I learned about the countries we drove through (from Beijing to Paris) – and what their economic future may be – on this extraordinary endurance rally in the amazing Bentley car that carried us to the end.
1. Whatever her foreign policy, those running Russia have got control over domestic policy. There were no drunks, petty criminals or gangsters visible when we drove all across Russia. We were told to take $20,000 in cash for ‘special circumstances’. We still had most of it left at the end. This was in sharp contrast to previous occasions when the rally crossed Russia when participants faced roadblocks and extortion..
2. While China’s eastern seaboard may have slowed down, West China is still growing fast, with cheap labour and supportive government policy. We visited Hohhot, the fastest-growing large city in the world. Ten years ago its population was 1 million. Today it is 3 million, slightly bigger than Rome, slightly smaller than Berlin. It is China’s centre for big data.
3. Mongolia is about to face extraordinary change. Modern infrastructure as a result of the Belt and Road Initiative will transform the economics of its mining industry.
4. Russia and China are integrating economically as transport links proliferate and trade blossoms. This is likely to drive political links.
5. There is a Eurasian Economic Union linking Russia with Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. Border crossings, otherwise excruciating in that part of the world, are managed quickly and efficiently.
6. Trains in this part of the world are huge. They are essentially for freight. The Daqin Railway coal trains from Datong to the eastern seaboard in China have 210 carriages and take 20,000 tonnes of freight. If you are waiting for one to pass at a level crossing, best turn your engine off.
7. Wind farms in the steppes make ours look tiny. The Gansu wind farm in Inner Mongolia, China has a current capacity of 8,000 MW and a planned capacity of 20,000 MW. The very largest onshore wind farms in Europe and the US are around 500 MW.
8. Coal mining is still a major industry in Inner Mongolia. We passed the second and third largest coal mines in the world on our route.
9. There are still surprisingly many signs of the old communist societies in Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and even West China. Some of the worse hotels have clearly not noticed the past thirty years of change.
10. The UK enforces German speeding fines. Does it work in reverse?
Find out more about Douglas’ journey from Beijing to Paris in Driving the Silk Road: Halfway Round the World in a Bentley S1, publishing on the 23rd of December and available to pre-order now. Click here to buy your copy.