Would you like to be an IDR?

Would you like to be an IDR like myself? ECA is currently recruiting for a position to join the team. Details can be found here.

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Peak to peak via Fuzhou and Kunming

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Welcome to the third instalment of my recent trip to China. My journey began in Shanghai, after which I visited the cities of Suzhou, Nanjing and Hangzhou. Moving on from Hangzhou I gave myself a couple of days rest – by climbing a mountain! Well, it’s not really a mountain in the ‘Everest’ sense but the Huangshan Peak (also called Yellow Mountain) in the Anhui Province of eastern China is a popular place of pilgrimage for Chinese people and is a hard day’s slog up to the summit. The scenery in and around the mountain is supposed to be fantastical, reminiscent of the film Avatar (although Director James Cameron got his inspiration from Zhangjiajie National Forest Park). I say ‘supposed to be’ because for the day climbing up to the top, the night at the summit and the day descending I couldn’t see a thing! The mountain is famed for its mystical foggy vistas but I clearly timed it very badly and managed about five worthy photos in 48 hours. Non-stop rain and overcrowded hiking paths did nothing to improve my mood. There was only one way to do that and that was head to the city to dry out and get collecting prices again!

Can't see the forest for the trees

Can’t see the forest for the trees

I flew to Fuzhou, a port city with a population of three million people, on the East China Sea coast. It lies strategically 200 kilometres northwest of the island nation of Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait. I have to admit that before ECA started publishing Fuzhou as a cost of living location, I’d never heard of it. It’s certainly nowhere near as large as the likes of Shanghai, Guangzhou or Beijing. In fact according to Nations Online it is only the 27th most populated city in China. This is reflected in the relative availability of imported goods about town. There are no one-off gourmet food shops selling French cheeses or Italian salami. The best bet for any hard-to-find imports is probably from Carrefour, although even there the choice is limited compared to other Chinese cities.

The Fuzhou skyline

The Fuzhou skyline

Over the past few years ECA has increased its location coverage in China and the number of cities now published is 23. The last two decades have seen the number of Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities increase and with it increased foreign investment as more companies have entered the Chinese market. It may seem strange that I was in a place which seems comparatively insignificant within China, but with so many large cities they all need to be covered! Depending on the criteria used Fuzhou can be considered to be either a Tier 2 or a Tier 3 city.

So what exactly are these tiers then? Well, there is no official classification but factors such as population, GDP, competitiveness, infrastructure and cultural significance all play a part. It’s generally agreed that there are four Tier 1 cities – Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. After this the second tier cities include the provincial capitals, large ports and developed cities with large economic influence and these are often the fastest growing cities in China. It should be noted, however, that there can still be significant differences between these second tier cities. These webpages from Jones Lang LaSalle and Sinostep shed further light on the tier classifications, with the former even including Tier 1.5 cities. One simple, but amusing, classification I came across on a forum was that a Tier 2 city has both Starbucks and Costa Coffee, and Tier 3 has only one or the other. Incidentally, there are no Costa Coffee outlets in Fuzhou, only Starbucks!

Kunming's Yuantong Temple

Kunming’s Yuantong Temple

The same is true of Kunming, the next city in my trip. This was a shame as I had taken a preference to Costa Coffee chocolate muffins over the Starbucks ones up to this point. The Sinostep link above includes Kunming as a Tier 3 city and I have to say that I found it similar to Fuzhou in terms of availability of goods. Certainly not as good as Tier 2 cities Nanjing, Hangzhou and Suzhou. With around 3.5 million people, Kunming is larger than Fuzhou. It also sees far more foreigners, mainly due to tourist activities which abound in the province of Yunnan of which Kunming is the capital. As well as being the chief tourism and transportation hub of Southwest China, Kunming’s proximity to Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar is also key to its economy.

The central pedestrianised shopping area around the New Era Hotel is abuzz with activity with shoppers, coffee sippers, and suited and booted businesspeople everywhere. But away from here there are pockets of tranquility such as the Yuantong Temple, the city’s most noted shrine. There is also a popular road to the north of the city called Wenhua Alley, a fairly low key neighbourhood but one which abounds with Western eateries such as Salvador’s Coffee House.

The postcard view of Lijiang

The postcard view of Lijiang

Whilst in the Yunnan Province I couldn’t resist the pull of joining the tourist trail for a few days and so I headed to the city of Lijiang, which has one of the most fascinating Old Town’s in the world. If you ever get the chance I definitely recommend spending some time here getting lost in the backstreets and alleyways. Also highly recommended is the sublime Tiger Leaping Gorge, a few hours drive to the north of Lijiang. It has one of the deepest gorges in the world with sheer mountain walls plummeting from over 3.5 kilometres straight down to the banks of the mighty Yangtze River. This two day trek more than made up for the disappointment of my foggy time on Huangshan Peak.

My next post will be my final blog reporting from China but before then I’ll leave you with the answer to my poser from my last post. Which five countries in the world don’t have an airport? Well, maybe surprisingly they are all in Europe; Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City.

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A high speed train trip through Suzhou, Nanjing and Hangzhou

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When I posted my previous blog about Shanghai the Chinese premier Xi Jinping was in the middle of a visit to the USA. With this, my second instalment of blogs about China, he has recently just left the shores of the UK. During his visit he enjoyed banquets at Buckingham Palace, red carpet treatment at Downing Street and even managed a selfie with the British Prime Minister and Manchester City footballer Sergio Agüero. Although two months ago China devalued its currency and there has been a slowing of the Chinese economy it was still seen as key by the British government to ensure that Mr. Jinping had a fruitful time and that ties (especially economic ones) are consolidated.

A 'pair of trousers' taller than the Eiffel Tower!

A ‘pair of trousers’ taller than the Eiffel Tower!

I was in China when the yuan renminbi was devalued back in August and although it made huge global headlines there seemed to be no great panic on the ground. This was to be expected, of course, because the country is still growing and perhaps nowhere more so than in Suzhou, the second city of my visit. The administrative area of the city has a population of over ten million and it must be one of the largest cities in the world that doesn’t have an airport. It is part of the massive Shanghai sprawl and is only forty kilometres from the city of Wuxi so these two cities act as Suzhou’s aviation gateway. Shanghai proper is 100 kilometres away which may sound like a long way but in China long distances are often a breeze. With over 60% of the world’s high speed railway network in China the train journey from Shanghai takes a mere 23 minutes.

Suzhou is one of China’s major electronic industry centres and to the east of the city the Suzhou Industrial Park is growing apace. This designated economic area is where most international companies operate and, hence, where the hub of expatriate life is concentrated. As well as being home to the largest pair of trousers in the world (the 302 metre tall Gate to the East skyscraper), the industrial zone will also be host to the second tallest building in the world, which, when it is finished, will reach a colossal three quarters of a kilometre into the sky. The historic centre of Suzhou is famous for its captivating and tranquil classical gardens but even out west in the industrial zone there is a pleasant atmosphere, particularly along the pathways which line the Jinji Lake. The smog levels seem far less and the general pace of life somewhat more relaxed than in China’s downtown city areas.

Inside the swanky Deji Plaza, Nanjing

Inside the swanky Deji Plaza, Nanjing

The Shanghai sprawl is home to almost 100 million people and stretches all the way from the East China Sea coast, following the mighty Yangtze River, past Suzhou and Wuxi and inland towards Nanjing, my next destination. Nanjing is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and around the turn of the 15th century it was the most populated city in the world. An important inland port, it is one of China’s key education centres, as well as being a business and industrial hub for the Jiangsu Province.

It’s quite a modern city and is home to one of the most luxurious shopping malls I came across during my time in China – the Deji Plaza. There was one aspect of Nanjing life, however, that seemed to be rooted in the 1980s still – the piped music in the supermarkets. In at least two different shops I found myself singing along to the classic 1987 Glen Medeiros hit ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’. Many readers will not have a clue what this one hit wonder is but those that do know, know that it was a high point of the decade! Something else which harked back to the 1980s were the ring pulls on cans of soft drink – you know, the one’s that come all the way off?! Well, I had a good time reminiscing about them!

A golden cow at Hangzhou's famous West Lake

A golden cow at Hangzhou’s famous West Lake

Back in the 21st century I jumped again on to the high speed rail network and covered the 250 km from Nanjing to Hangzhou in a little over an hour and a half. Hangzhou is one of China’s fastest growing and wealthiest second tier cities and is situated 170 kilometres south west of Shanghai on the banks of the Qiantang River. Although it is the ninth most populated city in China with almost nine million people I have to say that I found it fairly low-key compared with other cities I visited. Perhaps this is because there is no real concentrated centre as such, or maybe I was too distracted by the picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site of West Lake. In fact Marco Polo declared the city “the finest and most splendid city in the world”, although that was some 800 years ago and things have changed quite a bit since then! These days the city is known for its more progressive environmental endeavours and has become a hub for the advanced technology industries and is still an important manufacturing centre.

I mentioned above that the city of Suzhou doesn’t have its own airport. Well, as a leaving point can you name the five countries in the world which don’t have an airport? I know you’ll be thinking long and hard about it so I’ll put you out of your misery in my next post where I pick up on the Chinese data collection trail in the city of Fuzhou.

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Shanghai – China’s vertical city

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As you may have gathered from the last post on this blog I have been in China and unable to access the WordPress website which hosts the blog. For the past month I have been without Google (and more importantly Google Maps), Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and many other websites which the authorities in China have deemed nefarious under their policy of internet censorship. I know that many of my friends would cry at the thought of not being able to access these but it was actually a refreshing change not to check my Facebook page every day! The main frustration for me was the blocking of WordPress. I am aware that you can use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access certain sites in China but I have never really been too much of a tech wizard. For expats living there for longer periods, however, it’s definitely something that you would want to look in to. This useful website has a brief overview of VPNs and China.

The Pudong skyline of Shanghai

The Pudong skyline of Shanghai

So I am now back in Blighty for a few days before heading off to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain but I can’t spend a month in the most populated country in the world and with the second largest global economy and not blog about it can I?! The Chinese premier Xi Jinping has been in the news of late as he visits the USA for the first time as President – although this seems to have been overshadowed by the Popes first visit to the States too. Between them these two nations account for a whopping 36% of the global GDP (that’s China and the USA, not China and Vatican City!). This time last year I was in the USA but my longest trip during this survey has been to China and there are definitely a multitude of differences between the two countries.

The rocket-esque Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai

The rocket-esque Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai

When I arrived in Shanghai one of the first things I did was hop on to the fastest train in the world. The Shanghai Maglev Train travels at over 430 km/h (265 mph) and zips you from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the city centre in no time at all. After dropping off my luggage at the hotel I jumped on to the extensive metro system and headed to Lujiazui metro stop where many of the top end shopping malls are located. It was past six in the evening and the sun had gone down. By the time I had stepped out on to street level I was met with one of the most amazing metro exits that probably exists. It was like stepping on to the set of Blade Runner, with neon everywhere and huge towers reaching for the sky, most notably the awesome rocket-shaped Oriental Pearl Tower. At 468m high it’s not even in the top two of the tallest in the city. You may know from previous blogposts that I am a skyscraper fan (the taller the better) and the Pudong business district of Shanghai is no disappointment, especially at night, where you can pretend to be Harrison Ford for a while! And with three of the world’s tallest buildings all at the same road junction my skyscraper-lust was most definitely sated.

The IFC Mall in Pudong

The IFC Mall in Pudong

As well as being the largest city in China, with over 24 million inhabitants, Shanghai is also the world’s most populated ‘city proper’. A city proper can be loosely defined as ‘that within administrative boundaries which doesn’t include a wider metropolitan population’. Situated in the mouth of the mighty Yangtze River it is also the busiest container port in the world. Whilst the capital, Beijing, has remained the political centre of China during the country’s meteoric economic rise over the last few decades, Shanghai has very much been the showcase financial centre. It has all the glitz and glamour of any of the West’s great cities and is even said to have the most number of restaurants of any city in the world. There are over 200,000 expatriates in Shanghai and so it was not surprising to find that all foreign tastes are catered for, which is not always the case in some of China’s second tier cities (more on that in upcoming blogposts). There are a variety of specialist shops with all sorts of imported goods, although at a price of course. In fact, Shanghai ranked as the 8th most expensive city for expatriates globally and 1st in the Asia Pacific region for expatriates, according to ECA’s most recent Cost of Living survey.

After Shanghai I moved on to the nearby city of Suzhou and I’ll be posting about that and more of my trip to China very soon. I promise not to leave it as long this time!

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Blocked in China!

Wanderingmark is in China at the moment where WordPress is blocked but he’ll be posting about his travels on his return!

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Germany – the land of plenty

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It’s been a while since Wanderingmark ‘wandered’ and I thank the many guest bloggers who have enlightened my readers about their own travels during my time back at my desk in London. Recently, however, I was back on the data collection trail for ECA’s second main cost of living survey of the year.

The global BMW headquarters in Munich

The global BMW headquarters in Munich

Ninety five percent of the time my data collection trips take me outside of Europe, more often than not to the less developed locations of the world. So my latest trip was a rather pleasant change from the norm: I spent almost a fortnight covering five cities in Europe’s ‘powerhouse’ Germany.

With Germany being the key player within the Eurozone in negotiations regarding Greece’s debt relief, the country has been in the news as much as Greece’s struggles of late. But although there was a call to boycott German products at one point during my visit Germany seems to me to be a long way from strife right now.

The trains are always on time in Germany

The trains are always on time in Germany

With over 81 million people Germany is the most populated nation in the European Union and second in the whole of Europe behind Russia. Last year the country recorded the highest trade surplus of any country in the world and is only third in terms of total exports, behind the USA and China. These exports accounted for over USD 1.5 trillion – over double that of Japan, which sits in fourth place. It has the world’s fourth largest economy and 28 of the Fortune 500 companies have their headquarters in Germany including household names such as BMW, Lufthansa and Siemens.

BMW is one of many German car manufacturers which are famous the world over along with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen. In fact, German cars are so popular that the nation is by far the world’s number one automobile exporter: with almost a quarter of all global exports this is more than second-placed Japan and third-placed USA combined! When I’m strolling around a foreign city on my lonesome I often play a game whereby I name the countries of car manufacturers parked at the side of the road. It often goes something like Japan, Germany, Japan, France, USA, USA, Germany, Italy, South Korea but in Germany the game is no fun as seemingly 99 out of 100 will be one of the five mentioned above.

Fruit and veg galore at Munich's Viktualienmarkt

Fruit and veg galore at Munich’s Viktualienmarkt

Right, that’s enough car talk! So, with all these impressive numbers, what is it actually like living in the country? Although my visit was brief, I would imagine that culture shock is fairly non-existent for expats arriving from anywhere in Europe or North America (English is widely spoken). Those coming from South America or the likes of China, Japan and India may need some slight cultural or language adjustments but on the whole I found the country to be a great place to visit. The people were almost always friendly and welcoming, the transport system is extensive and efficient, the streets are safe and the weather not too extreme (except maybe in the depths of winter!). Recreational and shopping opportunities abound, with world class facilities and global brands. If you’re coming from the USA and have a craving for peanut butter – no problem, if you’re coming from Japan and need miso paste for a recipe – no problem, or if you’re settling in from Mexico and want your favourite tortillas – no problem, you’ll find it all in Germany!

The dramatic setting of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria

The dramatic setting of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria

My previous visit to Germany was during a cold snap in January but this time the sun was shining and a heatwave was taking place in the south with temperatures reaching the mid-30s. At times this became a bit too much for my UK-weather hardened body and the lack of air conditioning in the hotels came as a surprise.

My trip started in Nuremburg, moving south to Munich and then east through Stuttgart and Mannheim to Frankfurt. Each city has its own charms and gems but I think my favourite was Munich, with its lively beer houses, colourful Viktualienmarkt and majestic gothic buildings. Not too far south of the city are the beautiful Bavarian Alps too, home to the grandiose fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle and ample outdoor activities. Whilst hopping on the excellent train network between each city I also managed to stop off for brief visits to Ulm (birthplace of Albert Einstein!), to climb to the top of the world’s highest church, and to the picturesque town of Heidelberg near Mannheim. It seems there’s always something to see or do in this country!

The recently revamped euro sign in Frankfurt

The recently revamped euro sign in Frankfurt

Many of Germany’s cities have a walled Old Town, or Altstadt, at the centre and these usually contain the pedestrian-only shopping centres – just watch out for those pesky trams! The finest of these traffic free zones I encountered was the shopping Mecca of The Zeil in Frankfurt, home to the famed German department stores Karstadt, Galeria Kaufhof and Peek & Cloppenburg. Also in Frankfurt is the blue euro symbol sculpture which often appears on international news bulletins when anything about the European Central Bank makes the headlines. A couple of days before my visit I’d read that the sign had been dismantled as the ECB had moved to a larger complex within the city but it turns out that it has just been revamped and spruced up a little. Phew – I was still able to get some photos in!

All in all I really enjoyed my trip to Germany. From a work point of view it was possibly the most straightforward country for collecting data, with good quality options for all items in the cost of living basket available. From a visitors point of view it certainly has much to pique even the most apathetic of attitudes.

My next trip is a quick jaunt up to Edinburgh in Scotland before heading off on an eight city tour to the most populated country in the world – China. Take care!

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Guest blog: Likeable Seoul

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My colleague Hugh has been collecting data in South Korea’s capital city, Seoul. I was there briefly on my way to Mongolia a few years ago and was impressed. Hugh seems to have liked it too! More below, regards Mark.

When The Republic of Korea (or South Korea) grabs the media attention in the Western world, it is often in relation to its troubled relationship with its neighbours to the north, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or North Korea). Travelling on a high speed train from Incheon International Airport into the capital Seoul, I began to wonder how the modern metropolis coming into view could be so far removed from my perception of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, a city just 200km to the north and once part of the same country.

The country was divided, along the 38th parallel, following the victory of the allied forces over Japan. In 1945 there was an agreement for the United States to temporarily occupy the south while the Soviet Union occupied the north, with a view to a unified independent government being formed ultimately. This never materialised, with the conflicting political ideologies leading to two polarised governments forming instead. With both claiming sovereignty over Korea, tensions grew and, in 1950, North Korea invaded The South, resulting in the Korean War which lasted for three years.

View over Seoul

View over Seoul

Since the war, the two countries have had contrasting fortunes. South Korea’s economy has flourished since the 1960s, Largely reliant on the expansion of its manufacture-based exports it has benefitted from the establishment of huge multi-national conglomerate corporations (‘chaebol’) such as the Samsung, Hyundai and LG groups.Although the economy was setback by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it has since continued to prosper and is currently ranked 11th globally in terms of GDP (International Monetary Fund, 2015).

Despite undergoing rapid economic development, South Korea remained under authoritarian regime until 1987. However, when, in 1981, Seoul was awarded the 1988 Olympic Games this acted as a catalyst for political reform, focusing global attention on increasingly frequent pro-democracy protests within the country.

In contrast, North Korea remains under strict totalitarian dictatorship. Its economy is ranked as one of the poorest globally, declining rapidly since the 1970s after weakening ties with China and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Travelling around central Seoul it is immediately obvious that the city has plenty of appeal. The streets are immaculately clean and the efficient transport system, accompanied with multiple translations, makes getting around for a foreigner a pleasant experience. There has even been a concerted effort by the Korean Tourism Organisation to correct nonsensical English translations (known as ‘Konglish’) on signs, by handing out prizes to people sending in corrections.

Unlike my recent trip to China, I wasn’t the subject of constant staring and felt more comfortable when wandering around the city. The people I interacted with were very warm and welcoming, even if they weren’t able to speak English particularly well (but better than my Korean!). There was a noticeable level of respect and politeness between everyone. For example, people would wait courteously for passengers to disembark before boarding the Metro (not the case in China – or London a lot of the time!).

Shopping in Seoul

Shopping in Seoul

The city itself feels very safe, although when I was there the American Ambassador was stabbed and badly injured by an anti-US activist. This incident was very unusual in Seoul, though, and led to a huge police presence around the US embassy for the duration of my stay.

On the whole, I liked Seoul. It is very easy to navigate and there is no shortage of things to see and do in the city. Korean cuisine is emerging as a global favourite but for those missing their favourite food from back home there are still plenty of international cuisine options. The shopping environment is excellent, with its flashy department stores such as Lotte and Shinsegae offering top quality brands of groceries, clothing and electronics. However, I did speak to an expat who, being taller than the average Korean, expressed how hard he found it to find clothing in his size, so that’s something to be aware of.

The main supermarkets sell a range of good quality produce. However, expats may struggle to find some of their favourite brands from back home there. This has led to the emergence of supermarkets specifically targeted at foreigners, stocking items like Heinz Tomato Soup. Expect to be paying top dollar though! Indeed, Seoul isn’t cheap for expatriates. Our latest cost of living ranking showed it in 10th place globally, up 6 places from the previous year.

Shinsegae Department Store, Seoul

Shinsegae Department Store

Not many Koreans speak English well, so the language barrier can be significant if you don’t know the local lingo. While there is a good selection of English-language books within Seoul surprisingly I was unable to find any international newspapers during my visit. Not that that’s an excuse for not keeping up with current affairs: the internet there happens to be the fastest on the planet.

Pollution levels in the city, while not as bad as in China, were bad enough for my expat acquaintance (the one with the tight clothing!) to complain that he had aged badly over the few years he’d been in the city. Interestingly that’s not the only thing that might age you in Seoul. The custom in Korea is to count your age at birth as one instead of zero. Additionally, everyone becomes a year older on the Lunar New Year, regardless of when their birthday is. Depending on your luck, this could make you either one or two years older than you are back home. I wasn’t sure whether my new friend was aware of this, but I decided I better not mention it!

CA International Data Researcher Hugh

Hugh 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: 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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