Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Selling like hotcakes in Moscow

You know you're staying in a flash hotel when ... (Part II)

When ex-US presidents (normally George Snr and Bill C) are schmoozed in the lobby photos by the invariably balding Swiss sounding GM of the establishment in the rogue’s gallery of mugshots … along with the odd selection of C celebs – Dolph Lungren anyone!

You know you're staying in a flash hotel when ... (Part I)

You find a note such as this tucked into the highly prized bath robes

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bacon 'n caviar

The sonorous melodies of the harp reasonate around the gilded, stunning room. In front of me as I come in lie a mound of strawberries and three bottles of champagne on ice. I make my way to the centre of the decorated hall, gazing up at the ornate stained window ceiling and the beautiful lighting. To my right a pile of caviar sits waiting with my name on. This is elegant luxury defined. It also happens to be my breakfast dining room for today and tomorrow here at the Grand Hotel Europe in wonderful St Petersburg. Whoever came up with that dietary manta that one should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper may well have had the Tsar-tastic brekkie I just wolfed down in mind. And even I thought it was too decadent to have champagne at breakfast!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The tragic plight of the Uighurs

Yining sits to the very far west of China. Carry on a little bit and you’ll hit Kazakhstan. To its east are wonderful grasslands. Life there though is a tinderbox with fear and loathing visible on the streets.
Yining, or Ghulja as the Uighurs call it, was the site of a massive 1997 Uighur rising that saw thousands protest and a very bloody response from the authorities with many human rights organisations suggesting the number of violent deaths that followed hit four figures.
When I went there nearly a year ago I came across greater repression than I had experienced anywhere, and that includes North Korea. Police, army and local militia roamed the streets armed to the teeth looking for trouble. We were stopped every second block, our papers looked at, our bags checked and our digital pictures scrutinized. 11 years after this massacre and the city was still a powder keg.
Urumqi (pictured with riot police), the capital of the province, is an 11-hour bus ride east. As far as I can make out the authorities there reacted violently to a peaceful demonstration Sunday and massacred indiscriminately. We will never know the full death toll, but believe me when I say you can add a zero to the official 140 toll. The Uighurs have never received the same international attention that Tibet does for its harsh treatment by Beijing. Urumqi will now suffer the same long, drawn out tortured fate as Yining. There are times when I hate China.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Calling Mike Hill

Bit of a bizarre post one, given the modern digital age we live in with Facebook, Skype, etc. Anyways, Mike, saw your comment on this site to get in touch -- can't find your contacts anywhere so email me when you can: sam@cityconnect.com.cn -- I am in the UK for the next couple of weeks

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Diamonds aren’t forever

After a year of first class treatment from the lovely folk at Cathay Pacific my top tier Diamond membership of their loyalty programme ran out a few days ago. I’m now relegated to Gold, the Championship as such, which let’s face it is a whole lot better than where Charlton Athletic find themselves. I can honestly say though I hope I never attain that Diamond card again. Don’t get me wrong, the perks these past 12 months were wonderful. The flashest airport lounge imaginable, upgrades galore, lounge access even when not flying Cathay, ludicrous baggage allowance … the list goes on. But what one has to do to become Diamond, phew, that’s an effort. In a 12-month period you need to crank out 120,000 miles with CX. To put that in perspective, HK to London is just over 6,000 miles. It’s alright if you are a highflying exec, as taking business class gives you double points. Your humble scribe here though has never coughed up the cash to sit up front in the plane so 120k worth or miles meant that in that particular 12 month period (June 2007 to June 2008) my feet barely touched the ground, home on Lamma was a place to shower, unpack and repack. Frankly, looking back on it, travelling that much ain’t good for the mind, let alone the environment.
Still, as I sit here writing this – in transit with Emirates at Dubai airport – I could really do with that Cathay lounge...

Strange brew

Yesterday I read an article on the Beeb’s site about North Korea making a TV advert about a product, not a person (as in the Kims) for once. The product was one I am intimately familiar with - Taedonggang beer. I would have posted about it yesterday but of course I was in China where Blogger continues to be blocked. So here I am on a stopover in Dubai. Time for a quick rehash of the wonderful tale of this now briefly famous beer.
Back in 2000, the Dear Leader, known to be fond of a tipple or 10 (he is allegedly Hennessey Cognac’s single biggest customer) decided the proletariat deserved a better brew. Having been long-term importers of China’s Five Star beer, Kim Jong Il wanted his Stalinist state to have its own standout beer.
He cast around for a brewery and in November, 2000, using a German agent, answered an advert and spent a reported £1.5 million purchasing the venerable Ushers brewery. The 175-year-old brewery located in Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the west of England was dismantled and moved lock, stock and barrel 8,500 km east to the eastern suburbs of Pyongyang.
Strange but true – but then in 1976 in similar fashion Kim’s father Kim il Sung (still president despite being dead for 12 years) bought and imported a Swiss watch factory!
Back in 2000, Peter Ward, the director of Thomas Hardy Brewing and Packaging, the owner's of Ushers, said: "When they first approached us I thought they were South Koreans and I was a bit shocked when I discovered they were from the Communist North." Once he had got over the shock and was reassured that a) the North Koreans would pay and b) would be using the technology to ferment yeast not germs (the two practices being similar) the deal was done and 12 North Koreans headed to the brewery to help take it down and move it away to Asia.
State media at the time noted: “The respected and beloved general, who is always deeply interested in further improving the people's diet, took a benevolent action for constructing a modern brewery in Pyongyang.”
Thomas Hardy Brewing bought the Ushers plant after the brewery closed in early 2000. Ushers began brewing in 1824 and was best known for regional ales such as Best Bitter, Founders Ale and Mann's Brown Ale. The Ushers brands are now brewed under contract in Dorchester.
Suggesting the Dear Leader’s urgent thirst troops of the North Korean People's Guard were deployed in the construction project "for the purpose of completing a quality factory in the shortest possible period of time," according to the North Korean Central News Agency. “All combatants mobilized to the construction are carrying out the struggle of loyalty day and night with the fervent desire to make a report of loyalty to the respected and beloved general after excellently constructing the brewery,” the news agency reported at the time.
But installing this comparatively hi-tech facility was no easy task for this incapacitated state.
The wonderfully apocryphal story, told by more than one DPRK old hand though impossible to confirm like so much else in this nation, goes that after much jigsaw assembling of the factory, the first pint was poured to much excitement. The brown, none-too-fizzy liquid that poured forth came as rather a surprise. ‘That’s no lager,’ wondered the employees in unison as an incomprehensible award winning ale poured out of the taps. Germans were immediately called in to install state of the art stainless steel piping and out of the taps a few weeks later poured lovely crisp lager that would not have been frowned upon in even the most discerning Munich beer hall.
However, the story didn’t end there. Failing to pay their bills, a common DPRK trait, the factory ran into difficulty six months later needing extensive repairs, something the German engineers were not prepared to do. Cue the age old North Korean feat of reengineering – the end product being Taedonggang Beer – named after the River Taedong which flows through the centre of the capital and is unquestionably, despite the alleged tinkering, the country’s finest beer.
The Korea Workers' Party organ Rodong Daily said that year that with the 500,000 barrel a year brewery completed, Pyongyang citizens now enjoy this fine beer, and that "they are unanimous in speaking of its quality."
As of the middle of 2002, those rich enough could buy this brew, which comes in distinctive 650 ml green bottles with a logo of a bridge. But at 50 pence or so a bottle this and every other beer in the country are far too much for the average citizen who earns no more than a couple of dollars a day. Since launching, perhaps down to austerity measures, the alcohol content has dropped from 5.7% to 3.5% yet this straw-coloured drink makes for a delightfully crisp, refreshing, light brew when served cold – not a problem in winter when temperatures regularly hover around the -10 degrees Celsius mark.
Alongside this and only available at certain microbreweries and the ‘luxury’ Koryo Hotel is the dark Taedonggang ale with a voluptuous, rich caramel flavour.
Now, give the friendly folk at Koryo Tours a bell to go to the reclusive east Asian state soonest for a surreal pint.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fear and loathing in Dandong

You've haven't been to Dandong in Liaoning until you've experienced Real Love -- the best disco in China bar none. With its bouncy floor, hard core drinking DJ and dingy surroundings it is a legendary haunt. What's more, it's impossible to miss. Get out at the train station, gaze up at the giant rusty red statue of Mao and follow the finger where the Great Helmsman is pointing. As the big man said, you can't have a revolution without a party.
Once inside green laser lights and techno music collide. Be warned, as you near that dance floor you are putting your liver in harm’s way. Few Westerners make it up to this cool slice of northeast China that shares a river border with North Korea. Fewer Westerners still make it to Real Love. So the novelty value of seeing a laowei bouncing up and down on the jolting disco floor is often too much for the DJ to resist.
The last time I hauled my lanky two metre frame there, all of a sudden the music stopped, the chubby DJ pointed towards me and beckoned me to his lair in front of a hundred or so bemused locals, who’d had their dancing suddenly interrupted. Operation Embarrass The Foreigner then swung into action.
A beautiful dancer handed he and I a bottle of warm beer. He urged me to down it. Was he mad? Did he seriously know who he was messing with? Me, the gigantic Asia correspondent for Beers of the World magazine against this runt. Bring it on, biiiiitch! But before I’d even swallowed the first gulp of the rather ordinary amber nectar his arms were aloft, victorious, having downed his bottle in literally a second flat! The crowd were delirious – the local having thrashed the giant marauding foreigner.
Alright, game on, I thought. You’re just a little bit rusty, Chambers, now go show him who’s boss! We were each handed a second bottle. Marks, set, go. Once again, the crowd roared their appreciation as the DJ sunk his beer before I’d barely made an indent on mine.
Jesus, this guy’s good, now might be the time to slink off, stage left with my tail between my legs, having admitted defeat, I thought. The DJ and his adoring fans were having none of it though. He bayed for a third and then a fourth bottle while making me repeat some no doubt idiotic words in Chinese into a microphone. He could have just come in from a week from the Sahara the way he downed that fourth brew, as I toiled much to everyone’s amusement.
By now the DJ could see I had had enough, but there was time for more humiliation. A fifth bottle each came out. My stomach had that distended Ethiopian thing going on. Thrashed soundly for a fifth time, I walked off stage to huge applause. My prize for the ritual humiliation was sitting back at the table – a six pack.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pop stars passing in Shanghai

This has been the second time I have been in Shanghai when a world famous musician has died. The first time was far sadder for me. George Harrison kicked the bucket on December 1, 2001. He was my favourite Beatle. Quiet, unassuming, he lived in the shadow of the great Lennon-McCartney writing combo – as so many from that decade did; step forward Ray Davies. Yet his Beatle contributions were among the very best the quartet ever recorded. Greats like While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Here Comes The Sun have withstood the sands of time. In the 1980s George was the greatest influence in the supergroup of all time, The Traveling Wilburys. Just before he died Harrison made a stunning album called Brainwashed, which saw him hit creative peaks not seen since the early 1970s, and All Things Must Pass. In short he was a genius.
I was in Shanghai when I learned of his passing. Together with a commercial colleague we went out that night on yet another massive pub crawl. At every stop we demanded the pub play something by George Harrison. However, dingy the bar, however Shanghainese, we were adamant that the pub had to pay a loud homage to Harrison. We must have cleared out endless pubs with our drunken rants for Harrison homilies that night.
Fast forward seven and a half years and I’m sitting down on day three of a conference, opening up my laptop, lazily slurping my first cup of coffee and an events colleague of mine tells me Michael Jackson is dead. ‘Fuck off,’ I retort, dumbfounded. ‘I’m not kidding,’ she says, heading to the BBC homepage. Sure enough, there he is, warped, white Jacko, dead at the age of 50. I get in a taxi later that day. The Chinese radio station is playing Jackson tributes 24/7 and so begins the bizarre media deification of a man they helped satanise in the 1990s. Both Google and Twitter crashed on the day of Jacko’s death so great was the volume of traffic. Apart from the pair of them dieing while I was in Shanghai, the other link I guess they have is that in the 1980s Jackson bought up half the Beatles back catalogue, quite literally for a song.
A week on and Jackson’s departure still leads the news, every Tom, Dick and Harry comparing his passing and life as greater than that of Lennon’s and Presley’s. It’s become one of those mega news events – a where-were-you-when-x-happened type event. People, get a grip!