ECA International’s wanderingmark blog is moving!

Dear readers,

ECA International recently launched a new website and from now on the wanderingmark blog will be published at

To continue reading about the experiences from a travelling data collector, please make sure you sign up to ECA’s social media channels for notifications on future posts:

You can follow us on Twitter here or on LinkedIn here.

Many thanks for your continued support and for reading wanderingmark over the last few years. We hope you like the new website!

Best regards,

Mark Johnson (International Data Researcher, ECA International)

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Mozambique – It’s not all AK-47s and drug barons!

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It’s not uncommon to have a weapon such as a sword or a shield on a national flag as these often symbolize a country’s struggle for freedom, but what about having a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle?! Well, if you look closely at the Mozambique flag, sure enough you’ll find one. Apparently the gun stands for defence and vigilance and even though there have been murmurs over the years for it to be removed it still sits proudly on the flag, along with a star, a hoe and an open book. Thankfully, on my recent trip to the country I only came across two of these four objects (and no, I didn’t do any weeding whilst there!).

The Iron House - made completely from iron!

The Iron House – made completely from iron!

It was my first time in Mozambique, one of Africa’s six Portuguese speaking nations. I don’t speak Portuguese, or even Spanish, but due to its borders with English speaking South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, there were a fair few citizens who I was able to converse with. Adjacent to the Indian Ocean, the country has one of the longest coastlines in Africa.

The Portuguese first landed way back in 1498. The nation achieved independence in 1975 but the capital, Maputo, still has many pockets of colonial influence. The Maputo Central Train Station is considered one of the most beautiful stations on the continent. The regal Hotel Polana still oozes colonial opulence even though it has transformed into one of the city’s most modern facilities. My favourite piece of architecture is the Casa do Ferro (Iron House) designed by Gustav Eiffel (of Parisian Tower fame). It is a house made completely of iron which became so hot in the summer that it was abandoned. It’s safe to say that the Paris landmark has been more of a success!

Palm trees by the Indian Ocean

Palm trees by the Indian Ocean

Maputo has a population of 1.2 million and although some areas of downtown are fairly cramped, with a certain nitty gritty, there are other suburbs which are spread out and even resemble the well-to-do suburbia of London. The popular expatriate areas of Polana and Sommerschield stretch north along the coast, flanked by the palm fringed Avenida da Marginal and are dotted with popular facilities, including the country’s best mall, Marés Shopping, and the businessman magnet Radisson Blu Hotel.

These suburbs came as a surprise to me as Mozambique has one of the lowest GDP’s per capita in the world. I’ve been to countries far higher in the GDP ranking list which have nowhere near the quality of amenities. You’ll be able to pick up most of your weekly shopping list at one of the South African chain stores of Spar, Game and Shoprite and even if you’re hunting something a little more obscure, the chances are you can find it in Maputo. Along the Avenida Julius Nyerere, in the Polana area, are a handful of small gourmet shops selling the likes of Old El Paso tortillas, Yutaka miso paste and creamy imported French cheeses. The pick of these shops is probably Deli 968 and nearby there are many coffee shops and restaurants popular with diplomats and the expatriate community.

Maputo's cathedral viewed from my hotel

Maputo’s cathedral viewed from my hotel

One shopping area which does not appeal so much to foreigners is the Maputo Shopping Centre in the downtown area. It’s actually illegal for US citizens to buy products from the mall as it is owned by Mohamed Bachir Suleman, who is on a list of wanted drug barons by the US government! This won’t ruffle the feathers of many US expats though as the mall is looking rather sorry for itself these days, although it does have the city’s only cinema.

Going full circle now I’m going to finish on the gun/flag topic. We know that Mozambique has a gun on its national flag, but can you name the other two countries which have guns appear on them? It’s actually quite tricky but have a go by looking through the flags on this website:

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Guest blog: Big Macs and beef in Buenos Aires

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My colleague Nick visited the Argentine capital Buenos Aires back in October before the government lifted currency controls on the peso. Below he shares his experience. Best wishes, Mark.

On the night bus from Córdoba to Buenos Aires, the conductor mumbled something incomprehensibly Spanish and so I shrugged and smiled in reply. He was back a moment later with a huge slug of cheap whiskey which thankfully knocked me out for the remainder of the bumpy journey. I woke a few hours later to a cold but sunny morning in the Argentine capital refreshed and ready to start my day of price collection. My trip was scheduled just prior to the inauguration of Mauricio Macri as the new president of the country. As my colleague Andy has blogged about in detail at the ECA Money Moves Blog, Macri’s appointment has brought the end to the restrictive currency controls placed on the peso by the previous government.

The 'land of beef'

The ‘land of beef’

However, during the preceding years, foreigners and Argentines alike used to head to Calle Florida to change currency at the ‘blue dollar’ rate. This parallel market for US dollars had emerged because of the devaluation of the peso, restricted access to foreign currency and the national statistics agency’s unwillingness to publish accurate inflation rates. Trading on the black market was common practice and the authorities were seemingly turning a blind eye to this illegal trade.

So, rather than withdrawing cash from the closest ATM, I headed to Calle Florida, one of the main pedestrian drags in the city centre where a large proportion of brokers conducted business. The process of changing money on the street was slick and didn’t feel intimidating at all. Money-changers were abundant; you couldn’t avoid hearing the repetitive echo of “cambio, cambio, cambio” bounce around as you walked down the street. The rate was agreed upon with a moneychanger (an ‘arbolito’ – some of whom are impeccably dressed) and I was then taken to a ‘cueva’, as they are locally known, to complete the exchange. However, as the official and black market rates have all but converged under the new regime, the fate of the arbolitos and their cuevas remains to be seen.

Palace of the Argentine National Congress by day

Palace of the Argentine National Congress by day

One of the items in ECA’s cost-of-living basket that we’re required to price is a take-away meal, so we inevitably end up heading to McDonald’s whenever we visit a new city. But there is a curious omission from the advertised meals in Argentina – the ubiquitous Big Mac is kept somewhat under the radar. The Economist magazine publishes the ‘Big Mac Index’ which compares prices for the burger the world over – it is a “light-hearted guide to whether currencies are at their “correct level”. There were reports that the Argentine Big Mac price had been manipulated to an artificially low price in order to understate the country’s real inflation rate and to bolster the country’s position in the index. Although the Argentine Big Mac price has since increased to sit closer to other sandwiches on the menu, it is still very tricky to find.

Despite the uncertainty of the peso, there is a generally good availability of groceries, clothing and electricals in the city although there are a few things to be aware of for anyone relocating to Argentina. Generally speaking, there is not a huge array of imported produce in the supermarkets but the quality of everything is still high. There have been some shortages; in 2014 McDonald’s ran out of ketchup and I noticed that there was a restriction on the amount of cooking oil each person could walk away with per purchase in the supermarkets.

Obelisco de Buenos Aires

Obelisco de Buenos Aires

Nearly all of the wine available in supermarkets is produced in Argentina and beef dominates the meat sections but I can’t imagine too many grumbles from expats on this front. The steaks that the ‘land of beef’ is so famous for didn’t disappoint and any carnivore can’t pay a visit to Buenos Aires without visiting one of the parrillas. Good news for steak-fans across the globe, Argentinian beef may become more readily available worldwide following the new President’s decision to lift export taxes on beef.

I found the city to be a very vibrant, beautiful place. The neighbourhood of San Telmo, in particular, caught my eye; it is a bustling area filled with markets, cafes, live music and moody tango dancers. It is easy to find your way around the city on foot and by using the metro (the ‘subte’). An interesting point about public transportation in the city is that, after a law passed in 2014, all rail, water, road and air public transport must contain a sign stating “Los Malvinas son Argentinas” (The Falklands Are Argentine). Over thirty years on from the British/Argentine conflict, the two heads of state, Macri and Cameron, are to meet this week where the ongoing dispute over sovereignty of the islands is due to be discussed. 

Whilst ducking in and out of malls and supermarkets I kept noticing a white scarf design stained on the floor and painted on walls. It is a symbol representing Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of female activists who began protesting against the disappearance of their children and other human rights violations during the ‘Dirty War’ (1976-83) at the hands of the country’s military dictatorship. To this day the organisation carries out weekly marches outside the Casa Rosada to keep alive the memory of those lost and to support action on other social injustices. One mural that I did immediately recognise was that of Carlos Tevez, the ex-premier league footballer, who has returned to his old club in Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors, to the fans’ delight. And much like ‘Carlitos’, I too, would very much like to return to Argentina one day.

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Khartoum – safer than you’d imagine

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Acropole - the 'best' hotel in Khartoum

Acropole – the ‘best’ hotel in Khartoum

During the recent survey period I managed to only visit two new countries (booo!). With only 34 left out of 196 this is hardly surprising but what was surprising was that I managed to get there at all. I had tried for the previous two surveys to get a visa to visit Sudan, without success. The first port of call when organising a visa is to visit the country’s official consulate website which usually details exactly what paperwork you need. This often consists of passport photos, a completed application form, hotel and flight confirmations, a letter from your employer and an officially stamped invitation letter from a company in the destination country. For a Sudanese visa you also need approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Khartoum but, try as I might, this was proving irksomely unachievable. I Googled to see if this is a common problem and came across a forum where there is an ‘easier’ way of getting into Sudan. And this is when I stumbled upon the wonderful George and the Acropole Hotel. The hotel is not five star luxury accommodation with a swimming pool, sauna or state of the art fitness centre but what it lacks in finery it makes up for in service – something too often overlooked in many top end hotels. It’s a small hotel, popular with journalists and also where Sir Bob Geldof stayed during his time in the region during the famine of the 1980s. So, if you ever wish to visit Sudan on non-official grounds then get in contact with the Acropole Hotel who will bend over backwards to ensure your stay (and entry) goes smoothly. George was even still awake at 3am in the morning to greet me when I arrived all weary and bleary eyed off the plane.

The Corinthia Hotel aka Gaddafi's Egg!

The Corinthia Hotel aka Gaddafi’s Egg!

In the morning I wasted no time in getting out and about to the shops and surprisingly it was actually very safe to walk around. The name ‘Sudan’ often conjures up thoughts of warfare and strife but the capital, Khartoum, is anything but. Yes, in the south of the country there are huge problems in the border areas with South Sudan (whose capital, Juba, by contrast is a real no go area for us IDRs – much to the chagrin of the Cost of Living department!) and in the western Darfur region bordering Chad there has been ongoing troubles for over a decade, but Khartoum rarely witnesses any spill over from these areas. This FCO map shows this quite clearly.

Khartoum is a hot and dusty city so you don’t really want to be walking outside for too long, although I did have a pleasant walk from my hotel along the shaded tree-lined Nile Street to the point where the White and Blue Nile rivers meet. The street is home to many government buildings and also to the rather odd looking Corinthia Hotel, probably Khartoum’s most luxurious. It’s often referred to as Gaddafi’s Egg as it’s thought that the ex-Libyan premier financed its construction. Other than the ‘egg’ the city skyline is fairly uninteresting as everything is spread out rather than concentrated in one area. The wider urban area of Khartoum is actually made up of three ‘cities’. There is Omdurman, the more traditional Sudanese area with souqs, bustle and camel markets which is to the west of the White Nile. To the north of the Blue Nile and east of the White Nile is the imaginatively named Khartoum North, which is mainly an industrial area. But to the south of the Blue Nile and east of the White Nile is the area where 99% of expatriates live and where all facilities a foreigner would require are to be found.

The American trade embargo has real consequences in Sudan

The American trade embargo has real consequences in Sudan

If you pop in for lunch at the Ozone Café (which is bizarrely in the middle of a roundabout) then you would have no idea that you are in an east African city on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Freshly baked baguettes and creamy eclairs as well as lush ice cream and Western staples abound for the expatriate business clientele. The supermarkets, however, are not the best I’ve seen in Africa. Some items are hard to track down, or even find at all. One of the reasons for this is the trade embargo which the USA has had in place on the country since 2002. The sanctions also mean that for expatriates life in Sudan is a cash economy. Foreign credit cards are not accepted anywhere and ATM’s are useless too so cash is king. Indeed, I had to bring US dollars to cover my entire trip including all expenses.

It's sandy in the desert!

It’s sandy in the desert!

Although Khartoum is a safe city, I was surprised to be told that taking photographs can often get the attention of the police. I like to record my travels with images and was keen to get some pictures of the country. Fortunately, good ol’ George at the Acropole was on hand to ensure that I got the correct government approved photo permit which I had to carry on me at all times. This is just as well as I booked to have a day off travelling north of the city into the desert to see some ancient sites – a must for all visitors and expats at some time during their stay. The sites don’t compare in grandeur to those of Egypt but what was special about them was that I was the only person there. The highlight for me was wandering around the pyramids at Meroe surrounded by undulating sand dunes and not a tourist or hawker in site. It’s very rare these days to experience world wonders without the crowds so it was a special trip. Another must-see if you ever find yourself in Khartoum is the mesmerising whirling dervishes of the Sufi sect which perform a rapturous and rousing ritual in the Omdurman area of the city every Friday just before sunset.

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What is life like in Saudi Arabia as women go to the polls for the first time?

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Before last weekend what did Saudi Arabia and Vatican City uniquely have in common? Well, they were the only two countries in the world where women were not allowed to vote or run for office. On Saturday, however, this changed as Saudi Arabia saw women take part in municipal elections for the first time. Almost 1000 women registered to campaign for office with 20 successfully winning seats and the global media is rightfully hailing it as a welcome breakthrough. The campaign, though, was still rather different to that in most countries. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to address non-family members in public and so at campaign meetings with men in attendance the woman had to speak from behind a partition. Still, progress is progress I suppose!

A Jeddah sunset

A Jeddah sunset

Although this breakthrough has been lauded, life in Saudi Arabia still takes a bit of getting used to for first time visitors and expatriates – especially expatriate women and wives. I visited the ‘the Kingdom’ in October to collect cost of living data and although it was my second visit, there are still noticeable aspects of everyday life which are very different to other countries in the Middle East, let alone the likes of the UK or USA. My colleague Dan discussed several of these in his blog from last year, covering issues such as prayer times and being unable to really pierce the surface of daily life for locals in the country. This is very much still the case, especially for an IDR, with prayer times potentially having a big impact on how to plan a day of supermarket data collection.

Riyadh Gallery Mall

Riyadh Gallery Mall

The supermarkets and shopping environment may actually come as a surprise to many western visitors (almost exclusively business visitors or assignees as tourist visas are only issued for visits to see family and friends). Mall culture in the country is a big thing and spending time hanging out at the mall is perhaps the locals’ favourite pastime – just make sure you sit in the correct area of the food court though, where strict segregation of families and single men is imposed! There is a noticeable presence of UK brands with the likes of Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Next prominent in all the major malls. Other European giants such as Carrefour and Ikea are also very popular. The supermarkets also sell most of the globally popular brands of goods but with the obvious exception of pork products and alcohol, which are both prohibited by law. In fact, laws governing these illicit goods are taken very seriously, as one recent case highlighted. A British man was caught with home-made alcohol in his car and was punished accordingly under Sharia Law which is in place in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom Tower

The Kingdom Tower

There are strict laws regarding the conduct of people in public, but behind closed doors things are as normal as they would be in the West – especially for expatriates, most of whom live on compounds where life is more relaxed than ‘on the outside’. In public all women are required to wear an abaya, a full length cloak which covers the whole body. In many cities Saudi women are required to wear headscarves too and even the full face covering burkas are a common sight. In public, however, expatriate women are given a little more leniency and it’s not uncommon to see ‘Western hair’ on display. Underneath the abayas anything goes as can be seen by the high number of fashion stores in the malls and the many expensive jewellery shops.

Public life is a lot more relaxed in neighbouring Bahrain which is where I travelled to after my time in Jeddah, Riyadh and Al Khobar. I arrived via the King Fahd Causeway which connects Saudi by road to the tiny island state, which is the second smallest country in Asia, ahead of the Maldives. It’s a popular weekend destination for many Saudi’s who like to visit Bahrain to ‘let their hair down’. I certainly felt more relaxed wearing my shorts in public. It was quite noticeable seeing female ankles, billowing skirts and women behind the wheel of a car after spending a week in Saudi.

Reflection in Bahrain

Reflection in Bahrain

My previous visit to Manama, the capital, was some five years ago before the Bahraini uprising which was part of the Arab Spring. It was a tumultuous time for the small nation and I remember seeing TV footage of the protests and violence which centred on the Pearl Monument roundabout. The roundabout was a stones throw from where I stayed and right next to the largest and best mall in the country. Peace has now returned and, with the exception of the Pearl Monument being torn down, very little seems to have changed. If you’re an expat in the country, or will be moving there, then you will definitely want to check out one of the several Alosra supermarkets which sell all sorts of imported products from around the world (including pork). There are giant hypermarkets too which sell all manner of global brands. Even alcohol is available, although this is only from BMMI shops where clients have to be registered.

After leaving Bahrain I flew back to London before heading off again to sunny climes. This time to Khartoum, capital of Sudan.

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From mystical Tibet to cosmopolitan Guangdong

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This is my final instalment of blog posts on China. After leaving the sublime Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province I had one more ‘side trip’ before getting to Guangzhou from where I continued my work. And what a side trip it was!

Locals spinning prayer wheels in Lhasa

Locals spinning prayer wheels in Lhasa

The name Tibet had always conjured up some sort of mystical unreachable land in my mind and getting there is not that straightforward. Although it is part of China you still need to apply well in advance to get a travel permit (on top of the Chinese visa) to visit Tibet. And even then there are many restrictions on travel. If you want to travel outside of the capital, Lhasa, to the more remote areas you need more permits on top. Even if you are staying only in Lhasa, as I did, you must be met at the airport by an official guide who is supposed to escort you throughout your stay in Tibet. Many of the sights in the city can only be visited by foreigners who are accompanied by a guide, but fortunately I was allowed time on my own to explore the city by myself too.

Monks debating at Lhasa's Sera Monastery

Monks debating at Lhasa’s Sera Monastery

Tibet covers a vast area and is larger than both South Africa and Nigeria. Home to some of the most stunning mountain scenery in the world it skirts the Himalayas to the south. It has a population of just over three million (by contrast Nigeria has 180 million!) and a population density of only 2.5 people per square kilometre. Lhasa’s isolation from much of the world and from China has meant that it is quite a different place to the other cities I’d been to on the trip. Yes, it has a ‘new’ area with concrete and metal eyesores rising from the pavement but it also has a distinct culture and way of life which is truly fascinating. This is best experienced by walking the Barkhor pilgrim circuit around the Jokhang Temple – a real travellers experience and a must-do if you ever get the chance, or urge, to visit Tibet. Other highlights include the debating monks at the Sera Monastery, the gargantuan Potala Palace, spinning golden prayer wheels, the ever-present smell of yak butter and eating yak burgers! Yak is quite intrepid for my unadventurous palate but it was very tasty as are the momo dumplings and shablep pies. The only downside to my time in Lhasa was leaving. Oh, and waking in the night in a filthy dorm to find a huge spider sat on my face!

Guangzhou's highrises

Guangzhou’s highrises

Next up was Guangzhou (formerly called Canton), one of China’s megacities. A megacity is a city with a population of over ten million and China has five of them; Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Tianjin. I mentioned the sprawl of urbanisation in the Shanghai area in a previous post and Guangzhou is part of a similar sprawl of adjoined built-up areas which stretches all the way to Hong Kong, some 160 kilometres away. This conurbation is known as the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone and also includes the cities of Shenzhen, Dongguan and Foshan. This nifty population graphic from the BBC shows the area in relation to other Chinese urban centres. And with China abandoning its one child policy these population predictions may increase further. The article also contains the quite astonishing fact that China used more cement in the three years from 2011 to 2013 than the USA did in the whole of the twentieth century!

Guangzhou is one of China’s most cosmopolitan cities, owing in part to its proximity to Hong Kong and the international influence from there. Although the city stretches for miles most of my data collection took place in the Tianhe area, home to several impressive malls. Just south of here is the great setting of Zhujiang New Town with a wide pedestrianised plaza reaching all the way to the banks of the Pearl River from where the Canton Tower stands proudly. After the sun goes down the whole area becomes a mass of neon and the Canton Tower looks pretty impressive with its rainbow coloured illuminations overlooking the city.

The Canton Tower from the opposite bank of the Zhujiang River

The Canton Tower from the opposite bank of the Pearl River

Jumping on the train, in a little over half an hour after leaving Guangzhou I found myself 140 kilometres away in Shenzhen, another one of China’s megacities. Shenzhen, like Guangzhou, is also in the province of Guangdong which accounts for over 10% of China’s GDP. This, combined with Shenzhen bordering Hong Kong, has also given Shenzhen a very cosmopolitan air. In fact the Guangdong Province has more expatriates than any other in the country as illustrated in this overview of expatriate demographics in China. Nowhere was this more apparent than at McCawley’s Irish Pub in the Coco Park area where I spent a painful evening watching my beloved Crystal Palace FC lose on the big screen, surrounded by cheering Tottenham Hotspur fans from north London!

Shenzhen is the third largest container port in the world (behind Shanghai and Singapore) and was the first of China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in 1980. The SEZs were introduced to encourage foreign investment in China and have more flexible economic policies. Special tax incentives and more lenient government approaches have helped Shenzhen become one of the country’s Tier 1 cities. It is also one of China’s high tech hubs and has been dubbed the Silicon Valley of China with many technology companies having their headquarters in the city. Unfortunately, I haven’t got any photos from my time in Shenzhen as my camera packed up but I hope you enjoy the pictures in the slideshow from Lhasa and Guangzhou!

Well, that’s the last of my China posts folks. Next up I’ll be reporting on my trip to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

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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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