Leaving China

30 04 2010

We spent the majority of the last two days in China shopping.  We went to the Pearl Market and again to the Silk market and managed to get some great deals (in our opinion :) on bags, shoes and watches but most importantly we got some cheap useless crap, some looked-like-a-good-idea-in-the-store-but-will-probably-not-work-at-home kind of stuff that always makes you feel good. 

The Pearl Market was similar to the Silk Street market, just a bit smaller and had fewer tourists and thus was a bit cheaper.  We managed to spend all our remaining Yuan (sans some dinner and ride to the airport money ;) but could easily have spend loads more.

Between the shopping we went to the Olympic park where all the main buildings constructed for the 2008 Olympics reside.  The park is a vast, gray, concrete park with a few impressive highlights.  First of course is the Bird’s Nest or the Beijing National Stadium – an unconventional, beautiful building that surely catches the eye.  Next to the Bird’s Nest is the equally impressive Cube, especially after dark, where Phelps won eight gold medals during the Olympics.  The other buildings in the park were just huge piles of concrete, steel and glass.

On Wednesday we had planned to go and see Chairman Mao in his mausoleum but we were a bit intimidated by the line and decided to come back very early Yesterday.  The mausoleum opens at 08:00 in the morning and we planned to beat the crowds and arrive early on Thursday.  We managed to get there around 08:15 and the line was already enormous!!!  It was about three times as long as the day before.  I measured the line on Google Earth and it was almost exactly one kilometer long and had about 4,000 people cuing up to see the mummy.  It was probably extra long due to the long weekend around the first of May, which is especially important here in China.

This was our last chance to see the Chairman so we had no choice but to cue up.  Fortunately for us the line went pretty fast and we went through the kilometer long line in about fifty minutes – not bad.  After passing the extensive security check, where Elínborg was thoroughly body searched, we got into the mausoleum.  Apparently they’ve had recent problems with Scandinavian blonds harassing the Chairman :) 

We entered a smallish hall with a grand statue of the Chairman flanked by a great painting of a Chinese landscape.  I was a bit afraid, after a few disappointments with over-hyped Chinese tourist attractions, that this was it but fortunately we exited the hall and went into another smaller one where Mr. Mao rested.  We had heard that the mummy was unnaturally yellow so we were prepared for anything. 

It was a bit strange that there were signs everywhere telling us to be quiet, respectful and courteous and then there were plenty of guards yelling at the people to hurry up and stay in proper lines.  So many people long to pay their respect to the chairman that there isn’t a lot of time allocated to each individual and the guards have to keep the line moving.

I thought the whole experience would be creepy but when inside I just thought of how the mummy was unnaturally real and untouched – that’s all.  It just seemed like chairman Mao was just sleeping peacefully under the thick red blanket embodied with the hammer and the wheat cutting instrument which English name escapes my memory right now …maybe a bit orange rather than yellow… but it wasn’t creepy at all – at least not until we got out and started processing the experience.

We were very happy that we stuck with the cue and saw the chairman and now it is one of our biggest regret of the trip not to have visited Ho Chi Minh’ in Hanoi or Uncle Ho as he is called in Vietnam.

We have now left China.  It has been great three weeks and I’m sure that we’ll return some day.  Thank you Yong and Amanda for welcoming us to your cities and thank you for the hospitality!

I’m sure I’ll continue to write about our trip through South-East Asia and China as I continue to digest the whole experience.  This has mostly been a travel blog I’ll continue to blog on my travels – be that back home in Iceland or abroad so stay tuned!





How great is the Great Wall of China?

28 04 2010

In the first two days in Beijing we visited the Silk Street market and the Great Wall of China.  We had been looking forward to both attractions for quite a while and were really excited.

The Silk Street market used to be an outdoor street market with numerous stalls lining the streets but has been moved indoors to a seven floor shopping mall.  At the market one can buy all sorts of stuff, both traditional Chinese stuff and replicas of western fashion stuff like bags, watches and clothes.  There is no fixed price and you need to bargain hard to avoid over-paying for the things you want.

We have found the salespeople here in China extremely pleasant but the sales girls at the Silk market were very aggressive, grabbing us into their stalls and trying to block us if we wanted to leave without buying anything – all in good fun though.

We did a bit of shopping and were very happy with the results.  After hard negotiations we got what we wanted for the prices we wanted.  Some store owners acted like they had been unfairly treated but as we all know it is always they that win in the end – otherwise they wouldn’t agree on the final price. 

After Elínborg went berserk in the bags department I had to drag her out of the mall so that we would have some money to eat for the last three days – but we plan to return on our last day to spend any excess Yuan :)  Maybe we’ll be composed enough to take some photos ;)

The day after we went on an organized tour to the Great Wall and the Ding Ling underground tomb with mandatory stops at jade and silk factories.  The wall was build to keep the nomadic hoards of Mongolia away from the Chinese empire.  It is actually a series of walls rather than one long wall, constructed from the 5th to the 16th century.

Most visitors go the the wall at Badaling but to escape the crowds we went to Mútiányú, a bit further from Beijing.  Like Badaling, Mútiányú has both cable cars to go up and slides to go down but we, like proper backpackers, opted for the stairs :)  When we were about half way up we kind of regretted our decision but we marched on and made it to the top.

Most pictures from the wall are without any people on the wall so it is difficult to get a clear image of how high and wide the wall really is.  My first reaction was that the wall seemed smaller than I had imagined (about 8 m. high and 5 m. wide) but very long and majestic. 

We got on the wall through one of the many watch towers and walked on the wall for a couple of hours.  The sky was blue and the weather very nice and we enjoyed the walk very much. 

After the wall we went to the Jade factory.  Our guide rationalized the jade factory visit by telling us that after visiting tombs and graveyards the Chinese always touch jade to get rid of evil spirits from the graves and the wall is the worlds longest graveyard.  It is thought that the bodies of about 10,000 workers were buried under the wall during its construction.  We knew that the main purpose was of course to sell us some jade items.  Jade is not really our thing and the price was definitely not in our range so we left empty handed.

We had a very good lunch and went to the tomb of emperor Wanli and his empress and concubines.  The tomb is an underground palace 27 m. below ground level.  It was impressively build but all of the relics and artifacts were destroyed during the cultural revolution so there wasn’t much to see.

At the end we went to a silk factory and were educated on the production of silk.  The main purpose here was to sell us silk duvets but we are happy with our down duvets and again left empty handed.

The traffic in the afternoon in Beijing is something else and it took us two hours to navigate through the city to get to our hostel but we got there in the end, jumped to the night market to get some dinner and went to sleep after a great day.





The rape of Nanjing

25 04 2010

The main reason for us to visit Nanjing was to visit the aerie Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre.  The memorial hall was build to document the terrible deeds committed in Nanjing by Japanese soldiers in WWII.  Nanjing was the capital of the Republic of China, the predecessor of the Peoples Republic of China, and served as the capital until 1949. 

In six weeks towards the end of 1937, the Japanese Army captured Nanjing and carried out the systematic and severely brutal Nanjing Massacre.  Rape, torture, murder, theft, arson and other crimes were all a part of the program.  Death toll estimates vary but the official Chinese number is 300,000 murders of civilians during that time in Nanjing.  You can read more about the massacre here.

The memorial hall was build in 1985 and is very tastefully designed.  It consists of a museum, memory square, meditation hall, open graves and other displays.  It was a very nice and peaceful place to visit but the museum that displayed texts and photos from the period was quite disturbing.

Before going to China I had never heard of this event in world history and the Memorial Hall was well worth the visit. 

We didn’t do much of other stuff in Nanjing and this morning we’ll catch the train back to Beijing.  

I can’t believe that there are only five days left of our adventure (if the volcanic eruption back home allows us to return).  We are though very much looking forward to going home to meet friends and family and to enjoy all the things that we had taken for granted – like hot shower, fresh tab water, closets full of clean clothes, kitchen to cook in and the like.





Top five… in South-East Asia

23 04 2010

There are now two weeks since we were in South East Asia and we have had a little time to digest all the things we did and all the memories that we created.  Therefore I decided to create a few “top five” lists.

Top five places we visited in South East Asia

  1. Angkor Wat (Cambodia) and the surrounding temples – just stunning
  2. Ko Phangan (Thailand) – the beaches and the sunshine and the food – what more do you want?
  3. Halong Bay (Vietnam) with its 2,000 limestone islands and relaxing cruises
  4. The Cham towers in Nha Trang (Vietnam) had a deep impact on me
  5. Dalat (Vietnam) and surroundings – great relive from the heat

Top five activities we did in South East Asia

  1. Mahout elephant training close to Luang Prabang in Laos
  2. Snorkeling in Ko Phangan in Thailand and Nha Trang in Vietnam
  3. Thai cooking class in Chang Mai, Thailand
  4. Zip wire ride with Jungle flight in Chang Mai, Thailand
  5. Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

Top five foods that we ate in South East Asia

  1. Thai red curry with rice – hot and yummy
  2. Fried coconut pudding (Thai sweetmeat coconut) – so delicious
  3. Tom Yum soup with shrimps – will be a regular back home
  4. Cambodian amok – a more subtle curry than the Thai curry
  5. Vietnamese shrimp spring rolls – they melt in your mouth

Top five disappointments/annoyances of South East Asia

  1. Theft on Thai busses (Bangkok to Surat Thani)
  2. Plastic garbage laying around almost everywhere
  3. Loud traffic in Vietnam and drivers unnecessarily honking their horns at us
  4. Annoying and pushy tuktuk drivers everywhere except in Laos where they are too laid back to be bothered
  5. Expensive and ultra touristy Andaman coast

We have done some much in the past three months that I’m sure that I’m forgetting something.





Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant by W.C. Kim & R. Mauborgne

23 04 2010

blue_ocean Sophisticated models and analytical tools that assist in the creation of a corporate strategy in contested markets have been around for a while.  These models and tools help create what the authors of the book call “red ocean” strategies where the focus is on competing within the current market boundaries by monitoring the competition and seeking either differentiation of products and services or cost leadership.

“Blue oceans” however are new uncontested markets where the competition is weak or none existent and therefore irrelevant.  The reason that only a few companies are able to open up those uncontested markets, according to the authors, is the focus on red ocean strategies in the strategy process.

In this book the authors set forth analytical tools to help companies structure their strategy process in a way that can lead to the opening of highly profitable blue oceans.

I thought that the idea of blue oceans is rather straight forward and common sense stuff.  However it is valuable to see the idea formulated into a thorough process that can be easily emulated during the strategic process within companies.  I agree with the authors that companies must have capabilities in both red and blue oceans in order to reach excellence – otherwise they will never break out of the boundaries set by their perspective industries.

I found the book to be an easy read and a bit thin at times.  The examples in the book were quite interesting but I often get the feeling that you can always find examples to support any theory if you search hard enough.  I’m sure someone could show that Apples success is due to the fact that the employees wear jeans to work or that Microsoft is so successful just because a lot of their employees wear glasses.

But anyway, I thought it was an interesting book and would surely recommend it to anyone interesting in strategy and innovation but for the rest of you – just wait for the movie!

Previous book reviews can be found here.





Shanghai to Hangzhou

22 04 2010

We spend the last days in Shanghai just wandering around the city center, checking out the stores in the French Concession and the skyline of the Bund.  We didn’t really do much in Shanghai in the sense of seeing places – more just went with the flow, which was a very nice change.  The only museum or site we visited was the Museum of Contemporary Art. 

From Shanghai we took the very modern and fast fast-train to Hangzhou (180 km. in 80 minutes), described by Marco Polo as "beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world."  The city has a total population over six million people and circles around it main attraction the West Lake.

We spent today biking around the West Lake.  The lake is surrounded by a very beautiful park with decorated gardens of the finest sort.  We can certainly accept Polo’s description of Hangzhou but we’re also sure that he came when the sun was shining and the mist/smog was a lot less then it was today.

The weather gods is still not nice enough to us.  Even though the temperature hovers around 20°C it feels very cold – nothing like Icelandic 20 degrees.  Only Shanghai was warm enough but a bit too wet.  We are hoping that spring is just around the corner here in China.

Tomorrow we will take the bus towards Beijing again.  We will make one stop on the way though and visit the city of Nanjing.





Western impressions from South-East Asia

20 04 2010

Below is an article that I wrote for a friend’s blog.  You can check out Natasha’s blog here and a permanent link to my article here.  I was very amused reading Natasha’s introduction that I included at the end of the article.

———————————

The first thing that I noticed upon arriving in South-East Asia was the entrepreneurial spirit of the people—a spirit that was noticeable everywhere we went. It might be the case that a lot of the people have been forced to start their own business out of lack of options, but that certainly does not apply to all of them. I started thinking about all the people I know who dream of starting their own business. Do we need to be forced to live the lives we dream of? Being your own boss, though, is not just fun and play, since there is often no one to take care of business for you—and this leads to the next topic: work-life balance

People in South-East Asia seem to work from very early in the morning to very late in the evening, often over sixteen hours a day, and work seems to be their life. If you work sixteen hours and have kids, you have a problem. That problem seems to be fixed in two ways: either people take their kids to work or they depend on their extended family. As you know, the elders in Asia are not put in old people’s homes, but live with their families and have their role there. I’m not saying it should be like this in the West—it’s just nice to see how that works well in Asia.

There is one thing that has bothered me for a long time and that is the feature creep. All too often in the past I wanted to buy something that I had previously been very satisfied with, like the computer that I bought two years ago or the Nokia 5110 phone or a bike with just five gears. Those things should be available at a fairly low price but no, you can only buy the latest model with all the new features that have been invented since. In Asia this is actually possible! It is possible to buy a phone that only does SMS and phone calls, or a bike with no gears, or a low-cost computer that does what you want it to and nothing more.

You can’t miss the great importance of spirituality in Asia. In three of the four countries I visited, Theravada Buddhism is the main religion and participation is very high. Buddhism is quite different from the Abrahamic religions and it seems like spirituality is intertwined with every aspect of people’s lives. In the West there has been more focus on organized religions than on individual and private involvement.

During my travels I also noted at least three issues that are connected with the development of the countries of South-East Asia and their quest to be among the developed nations of this world. I have a lot of questions around those topics but haven’t had the time to find the answers. Maybe you have some insights?

First, how will Asia deal with all the pollution and garbage in the coming years, as they develop? As we consume more resources we create more waste—unless something changes in the way we act. Both garbage and pollution are already a problem in the region, so it is imperative that these countries find new solutions to deal with the waste they create.

Second, how can Asia sustain its agriculture, as the food consumption moves away from rice production towards greater use of meat and grains? When nations become richer they consume more meat and grains than before, which puts more pressure on local resources and on the environment. This will become a big problem in regions that are already under much pressure.

And third, how will Asia deal with even more traffic, with the increase of cars on the roads? When people have more money to spend, more and more of them choose to opt for a car instead of the more traditional scooter. This will put pressure on the already congested traffic system. As I said, I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they kept popping up as we traveled though the region.

—–

Örn Thordarson was born in Húsavík, on the northern tip of Iceland—the most beautiful place on Earth and home of the Icelandic Phallological Museum. He has a background in computer science and worked in the financial sector for about ten years before getting his MBA from the University of St. Gallen, where he is known for introducing fellow students to fermented shark and sheep’s balls (in addition to numerous other qualities). He is currently travelling in China and plans on returning to Iceland in May 2010.