Dog food and croissants – a glimpse of life in Bujumbura


 

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Heart shaped Burundi

Heart shaped Burundi

In the lobby of the Martha Hotel in Bujumbura is a colourful map of Burundi and it struck me that it looks very much like a human heart, complete with valves, arteries and an aorta! How apt, then, that this small and somewhat unknown country is pretty much in the heart of Africa. Bordered on the west by Lake Tanganyika and Tanzania to the east, Burundi nestles just south of central Africa’s other mini nation of Rwanda. Like its neighbour to the north the country has been through much upheaval in the past twenty years. Rwanda infamously suffered one of the worst genocides of the 20th century and these atrocities made global headlines. Burundi’s problems, however, were not reported so widely and hence it seems to be one of the continents ‘unknown’ nations.

Burundi was a no go area for over a decade from 1993 until 2005 during which a civil war raged with an estimated death toll in excess of 300,000. The war was related to the troubles in Rwanda in that it was borne out of the ethnic divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Since the end of the war and the launching of a peace process life has been mostly tranquil and positive however Burundi still has the unenviable position of propping up several unwanted global statistical lists:

A serene street in the expat suburb of Rohero

A serene street in the expat suburb of Rohero

So you may think that my visit to Bujumbura, the country’s capital city, in May was a lesson in the worst of African poverty but what I actual found was quite different. You can see from my photos that the bleak rankings seem to contrast in many ways with what I observed. Obviously I saw the veneered surface of life but I’ve been to other countries which have a far less welcoming veneered surface. The city centre is fairly small and immediately to the east are the serene suburbs of Rohero, Gatoke and Kiriri (the latter very popular with diplomats) which are prime areas for expatriate abodes. I stayed at the Martha Hotel in Rohero and my daily walks into town were coupled with flowers in bloom and shady tree-lined avenues which could be from a brochure for Western suburban utopia. Okay, I’m waxing lyrical a tad there but my point is that the Bujumbura which I experienced, and which assignees experience, is certainly not one which may be imagined by the nation’s poor performances on the above lists.

Le Café Gourmand - The place to grab a coffee in Bujumbura

Le Café Gourmand – The place to grab a coffee in Bujumbura

A great example of this was a sight which I cannot remember seeing elsewhere in Africa (except maybe South Africa) but which is commonplace on the streets of Europe and North America – locals with a pet dog on a lead! I had to double-take when I saw it but sure enough there were a couple of Burundians with two well fed dogs complete with pink leashes and jangly metal name tags around their collars (the dogs that is, not the people!). That’s not where the familiar sights ended. When you step inside the Café Gourmand, located at prime crossroads in the centre of the city, you feel instantly transported to a gourmet delicatessen or boulangerie in Paris. Expats and locals alike meet over a coffee and set up their laptops to access the free wi-fi whilst taking an occasional bite from one of the many products on offer. Everything from freshly baked baguettes, mango smoothies, cream-filled éclairs, rich buttery croissants, toasted paninis and ice cream sundaes – it’s all quaffed with a smile at this Bujumbura institution.

Towards the west of the city centre the streets and buildings give way to Lake Tanganyika and on the shores of Africa’s second largest lake is another expat hangout – this one with a more relaxed ambience. The Bora Bora beach club is a favourite weekend and evening get away a few kilometres from the bustle of town where you can lounge for as long as you like under the equatorial sun with a cool beer and a pizza.

And if all of that isn’t enough to remind you of home when in Burundi just remember that you can head to Au Bon Prix where you can be sure to find all the dog food you’ll need!

 

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Is Albania closer to EU membership?


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This past winter was a very wet one for me and my fellow Brits as the rain seemed to lash down unabated for weeks on end. Whilst the downpours have quietened somewhat in the UK other parts of Europe have been suffering at the hands of the rain gods. In mid-May parts of the Balkans were subjected to the worst flooding in centuries. Serbia and Croatia were the worst affected but the rains have been lingering for a while in this part of the world. I was in Tirana, the capital of Albania, at the beginning of May, and even back then the rain was heavy and consistent enough for me to throw away another pair of footwear due to over-saturation on the data collection trail!

Tirana's very own section of the Berlin Wall

Tirana’s very own section of the Berlin Wall

So, besides being wet, how did I find my first visit to one of Europe’s least known countries? Well, having prepped up about its history since World War II and having been to most other former Eastern Bloc countries, it was pretty much as I expected – a small Eastern European country still trying to shake off legacies from its communist past.

After 1960 Albania and Yugoslavia were the only two non-USSR aligned nations in the Eastern Bloc, and during the Cold War Albania became an out-and-out communist dictatorship. This has left a rather drear legacy and has seen the country fall well behind other nations who were part of the Eastern Bloc. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s the likes of Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic made swift strides towards EU membership and embraced the new opportunities which came their way. Albania was the last country to see its communist regime outside of the USSR topple and, having applied for EU membership in 2009, has only just been awarded candidate status. They join Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey and will hope that eventual full EU membership doesn’t take the 13 years it took for Croatia.

During the Cold War years Albania isolated itself from the West and its government isolated itself from its people. There is an area near the centre of Tirana called Blloku which was closed off to the ‘people’ and was an exclusive residential area for the political elite. After the communist era ended the villas and former homes of these elite were soon converted into modern flats and apartments. Development continued apace and the area is now the thriving heart of the Tirana entertainment scene. The 18 or so blocks of Blloku (literally ‘the Block’) seem to be wall-to-wall, cafes, bars, restaurants, boutiques and apartments – there’s even a store selling official Apple products. It’s also one of the most sought after areas where expats like to live – especially the young and single ones!

Bunker from the Cold War era

Bunker from the Cold War era

There are still signs of the past, even in the regenerated Blloku area. Perhaps the strangest, and most commonplace, sight from this period is the myriad of bunkers. These quirky concrete domes are dotted around the city and are remnants from communist rule when 700,000 were built at great cost to the already financially crippled country. They were never used for their military purpose and today are seen as a bleak reminder of the Cold War years, although some have been transformed into tourist spots, animal shelters, cafes and even homes.

Something else to look out for on the streets of Tirana besides the bunkers are the ubiquitous drainage and manhole voids on the pavements and in the gutters. Drains, you may think, are no big deal for a European city – but in Albania they seem to like drains without grills on top of them. I mention this as it wasn’t just one or two that I came across but pretty much every street I wandered down. After digging around on the internet it seems the reason is not a lax health and safety approach from the city administrators but the unfortunate result of ‘organised’ crime! Apparently there is a fortune to be made in the scrap metal market in Albania and so under the cover of night the crooks do their dirty work and remove the metalwork. The result is a rather hazardous pedestrian landscape, especially at night in the dim, unlit corners of the city.

Yet another random hole in the ground

Yet another random hole in the ground

I’d like to end on a more positive note about Albania – and it involves a British comedian, actor and singer who died four years ago at the age of 95. During the 41-year communist era of dictator Enver Hoxha, the Brit Norman Wisdom (or Sir Norman Wisdom) was one of the only Western actors whose films were allowed to be shown in the country. Hoxha appreciated Wisdom’s characters’ struggles against capitalism. As such he became a cult figure and when I mentioned his name a couple of times to taxi drivers it was greeted both times with a smile and a thumbs up. I usually find that football, or sport generally, is the easiest way to get a smile from a local when there is a language barrier, but I never thought it would be Sir Norman Wisdom!

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Guest blog: Panama – the Miami of Central America


I’ll shortly be writing about my own recent trips to Albania and Burundi. In the meantime, my colleague Shona, who has been collecting data in Panama, shares some of her experiences. Regards Mark.

This year marks 100 years since the first ship travelled the length of the Panama Canal when it first opened in August 1914. A 77 kilometre stretch of water linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (via the Caribbean Sea), the canal was previously controlled by the USA until full ownership was ceded to Panama at the end of 1999. The centenary anniversary coincides with the canal expansion project, which is set to be completed within the next year, doubling the canal’s capacity and allowing a vast increase in trade and tourism that is dependent on this cut through. The expansion has run in parallel with other developments occurring across Panama City, which I visited on a data collection trip earlier this year.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

Panama City has begun to shake off its reputation as a hide-out for criminals and tax dodgers, having been removed from the Organization of Economic Development’s ‘grey list’ of tax havens in 2011. Despite poverty levels in Panama hovering above 30%, and corruption remaining a pervasive problem (Panama was ranked number 102 out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2013), driving through the city centre, the comparisons with large, developed US cities seem fairly evident. Panama City is often referred to as the ‘Miami of Central America’ and the skyscrapers along the waterfront Balboa Avenue, from the domineeringly luxurious Trump Towers, to the collection of high rise office and apartment blocks, are reminiscent of the South Beach skyline. Nestled at the southern end of this vastly developed avenue is the Old Town, Casco Viejo, a World Heritage Site that houses a cluster of buildings dating back to the 17th century- and a buzzing nightlife enjoyed by locals and expats. The best views of the Panama City skyline can be seen from the rooftops of smart bars which sit side by side with the historic ruins of neglected buildings.

Panama City

Panama City

Panama City’s Americanisms are not all that surprising given that its history since independence from Colombia in 1903 has been so closely tied to the USA. In 1914, the USA completed the building of the Panama Canal, and was granted the right to use its military to defend it, although this later became a contentious issue between the two nations. In 1989 diplomatic ties became further entangled when Panama was invaded by the USA to oust the country’s dictator-president, Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was embroiled in international drug trafficking. His actions and hostility to the USA led to a military assault on Panama City and subsequently Noriega went into hiding at the Vatican Embassy until forced to turn himself over to the Americans.

Vertical living in Panama City

Vertical living in Panama City

America’s influence is not just evident in the city’s history and modern building developments, but also in the use of the US dollar as legal tender. Panama does have its own currency running alongside this, the Panamanian Balboa, but only in coin format- only US dollar notes are accepted. Shopping in Panama City is also a very American experience. The main supermarkets, Riba Smith and El Rey, are well stocked with international goods that would certainly make any western expat feel at home, and there are a number of large shopping malls that wouldn’t be out of place in an American city, such as the expansive Multiplaza which stocks a huge variety of high-end global brands, a multi-screen cinema and a wide range of international eateries.

Another part of my role involves meeting with estate agents to find out about the property market for expatriates in the locations we visit. While in Panama City, I met with a number of local experts who provided details about popular districts and offered an insight into the city’s relatively recent development. One agent told me that he owned an eighth floor apartment on Balboa Avenue and when he had bought this just over a decade before, it had been one of the tallest buildings on the street, but was now dwarfed by the towering structures that surround it. Accommodation in the popular central areas of Panama City is very much focused on vertical living. Agents highlighted the difficulties experienced by expats arriving from parts of the world where they were used to extensive outdoor space and who now had to deal with the reality of living thirty floors up in a city centre apartment, in order to reside in the most desirable districts.

Traffic in Panama city

Traffic in Panama city

Another issue faced by expats living in this bustling city, which I experienced first-hand, is the standstill traffic once the torrential rain begins. Panama’s traffic can be hectic at the best of times, and I was advised that, despite the heat and rain, it would be significantly quicker to traverse the city on foot. This issue will hopefully be somewhat relieved with the opening of the new Panama City metro, the first such system in Central America, which started running its first line in April this year. At present, the metro has 12 stops and runs almost 14km across the city. An additional line is expected to be completed by 2017 to expand its coverage. While this will not connect all parts of the city, hopefully it will offer residents an alternative to being stuck in endless traffic- or braving a soaking by the sudden tropical downpours!

ECAintl-International-Data-Researcher_ShonaShona is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Guest blog: Shut in – and out – in Saudi Arabia


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Below, my colleague, Dan, shares his experiences of Saudi Arabia. We’d  love to hear about your own impressions of the country too – just leave a comment at the end of blog. In the meantime, I’m off to Sicily to take a break from, er, travelling! Best wishes, Mark.

Arriving into Riyadh airport on a recent data collecting trip I was given a double thumbs up by the immigration officer as he handed back my passport. Having thoroughly researched the practice and customs of daily life in Saudi as part of my trip preparation this was quite an unexpected yet fun and pleasant welcome into the country. However, when I collected my passport and moved through I was pounced on by three security guards, blocking my way, hands hovering over the butts of their guns. It turns out that the immigration officer had been asking for a thumb scan.

One of the first things that stood out to me in Saudi was the frequency at which petrol stations appeared at the road side. The kingdom has the second highest global oil reserve and possesses around a fifth of the world’s known oil, so this is perhaps not too surprising. There is an abundance of cheap petrol: during my visit prices were fixed at the rate of 0.45 Saudi Arabian Riyals per litre, which equates to roughly 10 cents/7 pence. Little wonder then that the city centre highways (usually at least four lanes in each direction) were jammed packed with four by fours churning out heavy fumes. Both cities I visited (Riyadh and Jeddah) were dominated by cars, with purpose built roads, and few to no pavements, meaning that walking opportunities were very restricted. Despite being very much a driving country, it is the only place in the world where women are not allowed a driving licence and have to rely, instead, on private drivers or taxis. The complete lack of alcohol also means that traffic continues into the late evening.

Waiting for the supermarket to open

Waiting for the supermarket to open after prayer time

The rhythm of daily life in Saudi is dictated by prayer times, regardless of religious preference (I say regardless, the country is officially one hundred percent Muslim, although this is certainly less in expat communities). With five daily prayer times (more during festivals), it was very interesting to see how life would grind to a halt or, in some cases, carry on. For example, supermarkets would close at the call to prayer but shoppers would be allowed to remain inside the shop, they just weren’t able to buy anything. You would, quite literally, be locked in. For research purposes this was, at times, very useful and it became something of an art timing visits to certain shops so as to coincide with the closing times. I was often asked, particularly in bigger places, whether I would like to stay in the shop or not. Conversely, if the shop was closed then there would be little option but to wait outside and be patient.

Petrol stations would close completely, with both drivers and pump operators heading towards the local mosque. On more than one occasion, this made for quite an eerie sight where I would come across a completely deserted petrol outlet, with none of the pumps manned and lines of cars all empty, some with windows down and even doors open. Prayer on the street was also common, with groups of men regularly congregating and lining up to face Mecca.

A branch of HyperPanda

A branch of HyperPanda

Prayer times were, in fact, becoming a point of contention during my visit. Many people were pointing out that logistically they were becoming too time consuming, particularly once you factored in staff walking times to and from the nearest mosque. Realistically closures would last around half an hour, with prayer times only around 5-15 minutes. Large scale malls in particular were being cited as a major cause of this, as they were becoming so big that the walk from one side to another was as long as the actual prayer time itself.

This debate was a good example of a wider trend in Saudi Arabia: the struggle between modernity and traditionalism. It is a society run on the principles set out by the Quran which in recent years has come up against new and specifically modern obstacles. The country has the third highest smart phone usage in the world, which is a phenomenal stat when you think about the accessibility and connection that a smart phone can now provide. Saudis are some of the highest users of twitter in the Arab world, and have around five million registered users of Facebook, in a population of just under 30 million. Through this, examples of police brutality and abuses of power have been filmed covertly and posted online for millions to see. A particular incident of undue provocation against a Saudi woman last year gave rise to the twitter campaign #dontprovoke, inciting reaction and outcry from across the country. From reading about the country’s history, mass support (albeit online) for a woman in the face of state law was fairly unthinkable a few decades back. The new generation of young Saudis now have very different exposure and access to the outside world than their predecessors, and through the rise of online media now have more of an outlet for expression. For a country so traditional in its outlook, modernisation is certainly throwing up some interesting challenges.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

A consistent feature of my visit was how difficult it was to penetrate below the surface and get a real feel for the place. Saudi is infamous for being an insular country but I felt that being there would at least give me a little more access to life in the kingdom. On the contrary, this closure seemed ever present. Conversation was very hard to come by, even during small interactions such as buying a coffee, or enquiring about certain prices or availability of items. English was widely spoken, but answers were often kept short and simple. As a researcher, I’ve found that there is often a certain amount of inquisitiveness around our work and what we are doing, but again this was not really present. All in all the opportunity to chat to Saudi men was limited, and with women it was non-existent, which felt very strange. To be clear, there was no hostility and people were always polite and helpful – and I am fully aware that these judgements were formed solely on the basis of a week’s visit – but it was quite striking how there just was not the same openness or mutual curiosity that is present in many countries that myself and my colleagues visit for research purposes.

On my final day, collecting my last bits of data in the women’s clothes store Mango, I caught sight of a Saudi woman, dressed in full hijab, browsing through some western style dresses. She picked one out and held it up against herself whilst looking into the mirror. I was struck by this sight because of how familiar, in my eyes, it looked in a country where I had found it so hard to get beneath the surface. Later on my hotel receptionist asked how my trip had been, and after voicing a few of my frustrations about the closed nature of the society, he made a pertinent point. ‘You see, much of the living here,’ he said, ‘is done behind closed doors.’

Dan is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Guest blog: Made in smog?


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In the second of her blogs on China my colleague Eleanor shares her experience of the country’s infamous pollution.  Read on to see if it is as bad as they say! Best regards, Mark.

In recent times, China’s pollution levels have become the stuff of legend. Shortly before my departure for the Far East, the British press ran an article about smog levels having reached such extraordinary heights in Beijing that the authorities took to televising the sunset on giant screens in Tiananmen Square. It turns out the screening was for a tourism advertisement with the sun being just a small part of the ad but the fact that many found it believable is testament to how notorious air quality in China is.

While my job collecting price data helps to inform cost of living allowances for expatriate pay packages, another team at ECA assesses locations to help companies decide whether to provide an additional allowance to compensate expats for adjusting to life in a new place. Air quality is one of a number of factors taken into account alongside culture, personal security, facilities, climate etc. I know that out of some 400+ locations analysed Beijing has had the worst possible score for this for a number of years. Even so, nothing had quite prepared me for the sense of breathing thick smog day in, day out for a few weeks: it isn’t just Beijing that is affected by pollution (though the northeast is undoubtedly the hardest-hit region), but all of China’s megacities.

I first noticed it in Guangzhou, in which I arrived on a night train from Xiamen – a small, seaside city which had recently ranked 6th in a survey of China’s cleanest air. Stepping out of the station at 7am, I instantly noticed the difference. Though I wasn’t far from downtown, the skyscrapers were just hazy outlines and my room on the 35th floor of a hotel felt at times like it was up in the clouds. Unlike an autumn morning mist, however, the haze never dispersed; for the next ten days, as I travelled on through Chongqing, Chengdu and Wuhan, I didn’t see a shred of blue sky.

Guangzhou's downtown skyscrapers fight to be seen through the smog

Guangzhou’s downtown skyscrapers fight to be seen through the smog

The great speed of China’s development, which I commented on in my last blog, has resulted in thousands of construction projects and factories which pump pollution into the skies, particularly in the industry-heavy north of the country but also in many other cities. I’ve already mentioned Chongqing, Chengdu and Wuhan but Guangzhou and Shenyang were also suffering noticeably when I visited. A growing middle class has also increased car ownership by 200% in Beijing alone and though electric cars are now being sold with attached incentives, the take-up hasn’t been great so far. In March, China declared a ‘war on pollution’ and Beijing even has a team of ‘anti-smog police’ who fine badly polluting factories, but on average the dangerous particles in the capital’s air are four times greater than the WHO’s recommended safe level.

It is no wonder that such poor air quality is having a damaging effect on businesses based in China, some of which report increased staff turnover or difficulty hiring, particularly as some families are now thinking twice about relocating to or staying on assignment in China. After all, those location allowances often provided by companies to expats in recognition of the need to adapt to new conditions can only go so far when it comes to protecting someone’s health – even if some organisations may be using them to try to lure talent to the more polluted parts of China. Practical solutions such as the provision of masks and air purifiers were reported in a survey we ran last year of companies with expats in Beijing, while the International School of Beijing has resorted to protecting its grounds beneath two huge domes, effectively creating its own clean atmosphere (schools often have to close since it is deemed too dangerous for children, as well as the elderly, to be outside when the pollution reaches a certain level). Of course, such an extreme solution isn’t open to everyone.

Unusually clear skies over Tiananmen Square

Unusually clear skies over Tiananmen Square

Personally, I struck lucky in Beijing and Tianjin – clear blue skies finally greeted me and it was almost painfully bright. Rumour has it that the unusual weather was down to the National People’s Congress which was happening at that time. In order to make the air more palatable for the visiting parliamentarians, the factories in the North were turned off for a couple of weeks. Equally, it might have been to do with the trees coming into blossom. In any case I was grateful for a break from the thick air and obscured visibility which had become the norm over the last few weeks.

The good news is that the situation has become so bad that the Chinese government has vowed to actively improve things. Promises of reducing coal emissions, restricting the number of cars on the road and planting more trees, amongst other solutions, have all been put forward – it remains to be seen with what speed or effect. In the meantime, the amazing inventiveness of China has brought a couple of novel counter-measures into play. Chemical-releasing drones are being used to break up the particles in the air above smog-bound areas, and the northern city of Lanzhou has installed giant water cannons which act like rain, dispersing dust and polluting particles. Whilst they do aim upwards, anyone who goes shopping in Lanzhou will have to remember their umbrella or get a soaking!

One of the many outdoor exercise classes in Beijing's Temple of Heaven Park

One of the many outdoor exercise classes in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park

Experiencing Beijing in springtime sunshine made me even more appreciative of the city, and of the ability to breathe fresh air – something I would normally take for granted. When it is possible (and pleasant) to be outside, China’s cities spring to life: groups of t’ai chi practitioners gather in parks in the early morning, traditional lakeside teahouses are filled to overflowing, squares are occupied by outdoor aerobics and line-dancing classes, and on nearly every street corner I found a huddle of elderly men playing an absorbed game of mah-jong. Urban development and pollution might be gradually driving people into the shelter of shopping malls, but a lot of social life continues to take place outdoors: this was one of my favourite aspects of life in China and one I hope doesn’t get further curtailed by the spread of smog.

Eleanor is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Guest blog: Rubble today, road tomorrow – a country growing before your eyes


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The fast pace at which China is developing certainly makes gathering prices there an interesting experience as my fellow International Data Researcher, Eleanor, found out on a recent trip.  As for me, I’ll be blogging again soon on both Albania and Burundi. Best wishes, Mark.

At the end of a five-week trip around China, I found myself totally disorientated as I stepped out of a Beijing metro station. The reason for my confusion was my suddenly flattened surroundings. Here, in the old part of the city, the buildings are normally no more than one or two storeys high and there isn’t a skyscraper in sight – unlike newer parts of town. After weeks spent in some of the fastest-growing cities in the world I had become accustomed to seeing fifty-plus-storey towers wherever I went but now that the skyline was once again diminished to ‘normal’ proportions I realised just how used to tall buildings I’d grown.

Whilst the world’s tallest building may be in Dubai, China today truly is the country of the skyscraper. Shanghai is home to the world’s second-tallest building, the 632m-high Shanghai Tower (scaled earlier this year by two Russians), and with the demand for urban residential and commercial space increasing at an unparalleled rate, the only way to build is up. And build the Chinese do, with a staggering commitment – often I would wake in the night to find the lights and cranes on a nearby construction site still working. In Wuhan, I walked one day down a rubble-strewn, dug-up road with no distinguishable pavement; 36 hours later it was smoothly tarmacked.

Ghostly pirate ship amid a nearly abandoned shopping mall in Xiamen

Ghostly pirate ship amid a nearly abandoned shopping mall in Xiamen

China is developing at such a rapid pace that you can literally see it happen before your eyes. A recent BBC programme  examined the intention to transform the perhaps unlikely candidate of Wuhan, a central Chinese city, into a megalopolis to rival New York. As the programme explained, such a hugely expensive and rapid expansion is certainly not without its dangers, but the fact remains that more and more foreign businesses are being attracted to key Chinese cities at the moment. The Tianjin Economic Development Area, for example, is home to more foreign companies than the entire of Shanghai – and with new visa rules being implemented to make it easier for expats to settle down, it looks like this trend is only set to continue.

The extensive building does not just apply to economic development zones, but residential and commercial spaces too. Chengdu is home to the largest building in the world, the New Galaxy World Center, a space mostly given over to shopping and entertainment. Across China, new shopping malls are opening all the time, replacing one another so fast that I arrived several times at a mall recommended last year to find it echoing and empty, the majority of retailers having moved down the road. Premium international brands cluster in gleaming, shiny shopping centres, also attracting some Western high-street chains and upmarket Chinese fashion brands, import supermarkets, Starbucks and co, and swathes of entertainment options: ice rinks, cinemas, spas and rooftop restaurants. Malls like these are a shopper’s paradise, particularly for Western expats looking for Western-sized clothing or a familiar packet of biscuits. Just make sure that you keep your ear to the ground for the latest-opened mall – a place that was all the rage a year ago is unlikely to be in vogue today.

A branch of Metro a favourite expat store in China

A branch of Metro a favourite expat store in China

One place that will always be in fashion – for an international data researcher, at least – is the warehouse supermarket Metro. The German cash-and-carry chain can be found in nearly every Tier 1 and Tier 2 city in China, providing for hotel and restaurant caterers but also for expats. In a country where familiar names such as Tesco, Walmart and Carrefour sell MSG (the sometimes controversial flavour enhancer ubiquitous across China) by the kilo and display tanks of live snakes, turtles and chickens for consumers’ choice, Metro is a more comforting option. The fishmonger does still sell live turtles and there are bags of chickens’ feet in the fridges, but there are also tins of Campbell’s soup and packets of Betty Crocker brownie mix, good quality lean bacon and a wide variety of cheeses. Better still, it doesn’t come with the high price tags or expired use-by-dates that hallmark some of the smaller, independent import supermarkets. During my five weeks in China, Metro became something of a landmark for me – a constant that I knew I could always rely on.

Getting there was often something of an adventure, though. Being large warehouses, they tend to occupy edge-of-town locations: sometimes walking distance from a distant subway stop, but sometimes only accessible by car or taxi. Early on, in Ningbo, a large seaport city located a couple of hours south of Shanghai, I asked my hotel receptionist if she could write down the name ‘Metro’ and the shop address in Chinese characters for me to show to my taxi driver. She did, but seemed even more perturbed than hotel staff usually are when they learn that their guests want to be taken not to a museum or temple but to a supermarket! As I stepped into the cab, I discovered why. Her colleague chased after me, telling me that Metro wasn’t open yet – given that it was after lunch this surprised me, but she was quite insistent.

“When will it be open, then?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Not yet. But they will build fast.”

The world's tallest musical fountains found in Guanzhous's Grandview Mall

The world’s tallest musical fountains found in Guanzhous’s Grandview Mall

It is a testament to the Chinese pride in the impressive development of their cities that they were initially willing to let me go to observe the construction of a metro system, but I’m grateful that at the last minute they decided to double-check. I will never forget the Mandarin name for Metro, the supermarket – maidelong. Nor will I forget to look out for the changes to places like Ningbo if I ever return, not that I think they’ll be hard to spot. China is striding forward at exhilarating speed, and I have a feeling that the rest of the world may struggle to keep up.

As I mentioned earlier, though, development can come at a price. Next time I write, I’ll be looking at some of the challenges facing China today, most notably one of the hottest topics on everyone in the Far East’s lips right now: pollution.

Eleanor is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Shaken, not stirred – my last week in Japan


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At just after 2 a.m. on 14th March last month I was awoken from a deep sleep in my hotel room. Things didn’t seem right and I felt the bed oscillating ever so slightly. My eyes moved towards the window and after a few seconds I realised that actually the whole room was awobble. I went to the window and peered out to see if anything untoward was happening on the street below and after seeing no panic on the faces of the few still out at that time, I returned to bed and put my head back on the pillow. It then occurred to me that I was in Kobe!

A section of devastation kept from the 1995 Kobe earthquake

A section of devastation kept from the 1995 Kobe earthquake

I’d first heard of the Japanese city of Kobe back in 1995 when it made international headlines after a devastating earthquake. I’ll always remember the images of a collapsed elevated freeway and buildings in flames and it was probably the first time I realised how destructive earthquakes could be. Located on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, Japan has always been at the mercy of the planet’s underground rumblings. The most destructive in recent memory was the Tohoku earthquake which struck off the eastern coast of Japan’s largest island Honshu in 2011. At a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale it was the largest ever recorded in the country. The resulting tsunami reached heights of 40 metres and caused untold devastation to the nation. We’ve all seen the television images of boats ending up on rooftops and the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant and even today the repercussions are being felt.

I’m thankful to say that although the ‘oscillation’ I felt last month was indeed an earthquake tremor this one had a magnitude of only 6.3 and the epicentre was some 300 km away, causing only minor building damage in some areas. I was speaking the next day to someone who said that it was one of only two quakes she’d felt in the past two years in Kobe so I feel sort of lucky to have experienced the strange sensation. Still, it’s a part of life in this area of the world for which preparation is so key and which may be completely alien to someone (like me) from a place where problem earthquakes never happen (the UK’s largest was a mere 6.1 magnitude quake back in 1931).

The modern harbour area of Kobe

The modern harbour area of Kobe

Down by the port in Kobe they have left a small area untouched since the 1995 earthquake as a memorial. The port area suffered most dramatically and the city lost much of its important sea trade as a result. Today Kobe has recovered and is one of Japan’s busiest container ports. It’s also often noted as the most cosmopolitan of Japan’s major cities and the Kitano area with its early European style buildings is a major attraction for locals in the region. I commented recently that they stand on the left hand side on escalators in Japan but, oddly, in Kobe they stand on the right. Maybe this is a nod to their cosmopolitanism? One thing’s for sure in the city is that if you like shopping and hate the rain then you’re in luck. During my trip in Japan it was clear to see that ‘underground’ emporia are common but in Kobe you can seemingly walk for miles through the underground shopping malls and labyrinthine passageways.

The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge

The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge

Japan played a major role in the Second World War and many of the cities were reduced to rubble but the city of Kyoto was spared the heavy bombing of other places because of its cultural and historical importance. So, with a couple of days free, I headed to the city and the nearby town of Nara where I spent a splendid couple of days soaking up a bit of history and leaving the skyscrapers and McDonalds behind. Although I did pop in to one branch of said restaurant chain there as I was intrigued by the façade: in Kyoto all McDonald’s are coloured brown instead of red, apparently to preserve the cultural ambience. I’m not quite sure it works though!

A city which certainly wasn’t spared during the war was Hiroshima, which was the victim of the first of only two atomic bombs ever dropped in anger. I stopped off in the city for a day before heading south to my final ‘data collection city’, Fukuoka. On the way from Kobe I paid a fleeting visit to the stunning structure that is the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, which has the largest span of any suspension bridge in the world! Hours later I was in Hiroshima, a city I found surprisingly modern – until I twigged that 99% of the buildings in the centre were built after the war, of course. The obvious focus of any visit to the city is the Peace Memorial Museum and the nearby eerie Atomic Bomb Dome. It is thought that up to 80,000 people were killed instantly on August 6th 1945 when the US plane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city. The ravages of radiation and fire ensued, as did Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. Definitely a contemplative day.

Hiroshima before and after the bomb

Hiroshima before and after the bomb

From Hiroshima I caught my last bullet train ride south to the city of Fukuoka. Pronounced “foo-quo-ka” (make sure you get this right!), the place means ‘Happy Hill’ and is the largest city on Japan’s third largest island of Kyushu. After a few weeks in Japan seeing a fair few eye-opening things as well as spending much time in city centres I found Fukuoka to be a tad dull. It has no stand out draws which would necessarily appeal to expatriates but, being one of the southernmost Japanese cities, the climate is more tempting. Still, as with elsewhere in the country almost all public signs are in both Japanese and English, and even as I headed towards the airport I was thinking how much more difficult the trip would have been if I didn’t speak or read English. An interesting recent article by The Economist suggests that this widespread use of the language isn’t about to change anytime soon.

With my Japan trip behind me now I’ll be giving my fellow International Data Researcher colleagues a chance to shed some light on their recent globetrotting trips so come back soon for some more ‘wandering’ tales!

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Tech, trains and automobiles


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It’s been a while since my last post and although I am now back in the UK my Japanese journey continued south from Tokyo to the city of Yokohama. The city is less than 25 miles from Shinjuku, where my base was in Tokyo, but is a separate city. It is considered part of the combined Tokyo metropolitan area I mentioned previously but is a distinct city in itself, in fact the second largest in Japan by population. It started out as a small fishing village but 150 years ago the Port of Yokohama was opened and it quickly became a crucial import and export point of Japan and was soon the country’s leading base for foreign trade. Steady growth continued throughout the latter part of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. The city hit a low point, however, during the Second World War and was heavily bombed reducing much of it to rubble.

As with the rest of Japan, the city had a rebirth after the war and was a key part of the country’s post-war economic boom. After the war Japan joined the Western bloc, aligning itself with the USA and Western Europe as opposed to the Eastern bloc of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War years Japan experienced rapid economic growth, particularly during the 1960s and the early 1970s. Growth continued through the 1980s until an economic asset bubble which reached its peak in 1991. The next twenty years, often dubbed the two lost decades, saw the Japanese economy stagnate and long periods of deflation. Even with this, Japan’s position as a global powerhouse today is still somewhat of a miracle considering how gloomy the situation looked in the middle of the 20th century.

The largest clock in the world and Yokohama's Intercontinental hotel

The largest clock in the world and Yokohama’s Intercontinental hotel

Japan is the third largest global economy behind the USA and China, and was only overtaken by the latter in 2010. Despite this ‘demotion’, the country still leads the way in the global electronics industry which, in this hi-tech world of the 21st century, is surely a positive for the future. As well as setting global standards for the research and development of advanced technologies Japan is still a major automobile manufacturer and Yokohama is home to one of these, the car giant Nissan. Yokohama is also looking to lead the way in the areas of IT and biotechnology. It boasts one of Japan’s highest education levels and it is with this pool of talent that the city’s biotechnology cluster around Tokyo Bay is hoping to expand. Certainly looking down on the port from the dizzy heights of Yokohama’s Landmark Tower there is a hive of activity going on, as well as the world’s largest clock! Well, so they claim. There is a giant Ferris wheel near the waterfront which doubles as a ‘clock’ but I’m not really sure I’d go as far as calling it a timepiece.

Mount Fuji - the highest volcano in Japan

Mount Fuji – the highest volcano in Japan

Moving on from Yokohama I spent a couple of days subjecting myself to more snow and cold around the foothills of Japan’s famous Mount Fuji, an impossibly symmetrical and picturesque volcano known the world over. From there I headed back to Yokohama to jump on another world famous Japanese attribute, the Shinkansen – or ‘bullet train’ as it is more affectionately known. The superfast trains were introduced during the post-war boom years of the 1960s and led the way in terms of speedy, safe and efficient train travel which much of the world has imitated since. The trains have undoubtedly had a huge positive impact on many aspects of life in Japan, from business and economy to culture and the environment. It is estimated that over 400 million hours are saved every year by using the Shinkansen as opposed to the regular railway lines. The distance between Tokyo and Osaka (at the heart of Japan’s second largest metropolis) is over 500 km but the trains can make the journey in under two and a half hours meaning day trips and even commutes are possible. Furthermore the bullet trains have carried over 10 billion passengers in their 50 year history without a single fatality due to collision or derailment. Rather impressive I think!

Nagoya skyscrapers

Nagoya skyscrapers

Of course the train arrived on time to the second in Nagoya, my next stop, and as the doors opened exactly where they were supposed to, there were two neat queues of people awaiting for us disembarkers to, ummm, disembark. My first stop, laden with suitcase and rucksack, was the tourist office located within the train station as I wanted to get some decent maps of the downtown area. Much to my surprise I spent a good half an hour outside the tourist office chatting to a delightfully smiley old Japanese man! It’s not unusual for me to be stopped by locals anywhere in the world but this chap was genuinely interested in just ‘chatting’ and didn’t want anything from me. His English was reasonably detectable and his opening gambit after discovering I was from London was to tell me how much of a great time he had at the Olympics there two years ago. Amongst many topics of discussion we manage to cram in were communism, Mo Farah, the Japanese royal family and freedom! Most bizarrely, however, was a scrunched up piece of paper he took out of his pocket with various sentences in English scrawled on them. In essence he wanted me to confirm the different meanings of the words stupor, lethargy and absentmindedness. Yes, this sounds a tad strange and it was, but he was so eager I did my best in explaining the differences using the sentences he had written! This went on for a good 20 minutes and by the time I pulled myself away I felt like I was in a stupor!

Nagoya Castle

Nagoya Castle

Nagoya itself is missed off many tourist itineraries of Japan as it is light on both cultural history and modern buzz, but it is the fourth most populous city in Japan. Often referred to as the ‘Detroit’ of Japan, Nagoya is the country’s main hub of all things automobile related. Whilst Nissan have their headquarters in Yokohama, the mighty Toyota have theirs in Nagoya. Toyota is the world’s largest automobile manufacturer and its base town (just outside of Nagoya) was actually renamed from Koromo to Toyota in 1959 due to the car company.

My time in Nagoya was brief and I will be reporting with my final blog from Japan soon. In the meantime I hope you enjoy the photos I’ve included from a couple of side trips I took whilst in Tokyo to help break the monotony of pictures of urban Japan. The extra photos are from the small town and UNESCO World Heritage site of Nikko, the Ushiku Buddha statue (one of the tallest in the world) and Mount Fiji.

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Tokyo – the largest city on the planet!


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If you’ve used the Underground system in London you’ll know that it is frowned upon not to stand to one side on the escalator. This is something that first time visitors are often unaware of and I have to say I am easily irked by those oblivious to the Underground escalator etiquette – but then I’m just a head-down-no-time-for-anyone escalator-walking Londoner! Here in Japan I’m delighted to report that they have the same system, except they stand on the left whereas we stand on the right. This at first led me to be the ‘irker’ on the escalator but, of course, the Japanese are so polite that nobody would dare say a word.

Fresh catch of the day

Fresh catch of the day

By the time I reached my hotel in Tokyo, about an hour and a half by plane from Sapporo, I had the whole Japanese subway ‘thing’ sorted. This is no mean feat, especially with the sheer number of lines which criss-cross their way underground and overground through the largest city on Earth. I’ve been to a fair few big cities in my time, indeed London itself is not insubstantial, but the Japanese capital really is HUGE! There are various definitions for what constitutes a ‘city’ and although the city proper (i.e. the administrative boundaries), is not the largest, the combined metropolitan area is by far the largest in the world with a population exceeding 35 million people – just take a look at the satellite view on Google Maps. That’s over half the population of the United Kingdom and almost the same as the whole of Canada! As well as this, Shinjuku Station (the closest to my hotel) is the busiest in the world with over 3.5 million passengers a day. It has over 36 platforms and more than 200 exits! In fact Tokyo is one of those places which has the highest, biggest, busiest, longest, you name it -est, of many things. It is also home to over ten percent of the Fortune Global 500 companies, the most of any city in the world. The city is a major global financial centre and has been described as one of the three command centres of the global economy, along with New York and London.

National Azabu grocery store in Tokyo

National Azabu grocery store in Tokyo

On a smaller scale, the konbini, or minimart, is very much a part of the urban makeup in Japan and I seem to have developed a daily ritual of buying a chocolate croissant from one of these every morning, be it a 7 Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, Circle K or Sunkus. If you’ve been to or live in Japan you’ll know what I mean! Anyway I’ve started to get used to the idea that I will never understand the Japanese language because this daily ritual of buying a croissant involves a LOT of talking but with no words from me. It’s quite comical really. I have no idea what they are saying or why the transaction of a simple bread product has to entail so many words but I just do as they do and bow my head slightly with a smile, and often a light smirk as I realise the ridiculousness of it all! What doesn’t help matters is that the word ‘hai’ means ‘yes’ in Japanese and I always instinctively say “Hi” to someone whenever I meet them, even here, so there’s often much confusion all round.

I had no such problems when I visited both National Azabu and Nissin however. These two shops are THE places in town to get all those imported Western foods that many expats here might crave. The Nissin store is so well known among the expat population in Tokyo that even Arnold Schwarzenegger was given a guided tour of the shop once when he was in the city. They have proudly hung photos of the occasion on the walls. Even though you can get products like Cadbury’s chocolate and Barilla pasta there are still aisles and aisles of local products which I have to confess I have no idea about. I mentioned this in my previous post and there are pictures of some of these items in the slideshow above. I’d love to find out what they are, so please let me know!

View from the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo

View from the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo

One aspect of daily life which a stranger like myself can’t help but notice is that so many people walk around wearing surgical masks here in Japan. My first thought was that maybe the locals are a bit paranoid about picking up a virus or such like but I looked into it and it seems quite the opposite. Most people actually wear them to prevent themselves giving anything to other people. Once again, that Japanese politeness is evident all around.

Now, I love a tall building (see my previous post on skyscrapers) and I love an observation deck so whilst in Tokyo I couldn’t resist going up 451 metres to the viewing platform of the Tokyo Skytree. I’m sure the view is amazing but to get to the top to be able to see nothing was rather disappointing – or maybe I should have chosen a day when the cloud level wasn’t so low! Still, at least I managed to get a decent view of the metropolis at night from atop the Park Hyatt Hotel where, for a few minutes, I transported myself into the movie Lost In Translation, since this was where much of the film was set.

I’m sure the world will be hearing a lot more about Tokyo over the coming years as the city is set to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. And based on what I’ve seen I’m sure they will be a roaring success.

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Thawing out in Sapporo


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When I meet new people and tell them what I do for a living they inevitably end up asking me what my favourite country is that I’ve visited. My stock reply is usually Cambodia but I think this is more because it was the first non-western country I visited and so the culture shock and weather really stood out from that visit. Oh, and Angkor Wat really is amazing too! A common second question asked about my travels is “Where do you most want to visit that you haven’t yet?” My stock reply for this question used to be Japan – until last week!

Oh dear!

Oh dear!

With all my travels (some 146 countries now) I think I’ve encountered most of the world’s major cultures. From Eastern and Mediterranean Europe to the USA and South America. From the Arab worlds of the Middle East and North Africa, and the poverty of sub-Saharan Africa to Australia. And from Russia and the former Soviet Republics to bustling South East Asia. But I’d always thought of Japan as the one major culture and society that I’d not experienced. So it was with much anticipation and excitement that I touched down on the icy runway of Sapporo, situated on the northern island of Hokkaido, and Japan’s fourth largest city by population.

My first act upon arriving was to navigate my way to the train station that would take me in to the city centre. This was a doddle, with most signs in both Japanese and English. Secondly I had to get from the train station to my hotel via the Metro system. Again, this was a doddle as the ticket machines even speak to you in perfect English. As well as being punctual to the nanosecond, the Metro is also quite cheap  (something I’m not used to back in London – the most expensive subway system in the world). Everything going fine so far then and no ‘issues’ with the language barrier yet.

Frozen river in Sapporo

Frozen river in Sapporo

When I exited the Metro it came as quite a shock to see that the reports I’d heard about snow storms gripping Japan were evidently very true. London has been fairly mild this winter (if a little rainy!) and I’d recently spent three weeks in South Africa so the smack of cold air against my face came as a surprise. With gloves and hat packed away in my suitcase I had no alternative but to plough on (literally) through the snow to the hotel. And there was a LOT of snow – evident by the vast amounts of white on display in my photo slideshow above. The snow piles were as high as me in some places but the sun was shining and the thaw had begun. This meant that it wasn’t actually snow I was walking on but that horrible slushy stuff which makes everything wet and gunky. And then the inevitable happened and I slipped, then wobbled, then crashed to the ground like a sack of potatoes. A little old lady sort of stopped and looked at me with her arms in the air as if to say ‘I feel sorry for you and I’d help you if I could but I’m a little old lady and would only fall over myself if I tried to help’. Anyway, my plight was taken seriously by others and several local folk came to my aid. Not that I really needed any of course, they were just being so terribly polite – something this country does oh so well.

I got to the hotel at about 9am only to be told that check-in starts at 2pm. Usually this is not a problem and in most countries they don’t question it if you arrive early, but here everything runs like clockwork and rules are rules. So what was I to do for five hours with no sleep and jet-lag seeping in? Well, I ventured straight out to the supermarket of course.

Hairy crabs are a Sapporo speciality

Hairy crabs are a Sapporo speciality

I’ve been getting used to the supermarkets here in Japan for over a week now. They’re not really that different to those we have back in England, it’s just that many of the products are so very different from what I’m used to. Sure, in some countries there are local specialities and availability of certain goods varies from place to place but in all of the 125 or so countries I’ve collected data I’ve never walked down so many aisles not having a clue what I’m walking past. I’m not a big fan of Japanese food or sushi and the like but there are so many ‘unusual’ products available which you just don’t get elsewhere in the world. I can’t even begin to describe some of them as they are pretty much indescribable – especially given the fact that all labelling is (not unsurprisingly!) in Japanese writing. In fact, I’ll try and take some photos on my next supermarket visit tomorrow and post them in my next blog so you can see what I mean! Sapporo is famed for its giant hairy crabs and there were plenty of these creatures in the supermarkets too.

Two hundred years ago Sapporo was little more than a fishing village in the isolated north of the country and as such is different from most other Japanese cities, with a more organised approach to town planning and a lack of historical sights. Today there is just shy of two million people in the city – the first in Asia to host the Winter Olympics, back in 1972. Skiing is big business here, with heavy snowfall for six months of the year in the surrounding mountains of Hokkaido. It’s also home to the Sapporo beer company, which I can attest is a fine beer!

I’ve since left the thawing in Sapporo and have been using my travel experience to survive the challenges of life in the largest city on the planet. More soon – along with photos of foods that nobody except the Japanese seem to eat!

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