I participated last Sunday in the Vogalonga in Venice. The 30km race was restricted to human-powered boats, of which there were about 3,900, with around 8,000 rowers and paddlers. It was quite a spectacle!
As we were rowing through the canal in Murano we stopped at a (random) landing stage to change our crew around. The owner of the landing stage (and house) appeared with a bottle of sparkling wine and invited us into his garden for lunch. We gratefully accepted, spent over an hour with him and his wife, and gave up any hope of winning the race—not that we had any hope of doing so anyway!
As I rediscovered Venice during the rest of the weekend I was reminded how oriental the city is; at times I felt that I could have been in Bukhara in Uzbekistan or Isfahan in Iran. The city’s architecture, and its immense wealth, came from the fact that it was at the end of the Silk Road.
A Chinese TV crew interviewed us as we launched our boats before the race, and I was struck by the number of Asian tourists in the town. One local told us that the city was “flooded” now not by the sea but by a wave of Chinese tourists who were “travelling the new silk road” to Venice.
China is indeed building a new silk road: they call it “One Belt, One Road”. It is really two projects: The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road.
Costing as much as $8 trillion and affecting 65 countries, it will stretch from the edge of East Asia all the way to East Africa and Central Europe by the time of it’s estimated completion in 2049.
The Chinese government calls the initiative “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future,” while one speaker at the recent FT Commodity Conference in Lausanne described it as “the most important thing that is going on in the world that everyone is ignoring”.
The Washington Post recently criticised the initiative, suggesting that it might be a big mistake. They wrote that the initiative “evokes romantic comparisons to the ancient Silk Road, but there is a more recent chapter of history that urges caution. More than a century and a half ago, the United States was a rising power racing westward, building transcontinental railways that delivered limited benefits and exacted a high cost from society.”
The first time I became aware of the One Belt One Road initiative was when I saw this sign a couple of years back above some road construction work in Central Asia,
This is a better map., originally from The Wall Street Journal, that shows the Maritime Belt stretching to Mombasa in Kenya and and the road/rail line to Rotterdam in Europe.
You can also find an excellent infographic here.
As we left our lunch hosts and headed back across the lagoon to Venice we were caught in an hour-long traffic jam as literally thousands of boats tried to enter the Canal Regio, the narrow but stunningly beautiful waterway that leads to the Grand Canal–and the end of our race in St Mark’s Square. As we inched our way forward through a tangle-mangle of dragon boats, rowing boats, canoes and pedalos, I couldn’t help thinking that if the Chinese had had anything to do with it they would have widened the Canal Regio years ago!