Archive for the ‘Destinations’ Category

Moscow

March 4, 2015

The best thing in Moscow is the underground system. I didn’t find anything above ground to write home about. In fact the underground is so superior to the overground that I found someone to take me on a tour of it.


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Siberia

March 2, 2015

On the way to town from Krasnoyarsk airport, I ask the lady from the foreign ministry about the only two buildings I plan to set foot in in this city in eastern Siberia: the hotel, and the conference centre.

‘Beautiful,’ she says.

‘Beautiful?’ I repeat. ‘Do you mean the hotel is beautiful, or the conference centre is beautiful?’

‘Everything is beautiful,’ she clarifies.

We enter the city and I am conscious of the sound of people eating breakfast cereal, loudly, outside the car window. The eating stops and starts again each time we stop and start at a traffic light. After a while I realise that this is in fact the sound of the little nails on the car tires that enable vehicles to have traction on ice.

Arriving at the hotel, the nice lady from the foreign ministry insists on helping me to take my luggage to the room. We enter. ‘Let me see how your view is,’ she says. She pulls aside a curtain and peaks out: ‘Very good.’

Later, I take a photograph that approximates to what she was looking at.

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It is thus that I arrive for the XII Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum, of which the 2015 theme is Economic Integration with Asia (Mr Putin, you remember, having fallen out with everyone in Europe).

Since the organisers have invited many more people to speak than there is time for, I am asked to reduce my remarks to a maximum 15 minutes. That equates to about one minute for every thousand kilometres of round-trip travel, but still constitutes top billing. After the Plenary Session, there is a High Level Luncheon, to which very few people turn up. One of those who does speaks loudly into his mobile phone as I am asked to say a few more words.

I am not sure that I understood anything that was going on at the conference.

Possibly, people in business were intimating that the central government does not do much governing.

Fortunately, the bigger point turned out to be that there was time before I left for the foreign ministry lady to give me a tour of key Krasnoyarsk beauty spots.

Paramount among these is a hill with a very small, windmill-shaped church from which Krasnoyarskians enjoy panoramic views of their city.

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We were at this Elysium on a Friday, which is one of the days (along with Thursday) when people like to get married, since it allows for the requisite three- or four- day weekend of drinking.

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Descending to the city, we stopped at the bridge over the Yenisei (one of the Three Great Siberian Rivers, along with the Ob and the Lena), which is so famous that it appears on the 10-rouble note. (That equates, following the latest devaluation, to the 10 pence note.)

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Not far from the bridge, the Soviet-era water pumping station is being restored for the benefit of future generations.

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At the other end of town, the second-most famous beauty spot in Krasnoyarsk is another bridge. The foreign ministry lady told me that in the summer romantic couples stroll across it in droves.

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You just have to try to imagine the droves.

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Naturally enough, there was another wedding couple there.

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Nearby is a triumphal arch erected in 2003 to celebrate the 375th anniversary of the city’s founding. (This appears to be the first anniversary to be architecturally commemorated.)

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The arch will make French people think of Paris. As a British person, my favourite landmark is the iconic Krasnoyarsk time-piece known as Little Big Ben.

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There is a train from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow. It takes three-and-a-half days.

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I travelled by plane, which takes just five hours. To Moscow.

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As I was leaving, I noted in the VIP lounge of Krasnoyarsk airport that management has been quick to amend the map on the wall to include Crimea and its administrative centre, Simferopol. I wondered whether the contractor has yet prepared a piece for the eastern Ukrainian (should I say Western Russian?) region of Donbass.

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I hope you find these images of the best sights in Krasnoyarsk useful. Before my visit, Internet searches under terms such as ‘Krasnoyarsk best sights’ failed to elicit anything.

 

Singaporean takeaway

October 27, 2014

I failed to write anything the week ending 18 October despite an interesting trip to participate in the 10th anniversary of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. (They invited you, you’re thinking. Yes, they did. As Saul Bellow once wrote: ‘There is nothing too rum to be true.’)

I also had a wonderful side-visit that week across the causeway to Johor Bahru, about which I will say nothing more than that if you have never read Han Suyin’s classic novel And The Rain My Drink, you should get on and do so. The book is particularly recommended for Chinese, Indians, Malays, Japanese and assorted gweilos, all of whom feature amid the chaos of the Emergency in Malaya/Singapore. What is more, there is a new edition, published by Monsoon Books that contains two, new short forewords; one is by Han’s former ‘liberal’ Special Branch husband; and one is by a well-known Malaysian human rights lawyer. The forewords unlock a few secrets about the writing of and background to the book. The copy I picked up in Singapore has the cover contained in the previous link; the copy available on Amazon has a different cover but an online review indicates it has (at least) the additional foreword by Han Suyin’s second husband. The book is not a bad gift.

Aside from the trip to JB (the treatment of hundreds of thousands of Malaysians who cross the border for work each day is pretty shocking on both sides; waiting time is frequently hours), the week in Singapore gave me a chance to speak with a bunch of policy people and a couple of ministers, and so here are a few thoughts about a place I don’t often talk about:

 

Singapore menu du jour:

1. The Great Unwashed are becoming the Great Ungrateful. In the 2011 election, Harry Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) got, by Singapore standards, a kicking, hit by a negative vote swing of almost 7 percentage points which took it down to 60 percent of votes cast. More and more people have had enough of the PAP’s arrogance, its brutal elitism and its lack of the common touch. On top of this there is Singapore’s hideous inequality (Gini of income inequality at a record 0.54), the out-of-control immigration (including horrific numbers of dumb, fat gweilos), and the apparently congenital inability of PAP politicians to think in terms of the population’s interests as a whole. Back in the UK, the PAP makes me think of David Cameron and George Osborne on a really bad day.

2. Never underestimate Harry, or indeed Little Harry. The PAP remains a formidable machine when it comes to co-opting Singapore’s best and brightest. A reasonable example is chipper Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Lawrence Wong, whom I had the pleasure to chat to. He is a big supporter of new PAP measures to curb real estate speculation and increase welfare transfers to the poor. It is not fundamental change, however it is change at the margin. The PAP’s logo may have been inspired by that of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, but the PAP has enjoyed considerably more success and longevity.

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3. So the big PAP trope just now is that the party is becoming much more touchy-feely and getting down with the labouring masses. At a public forum, many-times minister — most recently Foreign Minister — George Yeo, who became the most senior PAP figure since the 1960s to lose his seat in 2011 (‘arrogance’, said one of my taxi drivers), summed up the required shift in elegant philosophical terms. He said that Singapore must move on from ‘utilitarianism’ and seek policies that work for as many people as possible. In other words, the crude majority (assuming there even is one in the next election, in 2015) should no longer ride rough shod over the interests of minority groups, be they the very poor, Malays, whomever. He didn’t use the second philosophical designation, but what he meant is that Singapore needs to shift from utilitarianism to something more Pareto efficient, where policy gains for the majority do not come at the expense of other people.

4. Unfortunately I am a sceptic and I don’t believe the PAP will change its stripes – at least not fast enough to prevent even more trouble at the next election. At the same forum I commended George Yeo for calling for a move to a more mature, thoughtful policy framework. Then I asked him when he thinks Singapore will stop hanging people. (Singapore releases poor and patchy data, but in some years has had the highest per capita state execution rate in the world.) The response was interesting: no more new George/new PAP. He simply said that killing people has a deterrent effect and that most Singaporeans are in favour of it. This is the old PAP we know and love: not letting facts or logic get in the way of what it wants to do. First, there is no statistically robust evidence – and there are many studies – that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, so the claim to the contrary is disingenuous. Second, the logical case against capital punishment doesn’t hinge on the debate about deterrence anyway. Instead — at least for me — the sledgehammer argument against capital punishment is that you cannot guarantee in any legal system not to make mistakes; and when you do make a mistake, you cannot bring wrongly-hanged people back from the dead. I have looked in detail at miscarriage of justice cases in both the UK and the US, each of which has a better, more transparent legal system than Singapore. So when George offered the sop that he is open to looking for better ways to kill people, I wasn’t overly impressed. In reality of course, the PAP is sufficiently embarrassed at some level about its barbarism that the number of killings has fallen sharply as its political support has waned in the 2000s and 2010s; in 2012, the number of convictions subject to mandatory capital punishment was reduced.

5,000 years…

August 10, 2014

 

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After three weeks here, I stand by the assertion that Taipei is the world’s most interesting and liveable Chinese city. However it would be wrong to suggest that Taipei’s free society, strong sense of community, respect for other people, good manners and superb food are not undergirded by the fundamental and immutable laws of a deeper Chinese culture, the one with 5,000 years of continuous history.

The quotidian evidence of this is surely the piety shown for small dogs, as demanded by the Analects of Confucius  (‘Exemplary persons would feel shame if their small dogs were not well-dressed, or their perambulators not in working order.’) The mainland has begun to rediscover its ancient respect for small pooches in recent years, but Taipei reveals how far there is still to go. Here, pooches are properly dressed in dresses, vests and nappies, and wheeled around in high-end canine perambulators purchased from designer doggy shops that can be found on almost every street.

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I have been told that the real reason why the tomb of Qinshihuangdi at Xi’an — close by the terracotta warriors — has never been opened is that this would disturb the souls of 8888 Celestial Poodles who were buried with the first emperor. All the stuff about mercury poisoning is a red herring.

 

 

 

Tribute in the bag

August 8, 2014

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Thailand’s latest junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (aka National Council for Underdevelopment as Usual), has confirmed it is committing to a US$23 billion high-speed rail investment. Beyond this I can find very few concrete details. But the expectation is that much of the construction work, as well as the rolling stock, signalling equipment, and even quite basic industrial inputs will be supplied by China. Late last year, before the junta got rid of Thaksin’s little sister, Chinese premier  Li Keqiang was down in Bangkok doing the hard sell. When the junta boys grabbed the reins of power they made a show of putting the deal that was then shaping up on hold. But a few months later it is back in play, albeit possibly with some cuts to the project specification suggested by this Bangkok Post article (see the references to lower speed services).

Although we know nothing of the Chinese financing terms, it looks like the Celestial Empire has done an effective number on its traditional south-east Asian tribute states. First they leaned on the Laotians, the poorest and most biddable group, to agree to the first leg from Kunming through their territory. Now they have the Thais in the bag. Officially, the Malaysians say high speed rail is too expensive for them. But my guess is that the Malaysian government will fold once construction starts on the Kunming to Bangkok legs and sign a deal. The Chinese an easily twist their arms by threatening to buy their palm oil and gas somewhere else. (When I saw Mahathir late last year in KL he told me that he personally he is already in favour of a Chinese high-speed deal, so Beijing has one still-loud voice singing its song already.)

Who is all this investment good news for? It is good news for China’s rail equipment and rail construction firms, into which Beijing has sunk vast sums in order to master high-speed rail technology. And it is good news for bourgeois types like myself, who want fast, clean travel between their preferred Nanyang beaches and mountain retreats and the panda lairs of south-west China.

But we shouldn’t pretend it is good news for south-east Asian economic development. By the time there is a high-speed link all the way from Kunming to Singapore — which could now easily be completed within 10 years — the projects will have cost at least US$60 billion in today’s money. That expenditure will have done almost nothing to increase south-east Asia’s grasp of manufacturing technology, or even its project management capacity, because all the value-added goes to China. At a time when south-east Asia desperately needs to increase manufacturing employment to provide jobs for countries’ young populations, the China high-speed rail deals instead reveal the developmental bankruptcy of regional politicians. Their only strategy in addition to being a proto-colonial resource base for China, is to become a tourist destination for a new Chinese middle class.

 

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This from Geoff Wade at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, though I am not convinced all the numbers quoted are accurate.

What is not to like?

July 31, 2014

Summer in Taiwan. I came out two weeks ago with two kids and flew on to Penghu — the ‘Pescadore’ islands between Taiwan and China. Fortunately not on the flight that crashed that week. Clean air, clean beaches, and a diet of oysters and the odd beer.imageimageimage

Then we moved back to Taipei. Fantastic public transport, reasonably priced Chinese language summer camp, sitting in the hot springs at Beitou with a bunch of old boys and girls with flannels on their heads, wandering through night markets and shooting balloons with air pistols, chewing the fat with thoughtful, relaxed, helpful people. Chinese people at ease with themselves. Imagine that!

They tell me they lost the development race with Korea. Not really, I say. You lost the economic development race. But you won the overall development race. In Seoul they are all pissed out of their heads from Monday till Sunday, working 50 hours a week. Here, people are drinking fresh fruit juice and iced tea, eating the best food in east Asia, going to the temple or church, planning a holiday in Laos or Myanmar (it is striking how many people are wholly uninterested in visiting the mainland), reading a good book.

To be sure, I exaggerate for effect. But I honestly suspect that Taiwan is presently the most liveable place in east Asia. The parks, the public pools, the transport system, the schools all work in the general interest. Taipei retains the architectural charm of Tokyo because there are narrow streets but little high-rise construction, but it is more interesting because the Chinese are always up to something. It’s individuality with social responsibility. The losers are males of working age who are compelled to go to the mainland for work. But everyone else is here having a nice time. And there are pleasantly few gweilos of the irritating sort, because they have moved to China, or else stayed in Hong Kong or Singapore in order to better pool their wisdom and thereby earn their clients less money than the market index pays.

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Thinking back to Indonesia and Jokowi, if he wants to see what a manufacturing-plus-infrastructure strategy could do for his country, he should pop up here before he assumes the presidency. This is south-east Asia with dignity, built by small-time manufacturers like Jokowi. The Vietnamese, who are the only south-east Asian state on track to replicate this model, might also come over to remind themselves of the future. It ain’t too shabby.

Weekend reading / Why I love Sloanes

August 11, 2013

 

Just a handful of things to look at:

 

Philip Stephens’ searing deconstruction of the fiasco in Afghanistan should not be missed. It comes from the FT (sub needed):

 

Being cheap and nosy by nature, I have been taken by the Girl Called Jack blog about cut-price-good-quality cooking and the nature of contemporary British poverty

 

And the Guardian’s article on rising militancy among the lowest-paid workers in America is worth reading.

 

The subject of poverty leads naturally to thoughts of inequality in our world. As part of my ongoing research into the nature of contemporary life itself, I recently spent a couple of days poshing it up at a sailing club on England’s Isle of Wight, favoured boating haunt of hedge fund managers and the British upper classes. When I observed to the club Commodore that its social base was somewhat narrow and overwhelmingly employed in the City of London, he retorted that this was nonsense and the club has many other members, including high court judges and one of the most senior Conservatives in the House of Lords.

I kept a few notes of conversations I overheard as I observed grazing Sloanes and men in pink shorts from the safety of the bar terrace. I have to be honest and say I rather enjoyed myself, although a couple of days was very much the limit of the potential enjoyment. More and I would have started to fray. What I liked most was the Sloane women, who haven’t changed one bit since I was a teenager. They are as unselfconsciously dim and determined as the day that the gods created them to bring a smile to the lips of ordinary people.

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Man goes into sailing club office needing a ruler.

The Head of Sloanes (who runs the office) produces a long ruler.

Formidable!‘ says the man, attempting to banter in French.

‘Sorry dahling, that’s all I’ve got,’ says Head of Sloanes, taking back ruler and putting it away’.

Man looks perplexed.

Moral: never, ever try foreign language banter on a Sloane:

 

Sloane leans over bar terrace balcony speaking very loudly into mobile phone.

‘I will speak to Jose about that… Hang in there, dahling… It might just have to happen after the summer… Oh My God, yes… So you’ve got the quantity for Dominic?… Oh that’s fine. So shall we keep Dominic and Graham separate?… Work in progress… Yah, exactly. Yes, work in progress. Come back to you on that one. FANTASTIC. Speak to you! Okay. Byeeeeee…’

 

Below, a boy is wading up to the beach with sailing dinghy. He says to another boy:

‘Oh My God, you’re not rahly going to Marlborough?’

 

Sloane grazing on salad on club terrace addresses the group of people at her table:

‘In Zambia we only had a choice of five colours. It was totally Third World, absolute rock bottom. But the thing is that the grey we chose showed off the paintings rahly well. Absolutely fantastic.’

Back on the blog

August 20, 2012

It’s been a while.

Back in February I was infuriated when WordPress suffered an IT breakdown and failed to remind me of the need to renew my blog domain. The domain was ‘cyber-squatted’ by some monkeys who stuck up porno pics, links in Chinese for cheap flights, and demanded Euro200 to get the domain back. After a week, I paid up, but kinda lost the urge to blog. WordPress admitted their cock-up, but showed no inclination to cover the expense they created for me.

It is a great, FREE service. But I was pissed.

Meanwhile, I had to do a revision of a new book, which took time and pain. The results, I think, are worth it. The book will be out in March 2013 and, whatever people say, is the most important thing I have written. The title: ‘How Asia Works’. You heard it first.

This blog needs some amending. Since September last year we have been living in Cambridge. But, right now, we are back in Italy, which is still a great holiday destination, even if it doesn’t work as a country.

We drove down through Germany, my new favourite European state, following the spine of western civilisation, aka the Rhine. Starting in the offshore port-financial centre called Holland we progressed to Aachen, imperial seat of Charlemagne — he who made European power shift decisively north after the end of the Roman empire. Fantastic kit in the chapel and museums and a local 35% liquor made with herbs (‘Printen’) that can compete with anything I have tried in Italy. From there to the Mosel valley, just off the Rhine, and very beautful. The youngest counted 23 castles to win the castle-counting prize. Wenches in trad dresses serving, er, German food. Finally Freiburg, university town, with fresh water flowing down shallow gutters around town, a bit like Cambridge. Very nice.

The people seemed not entirely infuriated by the bills they will have to pay on behalf of their southern neighbours. Indeed the polls suggest that Frau Merkel can win a third term. The Germans are truly the grown-ups of Europe. Even if they take the neatness and prissiness thing a little too far.

And so it was that we returned to the Third World. Albeit on holiday this time. But still. You couldn’t make this shit up.

Italians leave, no one arrives

January 27, 2012

The Guardian has put together an interesting graphic on movement between the EU’s leading states. It shows that a million Italians have left their country and that people from other rich states find Italy much the least appetising developed country destination. It doesn’t say much for my judgement.

Answers on a postcard

March 29, 2011

It has been reported that the Italian government is trying to help out the international community by locating a pariah state with a good supply of sunglasses and a forgiving attitude to extra-marital sex where Muammar Gadaffi might be persuaded to seek exile. It is essential that the country should be one where a politician faces no risk of being brought to justice.

I am sure I can help on this. I have heard of such a place. And yet somehow the name eludes me… bah, my decaying brain…


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