A month in Hong Kong

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My colleague from the Remuneration department at work, another Mark, was on secondment recently in our Asia office. Here he shares his impressions of living in Hong Kong. Regards, Mark.

I recently had the opportunity to go and work for a month in our Hong Kong office to train the team there, meet some of our clients and learn more about how the Asian market operates. The trip also gave me a small taste of what life is like living and working away from home.

Hong Kong has long been among the top ten most common destinations for companies to send staff on assignment to – particularly within the financial industry. Of the 7 million people living there, some 300 000 are expatriates. Add in the thousands of tourists and other temporary visitors to the city and in some areas it can feel like expats are in the majority. I was surprised, though, that French expatriates outnumber their British counterparts but I’ve since come across a number of articles highlighting the rising French population in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong tower blocks

Hong Kong tower blocks

China gave Hong Kong Island to Britain in the 1840s after the First Opium War. In 1898 it leased out the New Territories, north of the Island, to Britain for 99 years. When this came to an end, in 1997, Hong Kong became a special administrative region (SAR) of China. However, when it comes to food, clothing and culture in Hong Kong I found that Japan and Korea are referenced as much as China. This, together with the large numbers of Filipino and Indonesian workers, makes Hong Kong feel very ‘Asian’ rather than ‘Chinese’.

Working away from home in another part of the world made me really aware of the time difference and how much harder it becomes to communicate with colleagues you’re used to just turning around to. I can see how employees can feel a little out of the loop with headquarters when they go on assignment. I also had to get used to working in a different office and business environment. For example, in Asia the work culture is more hierarchical than I’m used to in Europe and they work notoriously long hours.

Some aspects it didn’t take me long to get used to at all, though! For example, as is common in Hong Kong we ate lunch out every day, something no-one back home in London can afford to do. Thanks to the low cost of eating and huge variety available we also managed to go to a different restaurant each time. My colleagues from the Hong Kong office were very helpful in ‘recommending’ local specialities. On one occasion chicken’s feet were ordered only for all but one of the team to admit that they don’t actually like them! I took on the challenge, although it’s not something I’m in a rush to repeat. The availability of so many sorts of Asian food – although Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese seemed especially popular – was great. It meant that my craving for pizza and roast chicken could be satisfied in the evenings without feeling guilty that I hadn’t tried anything more local.

There isn’t much you can’t get in Hong Kong but the thing I missed most was coffee. Although there are plenty of places to buy pretty decent coffee, the prices are higher than I’m used to in London. Tea still dominates and the office didn’t have a coffee machine which meant regular trips outside. Despite the excellent availability of internationally recognised goods and brands in Hong Kong there were a few occasions of coming across something that wasn’t quite what I was used to. Indonesian Ribena, for instance, although I can’t quite put my finger on what makes it taste different – maybe it was purely psychological!

Lantau's famous Big Buddha

Lantau’s famous Big Buddha

A Hong Kong highlight for me was the very cheap and incredibly reliable public transport, from the old trolley buses and world famous Star Ferry, to modern buses and a relatively new underground network. In fact, Sheung Wan station opened just three days before I left and I was one of the first people inside with everyone taking selfies.

Hong Kong is a very busy city but not as crazy as I remembered from my last visit as a backpacker nine years ago. Back then it was the busiest city I had visited but having since lived in London for a number of years, and visited Delhi, Nairobi, and Shanghai, I think I may well have changed my perception of ‘busy’. Although there is a high population density in Hong Kong and it is often described as a city-state, the country actually consists of lots of extremely densely populated districts with a lot of mountains and green space in between. This seems to help reduce the feeling of claustrophobia and allows for a more convenient way of life since people live in distinct, self contained neighbourhoods with the central district acting as the ‘capital’.

Shops are everywhere. It seemed that every MTR (rail) station has a shopping mall on top of it, while the ground floor of most office blocks also seems to be some kind of retail outlet. For me, ‘Sneaker Street’ was definitely the highlight. It was only my limited luggage allowance for the return flight to the UK that prevented me from spending all my money on trainers!

The most negative aspect I experienced was the pollution. This was not helped by my being there in March, the month of the year with the lowest number of sunny hours per day, and this year it was worse than normal, I was told. Throughout the whole of March, Hong Kong received about the same amount of sun as a typical December in London. This did slightly dampen the spectacular skyline of huge sky scrapers and even bigger mountains looming in the background – something I once heard described as Manhattan built on the side of a mountain.

Sunset on a relatively clear day

Sunset on a relatively clear day

Since the SARS virus Hong Kongers are more health conscious than ever, with hygiene masks prevalent and escalator hand rails coated in anti-bacterial spray several times a day. What I found unusual was that a cleaner comes into our office in Hong Kong just to clean the phones, spraying the receivers with some sort of lemon fragranced cleaner that you can smell whenever you’re on the phone.

The tensions with mainland China have been in the news regularly over the last 18 months. Although they were not an everyday issue while I was there it was noticeable in the background: from the queues of mainlanders at the Apple store to the news reports and continued presence of Occupy protesters outside the British high commission among other places campaigning against China’s ruling that the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017 will be from a list of prechosen candidates.

I enjoyed my time in Hong Kong and I can understand why it is such a popular destination. It was easy for me to get around and to communicate and the lifestyle was one I found relatively easy to adapt to.  I was also pleasantly surprised by the choice of outdoor activities and lifestyle – it’s not only for hard-core shoppers.

ECA's Remuneration Manager, Mark

Mark is the Manager of ECA’s Remuneration Team, responsible for researching and analysing expatriate salaries around the world and working on ECA’s MyExpatriate Market Pay reports. He recently spent four weeks on secondment in Hong Kong.

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Guest blog: A glimpse of Minsk

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When my colleague, Shona, was given the Belarus trip earlier this year she wondered what to expect. Here she shares her experiences of the capital, Minsk. Best wishes, Mark!

Before my recent visit to Minsk I definitely had preconceptions about what the capital of Belarus would be like. I was curious to find out whether it was as coldly Soviet as is suggested in the media, whether the still active KGB’s presence could be felt and whether my very basic Russian language skills would be enough to stop me getting lost.

Belarus has maintained close ties to Russia since becoming independent on 25th August 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia the country is completely landlocked. As part of the former Soviet Union, Belarus (also sometimes referred to as White Russia) had a relatively well developed industrial base. Today its economy is mainly driven by service industries and manufacturing.

The imposing KGB building on Prospekt Nezavisimosti

The imposing KGB building on Prospekt Nezavisimosti

The country is renowned for being ruled by ‘Europe’s last dictator’, Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994 and has remained the country’s president ever since. Subsequent elections have been criticised internationally for not being free or fair, and the regime faced sanctions and travel bans for its handling of protestors after the 2010 election. When a Swedish group dropped teddy bears brandishing pro-democracy slogans over Belarus from a light aircraft, Lukashenko was outraged: Swedish diplomats in Belarus were expelled and border guards were arrested for failing to prevent the incident. At that time, he also went as far as to ban clapping in public, as anti-government protestors were using this as a method of protest. Absurdly, a one-armed man was arrested for defying this ban- he was later charged and fined for the offence. Behaviour like this from the Belarusian leader earned him, and the Belarusian KGB, the IG Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 (a parody of the Nobel Prize).

Minsk, which can boast having been burned to the ground 18 times in its history, was flattened during the Second World War and suffered massive civilian casualties after the Nazi invasion in 1941. It received the Soviet title of ‘Hero City’ in 1974, recognising the strength and bravery of the anti-Nazi resistance, and was an important centre for partisan activity (the 2008 film, Defiance, recounts the role of the Belarusian partisans in protecting Jews during the war).

As a former Soviet city that was completely rebuilt after the Second World War, with an entrenched dictator, I expected to encounter Stalin-era style buildings, expansive boulevards and some serious language barriers in Minsk. I was not disappointed. In addition, despite being April, it was snowing, adding to the cold, grey vibe of the city.

The Soviet-era TSUM department store in Minsk

The Soviet-era TSUM department store in Minsk

The main road, Prospekt Nezavisimosti, is wide and clean, lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. It is still home to the old Soviet department stores TsUM and GUM but it also has large well-stocked supermarkets such as Korona, where I couldn’t believe the size of the Asian foods aisle! There are high-end stores like Hugo Boss to be found too, while the Zamok shopping mall houses dozens of international brands. McDonald’s and TGI Fridays are also present.

Getting about wasn’t too difficult in the end as the city has an efficient metro system and taxis are prevalent. However, although taxis had meters, the fares for the same journey varied suspiciously, seemingly in line with the amount of English spoken by the driver. Bar this issue, my lack of Russian (or Belarusian) language skills didn’t hinder me too much. Although the weather meant that those out and about were marching along quickly, heads down, no eye contact, just as I had been warned, the locals I did encounter were generally friendly and helpful. Staff at restaurants and cafes all spoke enough English for me to get by. It certainly helped being able to read the Cyrillic alphabet and this went a long way in preventing me from wandering down the wrong streets.

Soviet-era apartment block

Soviet-era apartment block

Despite the noticeable police presence and the fact that KGB agents roam the city in plain clothes, Minsk did not feel particularly oppressive. In fact, the police were fairly disinterested when one passenger started shouting and attacking other passengers just before boarding my flight back to London!

Belarus has been continually in the economic news in recent years due to the incredibly high levels of inflation and currency depreciation, and this has once again taken a turn for the worse as a result of the depreciation of the Russian rouble. To counter this, the Belarusian government has levied a 30% tax on purchases of foreign currencies and doubled interest rates to 50%.  The problem I had in dealing with Belarusian money was that there are just too many 0s involved, resulting in me being accosted for walking out of a restaurant having only paid 10% of the bill. While 25,000 roubles sounded quite a reasonable amount to be leaving it only equated to around £1. Happily, the situation got resolved pleasantly enough and the KGB didn’t have to be brought in!

So did Minsk live up to those preconceptions I had prior to my trip? It definitely felt like an old Soviet city – gloomy and a bit depressing- but turned out to be much easier to navigate than I had expected and with a significant number of familiar shops and brands, and a good variety of international food options which always makes the life of an International Data Reseracher easier!

Shona 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: Into Tehran

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Getting a visa for Iran proved difficult for me last year. Luckily it was easier for my colleague, Conor, an Irish passport holder. Here he recounts his recent trip. Regards, Mark.

Mention Tehran to many people and their minds begin whirring with stock newsreel footage of chadors, ayatollahs and chanting hordes. During my recent visit however, I found a rapidly modernising city with much to recommend it. While Tehran faces all the usual struggles of a developing metropolis, expat assignees are likely to find themselves enjoying a higher quality of life there than they might perhaps have expected.

However, initial impressions may not be very positive. Tehran is a vast city of eight million people and five million vehicles, with a road network several times over capacity. Sanctions on petroleum imports have led to domestic refinement of low-grade fuel dangerously high in benzene. The result: a daily gridlock of ageing engines spewing toxic fumes. Arriving in spring, I was lucky to experience Tehran at its best. Despite the heavy traffic, the air was fresh and clear. Each winter, however, a haze rolls over the city, stinging eyes and throats and causing high rates of respiratory and cardiac disease.

Traffic in the northern suburbs

Traffic in the northern suburbs

Air pollution isn’t the only danger associated with Tehran’s roads. Iran has one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in the world  and barely halfway from the airport to my hotel, I saw the first grisly reminder of this: vehicles had slowed to a crawl to pass around two youths lying dead next to their crushed motorcycle.

A hundred metres further along the highway, a roadside painting depicted several teenage soldiers standing in a field of red tulips. These were young victims of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s – just a few of the million who died in a grinding war of attrition. I was struck by how their impassive faces looked eerily similar to those I had just passed on the road. Martyrdom is of fundamental importance in Shi’a Islam, the dominant religion in Iran, and newcomers to Tehran will immediately notice the memorial portraits lining the city’s roadways. These greatly outnumber the anti-USA murals more often shown in western media.

Traditional carpets on display in a park

Traditional carpets on display in a park

Despite my bleak introduction to the city, the urban environment of Tehran was pleasant to experience. Even in the working-class sprawl of the southern suburbs, the bare walls of apartment buildings had been beautified. Murals of balloons, doves and surreal optical illusion effects were a welcome improvement on blank concrete. Billboards across the city showcased works by local and international artists. There are numerous, large and carefully maintained parks and gardens, particularly in the northern neighbourhoods popular with expats and well-to-do locals. Water channels flow alongside the many tree-lined boulevards, carrying snowmelt from the scenic Alborz mountains above the northern suburbs. There’s also a clean and efficient metro system which covers much of the city. Iran may be a Gulf state, but its capital feels far closer to Europe or the Caucasus both geographically and culturally.

After getting my bearings I set out to begin researching the cost of goods and services. The first stop on my data collection itinerary was the huge and very crowded Hyperstar supermarket. This seemed reassuringly familiar, with its Carrefour-style branding and layout. Unusually, however, the shelf price labels were in Farsi numerals. I had learned the local script in advance but it still took a lot of effort to mentally translate hundreds of prices into English in that store alone. It didn’t help that most prices were at least six digits long, due to the Iranian Riyal being one of the world’s least valuable currencies. (Central Bank initiatives to remove most of the zeroes haven’t yet come to fruition.)

Hyperstar supermarket

The very busy Hyperstar supermarket

The next day I scouted around for other suitable outlets from which to gather data. I had read about a wave of mall-building across the capital, as property developers tried to hedge against inflation and currency shocks. However, the malls I visited were rather disappointing. The recently built MegaMall development was large but still very empty inside. Others like the Kouroush Complex were busy shopping venues but contained very few international branded goods. For the present, there doesn’t seem to be any one-stop shopping mall in which an expat can conveniently fulfil all of their material needs.

Travelling around the city, I was confused to spot some familiar restaurant chains doing business despite the tight international sanctions. On closer inspection I realised that most of these outlets – Nando’s, Five Guys and KFC, for instance – were carefully designed imitations! Cloned restaurants are able to operate in Iran as the country’s intellectual property laws aren’t yet aligned with international conventions. Nevertheless, while ersatz Zinger burgers may keep the local kids happy, without the Colonel’s secret recipe they won’t impress many expats!

It’s much easier to find authentic clothing than fast food, however. An increasing number of international outlets such as Debenhams, Mango and Benetton now have a local presence in Tehran. In addition, there are many ‘counterfeit’ stores which nevertheless offer wide selections of genuine branded goods! Their premises and signage are almost indistinguishable from the real franchises, and their stock imported from overseas. Licensed or not, these reseller stores make it easier for expats to get their hands on trusted international brands. The same applies to electronics. In the Paytahkt Computer Center I found all the latest iPhone and iPad models – from a half dozen different so-called ‘Apple Stores.’


It looks like IKEA but doesn’t feel like IKEA !

Conducting cost-of-living research involves comparing the prices of a basket of goods from city to city. However, the laws of the Islamic Republic mean that more than ten percent of these items are illegal. For some expats, the prohibitions on beer, bacon or even playing cards (for their connection with gambling) might cause them to view Tehran as something of a hardship posting. As a data researcher however, I have to confess that these restrictions made my workload a little easier!

Although these legal constraints are similar to those in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, the social environment is markedly different. Locals are far less reserved, and Tehrani women are prominent in education and the workforce. Their headscarves serve as a useful barometer as to the nation’s political climate. During the conservative Ahmadinejad regime, scarves entirely covered the hair, but personal freedoms seem to have expanded under the moderate Rouhani government. I was surprised to see scarves worn loosely on the back on the head or held up only by a ponytail.

The economic climate may soon liberalise to match. A nuclear framework agreement had been achieved in Lausanne just prior to my visit, and I found the mood throughout Tehran upbeat and optimistic. Sanctions, which have long shackled trade and productivity, could be lifted within the next year. The future of a newly globalised Tehran may be even more interesting than its past.

Conor 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: Nigeria, a country at a crossroads

Dan, another of my data-collecting colleagues, was in Nigeria earlier this year – just before the elections. On the day that the country’s new president is being inaugurated Dan reflects on his own experiences of election fever there. Regards, Mark.

We’d been driving for less than two minutes from Abuja International Airport when the first poster reared up into view on the right hand side of the road. ‘This is President Jonathan!’ said my taxi driver. A few minutes later along the same road, another poster, another beaming face, ‘and this is his rival, Buhari!’ A few minutes later, the road forked, and both posters once again came into view. A country at a crossroads indeed.

Goodluck Jonathan campaign poster

Goodluck Jonathan traditional style campaign poster

I visited Nigeria in early February this year on a data collection trip and found a country in the grip of election fever. The trip took in three cities in all: Abuja, Port Harcourt and Lagos. The capital, Abuja, constructed just thirty years ago, provided a good introduction to urban life in the country as a whole. Coming into the centre, the National Mosque and National Church both make themselves immediately obvious, representing the religious make-up of Africa’s most populated country. Government buildings and high quality housing dominate in many areas, with only the fringes of the city giving a small glimpse into the poverty-divide that also characterises the country.

Port Harcourt was a place with a different edge to it (as  wanderingmark, also experienced on his own trip there a couple of years ago); a lot poorer and a lot more populated. It was also quickly recognisable as a Goodluck Jonathan stronghold, with his campaign dominating the streets. There were pro-Goodluck marches in the centre, full of noise and colour. On the day I was leaving he was due to give a key speech in the city. Hours before he arrived the airport road was already lined with people stretching three miles back at least. Once I got to the airport it took four passport checks, each from heavily armed men, to get even remotely near the departure terminal. The words ‘major’ and ‘operation’ sprung to mind. They said that this was the most expensive African election ever, and at times it was clear to see why.

Park n Shop in Port Harcourt

Park n Shop in Port Harcourt

Lagos was the final stop of the trip and was probably the most colourful and diverse. A true mega city, it is a heaving mass of vehicles and people, with traffic stretching for miles and miles. Such is the congestion that hawkers walk down the lines of traffic selling everything from fish to cosmetics. In fact you could just about do your weekly shop sitting in a traffic jam! Again, Mark provides an excellent portrayal of Lagos in another earlier post. Election-wise I also detected diversity within the city, with as many ‘vote with what you know’ as there were ‘vote for change’ posters. As I asked directions at my hotel one morning, discussing how best to avoid the congestion, the receptionist laughed and said to me, ‘Mr Kelly, just pick your direction and stick with it!’ Savvy city advice, or more election metaphor…?

BBuhari's campaign was synonymous with 'change'

Buhari’s campaign focused on change

One of the nicest aspects of being there during election time was that conversation became even easier to strike up in a country already full of friendly, chatty people. It meant extra exposure to a wide range of opinions and insight into the current state of affairs. Certain phrases would begin to recur, ranging from hopes of change, to fears of post-election violence (as there was in 2011) and, worst case scenario, the prospect of civil war. One phrase which came up consistently during my visit, though, was ‘we deserve better.’ There was an underlying feeling from people that regardless of who was elected, failures that had occurred in the past, should not be allowed to happen again.

I was also lucky enough to spend some time with expats there whose own experiences echoed the sense I was getting from the Nigerians I had spoken to. The result of the election was genuinely in the balance. In fact, whether there would even be an election at all was still unknown. Interestingly, most people were sure of one thing, that there would be a backlash whichever side won. Supporters of both parties were claiming that an opposition victory would not be accepted, re-counts would be called, violence was inevitable, and that, once again, the democratic process would be called into question.

One of the quieter streets

No congestion in the purpose-built capital Abuja!

As it turned out the election was one of the most successful in Nigerian history. Large numbers of voters were registered, vote rigging counter measures were in place, polling staff were trained and, most importantly, when the final result came out, President Jonathan conceded. There were inevitable bouts of violence in parts of the country, but in general it had been considerably more peaceful than anticipated.

It was hard not to leave Nigeria in February with a sense of uncertainty. Having followed events over the last few months however, the Nigeria of May has a different complexion, and the inauguration of newly elected President Buhari, this will mark a new phase in the country’s history.

There is a well-known saying summing up the scale and influence of the country: ‘when Nigeria sneezes, all of Africa catches a cold’. Whilst there is still a long way to go domestically for Nigeria, it will be interesting to see how the short term progress it has made can be sustained, and then further still, how it might translate across the continent.

ECA International Data Researcher DanDan 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: Safe and sound in Jordan

Fellow data researcher, Eleanor, was in Jordan. I’ve only been to Petra so was interested to hear about her experiences in the country’s capital, and here they are! Best wishes, Mark.

Amman, location of my most recent data collection trip, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. Though it has only been the capital of Jordan (or, to give it its official title, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) since 1947, Amman has existed in one form or another since before 8000 BC. Atop one of its central hills, Jabal al Qal’a, is the ruin of the Bronze Age citadel – together with the Roman amphitheatre, the city’s most famous attraction. But this is all that remains in evidence of the ancient past: around it, the rest of Amman sprawls out into a bustling and utterly modern metropolis.

Although it’s Rome that is best known as the original City of Seven Hills, Amman was also initially built on seven hills – or jabals, as they are known. (There are in fact more than seventy towns and cities worldwide which lay claim to being built on seven hills, ranging from Jerusalem and Athens to Albany, New York and the rather prosaically named Seven Hills in Ohio.) Nowadays, there are nineteen hills in Amman and the city keeps on expanding, currently home to more than 2 million people (roughly a third of Jordan’s population). A large number of these are expatriates – by proportion, Jordan is one of the world’s top five expat-recipient countries; the others are Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and Singapore. Strong economic growth and a high ranking in social, cultural and environmental factors make Amman one of the best cities in the MENA region and, behind Dubai, joint-second most popular regional location for multinational corporations.

Inside Amman's City Mall

Inside Amman’s City Mall

During my stay I certainly saw plenty of signs of a prosperous, cosmopolitan city. Greener and leafier than I had expected a city in the Middle East to be, the steep streets of Amman’s most affluent areas, such as Abdoun and Jabal Amman, are peppered with boutique shops, rooftop bars, luxury hotels and exclusive health clubs, all sitting alongside large mansions, embassies and contemporary art galleries. Malls such as the Taj Lifestyle Centre and City Mall cater to the shopping needs of most people, supermarkets such as Carrefour and Cozmo sell a huge variety of imported groceries alongside local products like dates, aubergines and olive oil, and for a change of pace there are still traditional souks in the city centre, some of which specialise in gold, books or haberdashery. The roads are always thronged with traffic – though it’s possible to walk around easily enough, crossing the road can sometimes require a series of complicated manoeuvres! – and life goes on late into the evening as people fill up bars and cafés to socialise, often over a shared water-pipe.

Perhaps because of the lively atmosphere, I found people in Jordan always eager to talk and I was able to have many interesting conversations with everyone from taxi drivers to journalists to relocation agents. No matter what the location or the level of language barrier between us, one topic on everyone’s lips was the current political situation in the Middle East. Sharing borders with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Jordan is entirely surrounded by the melting pot that is the Middle East yet, miraculously, a beacon of peace and stability. Security is certainly a subject of great concern for both the government and general public and this is much in evidence – police patrols can be found on nearly every corner and the malls are surrounded by airport-style metal detectors, policemen and armoured vans – but by and large people seemed proud to tell me of the country’s peaceful stature and their resolve to keep it that way.

Of course, nowhere could be wholly unaffected by this position and Jordan has for several years seen a huge influx of Syrian refugees who are housed in camps and communities in the northern regions. Around 680,000 refugees are estimated to have crossed the border and Jordan is working to meet their humanitarian needs as well as to develop projects that bridge the divide between local and refugee communities. It has also not always been trouble-free: terrorist attacks in Amman killed nearly sixty people in 2005 . And whilst the unavoidable presence of policemen and security guards made me feel safe, they are a constant reminder of the situation underlying the normal, everyday life of this busy city.

Definitely planning on returning to Jordan one day to visit Petra

Definitely planning on returning to Jordan one day to visit Petra

Despite all the problems raging beyond its borders, Jordanians and expatriates living there were keen to tell me how safe a city Amman is – something which I certainly felt as I walked around. As well as feeling personally secure, on several occasions I even saw people leave their wallets, laptops and phones unattended on café tables while they popped home to pick something up or went outside to speak to somebody passing by: something I would definitely never consider doing at home in London!

Though Amman has plenty of charm, most visitors to Jordan are likely to only pass through it on their way to the country’s premier sites: the Dead Sea and its resorts such as Aqaba, the desert of Wadi Rum and the ancient, rock-hewn city of Petra. Sadly, though, visitors to Petra have halved in the last four years as travellers are put off by the news headlines and begin to avoid the region in general. Although Jordan’s economy does not rely solely on its tourism industry, it’s a problem that many countries have suffered from in the past when hit by wars, natural disasters or severe social problems. I didn’t manage to add Petra in to my itinerary for this trip but as somewhere I’ve always wanted to see and having really enjoyed Amman and its people, I am putting it firmly at the top of my list and hoping that peace continues long in Jordan.

ECAintl-Data-Researcher_EleanorEleanor 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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Revisiting Dakar

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It was only a few weeks ago that I was blogging about my recent trip to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. The images of devastation caused by this week’s earthquake have shocked the world and it is yet another reminder that many populated areas around the world are prone to the forces of nature. It’s very strange to think that only a month or so ago I stood among the temples in Durbar Square now lying in heaps of rubble. My thoughts go out to those who have suffered and are dealing with the aftermath.

A colourful local bus

A colourful local bus

More recently I have been to Dakar, the capital of Senegal and most westerly point of the African mainland. In fact, until the discovery by Europeans of the Americas in the 15th century it was also the most westerly point of the known world (now called the Old World) which consisted of the land masses of Africa, Europe and Asia. It’s the second ‘Dakar’ I’ve visited during this cost of living survey period – I was also in the Bangladeshi capital ‘Dhaka’ in February – but the two cities are quite different.

Once a colony of France, Senegal gained its independence in 1960. Over the past 50 years it has been one of the more peaceful nations in the tumultuous area of Western Africa, and it has not been affected by recent troubles in bordering countries be it Ebola in Guinea, the terrorist conflicts in Mali or political instability in Mauritania.

I first visited Senegal back in 2007. Eight years on there have been definite improvements in the shopping environment. The country’s first upscale mall, Sea Plaza, opened in 2009, complete with the large French supermarket, Casino, and a genuine Hugo Boss outlet! And next door a slice of five star luxury can be had at the new(ish) Radisson Blu hotel and its choice of bars and restaurants overlooking the glistening sea.

Also new since my last visit is the African Renaissance Monument, the largest statue in Africa. At 49 metres tall and clad in shimmering bronze it dominates the skyline and has become an instant tourist attraction in a city lacking much else in the extraordinary stakes. The unveiling was even attended by US activist Jesse Jackson and the rapper Akon. However, the construction of the monument was not without controversy, with costs soaring during the global economic crisis and the contract to build it being won by a North Korean company.

The African Renaissance Monument - the tallest statue in Africa

The African Renaissance Monument – the tallest statue in Africa

Dakar’s location on the Atlantic coast and the fact that it’s not too hot at this time of year (it was in the upper 20’s during my visit) meant it was actually a pleasure walking from shopping malls to supermarkets to restaurants and everything in between. An afternoon stroll along the sun-kissed Corniche certainly beat being sat behind a computer in an office! Part of the feel good factor came from the fact that I wasn’t pestered – at all! Quite often on the African continent it’s  impossible for someone who is clearly not local to walk through the markets and streets without being implored to buy something or get involved in a long winded conversation. Poverty is often a big driver behind this but in Senegal although poverty does exist it’s not on the same scale as nations such as Sierra Leone, Niger or Chad.

Since my last visit to Dakar there seems to have been a proliferation of French-style bakeries and patisseries dotted throughout the city. Once inside these it can feel very much as though you’re in a café in Paris – all sorts of enticing breads, pastries and cakes can be found to savour while sipping a cappuccino over brunch. In fact, it is quite common for the large French expatriate community to live a virtually complete French way of life. Although Senegalese traditions remain, the French influence throughout Dakar is undeniable, not least once you step into one of the Casino supermarkets with an array of French brand grocery products and healthy looking meat counters. Many of the top-end services such as hair salons and fitness clubs are run by French expatriates in fact.

Fishing boats lined up on the beach

Fishing boats lined up on the beach

Shopping done, a popular pastime for locals and visitors alike is to head to the Corniche in the late afternoon where you can find all sorts of engaging activities taking place. There’s a skateboard park, Magic Land (Senegal’s very own amusement park), quirky sculptures, towering mosques, colourful graffiti and bustling artisanal markets. However, the highlight for me was the fish market at Soumbedioune cove. On a small arc of beach as evening draws in you will find hundreds of brightly and imaginatively painted fishing boats, or pirogues, hauled on to the sand. The daily catch of fish and seafood is brought up to the stalls where droves of eager customers bargain hard to get the most barracuda or lobster for their francs. I am lucky to get to witness such scenes as part of my job!

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Flash floods and rock ballads in Chile and Uruguay

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Many of the countries and cities of Central and South America are infamous for their high homicide rates, gang violence, drug smuggling and political corruption but where is the best country to live in the region if you want to steer clear of any potential trouble? Well, there are two which top the list and it was these two nations where I rounded off my data collection trip to South America: Chile and Uruguay.

Sprawling Santiago

Sprawling Santiago

Chile, one of only two countries in South America that doesn’t border Brazil (the other being Ecuador), has one of the most recognisable outlines of any country. It is 24 times as long as it is wide, stretching from the freezing waters of the southern fjords all the way up to the driest desert in the world some 4300 kilometres away, and averaging a mere 180 kilometres in width. In between are some 1300 volcanoes and about two thirds of the way up is the capital city of Santiago. Home to 35% of the population it is one of the largest cities on the continent with 6.3 million people. I found it similar to the salubrious suburbs of Lima and much of the city is highly developed. Last year the Gran Torre Santiago was completed and at 300 metres high is currently the tallest building in Latin America. As well as modern skyscrapers there are plenty of swanky malls for perusing the windows of unaffordable designer outlets. This and the proliferation of US fast food chains makes much of the city feel like it is in the States rather than Latin America.

Chile has the highest human development index of any Latin American nation and also leads the region in terms of income per capita, low perception of corruption and economic freedom. In fact it ranks a dizzying 7th globally in terms of economic freedom. The economy relies heavily on the mineral wealth of the north, particularly copper for which it is responsible for a third of the world’s production. And it was to the north where I headed after my work was done in Santiago, to the Atacama – the driest desert in the world…

The moon? No, just Moon Valley in the Atacama desert

The moon? No, just Moon Valley in the Atacama desert

…except, for my stay of three days it was anything but dry! There are some areas of the desert where rain has never been recorded and the March average in San Pedro de Atacama where I stayed is a mere two millimetres of rain. But on arrival we had about two inches of apocalyptic rain in the space of a few hours. There were brief moments of respite but over the days the rains continued. I later found out that the government had issued a Constitutional State of Exceptional Catastrophe and I was just unfortunate to be there during the wettest period in over a century!

Moai statues in silhouette

Moai statues in silhouette

Leaving the soggy desert behind me I flew to the most remote airport in the world (as in the furthest from any other airport, if that makes sense!). It’s on the mystical Easter Island, a small dot some 3500 kilometres west of the Chilean mainland in the Pacific Ocean. Surprisingly, the island itself looks just like Wales, with rolling green hills and country lanes. However, the two locations differ when it comes to having giant enigmatic statues made of volcanic rock! The main reason people visit Easter Island is to see the famed Moai statues. They truly are mightily impressive and well worth the long and expensive side trip from walking the aisles of supermarkets – and they make for better photos too! I enjoyed every moment of my time on Easter Island except waking with a startle in the middle of the night to find a huge cockroach crawling across my face – that’s never happened to me in Wales!

After my time out at Easter Island, I rounded off my month long data collecting trip in South America’s second smallest country – Uruguay. Famed for its footballing exploits but not a lot else, the nation has always been overshadowed by its two giant neighbours, Brazil and Argentina. Along with Chile, Uruguay tops lists of Latin American nations for GDP per capita, peacefulness, quality of living, press freedom and low corruption levels. It’s a very liberal and tolerant nation too, being the only country in the world to legalise abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana!

Beaches abound along the Montevideo coastline which most expats call their home away from home

Beaches abound along the Montevideo coastline which most expats call their home away from home

It also seems to be stuck in a musical time warp. When I was about eight or nine years old I remember my favourite song being Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship. I still like the song but it seems the Uruguayans like it even more. For some reason the song is blasted out through speakers in every shop or quietly piped out from the supermarket audio systems. I felt a little like I was transported back to my youth, especially with other classic 80’s rock ballads getting in on the act too. For your interest, this is no bad thing in my opinion!

80’s rock ballads aside I found Montevideo, the capital, to have quite a different atmosphere to other Spanish speaking nations on the continent. It feels a lot more European, organised and laid back than many of the frenetic cities I visited, particularly those in Brazil. This is no doubt down to the fact that almost 90% of the population is of European origin mostly descending from France, Spain and Italy during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the city is of only moderate size (some 1.9 million live in the metropolitan area) it is over ten times larger than Uruguay’s second city and more than half of the country’s people live in the capital. Named by the Economist as Country of the Year in 2013, Uruguay certainly has many aspects which are the envy of its neighbours.

I’ve been using the terms ‘South’ and ‘Latin’ America throughout this post but I’d just like to clarify that they are not actually the same thing and I wasn’t just using the terms randomly. Many people presume they are the same (I certainly used to think so!) but South America is a geographical entity which includes the 12 countries from Colombia southwards. Latin America is a cultural entity which includes the 20 countries of all of the Americas which speak Latin based languages, namely, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Mexico is the most northerly of these although geographically it is considered part of North America.

Before I say adios I’ll just let you know that the mysterious bumpy yellow fruit mentioned in my previous post is in fact a variety of dragon fruit. Phew, you can sleep easily at night now knowing that!

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From high in the Andes to the Pacific coast – Ecuador to Peru

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My first visit to Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, was some eight years ago. I remember back then the immediate effects of the high altitude on my breathing and how I kept having to take deep controlled breaths just to…er…breathe! Well, I was a smoker back then and although the same thing happened this time I’m sure it was not quite as bad.

Quito is the highest ‘official’ capital city in the world, nestled at 2850 metres above sea level in the Andean mountain range. I say ‘official’ because while there is no doubt over Quito being the capital of Ecuador, there is some ambiguity as to whether the Bolivian city of La Paz, which is higher than Quito, is a capital or not, as I blogged about last year.

Hills around Quito

Hills around Quito

Not much has changed in Quito since 2007, neither on the ‘shopping’ front nor in the country as a whole. Rarely making global headlines, Ecuador seems to just get along with no real fuss. Once you’ve acclimatised to the thinner air it’s a pleasant place to be – nothing spectacular but with most of the modern day trappings any expat could hope to find while on assignment.

The supermarket environment is dominated by the Megamaxi and Supermaxi chains, both owned by the same company and selling the same brands at the same prices. The difference is that the several outlets of Megamaxi are indeed mega selling pretty much anything that you’d want to get your hands on: from a rice cooker to the latest 3D curved screen television or from jasmine rice (to put in the rice cooker!) to tennis balls and everything in between, except clothing. For clothes you just have to head to one of the city’s many modern malls to find an array of popular international designer brands.

Located in the Andes, the surrounding hills and peaks give a dramatic backdrop to every angle of the city and if trekking is your thing then there are abundant options for any adventurous expat wishing to get away from urban life for a few days. Some 25km north of the city is the middle of the earth – quite literally! ‘Mitad del Mundo’ is a rather grandiose monument erected for tourists and locals alike to come and straddle the equator, the imaginary line which gives the country its name. The rather amusing point to this tourist attraction is that it was built (and the ‘line’ painted) some 35 years ago but in the intervening years the advances in GPS technology have confirmed that the true equator is actually 200 metres to the north! With this knowledge in mind I took a little detour from data collecting to head to the ‘real’ equator. And sure enough they did the ‘water going down a plughole’ demonstration on the line. This is where on the equator the water goes straight down the plughole with no swirling but a metre either side in the southern and northern hemispheres the water swirls clockwise and anticlockwise respectively. Well, it may be a bit of a myth but it’s fun watching people’s reactions nonetheless.

The 'water down the plughole' demonstration actually worked!

The ‘water down the plughole’ demonstration actually worked!

Leaving the heady heights of the Andes behind me I flew south to Ecuador’s large neighbour, Peru. The capital, Lima, is situated on the coast so my lungs were able to revert to their usual work rate. This was my first visit to Peru, a country I’ve always wanted to visit to explore the Inca sights and walk the Inca Trail up in the Andes. Alas, that will have to wait for another time as there were more pressing activities at hand, like collecting grocery prices!

I was very surprised by Lima. It’s a huge city, the second most populated on the continent behind Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the suburbs seem to sprawl endlessly. I was expecting what I call a ‘halfway’ sort of city ie one that’s neither developed and Western nor particularly poor and undeveloped. Well, I’m sure that some neighbourhoods are a little run down, as in any large city, but not where I stayed in the areas of San Isidro and Miraflores. These are very popular with the expat and consular communities and for good reason. The areas are highly developed and, while some districts of the capital are considered dangerous, San Isidro and Miraflores are safe and offer all that you’d hope for. In fact, the supermarkets, such as Vivanda and Wong, are some of the most upmarket I’ve visited in the world – and I’ve seen my fair share of global supermarkets!

A mystery fruit which I've not seen before!

A mystery fruit which I’ve not seen before!

Peru is the 20th largest country in the world and around two thirds of it is covered in rainforest. There are also abundant mineral deposits in Peru, making mining an essential part of the country’s economy. It is in the top five global producers of copper, gold, silver, tin, zinc and lead – a fairly impressive stat! It’s also where the ever popular potato is from. It was first domesticated in the region over 7000 years ago and brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors after conquering the Inca Empire in the 16th century. So, next time you tuck in to a packet of crisps or munch on some French fries remember you have Peru to thank. Besides an abundance of potatoes in the supermarkets, I also came across a new fruit which I’ve not seen before. Pictured to the left, please let me know if you have any idea what it is!

One final nugget of knowledge from Peru which I found amusing is that of their New Year’s Eve traditions. While some nations will sing Auld Land Syne, set off fireworks or make resolutions for the coming year the Peruvians prefer instead to…give yellow underpants to their family and friends!

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A trip to the Guianas

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Look at a map of South America and you’ll immediately notice the usual suspects: Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile. But look more closely and you’ll notice a trio of ‘countries’ on the Atlantic coast just to the north of Brazil and to the east of Venezuela. I say ‘countries’ since one of these, French Guiana, is not actually a country but a department of France (so, yes, officially France and Brazil border each other!) This department along with the nations of Suriname and Guyana make up the little known area of South America often referred to as the Guianas. None of them is Portuguese or Spanish speaking which is what people usually automatically associate with South America, and it’s not just the language which makes these three places unique within the continent either.

Japanese goods galore in French Guiana

Japanese goods galore in French Guiana

My travels through the Guianas started in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. One of five overseas departments (can you name the other four?!) and also the largest overseas region of France, its correct name is actually Guyane. It’s just us foreigners who refer to it specifically as ‘French’. Being a region of France it is in the European Union and uses the euro as official currency. It also relies heavily on the Motherland for subsidies and trade.

It’s difficult to describe Cayenne. It’s not particularly French and it doesn’t in any way resemble the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries of the continent. While it does have a somewhat Caribbean feel to it, the investment from France spent on roads and other infrastructure does give it a more developed European feel, especially with the presence of the Geant Casino and Carrefour hypermarkets along the perfectly tarmacked route from the airport.

Just over 50% of the population were born in French Guiana and around 10% were born on the French mainland with the remaining citizens being from nearby countries such as Brazil and Suriname. There is definitely a ‘melting pot’ atmosphere to Cayenne, with elegant, well-dressed women carrying freshly baked baguettes under their arm, Chinese mini-mart owners chastising their kids for pinching sweets from their shop and weathered looking locals ‘liming’ (It’s a Caribbean thing – it means hanging around, chatting and chilling!) on the town’s Palmistries Plaza.

Aside from the subsidies received from the French government the major economic drivers are gold mining and the Guiana Space Centre. It may seem like a strange place to build a space centre but actually being a stable country near the equator with low population density makes it an ideal candidate. So much so that it is the European Space Agency’s primary launch site near the equator.

Colonial buildings in Paramaribo's centre

Colonial buildings in Paramaribo’s centre

Some 350 kilometres north of Cayenne and a 40 minute flight away is Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. Formerly called Dutch Guiana, I found that here the eclectic mix of people was even greater than in Cayenne. When in South America the last thing I expected to see were Hindu temples, towering mosques and Chinese enterprises all combined with a touch of Dutchness!

Suriname became independent from the Netherlands as recently as 1975 and it certainly has a unique feel to it. It was governed by the Dutch for over 300 years but it still has a distinct Caribbean flavour to it. More recently a Chinese influence has become more prevalent and many of the shops are owned and run by the Chinese community, which numbers over 40,000, some 7% of the population.

The capital, Paramaribo, is much larger and more spread out than I was expecting, with the outlets I needed to get to for my data collection extending over a whopping ten kilometres. So, instead of the usual stroll around town I opted for a new mode of transport for shop-hopping – the bicycle. It would probably be illegal to drive that bike back in the UK, with its rusting chain, half-flat tyres and wonky saddle but it was certainly a fun and challenging way of getting about, if a little surreal. I came a cropper, however, when the rains came as cycling and holding an umbrella don’t mix well.

St George's Cathedral - one of the tallest wooden churches in the world!

St George’s Cathedral – one of the tallest wooden churches in the world!

The last of the Guiana’s on my trip was Guyana, formerly British Guiana, and a country I’ve been to once before. The ambience of the capital, Georgetown, is very much like that of Caribbean capitals and if you didn’t know you were on the South American mainland you would swear that you were somewhere like Barbados or Grenada, such is the similarity. In fact, Georgetown is home to the headquarters of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

The equatorial rains continued during my time there and my brolly became a ‘must have’ when venturing out on the streets. Georgetown is much smaller than Paramaribo so getting around on foot is fairly straightforward, although strolls after dark should be avoided as some areas of the town have a bad reputation for crime. After one long morning I reached what I was hoping to be KFC for a well-earned lunch but, to my chagrin, KFC have closed down in Guyana. I had to go to Church’s Chicken instead! The Pizza Hut from my previous visit has also closed down so I hope that expats living in Georgetown are happy with the local alternatives!

Kaiteur Falls, Guyana, a natural wonder

Kaiteur Falls, Guyana, a natural wonder

Before I go I must say that if you ever find yourself in Guyana I strongly recommend a trip to see Kaiteur Falls which are buried deep in the Guyana rainforest. I didn’t get to visit again this trip but I would certainly rank them among the top five natural wonders that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience!

Next up will be a post from the ‘real’ South America as I venture into the Spanish speaking nations of Ecuador and Peru on the Pacific coast. Until then…!

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From rickshaw capital to elevated capital: Dhaka to Kathmandu

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From a cost of living data collection point of view moving from India to Bangladesh was rather a surprise. I mentioned in my last post about the difficulties of getting imported foodstuffs in parts of India but in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka I found myself in imported food heaven! On the flipside, however, the choice of non-food items is pretty dire compared to the large metropolises of its neighbour. Clothing options, in particular, is fairly poor with no recognizable Western-brand clothing stores. This is perhaps rather ironic seeing as Bangladesh is noted for manufacturing and exporting clothing for the Western markets abroad. The country is one of the world’s largest textile exporters and the textile industry accounts for 70% of its export earnings. The industry came to international attention two years ago when an eight storey textile factory building collapsed in the capital. The deaths of over 1100 workers brought to light the terrible conditions and lack of adequate safety procedures concerned with the thousands of similar factories across the country. In response many of the Western companies involved have signed an accord to push through improvements in safety.

Looking down on the main intersection of Gulshan in Dhaka

Looking down on the main intersection of Gulshan in Dhaka

I can’t see any sweeping changes happening overnight though. Especially with regard to the structural integrity of many of the buildings. Even in the Gulshan area of Dhaka where I was based for my two days, and which is thought of as an expat haven away from the ‘real’ Dhaka, many of the buildings look like they could topple at any moment! In this respect it is not dissimilar from India, and the similarities don’t end there. At street level there are still the sights of all sorts of animals roaming around and the smells, noises and dirt are part and parcel of everyday life too. You’re unlikely to see many cows roaming the streets however as Bangladesh is a Muslim nation and the cow is not revered like it is by the Hindus. The traffic is as chaotic as anything which India can muster, though, and Dhaka has been given the sobriquet of Rickshaw Capital of the World.

One of the many dilapidated rickshaws in Bangladesh's capital

One of the many dilapidated rickshaws in Bangladesh’s capital

I was surprised to read during my trip prep that Bangladesh has only been an independent nation since 1971. I assumed that it gained its freedom from India after the exit of the British Empire in 1947 but for 24 years Bangladesh was called East Bengal (and then East Pakistan) and was part of Pakistan. After independence the new nation suffered for 20 years with all sorts of political upheavals, widespread poverty and famine.

Since the 1990s, though, the situation has improved somewhat. Although still a less developed nation Bangladesh is part of the ‘Next Eleven’, a list of 11 nations described by Goldman Sachs as having the potential to join the BRIC countries as one of the world’s brightest economies. I think this seems very unlikely as there are still many problems affecting the country, not least of all its vulnerability to natural disasters and the effects of climate change. Bangladesh sits on the site of the world’s largest river delta where the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers meet. On the plus side this provides ample fertile soil but on the downside is the constant flooding which much of the country suffers. Add in the odd tropical cyclone and tornado and you really have a recipe for disaster. In 1998 some two thirds of the country were under water after similar climatic comings together. It also doesn’t help that Bangladesh is the most densely populated large country in the world leaving millions of people at the whims of nature. (By ‘large’ I mean anything larger than Bahrain – which is tiny!).

Bus station in Kathmandu

Bus station in Kathmandu

After leaving Dhaka behind I flew on to Nepal, the only country in the world which doesn’t have a quadrilateral shaped flag! For some reason this fact had already endeared me to the country even though this was my first visit. Nepal is known as the home of Mount Everest and is also home to eight of the world’s ten highest mountains. So, bearing this in mind I was expecting it to be a tad lofty and cold in Kathmandu. Well, it wasn’t too cold (nudging the low 20’s) and it’s actually only the 17th highest capital city in the world, sitting below Guatemala City and Nairobi!

According to the Nepali calendar the year is 2071 and their time zone is some 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT. But driving out of the airport it felt more like 1991 than 2015, or even 2071. I wasn’t expecting the place to be well developed but the city certainly has its fair share of run-down buildings and poverty. The last time I had street children begging for dollars and refusing to let go of my arm was years ago in Kolkata and it came as a shock to see how poor some of the citizens are. That said, it felt safe enough walking around the streets, as long as you keep your eyes on the pavements (or lack of) underfoot.

Bhatbhateni - THE place to shop in Kathmandu

Bhatbhateni – THE place to shop in Kathmandu

In terms of the shopping environment Kathmandu is no New York but the supermarkets are still better stocked with Western imports than many areas of India. For decades a pillar of the shopping scene in Nepal’s capital has been Bhatbhateni which now has four outlets. The Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue of Kathmandu is considered to be Durbar Marg (also known as Kingsway) but it’s got a long way to go before it can call itself a shopping mecca!

Tourism plays a big part in the Nepal economy and so I felt I had to indulge a little in what Kathmandu has to offer during my time there. I hope you enjoy the photos of the various shrines, mountains, monkeys, dragons and markets in the slideshow above! Next time I’ll be blogging from the continent I have visited the least – South America.


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