My brother Mike and I completed the Peking to Paris Endurance Rally in the Place Vendome last Sunday in our Bentley S1. Most of the participants made it to the end though many were towed or flatbedded for parts of the journey. No official records are kept for the number of cars that make it under their own steam but we believe that only 21 did so, including us. Bentley S1s are not normally rallied and it is a tribute to the underlying strength of the car as well as Mike and official rally mechanics’ skills that we made it the whole way.
Besides being a test of driving, map reading and mechanical skills, the rally is perhaps the best geography lesson ever and gave us an amazing vision of parts of the world that normally cannot be seen. Here are our reflections on the most relevant observations from an economic perspective:
1) Probably the most important takeaway is that Russia seems to have modernised. If you don’t drive though it you can’t see this. On previous rallies going through Russia, criminals have set up road blocks to scam ralliers for thousands of dollars; petty crime and drunkenness were rife. Not so this time. We never felt unsafe in Russia. What seems to have happened is that Putin, despite his rather traditional foreign policy, has put Medvedev in charge of domestic policy and he has built up a team of ferociously able apparatchiks. Apparently, under 35s make up most of Moscow’s government. They have made the Russian capital one of the most enabled cities in the world. Because we in the West think of Russia from a foreign policy perspective we often miss the fact that it has become very modern domestically. Paul Polsen, the just retired CEO of Unilever, was also on the rally and he commented to me over breakfast one day that the official Russian GDP figures must be understating reality. Russia is quite good at tech and according to the Oxford Internet Institute there are more than 700,000 Russian businesses selling software to the UK alone and as is well known, tech sector GDP is hard to measure and therefore generally understated.
2) We all know of China’s economic success but few make it as far as Inner Mongolia. Hohhot is the most successful urban development story ever. Within a generation, the city’s population has nearly tripled and now stands at over 3 million. It has benefitted from China’s attempt to make growth regionally inclusive, which saw them push for economic development in Mongolia. It was once the dairy capital of China but is now restructuring and is one of the main Chinese centres for big data. Essentially it has out-Singapored Singapore. Also notable about China is the very intentionally visible facial recognition technology. Tiananmen Square was covered with very obtrusive cameras. And when you pass one point in Beijing airport a screen not only identifies you by name as you walk past but also tells you what flight you are on and whether you are likely to miss it.
3) Central Asia is now changing itself and will change much further. It was previously held back by a lack of infrastructure (it is a very long way from the major markets as we discovered). Much of their development will come from the aggressive exploitation of minerals. The Belt and Road Initiative will make a major difference but it is worth noting that both Russia and, to a lesser extent, the EU have their own infrastructural initiatives. The process probably can’t be stopped and probably shouldn’t be. But I wonder whether future generations of Mongolian children who currently run about happily and seemed to have the biggest smiles on their faces of all the children we met on the rally will be so happy….
Contact: Douglas McWilliams email@example.com phone: 07710 083652