This article originally appeared on VICE Serbia
Miki is a 50-year-old Serbian man with a real passion for travel. In fact, he likes it so much so that he's taken 88 return flights to Beijing in the past 15 years. That's roughly 807,000 miles covered. A fairly random achievement, but nevertheless, an impressive one.
Obviously he's not flying just for the sake of it. And no, this isn't some riddle where he ends up being the pilot or a steward or something. His job is a little more illegal than that. Miki sells knockoff Chinese-made clothes from his "boutique" in central Belgrade.
Recently, I got the opportunity to have a quick chat with Miki—who didn't want to reveal his last name—about his trips to China, his clients, and his future plans. Here's what he had to say.
VICE: Seems like you're a fan of China. How often do you go there?
Miki: Usually about ten times a year, although I did have a break for several years. I've been traveling there quite regularly for the last six years—almost every month, actually. I remember the first time I went to China in 1999—I was there to scope out business opportunities. All I had was the sketch of a map that a friend drew for me to show me where to go, which shops to visit, and which hotels to stay in.
What sort of goods do you buy in China?
Mostly high-quality clothes: T-shirts, polos, hoodies, sweatshirts, shirts, skirts, sneakers, shoes, stilettos—that sort of thing.
How have you managed to make money off this when there are thousands of Chinese people selling their goods in Serbia?
We're not selling the same gear. They sell junk and I'm buying and selling premium stuff.
How often does one need to go to China to make an operation like this financially viable?
You only need to go there once to make money. But unfortunately things aren't as cheap there as they used to be. The country has seen incredible economic development lately. Some shop assistants are making up to £800 [$1,200] a month now. That said, they work 12 hours a day and only take one day off a month.
Do you only sell branded stuff?
Yes. Everything is really good quality: It lasts for six, seven years. Just like the original brands.
So, are they copies of the collection of a brand or are they the originals?
As you probably know, every international brand has their factory in China so what I'm selling is actually the original from the exact same factory. They just have different tags.
Where do you buy all this stuff?
When I started, there was this one shop where I bought all my stuff from. Nowadays, the business has grown a little and I'm buying from several places. The better-known store is called the "Silk Market"—after that it's probably the "Russian Shed." There's actually quite a lot of Russians who are "reselling" merchandise from Beijing.
It can't be easy getting the stuff into Serbia?
I ship it. I can't tell you more than that.
You must know Beijing pretty well, having been there 88 times.
Quite well. I even dare to take public transport these days. I always book two nights at the same hotel. I eat in different places, though. Mostly restaurants that have been adapted to suit European tastes.
I suppose you're a Chinese food expert now?
Not really. I'm not a fan of their cuisine. To be honest, I eat at McDonald's quite a lot.
Have you managed to learn the language?
Nope. I know a couple of words, I guess. Language isn't really a problem anymore, though. The new generations over there speak fluent English. In the old days, we had to use some sort of sign language to communicate. Things are much easier now.
What's your average customer like?
A lot of middle-class Serbians still think it's expensive to shop in Belgrade's fancy malls, so my "boutique" is a bit more attractive to them—they can get the same things for less money.
Makes sense. When someone asks what you do for a living, what do you say?
Well, I just say that I sell Chinese stuff. I tend to leave it at that.