Belt and Road promises to open up Asia like never before

Other than the takeover of Reading FC by the Dai siblings, the big announcement coming out of China this month that will change the world as we know it was the 900 billion dollar “One Belt, One Road” project.

Sounding like a line from a syrupy U2 song, One Belt, One Road refers to a Chinese initiative of unprecedented scale that will see more than 60 countries connected through high-speed rail, bridges, harbours, tunnels, airports and goodness knows what else in the next 5 years…hyperloops and spaceports maybe. Hence “Belt” and “Road” (though confusingly the “Road” is the sea – the so-called Maritime Silk Road). As the professional world loves acronyms, One Belt, One Road is also known as OBOR, not to be mistaken for something cobbled together by the banking sector.

While the name doesn’t translate well into English, OBOR has a clear enough vision and even a template from the past: the ancient Silk Road that connected China with Europe, when bearded traders slugged over mountains with camels and spices, and told fantastic tales.

Marco Polo was a long time ago, of course, and today’s Central Asian countries, the “stans” from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, are relatively unknown to travellers even through they account for a huge chunk of the globe.

Gleaming new highways built with OBOR money might change that, in time helping to make those flyover states between East and West even more appealing destinations. If anything, that midlife London-Kathmandu bike trip should be a less arduous experience.

Railways are shrinking the map further. Earlier this year, the first ever direct train service from China to the UK arrived in Barking after 17 days, passing through 10 countries on a 7,456 mile trip. This was just a freight service., however, and there’s no sign of a commercial service any time soon, which is perhaps just as well: just imagine trying to buy a ticket to China from a train station machine (it’s hard enough finding the right fare from Reading to Oxford).

Commercial bullet train services will, however, string together countries in Southeast Asia. Despite the ubiquity of today’s low-cost airlines, Southeast Asia is not an easy region to navigate.

OBOR will connect Jakarta to Bandung, Indonesia’s third biggest city and creative capital, through a high-speed rail project opening in 2019. More spectacular still, a high-speed line will connect Singapore with Kunming in southern China (Singapore Kunming Rail Link, “SKRL”), through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

The 3,000km project will include sections such as Singapore – Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok. SKRL will, in a sense, “unlock” cities along its route – like the Laotian capital Vientiane – making them more accessible and propelling them into the future. Backpacking through Mekong countries will never be the same again.

Of course, a lot of this might not happen. The world is complicated enough and fraught with uncertainty. But if there is one thing we all need right now, it’s optimism. And OBOR optimism doesn’t get bouncier than this:

Cebu or not Cebu? Startup Oasis provides digital nomad support in Philippines

Beach in Cebu

This might sound cliche, but the Philippines really is a name that conjures up images of idyllic beaches and islands (there are more than 7,000), probably to a larger extent than any other Southeast Asian destination, barring Thailand. Throughout the years the country has proved a strong lure for those seeking an escape or a chance to “find themselves”.

In the 1990s, back when the fax machine was the height of sophistication, young author Alex Garland was inspired to write his Gen-X classic The Beach after spending six months in El Nido (while the book itself was set in Thailand). And the rest, as they say, is history, with Garland more recently directing Oscar-winning Ex Machina. Such is the creative power of getting away from it all (while I’m admittedly still waiting for my own lightning bolt of inspiration).

Cebu City is a little more accessible than mystical El Nido, and that’s no bad thing. Budding entrepreneurs can easily escape the pressure cookers that are Hong Kong and Singapore by flying over to Cebu for the weekend, where thanks to Startup Oasis they can get an idea off the ground before swimming with manta rays (soothing for those pummelled brain cells).

Startup Oasis as the name suggests, is a sanctuary for startups, providing co-working, co-living and business support from a large villa (almost like a cross between The Apprentice and a tropical Big Brother, minus the television cameras).

Experienced designers and developers will take on an idea, shape it, and turn it into a web or mobile product, interacting with resident entrepreneurs throughout.

There are three packages available: prototype development for two weeks, a one-month summer camp for those “sleeping on an idea for too long”, and a three-month programme for existing entrepreneurs who need an extra pair of hands.

And thereafter, who knows? Perhaps we will see a new Alex Garland emerge, inspired by Cebu and fit for the post-capitalist age. How does an augmented reality version of swimming with whale sharks sound?

Le Wagon hosts digital nomad meetup in Shanghai

X-Space in Shanghai

The digital nomad movement is normally associated with spiritual places like Bali and Chiang Mai, rather than the financial hubs of this world – and for good reason. But as the name suggests, digital nomadism denotes location independence, and so the trend is rapidly finding its way into our big cities where you’re more likely to encounter a football field than a rice field.

And big cities frankly don’t come much bigger than Shanghai, a heaving megalopolis of 24 million souls (more than double the population of Belgium, or eight times the population of Wales, if you prefer), the scene of an upcoming digital nomad meetup.

On 11 May, coding bootcamp specialists Le Wagon Shanghai will deliver a free evening of digital nomadism talks on how to take advantage of our “ultra-connected world to work whatever suits freelancers”. The event will be held at bar/cafe/hipster space X-Space, Jiangning Road near Fengxian Lu, which has the added kudos of being located in my former neighbourhood.

Beginning at 7pm, the evening will include a snapshot of the key challenges relating to the digital nomad lifestyle in Shanghai, short talks from digital nomads on remote work, Q&A and drinks (obviously).

(With special thanks to Brian Tam for alerting me to this.)

Barcelona bootcamp offered to budding digital nomads

Barcelona skyline

If surrounded by fifty shades of beige, and the thought of following a location independent lifestyle in idyllic Ko Lanta appeals but you’re unsure where to begin (other than buying a ticket to Bangkok), a digital nomad bootcamp in Barcelona might nudge you in the right direction.

The Nomad Accelerator has launched a two-week programme that aims to equip participants with the relevant knowledge, skills and mindset to get started.

During the course, nomad wannabes will learn digital marketing skills, from how to build a search-optimised website and design landing pages with high conversions to social media, from 10 experienced nomads. The programme will also include interactive workshops as well as talks.

Starting on 31 July in the Catalan capital, the bootcamp will cost USD2,750 (accommodation included) with seats for 30 candidates, so get applying.

Mattioli Woods allows employees to become digital nomads for 12 months

Infinity pool in Kuala Lumpur

A British wealth management firm, Mattioli Woods, is looking to see how effective and productive remote working can be – by allowing two of their UK staff to combine work with travel through the Remote Work programme for a whole year.

Sensibly, the company recognises that to retain key talent “we sometimes have to make things happen that are outside our comfort zone,” in the words of their Chief People Officer.  The CEO also recognises that times are a-changing: “We have these millennials who come to work for different reasons than we do and some of the things they say may actually be right.”

Chris Smith and Suzanne Walker will spend 12 months visiting 12 cities around the world, beginning in Mexico City and ending in PP,  Cambodia. The two will work in serviced offices during the day, and reserve their free time for exploring surroundings and doing their own thing.

Meanwhile, if Chris and Suzanne wish to know more about Kuala Lumpur – their October port of call – I’d be more than happy to share tips!