Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The New Silk Road

One of my favorite places in China is Xinjiang Province in the northwest part of the country. The Northern Silk Road trading route wound through the province centuries ago. The feeling is more Middle Eastern than Chinese due to the mix of ethnic minorities. I began visiting the main city of Urumqi on business in 2002. Over the years I visited Xinjiang more than a dozen times. Despite the rapid modernization in the province, no one will confuse doing business in Xinjiang with doing business in Shanghai, Tokyo or New York.
Life in the slow lane on the Old Silk Road
On my first visit, I stayed in what is euphemistically known as the “best available” hotel. At check-in, after showing my passport and signing several forms, I was "upgraded" which I assumed was probably a loose interpretation of the word. As I walked down the dark hall to my suite, I could only imagine what was on the other side of the door. To my surprise, the room was huge with a beautiful view of the snowcapped mountains outside the city. To my dismay, broadband had not made its way to western China. After several calls to the front desk and a couple of visits from the hotel "tech" expert who was also the bartender – I was in business; connected to my company server in the US by a 14.4 kbps (that is kilobyte not megabyte) connection. Anyway, a few hours later I had my email. On my fourth visit to Xinjiang, a couple years later I stayed in a brand new Sheraton with very fast broadband but I digress.
Nothing typical about a business lunch in Xinjiang
The hosts on my inaugural visit were the management of a large State Owned Company. They liked to entertain but instead of playing golf, they preferred big screen karaoke while drinking “bai jiu” (53% alcohol), riding horses or having an outdoor lunch of very fresh lamb. Fresh in the sense that the lamb is alive when you arrive at the Yurt where lunch is served. On my first trip, after a brief business meeting, we drove to an ancient village for a tour followed a stop at the lowest point in Central Asia. By mid-afternoon we were part way up the nearby mountains at 2,000 meters sitting outside a Yurt eating a feast of local lamb and vegetables. After a post-meal horse ride we headed to a Muslim restaurant for more food and a culture show. The busy day was concluded in front of a full wall sized karaoke screen (something I never saw in Japan). On this occasion instead of “bai-jiu” they brought in Xinjiang Black Beer to lubricate our vocal cords.
Far away from the polluted skies of eastern China, the blue skies of Xinjiang
The customers on the Old Silk Road weren’t my most profitable but they were probably the most interesting.

It was our faithful driver Philip who introduced us to the "New Silk Road". A few weeks ago I made a brief stop in Shanghai as part of a longer trip around Asia. One of my assignments was to bring back 13 pair of pearl earrings requested by a friend of my wife for her daughter’s wedding party. Knowing me to be a reluctant shopper, a week before the trip, my wife emailed Philip and asked him to visit her favorite pearl shop in Shanghai. Always eager to please Philip asked for specifications and said he would do his best.
Philip - one of the founding fathers of the New Silk Road

 The next morning Philip’s smiling face appeared on my phone. He had driven to the pearl shop and requested my wife’s friend Laura, the shop owner, give him her wireless password. Then he connected my wife with Laura via Facetime on his IPhone. From 7,500 miles away over the New (wireless) Silk Road, my wife chatted with her old friend, looked at various options and made her selection. Philip was happy because he didn’t have to worry about picking the pearls or negotiating the price.

One of the speed bumps on the New Silk Road - wireless "disconnections" courtesy of China internet "management"

A few days later Philip picked up the earrings and brought them to the airport when he met me. My part in the deal was only to pay Philip and put the earrings in my briefcase.  Several cities and ten days later, I landed in Charlotte with the goods. A few days later while I was on a morning run, my wife’s friend was out on a walk. She waved and said “thank you for the beautiful pearls”. I smiled, waved and said "thank Philip" under my breath.
Philip, loving all things Apple, will say that Steve Jobs invented the New Silk Road. I think Philip did.