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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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“You need a visa to go there.”

“No I don’t.”

“Yes you do.”

The lady at the bus station was right. I do need a visa to go to Belarus. For some reason I thought I could get a visa at the border — something that is very much not possible. Belarus is probably one of the most tenuous, intensive, procedure-laden countries in the world for a Western, grade-A passport holder to get a visa to.

Maybe I’m slipping? I usually know the visa policies of almost every country forward and backward.

Anyway, I can just show up in Ukraine and get 90 days. I guess I will go there instead.

I didn’t have any meetings set up yet in Belarus anyway and I’m not sure how involved they are on the NSR besides having a some China-Europe trains going through it. They say they want to become a hub on the network, but with visa policies like that I doubt this could be a reality.

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Latvia Has Super Internet

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I’ve previously written about how today’s businesses and populations will start forming around high bandwidth hubs and how fiber has become the rivers of the 21st century.

Over the past couple of days I’ve received a good lesson on the incredible difference between a place that just has internet and a high bandwidth hub. In Germany and Poland the internet was terrible — the worst I’ve experienced in at least half a decade. In Berlin it was like 1999 again.

Yesterday from Warsaw I tried to upload an audio recording of an interview to Dropbox. It was around a 100MB file. The estimated time it said the upload would take was roughly one hour. Needless to say, the connection kept breaking and the file didn’t upload.

Today I’m sitting in a cafe in Riga, Latvia, and I tried to upload the same file.

One minute.

Seriously, in one minute it was fully uploaded.

The difference? Latvia is a high bandwidth hub and Germany and Poland are languishing in the digital third world.

This will have an impact on where businesses — which are increasingly global and can operate out of more places — will gravitate to.

The internet is not the same everywhere, and a good connection in the digital world today is like being in a good sea port or a major transportation junction yesterday.

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Flying To Riga, Latvia

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I’m at the Warsaw airport now, on a bus that’s taking me out to the plane that will take me to Riga, Latvia. 

Why am I going to Riga? I’m not really sure. Latvia doesn’t have any New Silk Road projects that I’m aware of, it fully lies outside of my realm of research for this project. So why am I going there?

It’s the weekend — I can’t have any meetings or do any interviews or set up any visits, so I may as well write my articles from someplace else and prepare for getting back on track in Belarus next week.

Actually, Riga is only supposed to be a transfer point. I’m ticketed to catch a subsequent flight to Vilnius in Lithuanian, but I think I’m going to conveniently miss this connection.

I’m sitting here looking at my boarding pass that says “Riga,” and I can’t turn it down. The other boarding pass that has “Vilnius” on it has already been tossed into the trash.

From Riga I’ll probably go up to Talinn, in Estonia — also because of why not?

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This is the view from my window in Warsaw. It’s of Marszałkowska street. There’s good action down below, being right above a trolley stop. There is a roughly fabricated balcony that extends out from my dorm room that I can stand on and look at people walking by on the sidewalk one story below.

This part of the city was around 80% destroyed in the war. While the rebuilding doesn’t seem to have been done hastily it doesn’t seem to have had the same amount of grandiose planning as say Berlin or the attempt at recreating the national heritage that was lost as was done in Krakow. Warsaw just seemed to have rebuilt normal city, and it works.

There is a modern shopping mall that seems very new a block to the south of my hostel. I spent the afternoon in the food court there revising and doing additional research for an article. It’s kind of unsettling sometimes to look up from an hour of being completely absorbed in the work to notice that you’re surrounded by people chomping noodles and slurping big cups of pop. But the mall food court is ultimately a good place to work, it has everything I need: a table, a chair, internet, bathrooms, easy access to food (clearly), as is free to sit in for as long as I want.

Cafes can get crowded and you generally need to pay for an overpriced menu item to sit in them.

While working in hostels…well, forget that. Unless it’s a particularly large hostel with a large amount of public space — which isn’t too common — this is just a horrible thing to have to do.

So I sit around in mall foodcourts. I suppose it’s not the most romantic place to be writing about the New Silk Road — you’d figure that I should probably be sitting on some Central Asian sand dune on a Persian rug next to a steaming pile of camel dung….

I had two meetings in Warsaw. Both were at the Bookhouse Cafe. One was with a highly regarded Polish Sinologist, author, and former ambassador, and the other was with a lawyer who does research on the New Silk Road and China to advise the Polish government. These will be featured in my upcoming book and articles, so I won’t go into this in any depth here.

Warsaw probably has the most high-tech McDonald’s restaurants on the planet. They’re almost fully automated. When you walk in you enter into a foyer that has computers where you order what you want and pay. Then you go over to a pickup counter to get your food, which is still made by actual humans (for now). To use the toilets you need to punch in a special combination that’s written on your receipt into the lock on the door.

The one thing that’s not automated here is the security: a big goon in guard gear realized that I was shooting videos and yelled at me to stop. However, I was able to get enough to put it together and publish on our YouTube channel.

Europe has been experimenting with a lot of different types of automation to streamline and cut out laborers from the commercial process, such as cash-less stores that are fully self-checkout.

The one job that’s secure here for the time being is in security. While they’ve come up with ways to cut people out of the payment process they don’t seem to have figured out how to keep people from stealing things. So they still need these guards checking everybody…or yelling at vloggers, as I discovered.




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This is the view from my window at the Relax Hotel in Lodz, the third largest city in Poland. Being located almost exactly in the country’s center, it is a major regional logistics hub — which is why I’m here.


When I look out this window I see A parking area for the hotel and nearby buildings, which is nearly always full of thirty year old guys drinking beer. At first, I thought this was the meet up point for some local street drunks. It took me a couple of days before I realized that they were actually working for a home improvement/ painting company. While waiting for jobs they apparently sit right below my window getting sloshed.

I was told that Lodz was built virtually from scratch by German and Jewish manufacturers and merchants, who found its location between a mess of different rivers and streams economically favorable for running factories. Not coincidentally, this was the location of the first steam powered factory in Poland and the Russian empire.

The remnants of this manufacturing empire still remain. Some giant factories have been converted into hotels, housing projects, and shopping malls.

At the time of WWI Lodz was one of the most densely populated and most polluted cities in the world.

In WWII the city lost 420,000 people (300,000 Jews) — more than half its population.

Today, the city’s population again is in decline. From its peak in 1990 it has dropped to around 750,000. Being located 130 kilometers from Warsaw, the country’s political and economic capital serving as a sink draining away the city’s talent.

Lodz is kind of a European oddity. Being built in the 19th century it’s not a medevil city, so it lacks the typical medevil market square that most European cities are centered around. Instead, it has the longest commercial street in Europe extending down the center of it. It was once just a road that connected together two provinces, but when Lodz began growing it was transformed into the emerging city’s center of gravity.

Called Piotrkowska Street, it stretches for around five kilometers from end to end, essentially rendering the city into a very long corridor — kind of like a clump of dough that’s been pulled into noodles. It is full of 19th century buildings — some of which are incredibly ornate and immaculately decorated — that are full of small shops, bars, cafes, restaurants, clubs, and bakeries. This is where everybody comes when they get off of work to dine and drink at tables set up along the sidewalk.

There is something about this street that’s almost mythical. It is just so long, with so much activity happening, little stories being played out at each stage; it’s linear nature making it seem like an odd sort of like a comic strip.

Once I finished my work, I spent my days in Lodz walking up and down Piotrkowska Street like everybody else, sitting in cafes and bars that poured out onto the sidewalk, sipping cheap beer in the summer sun, blogging on my BlackBerry or just looking at the people walking by.

I can’t say I found Poland to be a particularly social place — merely sitting down at a cafe isn’t enough to ensure conversation like in some other places — but I didn’t find the place particularly off putting either. The people sitting around me would politely answer my questions, but it was clear that they had no real interest in conversation.


I have to re-emphasize the point that the architecture on Piotrkowska Street. Although relatively recent for Europe, was impressive. Impressive, first off, because it was still there — Lodz wasn’t bombed to bits like everything else during the war because of its factories — and secondly because they are a part of this grand five kilometer long ensemble of buildings that seemed to have been designed with the intention of out-competing the buildings surrounding them.

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People seem to prepare to be facinated when I begin telling them about my Silk Road project. I have a good book publisher, I have been publishing many articles about it in big media — pretty impressive, right? Then I start talking about shipping containers and, well, that’s the end of that.

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The shipping container could be called the camel of the New Silk Road. It’s what makes this entire network of multimodal trade routes between China and Europe possible. It’s what allowed globalization to happen in the first place, making transportation vastly more efficient and drastically cheaper, making it economically viable to manufacture products in places like China and shipping them to markets in Europe and the USA. The Economist once called the shipping container more important to globalization than all the trade pacts by all the governments combined.

Without the shipping container our world would look very, very different. The gulf between developed and under-developed countries more than likely would have continued growing, and we’d now be looking at a few rich countries floating upon a sea that’s economically and infrastructurally “off the grid.”

Globalization same-paged the world, and it was two technologies, the shipping container and the internet, which allowed this to happen.

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It is easy to look at a shipping container — a steel box that’s of a standardized size and has standardized corners that it can be picked up by — and think that they’ve always been around, that’s it’s something so mundane and basic that we certainly always must have been using them. But it’s not true. The shipping container is a relatively recent invention.

In fact, the shipping container didn’t appear until the 1950s and wasn’t widely implemented until the late 1960s. The story goes that a man who ran a trucking company named Malcom McLean got so angry over the amount of time that his trucks would have to spend waiting for cargo to be loaded in seaports that he vowed to change how shipping itself was done.

After the Second World War there was a global explosion in shipping, and the ports of the world simply couldn’t keep up with the volumes anymore, and ships and trucks were finding themselves waiting in long lines, stuck in ports sometimes for days. The method of loading and unloading ships in those days were similar how it had been done for thousands of years: miscellaneous cargo of all sizes and shapes would be packed in and unloaded by longshoremen. A system that proved no longer efficient enough for the rapidly modernizing economies of the US and Europe.

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McClean then came up with the miltimodal shipping container: a steel box that could be loaded with cargo and shipped by sea, rain, and truck — oftentimes being passed between all three during the course of a single journey. This meant that McClean’s trucks could pull into a port and have cargo loaded almost directly onto their trucks straight from the ships without any packing or unpacking. It was a one size fits all approach and the entire planet essentially had to buy into.

This is really what’s really incredible about this story: without standardization the multimodal shipping container is just another steel box. What makes this invention significant is that shipping, trucking, and rail companies, along with the ports of the world, all needed to upgrade the types of equipment they used and completely reconfigure how they did things.

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It was a revolution that has impacted all phases of our lives, a revolution that allowed for a global division of labor, a revolution that has allowed countries to transition from backwaters to global economic hubs, a revolution that made China a superpower, a revolution which sparked hundreds of millions of new middle class individuals, a revolution that made it possible for use to have fresh vegetables year round, a revolution that made that bottle of New Zealand, French, or Portuguese wine that you may be drinking so cheap — a revolution that lead to my father being laid off from his job and my city being sent into a downward economic spiral.

Along with the internet, the shipping container is for sure the greatest invention of the past century.

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An example of how cheap shipping now is was pointed out by Bart Kuipers, a professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and an advisor to the port there:

One shipping container can hold 18,000 bottles of wine. Right now, the cost of ocean shipping is lower than it’s ever been, and the price to ship a container around the world is hovering around $800. That means it costs roughly four and a half cents to ship each bottle, which is hardly half a percent of the value of even cheap wine.

“The emergence of a new stable prosperous middle class of many hundreds of millions of world citizens is one of the economic miracles of the past century, and has largely been made possible because of the container,” Kuipers said.

The shipping container changed everything.

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Travel long enough and you may start to find yourself looking for routines in the places that you show up in. You may find yourself walking along the same routes, eating meals at the same places, hanging out in the same cafes and bars, and talking with the same people day after day. If not exceptionally busy with research, projects, etc, I usually find myself putting together a nice little routine by about day two in a place.

Here in Lodz I usually end my days by going down to the dinning room of the Hotel Relax and talking a little with Anna. She usually doesn’t have much work to do by that time.

She works at the hotel in three day shifts. For 24 hours straight during these days she will be there on duty, not going home and all or even being able to see her two daughters. She just works.

Anna’s husband left five years ago to go and work in New York. She hasn’t been there to see him and it seems as if he hasn’t been back since. The family is divided in the pursuit of work, and this is normal.

As I travel and talk with people it is clear that we live in an uprooted planet. Families are dispearsed across incredible distances, kids are growing up without really ever knowing their fathers or mothers. This is the age of the remote family, with those who can going off to where the grass is greener and sending the spoils back home so those who are there can live a little better.

This phenomenon is not just for low status migrant workers doing manual labor either. My friend Konrad, who works in logistics, sees his family only once or twice per year. My friend Karl, who runs a dry port, only sees his family one day each month. I can keep going on with examples, which would eventually end up including myself.

This is a phenomenon of our times: opportunity is always over the hill and far away, and those who sieze it are those willing to leave those they love behind. In the end, this is a move out of love, out of the need to provide something better for those you care for. But the sacrifice is time with them — a very hard bargain. 

Now, there have been many, many uphevals throughout history where families have been spatially broken apart for economic reasons. When my grandfather was 13 he and one of his brothers were taken aside by their father. They were told that they would have to leave, that the family couldn’t afford to feed them and the rest of their siblings anymore. This was during the Great Depression. They were given a nickle or so each and sent out to the highway. They hitchhiked to California, not returning until the economic situation improved.

But today this phenomenon, for the most part, isn’t an upheval of economic calamity but an upheval of opportunity. We leave our families now not just to make ends meet but to make ends meet better. Most of us could stay at home, do something, and make less money, but we chose to go and reap the spoils of accomplishment.

In Phnom Penh a man named Stephen Evans said something I won’t forget: “Establishing yourself in a new career is an inherently selfish thing to do.”

He is in Phnom Penh, his wife and young child in Vietnam.

He knows this and he’s right.

I’ve missed half of my baby daughter’s life so far traveling doing research for my New Silk Road book — seizing opportuinity, trying to get something more than I would otherwise have. But I don’t view this as something to feel sorry for myself about. I have it pretty good compared to many other pursuers of ambition across the world — at least I’ve been able to be there the other half of the time. In this age that’s pretty good.

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Watching Polish TV

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Whenever I come into a country for the first time one of the first things I do is watch a little local television. It’s like looking in through a big picture window into the living room of the culture — this is what these people spend their time thinking about.

Now, what you can really take from this may seem a little dubious — I mean, you’re not going to say, “I learned this about that culture because I watched TV last night so I know what to do in this situation.” No, it’s more subtle than that. It’s just enough to give you an impression, just enough to give you a feel of the cultural contours of a place, just enough to see where the sense of humor begins and a little of where the values lie — or, more often, don’t.

Mostly, I watch it because it’s hilarious. Not hilarious as in finding the shows themselves particularly humorous but hilarious as in “What the fuck?”

Sometimes, what is happening on the screen seems insane — like in Indonesia. Or just plain weird — like in Japan. In rural China one of the most popular TV shows is Tom and Jerry, and watching old people cracking up over the cat and mouse hurting each other tells you a little about the culture and what’s considered funny out there.

There is sect of humor that is derived from the unexpected and abject thrashing of your own morality and parameters of taboo — the shock value of someone saying something offensive in a witty or unfathomable way. Applying American morality when viewing television in many countries often produces this type of amusement in torrents.

I’m in Lodz, Poland now sitting in the dining area of the Relax Hotel watching TV and drinking a cup of coffee. On the screen are a bunch of white people with their skin painted black with costumed, exaggerated African features — curly afro and dreadlocks wigs, ridiculously painted on accentuated lips. They are acting like they are in some kind of Southern Baptist church service, singing gospel songs.

What the fuck?

Political correctness is an abscess of far western culture. The concept just doesn’t exist in most other places, and making a sport out of being offended isn’t really a popular thing to do and stating what’s perceived to be the uncomfortable obvious isn’t as taboo.

On the other hand, real racism also often rampant in many of these places as well, and the mainstreams of these cultures tend to lack awareness, acceptance, and tolerance for other cultural and racial subsets.

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3000 Blog Posts

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I’ve now blogged over 3,000 times on Vagabond Journey.

The first post went up on April 1, 2004, and it was nothing to speak of. It was really the most unpromising beginning to something that would eventually take on career-like proportions.

I had no idea at that time that over twelve years later I would still be pushing the publish button almost every day. I had no idea that blogging — which was something sort of embarrassing to do that you didn’t tell anyone about at that time — would become my sole source of income for a four year period and that my family would fully live off of it for two years. I had no idea what I was getting into. I also had no idea how much I would enjoy it.

What started out as a way to show my parents what I do when I travel grew into a business and then descended into what it is now: something for me to do to relax a little between writing articles and working on books, a way of recording the little in between stories that would probably otherwise be forgotten. Oddly, I make more money off of this blog now than I ever have.

Besides travel funds, this blog has given me the most significant professional opportunities that I’ve ever had — and, really, could ever imagine.

My first book deal came from this blog.
My first job in big media came from this blog.
My job as a research editor — the highest paying per hour job I’ve had yet (minus public speaking) — came from this blog.

If anyone told me that this is what blogging would get me when I first started I would have keeled over in laughter. In actuality, nobody would ever have said anything like this — it would have been just too ridiculous.

“You’re like a teenage girl trying to get discovered in a shopping mall,” the woman who would someday become my wife once berated me for my obsessive blogging regimen in early 2009 in Istanbul.

I brought this statement back up to her recently, seven years later.

“I guess that really happened,” she said. “You really did get discovered in a shopping mall.”

3,000 blog posts.

But how much is 3,000 really?

3,000 is roughly the amount of miles between Bangor, Maine and Quartzsite, Arizona, Paris and Tehran, or Beijing and Kabul.

3,000 is how many days there are in 8 years and two and a half months.

3,000 is the number of roubles Dmitri Fyodorovich stole from Katerina.

3,000 is a lot.

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LODZ, Poland- Today consisted of a meeting with the marshal of Lodzkie region (the guy who runs the province), a lecture at the University of Lodz, a visit to one of the main dry ports of Europe, and then a dinner interview with a very well connected university professor who runs a prominent China-focused think tank. This day directly contrasts against those in Brussels where I did little more than walk from cafe to cafe, sidewalk bar to sidewalk bar hanging out and blogging on my BlackBerry.

As I lay here in bed, looking up at the ceiling my head spins with segments of conversations that I had, things that I’d seen, and connections — or lack thereof — that I was able to make between what I was told today and what I’ve been told throughout the past year of doing research on this topic in China, Central, Southeast, and South Asia. Sometimes I feel like I’m on the verge of understanding a new way of economic and political engagement that will change the paradigm of how we view our world and our place in it. Sometimes I feel as if I’m digging deep in a chest full of clutter for something that isn’t really there. The area between these two extremes is where the New Silk Road runs through.

Today was all made possible by the aforementioned university professor who is very highly regarded advisor to the government on issues relating to China. He was an interesting character — extremely ambitious, extremely intelligent, and understands the connection economy and how to utilize it — and is ultimately one of the individuals laying the building blocks of the Silk Road.

The meeting with the marshal will provide fodder for some articles and will be featured in the book, so I won’t get into details now. It was a fascinating talk with a guy who’s directly involved with the political side of Poland-China relations. One interesting thing that he said was that he only found out about Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province from a Forbes forum that was held around five or so years ago. This discovery lead to the formation of the first regular and reliable China-Europe direct train. The rest is history…

I feel a little bad about the fact that the lecture I gave today wasn’t as good as it could have been. I couldn’t use my laptop and had to plug in my presentation into one of their laptops with flash drive. This would have been fine except for the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to make it show the “presenter view,” which had my notes in it. Rather than momentarily clogging up the works and fixing the problem I gave the entire hour long talk without notes. I got through it, of course, but it wasn’t nearly as engaging or fluid as it usually is.

Speaking in front of people means adapting fast to unforeseen circumstances. I misinterpreted this as an unforeseen circumstance that I should roll with rather than something that I should have slammed the breaks down on and fixed.

Doing an hour long presentation without notes? How cocky do you have to be to try that?

This is probably one of my biggest personality defects: I truly believe beyond all semblance of reason and intelligence that I can do anything. I will step up and try to arm wrestle a guy twice my size and really believe I’m going to win. Even when I lose I still believe that I will win the next time. Perhaps I’m like that chihuahua on the beach nipping at the ankles of all the real sized dogs — which could swallow him with one chomp if they wanted.

I like ports of all types. I did a little series on Vagabond Journey a while back about the ports of the world. There is just something about this insane global network of moving physical goods that I find infinitely fascinating. Ports are the conveyor belts that move the world. I like looking at the names on the containers and thinking of where they’re from, where they’ve been, what’s in them, and where they’re going. Travel for 16 years you start to feel like a shipping container — always being filled with stuff from all over the world, kept in perpetual motion from city to city, country to country, port to port.




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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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