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Could you describe your upcoming book Driving the Silk Road?
I’ve just done something that’s a bit mad – I’ve driven a huge luxury saloon on the world’s toughest endurance rally, across the Gobi Desert from Beijing to Paris, and I’ve written about it!
Tell us a little about yourself and your career so far.
I run the company CEBR (Centre for Economics and Business Research), which I set up 26 years ago. I’ve had two strokes of amazing good fortune working as an economist. First of all, I was brought up in the Far East just at the time it was developing economically so I was able to watch that take place as globalisation began to change the shape of the world.
The second advantage I had was becoming chief economist for IBM, a role in which I learnt about technology just as it was taking off to become economically significant in the 1980s. A combination of the understanding about globalisation and that of the importance of technology helped me set up CEBR and make it successful.
Why did you decide to write Driving the Silk Road?
I decided to write Driving the Silk Road because it seemed to me that no one had actually recently travelled the land route from Beijing to Paris to learn how the new Chinese Belt and Road Initiative connecting China and Europe was changing the world.
Not many people will get a chance to travel on the old Silk Road in the future, so I thought I’d write about it before it disappears!
Did writing the book allow you to reflect on the journey?
In a funny way writing the book made the whole trip real for me as it gave me the chance to reflect a bit on the way the world is now changing.
Seeing Western China was especially fascinating. Most foreigners go to Beijing or Shanghai, but what they don’t do is drive all the way across China and see what is happening at the far end. We discovered this amazing city, Hohhot; it’s the fastest-growing city in the whole world, with a population of one million ten years ago and three million now (the size of Rome or Berlin)! This is such a successful city, it’s doing everything right – it specialises in big data now but used to be China’s dairy capital – transforming itself with new roads, new buildings, new bridges. As you can imagine, the traffic jams are appalling!
How do you feel now that the book is published?
It’s so exciting to see the book because this is something I’ve been living with for the last six months since the journey finished. It makes it all seem real; it gives the sense that we didn’t do it for nothing. We managed an amazing achievement: 106 cars started, only 21 finished under their own steam and we were one of them. Because my dad had Bentleys when we were kids, my brother and I decided it would be fun to go in one. It’s the sort of car you’d drive to the opera, but instead we used it on this tough adventure on camel tracks across the Gobi Desert.
After finishing your rally, what are your thoughts on the future of the economy?
I think we need to watch out. The thing that is really fantastic is that Russia has transformed itself. The rally has gone through Russia before and in the past, there’s been gangsters, petty criminals and drunks. We met not one drunk, we met not one criminal – only one person had their handbag nicked and that was from an unlocked car!
Russia has transformed itself – if you’re scared of Russia you should be more scared. Not only are they scary but they’re very competent. If you’re more relaxed about it then the prospect of Russia’s economic growth looks pretty fantastic. The place is transforming, and it’s transforming much more than the economic statistics suggest.
What inspired you to take the journey?
Two things inspired me to take the journey.
First of all, I was brought up in Malaysia and the expats in the 1950s and 60s always used to talk about driving home to the UK. The idea of driving from Asia to Europe always struck me as rather exotic and rather exciting, and when a couple of my friends completed the rally, I felt I could do it if they could do it!
Secondly, I wrote a report on the Chinese Belt and Road initiative which actually goes along the same route and I thought ‘I want to see this first hand’. The advantage of going on the rally (in a totally unsuitable car of course) gave me the chance to go with my brother and drive through this extraordinary series of places that you would never get to see otherwise.
The experience I had on the rally and the people I met – it’s all going to stay with me for the rest of my life.