Yuan Zhaohui has three hometowns in his heart. The first is Ulanqab, in North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where he was born; the second, Xi’an, in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, where he studied and worked; and, the third, Karaganda, in Kazakhstan, where his wife, Anita, was born.

In the context of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), the Silk Road City transnational e-commerce platform, established by Yuan and his wife, has helped boost trade and deepen the friendship between China and Kazakhstan.

One day, in August 2007, Yuan searched online for information about Karaganda, a city in Kazakhstan, almost immediately after he returned home from a gathering in Xi’an.

Why? He had met a 19-year-old girl, Anita, from Karaganda, during that gathering in Xi’an. He fell in love with Anita at first sight.

At that time, Anita was studying the Chinese language at Xi’an Jiaotong University, and Yuan was working with a local company after he had graduated from Xidian University (in 2005). The two began dating several months later.

As a light industry (the production of smallgoods sold directly to consumers rather than manufacturers or retailers) was underdeveloped in Karaganda, Anita often helped her relatives and friends, in her hometown, buy Chinese products. She shipped the products to them. Yuan also helped Anita buy and ship products to her relatives and friends.

Yuan Zhaohui,
Photo: Yuan Zhaohui, his wife Anita and their Child.

After Anita graduated from Xi’an Jiaotong University, in 2013, she told Yuan that she wanted to stay in Xi’an. Yuan was deeply touched. On September 9, 2014, they wed in Karaganda.

Once, in 2014, when the couple was vacationing in Karaganda, Yuan realized how much inconvenience the residents had experienced as a result of the underdeveloped light industry.

So, he decided to establish two stores, one in Karaganda and the other in Alma-Ata, to sell various Chinese products, such as daily necessities. Different from traditional stores, with commodities on shelves, Yuan’s shops did not have products in stock.

Instead, the shops had several laptops and computers. After customers chose, ordered and paid for their products online, Yuan arranged to have the items shipped to them from China.

The two stores grew in popularity, and Anita’s family members helped run the shops. In addition to ordinary consumers, many of whom bought daily necessities, many wholesalers purchased items through the shops.

As BRI progressed, Yuan and Anita in 2015 established a cross-border, e-commerce trade company in Xi’an. They also opened a store in Xi’an to display speciality products from Kazakhstan.

Given the success of Yuan and Anita, and especially of their business mode, many businessmen in Kazakhstan have adopted their business practices. Anita has become the representative to China of the Union of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Kazakhstan.

Yuan and Anita often travel between Xi’an and various cities in Kazakhstan, including Karaganda and Alma-Ata. Exchanges have increased between the governments and businesses of Xi’an and Karaganda since the two became sister cities last year.

Chinese businessmen often visit Yuan’s stores in Kazakhstan, to learn from his international trade experiences. Yuan’s company in Xi’an has received many visiting businessmen from Kazakhstan.

“We are lucky to have enjoyed many preferential policies, thanks to BRI. The logistics problem had been bothering us for many years. But it has been solved.” Yuan says.

Initially, the cost of postal delivery was high, and it usually took a month, sometimes longer, for products shipped from Shaanxi Province to arrive in Kazakhstan. Yuan and Anita eventually began shipping the goods by truck, but the cost was still high.

The seventh Euro-Asia Economic Forum, held in Xi’an in 2017, helped enhance exchanges and communications between Xi’an and various cities in the countries along BRI routes.

On March 24, 2017, the China-Europe Chang’an freight train, which was loaded with goods, departed from Xi’an Port, in Xi’an International Trade and Logistics Park, in Xi’an. The park is an integral part of the China (Shaanxi) Pilot Free Trade Zone. That was the first time the China-Europe Chang’an freight train was used to transport ordinary consumer goods. Yuan and Anita felt proud, as their products were on that train.

“Only with a connectivity of facilities, can we realize unimpeded trade. With convenient transportation, we have more confidence and ability to deal with growing orders,” Yuan says. By shipping goods via China-Europe Chang’an freight train, it takes less than 10 days for Chinese commodities to reach Central Asia and Russia.

During the first quarter of this year, the China-Europe Chang’an freight train made 656 trips, 2.3 times more than the same period last year.

With the expansion of his cross-border e-commerce business, Yuan has established two distribution centers in Kazakhstan, three distribution centers in Russia and one distribution centre in Belarus by the end of 2019. Those centres have helped him reduce costs and shorten delivery times. Yuan has also established more than 2,000 stores in the countries along BRI routes.

“By relying on the China-Europe Chang’an freight train, we hope to enlarge our cross-border e-commerce platform, and to expand our business to more countries in the future,” Yuan says.