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

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

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

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

Ghostly pirate ship amid a nearly abandoned shopping mall in Xiamen

Ghostly pirate ship amid a nearly abandoned shopping mall in Xiamen

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

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

A branch of Metro a favourite expat store in China

A branch of Metro a favourite expat store in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About wanderingmark

World traveller, researcher, photographer, collector of interesting facts and cost of living data research for ECA International (
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