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Vagabond Journey Travel Stories and World Culture


Hallstatt, China What Happens in China’s Western Style Replica Towns
Meixi Lake Ecocity. Image: Nick Holdstock. Can Ecocities Solve China’s Environmental Problems?
Street cleaner in front of a demolition site in Shanghai_DCE Clearing The Land: Inside China’s Mass Demolitions And Land Grabs


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A pig on the loose with people chasing it is always funny. Everywhere. A group of men and a big bellied peasant woman gave chase. They were all laughing. A Georgian tourist tried to kick it. The pig dodged and ran right into the windowed wall of the restaurant I was watching from. His wrinkly head smashed right up against the glass by my feet. Although the next time I saw that pig the head was no longer attached. The peasant woman got him.

I ordered a coffee at the restaurant and pointed to the full barista rig. The waitress heated up a kettle and sneakliy gave me instant coffee instead. She had a bag of decent coffee open but when she thought I wasn’t looking reach under the counter and produced a jar of instant coffee and hastily heaped a spoonful into my cup.

I caught her and pointed to the barista machine and asked if I could have my coffee from there. She shook her head no. She wasn’t going to fire it up just for me.

It was the same as the draft beer I tried to order the day before. I pointed to the tap and she reached down into the deep cavity of the near empty fridge behind her and revealed a bottle. There was no keg attached to the tap because there is nobody here to drink from it.

I was in the restaurant of what I believe to be a four star hotel in Anaklia, one of Georgia’s Black Sea resorts.

It’s still the off season, with about a week or two before the crowds start coming in. I’m one of the only visitors here, and pretty much have an entire resort town to myself.

But preparations are being made for the incoming deluge. Half-finished construction projects line the streets, as hotel owners slap together new buildings and add on extra rooms to scale their potential profits. Everybody reassures me about all the people that will soon be there and of the giant electronic music fest they have there where hundreds of thousands of people from all over Europe pour in.

I came here to check out the lay of the land for the location where a major New Silk Road deep sea port should be getting built and decided to stay on for an extra day or two to enjoy the beach.

Besides being a more than adequate place to sit and drink a beer while watching incredible sunsets, Anaklia has one of the most interesting development stories I’ve ever experienced. The place is the location of the idea deep sea port on the Black Sea but is also right on the border of the break away region of Abkhazia — which is pretty much an independent/ vassal state of Russia that few other countries beyond Russia acknowledge as existing. As late as 2008 Russian tanks were rolling through the streets here in Anaklia and people were being expelled from their homes en masse and being killed in fighting. The place was a war zone.

I met with the town’s director of development, who took be for a ride around in his truck to look at some development projects as well as the impending port. He was younger that I expected and seemed passionate about his work — which consisted of not only providing adequate infrastructure for a world-class port but also to provide the people who lived there with the bare basics of development: roads, water, electricity, etc. Until very recently, this place was a genuine backwater, now it’s an emerging resort town.

“Five years ago this place was nothing. There was really nothing here but some houses and cows,” I was told repeatedly.

This rapid development is partly due to being the site of GEM Fest — a massive electronic music festival that attracts the top DJs and hundreds of thousands of people from 160 something countries. The idea was hatched by the director of development and two other guys in the hotel lobby that we began our interview in. Last year was the first time they tried this, and it seemed to have been a success.

What’s interesting about this festival was that it wasn’t just something for outsiders that only the established business elite would benefit from but an event that the entire town mobilizes around. It’s organizers did a massive amount of outreach to bring the local people into providing needed infrastructure for the event. Many converted their homes into guesthouses — there are now over 400 in the region — and shops. And they profited big.

“That place last year was nothing,” the director of development pointed to the guesthouse I was staying in. “Now, the owner is building it up. Last year during GEM Fest he made 60,000 (around $30,000), now he is expanding.”

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Each time I roll into a country my phone number changes due to my ever-revolving parade of local SIM cards. Sometimes I lose phone capabilities entirely if I’m in a country for too short of a duration to warrant getting a local SIM.

In my line of work I need for people to be able to get in touch with me via phone or text; when I call or text people I need for my caller ID to be an actual number that they can call me back at; I have to stop saying “This is only my phone number when I’m in your country, as soon as I leave it won’t work any more;” I have to stop trying to explain to the people that I am setting up interviews and meetings with that they need to email me because I don’t have a functioning phone number. I’m a journalist, being easily contact-able is a big part of the game.

Less glamorously, it is sometimes a major hassle to get an account verification text or call directed to a number that you currently do not have access to. I don’t want to be locked out of my accounts just because I’m outside the US where my SIM card from there won’t function.

I need a set of permanent phone numbers that people can access me through on a consistent basis from anywhere in the world.

So how do I do this with ever revolving SIM cards and ever changing locations? Get an international phone plan? I had one of these through Verizon in 2010. Now it’s too expensive (especially as local data plans are often so cheap as to be virtually free). So that’s not an option. But there’s another way: VoIP.

VoIP, which stands for voice over IP, is a way to have a phone number that people can call over mobile phones or land lines and ring me via an internet connection. This means that someone can call me through a phone number and my phone will ring anywhere in the world providing that I have a data or WIFI connection enabled. Or even if I don’t I can set up call forwarding to whatever number my local SIM is configured for and my phone will ring through that.

There are numerous services that offer VoIP numbers, but I just went for Skype. There may be cheaper options but I’ve used this service before and know that it has continuity going for it — which is essential as I want these numbers to work for the long-term. It costs roughly a dollar per week per number. For now, I bought three numbers, although I may add more if the need arises. These numbers are local calls in the areas they are located to.

New York: +1 585-412-2581

London: +44 020-3287-4810

Hong Kong: +852 8170-1055

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Saakashvili’s Strange Architecture

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A trip to Georgia is now a delve into the abyss of strange architecture which sprung from the aesthetics of former president Mikheil Saakashvili.

You can’t come to this country without seeing the guy’s mark. He had a style to him — not only his authoritarian brand of charisma politics, which saw the country transformed from a severely corrupt ex-Soviet backwater to one of the most legit, on the level places in the region. Read about Georgia pre-Saakasvili and come to the country post-Saakasvili and they seem like two completely different places. Georgia was modernized by outright fiat, and while the hand that did this work was extremely heavy and was prone to unilateral movement, what it did seemed to work far more effectively than in many otehr post-Soviet countries.

This heavy hand also left its mark on the landscape in the form of buildings — strange ones. Saakashvili seemed to have a taste for architecture that most other people tend to find rather confusing. And in such an ancient country as Georgia these ultra-modern renditions of a future that may never come stand out even more via the contrast.

“Articles on Georgia’s architectural policy have tended to stress his personal choice of architects for large projects, and the fact that he keeps abreast of the architectural and design press,” wrote Owen Hatherley in Dezeen.

While the architecture of some other leaders of former Soviet countries — like what Nursultan Nazarbayev did in Astana or that of Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan — there is something about Saakashvili’s architecture that’s particularly obnoxious. It often just doesn’t make any sense to both locals and foreigners, and if you ask anyone in Georgia about it they are liable to say, “I have no idea, it’s something that the old president did.”

That, really, is the only acceptable explanation for the stuff.

I first noticed it while walking through Rike Park in Tbilisi. Here there is Saakashvili’s presidential palace, which looks a little like the US’s capital building with a big blue dome, which sits on a hill above an exhibition center that looks like two very appropriately place sewage pipes.


Then when I was in Anaklia I looked over the beach and found these ultra-strange, ultra-huge sculptures. They seriously rose four or five stories above the ground, and nobody there could tell me what they were. One looked like a giant billowing fungus rising over the beach, the other was a towering white steel monstrosity that appeared to have been modeled off of those wooden dinosaur skeleton kits that you get at the natural history museum as a kid — albeit one with a possible erection.


In Kutaisi, there is the parliament building. Saakashvili moved the nation’s parliament to Kutaisi, nearly three hundred kilometers from Tbilisi. This provided the president with the impetus to build a colossal blue glass and steel $30 million snail.

“The first time I saw it I thought it was a music center,” a local began, “but it was really the parliament building.”

Nobody gets this shit, and that is what I like about it.










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Chacha, A Georgian Tradition

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When you enter a former Soviet country one of the first things you often hear about is the local liquor, and you know that you are soon going to meet a group of people partying under a bridge somewhere who are going to try to dose you with a massive amount of it. The people generally make it themselves and are often exceptionally proud of it. They then use it to destroy treat their guests. The exchange often establishes rapport, it’s a way for people to bond.

The problem is that the alcohol content of the stuff is often insanely high, and drinking just a cup or two is enough to do in even a well-conditioned liver.

In Georgia the local liquor is called chacha. It is kind of like a clear brandy made from the leftover grape residue of wine making. Although chacha can be made from other fruits as well, such as figs, tangerines, oranges, or mulberries.

Traditionally, chacha is home brewed. The wine making tradition is very much alive in Georgia, having been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds if not thousands of years. For the most part, every family in the countryside is making their own wine and chacha, and people in cities will often regularly go out to their familial homes in the hinterlands to make these drinks. Even teenagers and young adults are into learning the tradition — this is a point of culture that is still very much cool.

The kid working at the hostel in Kutaisi told me that he goes out to the village once per month to tend to the vines, and when the season’s right he makes his own wine. From the look on his face he was intensely proud of his product.

“It’s a Georgian tradition,” he said. “It’s a very easy process. Only fire and it boils.”

As a traveler here you often get offered chacha almost wherever you go. Complete strangers in the streets will call you over to try some of theirs. Last night I was drinking it with a group of twenty year olds under a boardwalk on the beach of Anaklia, today the guy who operates the bathrooms and the train station in Kutaisi literally begged me to try some of his.

The stuff is strong, but has a sweet taste to it. People here down it almost like wine, filling plastic cups with it rather than shot glasses — which would probably be more appropriate. It is usually kept in plastic pop bottles and carried around with a little cup placed upside-down over the cap. If you see a Coke bottle filled with clear liquid here, trust me, it’s not water.



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The Border Of Abkhazia

The end of the resort area and the beginning of the border zone of Abkhazia.
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This morning I walked near to the border of Abkhazia, a break away region from Georgia on the northeast bend of the Black Sea.

Around ten days ago a Georgian man was murdered there by Abkhazian border guards. I met one of his friends in Anaklia who told me the story:

Giorgi, that was his name, was bringing some vegetables from the market in Zugdidi to his family on the other side of the divide. This is usually a simple affair — people can still cross this border, and even foreigners can make the crossing with an easy-to-obtain permit. However, on this occasion a border guard took his passport, and, rather than handing it back to him, tossed it on the ground and kicked it.

I was told that the Georgian reacted against this show of disrespect. The discussion elevated, insults were exchanged, and I was told that the guard ended up drawing his pistol and shooting the border crosser in the leg.

Now injured, Giorgi began limping towards the Georgian side of the border, being led away by bystanders, cursing the Abkhazians as he retreated — calling them separatists, Russian sympathizers…

When he was just about beyond the Abkhazia border area two guards came running up from behind him. One of them knocked him down, shot him in the stomach, then administered a lethal shot to the head. The green-clad guards then turned scampered back to safety at full speed, leaving the dead man in the middle of the road.

His friend showed me a video of the killing over and over again.

“I must have watched this 500 times,” he said.

It still shook him.

In 2008, the War in South Ossetia spread to Abkhazia, and the armed conflict between Abkhazia and their Russian backers began once again against Georgia. Ever since Georgia first declared independence from the Soviet Union, Abkhazia has been declaring independence from Georgia. Flare-ups of violence have been occurring ever since, and up to 250,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled the separatist region and over 15,000 were killed.

As of now, Abkhazia for the most part rules itself/is occupied by Russia. But very few countries acknowledge it — which is yet another reminder that we still do not have an official definition of what a country even is.

I look out towards the beach at Anaklia. The sea is glistening in the bright sun, kids on a school trip are running in circles, young men are racing each other over the sand, a family is swimming, three young women are sun bathing in bikinis, and an old couple just nodded and smiled at me as they rode by on their horse drawn cart. I am just a kilometer or two from the defacto border, a place where a man was killed just a week and a half ago for verbal insults, and the place couldn’t be more peaceful.

I’ve been in ex-war zones before, but I’ve never seen one that looked like this. Just eight years ago Russian tanks were in the streets here. It seems as if everyone has a story of how they had to flee their homes and lost everything — including friends and relatives.

There is no sign of this now. Anaklia is developing fast, basic infrastructure has been created — roads have been built and homes have been hooked up with electricity and running water for the first time. In a place that was a rural backwater that had little other than cows hardly five years ago is rapidly growing to become the predominant resort on the Black Sea. The people are generating new forms of income and for the most part appear to be engaging the new landscape and opportunity which now surrounds them.

This development was by no means natural — it was strategic. It was initiated by all out fiat by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who pushed private companies to open immaculate five star hotels here and directed the building of a full-on beach resort. This resort lies directly on the border of Abkhazia, where it ends a militarized area of fences and bunkers begins. The thinking, I am told, is that it is far more difficult to wrest away developed land that’s speckled with luxury hotels than it is a rural nomansland of cow farmers.






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Pay Boxes In Georgia

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They are called pay boxes, and that’s exactly what they are. Almost anywhere there’s a store, street corner, or building in Georgia there are these electronic terminals through which you can pay for about anything: your phone plan, your utilities bills, gambling wagers, your rent, and even taxes. Seemingly, all of the billing systems in Georgia are streamlined and can be accessed via these machines.

While a direct withdraw plan is probably a more convenient way to pay bills, these pay boxes make amends for the cash as well as the electronic economy. You can shove bills and coins into the things — something which is going out of style in other parts of Europe.

Many countries of the world are taking new technologies and are using them in a way to make life easier for people. Whereas in the USA people are buried in paper bills from a zillion different sources that they need to keep straight, people in Georgia just walk down the street to the nearest pay box and pay for everything in a single go.



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Chinese ATMs Spreading Across Europe

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There is a monumental change underway that we are not really noticing. One day it will all just be normal and seem like it’s always been that way.

China has gone international.

I don’t just mean the country’s new cities, infrastructure, and other off-shore investment projects or even the new wave of outward Chinese migration that we’re now seeing, but the little things — little things like Chinese bank compatible ATMs all over the world.

I do editing work for the China-side branch of an incredible global research firm. It’s good work — interesting subject matter and good pay. The only catch is that they have to pay me to my Chinese bank account. This is fine when I’m in China, but since I’ve been doing research for the New Silk Road book I’ve been outside of the country for an extended amount of time with no solid plan to return.

So getting paid has been a hassle, which has even required having my money sent to a random Chinese friend who then forwarded it on to my US bank account. Then one day one of the representatives from this company was like, “Why don’t you justice t withdraw money at an ATM with your Unionpay card?”

I was kind of dumbstruck — “What? I can really do that?”

Unionpay is China’s equivalent to Plus or Cirrus, most of the debit cards that are issued by a Chinese bank is connected to this network. I had no idea that they’ve gone international, and I can just stick my Chinese bank card into an ATM in some random country and access my money.

I tried it at a gas station in Lodz, Poland. It worked. I withdrew a big wad of cash from my Chinese account at an ATM on the street of Tbilisi. It worked too. Apparently, Unionpay also has a partnership with Discover card, but I haven’t tried it yet in the USA.

China is different now, and even I — someone who makes a living documenting the country’s changes — sometimes has a difficult time keeping my paradigm of the country current. It is still moving that fast. But now, China’s evolution is becoming more subtle. Soon the world will be watching Chinese movies, showing their cool with Chinese electronics, investing in yuan, and nobody is going to talk about how the culture lacks creativity and just copies anymore. China is getting close to being “on global par” with the over-developed fringes of the world, and someday we will just think they’ve always been there.

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No Internet Cafe In Tbilisi

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“What’s the WIFI password?” I asked after ordering a dry martini at the Cecilia Cafe on Iraki Abashidze Street in Tbilisi. It was a straight forward question, one I’ve asked hundreds of times. The response I received though was something different.

“We don’t have WIFI. Our motto is to come here to talk to people,” the waitress said.

“But I’m all alone,” I limply protested.

I imagine that this business model is going to get more and more popular. Trends develop with the shifting of tides. Cafes once sold the fact that they had WIFI as a testament of their being worldy, connected, and social — better than the other cafes around them who didn’t offer their customers this advantage. Now, after the internet has made big strides towards being ubiquitous and normal, cafes will now sell the fact that they don’t have WIFI as some kind of unique point of sale — to make themselves appear more worldly, connected, and social.

For the record, the Cecilia Cafe was no more social than any other cafe in the world. However, I did notice people abiding by the no internet rule — they would come in, check their phones one final time, then put them away.

I sat there, alone. I tried to jump in and give their “motto” a try, but after smiling at the table of young women to my right only to receive hasty head turns I decided to abort the mission.

Anyway, not offering WIFI there was a moot point anyway, as everybody just has mobile data — which is dirt cheap in Georgia at $2 for 500 mb. But that’s not the point.

The internet is fundamentally a social instrument. At those cafes and hostels and whatever “social spaces” we construct those people on their phones and other personal electronic devices are communicating with other people. They are on Facebook, chat apps, etc, gossiping and sharing. Just because the people they’re communicating with are not physically present doesn’t mean they’re not being social.

The catch here is that people usually default to digital communication because their physical surroundings are simply not stimulating enough. Or because they feel awkward. Or because they would rather talk about something they are really interested in with their real friends…

Give someone a reason to talk to the people around them and their phones stay sheathed. If you go over to Canudos in Tbilisi you will hardly see a mobile device out. It isn’t because they’re banned but because people are having too much fun doing other things. If you do see a phone it’s usually someone showing someone else a photo or video or something — it is being used as a social catalyst rather than something which sucks people away from each other.

Not providing someone with internet is not going to make people all of a sudden want to talk to strangers. We scapegoat our absolutely amazing communications technologies because they’re an easy target. But, like most scapegoats, the problem is much more deeply embedded.

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Arrival In Tbilisi

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There are times when you land on a plane in a place and it’s business as usual — you stay in your seat when everyone is jostling for position in the aisle, pulling down their bags in a hurry as if they can go somewhere before the door opens. Sometimes you land in a place and you just want to get out there — you find yourself standing with the other idiots in the aisle, jostling for position, trying to get off the plane nanoseconds before the people behind you. Arriving in Tbilisi I found myself among the later group.

I’ve never been to Georgia before — this extremely complex country that sits in probably the most ethnically diverse corridor in human history. The Caucasus — the area between the Black and Caspian Seas — is one of humanity’s dominant historic superhighways. Peoples from all across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe have used it as a land bridge to access regions beyond their geographic spheres. Including a curious group of milk drinkers who took over much of the known world because their armies had a mobile source of food.

As successive movements of people came through here over the ages they’ve littered their people at every step, like seeds dropping out of a hole in a pocket. Some of those seeds grew up into little communities who can still be found today where they were deposited — many being very different than those on the next valley beyond.

This is no different today — with Turkey, the Middle East, Russia, and Central Asia encroaching on all sides.

This is a fascinating, complex part of the world, and I couldn’t wait to get out there.

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My social strategy was changed some years back when I read a study about people’s perceptions of themselves in terms of being introverts/ socially awkward or extroverts/ socially skilled. It turns out that almost everybody thinks they lack adequate social skills — even those that others think are exceptionally lucid in this area.

That changed my life because it made me realize that everybody feels at least as awkward as I do, that I am no more of an misanthrope than anyone else, and that this wasn’t something that made me me or something that was my pet limitation, but was something overtly mundane that everybody felt. In other words, it’s normal.

This knowledge changed the terms of social engagement on my end. Imagining that the person I was communicating with may very well feel awkward and insecure oddly makes me feel poised and confident. While it may not always be true, of course, the device works.

In the arenas of travel or, in many cases, work, the spoils go to the people who show no social hesitation or fear. If you want to get what you want you need to engage people you don’t know. Sometimes you get shut down — the girl shakes her head and waves you off, the exec looks down at you, says “Right, right” and walks away — but most of the time you’re going to get at least somewhere.

It’s interesting that many people seem to be hesitant to make the first move in a social situation. If you are the social aggressor you have the advantage — the other person doesn’t know what’s coming, you have the ball, so to speak. Starting a conversation is the easy part.

There are times when we enter into potentially social places and find everyone sitting around on their mobile devices, not talking to anyone, in their own little cerebral sectors. They seem unsocial. You look around and say, “Wow, what a bunch of dicks.”

Really, many are just waiting for some one to talk to them but are too awkward to make the first move — perhaps thinking that everyone would rather spend their days on Facebook. They came into that same room, looked around, arrived at the same analysis as you, and joined the crowd.

Or at least this is the best thing to convince yourself of if you want to interact (it may not really be true but in the end doesn’t really matter much).

In this situation you also have to act immediately. If you come into the room, sit down, get all cozy on your mobile device as you pick up the vibe, then you’ve established your precedent — which is something that’s incredibly difficult to break later on. You need to enter the room with your social guns blazing.

I recently walked into an extremely small cafe in Kyiv. I took my cappuccino, squeezed by the barista, and found a chair in a room that was seriously hardly a few square meters big.

There was a 20-something guy on his computer to my left, and the young barista was to my right. They seemed to be friends.

While I can’t say that they seemed awkward I definitely disrupted their scene. I could have sat there, drank my cappuccino, then departed into the night like is the standard operating procedure for this engagement, but that didn’t seem right to me.

Instead, I began talking. They were shy at first, but I kept at it. They opened up. The guy was named Sasha, the girl Anna. They were from the same bumfuck town somewhere in Ukraine. They met when they were fifteen and moved to the big city together. He makes websites; she makes cappuccinos. They giggled in unison. They’re now engaged to be married. They told me some stories of their hometown and Kyiv.

I finished my coffee and they recommended that I go to a bar down the street. When out in the street I decided to take their advice.

When halfway through my drink in the bar they came walking in. They did this for no other reason than to say goodbye and to take a photo of them with me.

That’s travel.


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9 Reasons Why China’s Ghost Cities Are So Empty

During its urbanization boom period, China was producing enough new floorspace to cover Hong Kong two times over each year, so why are there still between 20 and 45 million empty homes across China?

What Is the Future of China’s Ghost Cities?
Ordos Skyscrapers Rising In The Distance

China has built hundreds of completely new cities across the country. What is the future of these places?

Do China’s Ghost Cities Offer a Solution for Syrian Refugees?

Can the masses of Syrian refugees in need of places to live be moved into China’s millions of empty apartments?

What Is The New Silk Road All About? A Good Explanation
The place where east meets west: Khorgos Gateway.

At a time where nobody really seems to know what this New Silk Road thing is, the CEO of Khorgos Gateway hits at its core.

New Silk Road Book Update: Research Travels Bout 3 Completed
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the focus of my recent bout of New Silk Road research travels.

I just finished up my third round of travels doing research for a book on the New Silk Road.

Riding the New Silk Highway: New Road Connects Europe and Asia
Riding the Western Europe - Western China Highway in November 2015.

A new expressway is being built that will connect the Yellow Sea coast of China with Western Europe. It’s called the Western Europe – Western China Road, but is better known as the New Silk Highway.

China Finds the New Frontiers of Innovation in the Maker Movement
Shenzhen makerspace

As China transitions from being the “world’s factory” to a global epicenter of innovation the maker movement is being brought to the forefront of national attention.

How Shenzhen Became the Global Epicenter of High-Tech Innovation
Shenzhen electronics factory

Shenzhen has become a dream city for the world’s makers and other high-tech hardware innovators.

The Great Shenzhen Cellphone Parts Exchange
Shenzhen used electronics parts market

Ever wonder what happens to your phone when it dies? It very well could end up back where it came from to be sold in this informal street market.

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