China Off-The-Beaten Path: The Loneliest Mall in the World

28 01 2012

It was supposed to be the largest mall in the world – three times as large as the Mall of America in Minnesota (currently the largest in the U.S.). Scheduled for launch in 2005, in a Southern city of Dongguan, the New South China Mall was going to set a new “benchmark in the mall grandiosity” with space for over 2,300 stores catering to over 70,000 shoppers each day.

2005 came and went. The mall was built and launched. However, the stores and shoppers never quite materialized as projected. As of now, there are just under two dozen stores occupying the total area of 9.6 million square feet – putting the vacancy rate at over 99%! And even then, most of them are Western food chains like McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut who got the locations near the entrances.

The mall – designed to target the Chinese growing middle class who are getting more and more used to Western-style shopping – was certainly an ambitious undertaking. It was funded by a millionaire who made his fortune selling instant noodles in China. His team traveled the world for 2 years in search of ideas to make the mall unique. The end result was a mammoth of a mall that includes, among other things, a 25 metre replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a replica of Venice’s St Mark’s bell tower, a 2.1 kilometres canal with gondolas, and a 553-meter indoor-outdoor roller coaster as a part of an amusement park designed to keep the kids busy while the parents shop.

The developers still have a very positive outlook and are currently actively working on expanding it even further.

Inside Look

For lease signs hanging from the ceilings

Escalators are temporarily suspended

One of the thousands empty, never-used storefronts

A bicycle parked next to an escalator

Empty shopping floor - devoid of shops or visitors

One of the few storefronts that is apparently getting ready for the busy season.

A security guard making his rounds.

Floors upon floors of retail space.

Somehow, the photo and the caption just doesn't quite match.

 

The Mall Outdoors

Gondolas are parked, waiting for their riders.

A Venice-style canal was built to provide a European feel for the shoppers.

Sinister-looking statues line the entire way of the canal.

Gondola.

Valet parking. Next to an empty Lexus dealership.

View from the above.

I don't know what's more amazing. The fact that the construction is still going on to add extra space or that the entire thing is done using bamboo.

For the Kids

The largest indoor family entertainment center in China with unlimited excitation at any circumstance. I am sold!

Indoor-outdoor roller coaster. Running absolutely empty.

For all of that unlimited excitement at any circumstances, I didn't see a lot of people taking advantage of it.

Probably the most creepy part in the entire mall!

Somebody converted a floor of a parking lot into a Go-Kart racing track.

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Heading Off to the Middle Kingdom

5 01 2012

Bicycle in Guangzhou

About half a year ago, somewhere on a dusty road in Ethiopia, I was driving our trusty, 30-year old Land Rover across Africa and pondering about the line of work that I’d get into when I come back into the U.S. Although different ideas were starting to float around at that point, I didn’t quite know exactly what it would be just yet.

I just knew that it would have to be another startup, that it should do make a contribution to the society and people around us, and that it should offer plenty of opportunities to learn about things I know nothing about.

Ironically, things actually worked out just that way. About a month later, I was back in New York where my brother introduced me to the concept of electric bikes that were taking over China and Europe by the storm.

As a huge fan of cycling – and pretty much anything else on two wheels – I was intrigued immediately, and then completely sold on the idea when I saw how happy people got when they used an e-bike.

Fast forward a little further and we are now working on a company that will produce and bring high-end electric bikes into the U.S. with the goal to get more people cycling and commuting by bike.

Four months passed since we started and we are both sitting on a 16-hour Delta flight, headed towards Guangzhou, China. There are a few things we’ve set out to do on this trip. We want to meet and evaluate several plants with whom we’ve been communicating for the last few months, establish a relationship with at least one of them and negotiate the terms, and get our production off to a running start.

Moreover, we want to see firsthand how things operate in China! From the limited research and experience we’ve had over the last few months, we have no doubts that China will prove to be a completely different animal that we’re used to dealing with – as far as business goes.

Rules of the game that work in the U.S. will not apply here. Learning to deal with culture where one can never risk “losing face” in front of the other to the fact that there are 3 possible answers to every question, such as “Yes, No, and Yeaaahmm (a.k.a. I don’t know, but can’t really say that) and the fact that all the logic is based on Confucius – it will all pose a steep learning curve.

With all that in mind, it will be incredibly interesting to navigate this new environment – and learn first—hand about Chinese life and culture, what it means to do business in China from the perspective of  Western entrepreneurs, and seeing how electric bikes have transformed transportation across the country.

Over the next 1 to 2 months, I’ll be based primarily around Guangzhou (where our suppliers are located) and will be writing about all aspects of the trip on the blog. Next post is coming up shortly!





WeGoingUp.com – 22,000km Expedition from South Africa to London

9 04 2011

The Latest Adventure:

In April 2011, a group of Russian-Americans set out on a 22,000km trans-continental expedition to cross from South Africa to London in a 1980 Land Rover.

Follow our adventure here.





Wrap Up and Thank Yous

23 08 2009

After making a few brief stops in Kazakhstan and Dubai last week, I’ve finally made it home a week ago – home sweet home!

I thought that I’d be able to get another couple of posts about the last few weeks out once I’m back, but it feels quite different trying to write it back home in my apartment sitting on my chair – almost as if I’m writing about somebody else’s experiences.

However, I did want to wrap this up with a BIG BIG thank you to some people that have really made the trip what it was. It’s because of them that the last 7 months were so enjoyable and memorable.

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Umeda – for welcoming me to Tajikistan and making my two months there much more fun and enjoyable, for all the outings in Merve, for laughing at my jokes, for dealing with the government bureaucracy for me, and for providing another thing to look forward to back in NY.

Shirin – for conquering Varzob with me and for all the wonderful and encouraging feedback during the last 5 monhs.

Hamza – for making the 2,200km trip in the Pamirs a success. Best driver I’ve ever had a pleasure to work with.

Sujith – for being a great roommate in India, helping to take back the guesthouse from the “little friends”, and for sharing quite a bit about the Indian culture and way of life with me. Those evenings at the beach were definitely a highlight!

Tolik – for a hell of a trip through the South and Southeast Asia. Looking back at it, I’m still amazed how much we managed to pull off during that month. I’ve definitely developed a higher tolerance of risk as a result, although I’ll still show up for planes 2 hours before departure, rather than 20 minutes after. Great memories, indeed.

Nha Ja – teaching the art of massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a week. Those are the skills that I hope to put to good use, now that I’m back in NY.

Renat – for being one of the most inspiring and interesting colleagues I’ve had the pleasure of working with during this trip and for answering my never-ending questions at work. I’ve learned quite a bit from you. Till next time!

Saadat – for showing me Kyrgyzstan beyond what I’d ever be able to do on my own, for introducing me to family, friends and making it feel like home during the last two months.

Margarita – for opening up her home to me in Kazakhstan and for the Sunday pancakes 🙂 This is CouchSurfing at its best.

Jenny – for answering Kiva questions at 4am in the morning, for putting me with such great organizations, and being the best MPM I’ve ever worked with 🙂

Thank you all! 🙂

Onwards and upwards.





Kyrgyzstan in Pictures: Fountains of Bishkek

31 07 2009

Bishkek is probably one of the greenest cities I’ve ever encounted. It’s peppered with parks – large and small – where families and couples come out, to enjoy the warm weather and have some ice cream. But, if parks themselves are not enough, it’s also home to dozens of fountains throughout the city that attract large crowds in the evenings.

In the center of the city, on the main square, they’ve recently built a set of singing fountains that can give the Bellagio in Vegas a run for its money. Synchronized to classical and national music, with multi-colored lights giving it a disco-effect, they draw thousands of people every night. And for a good reason – it is a beautiful sight.

See for yourselves:

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But to do the fountains their justice, it’s best to check out a short 30-second clip:

CLICK HERE TO VIEW VIDEO





Kyrgyzstan in Pictures: Milking the Horses

28 07 2009

Kyrgyzstan is well-known for several things – traditional yurts, horses on green pastures, and kymyz (horse’s milk). The latter is quite a favorite among the locals – the drink has almost magical powers, having the ability to cure all illnesses and give you superhuman strength. Not to mention, a buzz from its alcoholic qualities.

If you’re visiting Kyrgyzstan, sooner or later, you will have to give the drink a shot and see what it’s like for yourself. To me, the experience was similar to trying out sushi. The first time you try it, you think – “god, this thing is weird. Take it away!”. The second time, you go “hmm, maybe there is something to it.” And the third, well – I haven’t quite reached the third stage yet, but I’ve been told, that you start to like it.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to come out to a jailoo – a green pasture where horses roam free and kymyz flows bountifully!

You'll find a handful of yurts on every jailoo. The locals live in them while watching over their horses. Beautiful backdrop, eh?

You'll find a handful of yurts on every jailoo. The locals live in them while watching over their horses. Beautiful backdrop, eh?

Dozens of horses are feeding on the pastures.

Dozens of horses are feeding on the pastures.

The jailoos are typically located near the rivers, such as this one (B&W for effect :))

The jailoos are typically located near the rivers, such as this one (B&W for effect :))

When you enter a yurt, you're immediately offered a traditional meal of bread and Kymyz.

When you enter a yurt, you're immediately offered a traditional meal of bread and Kymyz.

Whether you like it or not, you're expected to drink the whole bowl. The hosts will make sure of that.

Whether you like it or not, you're expected to drink the whole bowl. The hosts will make sure of that.

Fortunately, looks like Coca-Cola is getting in the Kymyz business, so look for it on shelves of your favorite supermarkets.

Fortunately, looks like Coca-Cola is getting in the Kymyz business, so look for it on shelves of your favorite supermarkets.

The road back over a mountain pass.

The road back over a mountain pass.

We spent the weekend at the house of the local chief of police, who was kind enough to send us back to Bishkek in a police car (well, they were going there anyway).

We spent the weekend at the house of the local chief of police, who was kind enough to send us back to Bishkek in a police car (well, they were going there anyway).

The ride was complete with sirens, running the red lights, and going 150 miles an hour... well, not quite that :) But it was still quite an experience!

The ride was complete with sirens, running the red lights, and going 150 miles an hour... well, not quite that 🙂 But it was still quite an experience!

Interestingly enough, check out what it says on the side of the car: “Gift from the people of the USA.” I only wonder – if it's a gift from Uncle Sam, why it is a Volkswagen and not a Ford or a GM? :)

Interestingly enough, check out what it says on the side of the car: “Gift from the people of the USA.” I only wonder – if it's a gift from Uncle Sam, why it is a Volkswagen and not a Ford or a GM? 🙂





Six Months Later: 10 Lessons Learned About Life, Microfinance and the Universe

23 07 2009

Going full circle. Ferris Wheel in Cholpon-Ata, Issyk-Kul Lake Region, Kyrgyyzstan

Going full circle. Ferris Wheel in Bosteri, Issyk-Kul Lake Region, Kyrgyzstan

It was exactly half a year ago, on January 23rd, that I packed all of my belongings in one 30-pound backpack and left New York City for a 7 month trip to Central Asia and India. I only had a slightest idea of what the trip would wind up being like and what exactly I’d be doing during all that time. I just knew that it was something that I had to try for myself, even if I couldn’t quite explain the reasons to others.

Low and behold, it’s now six months later and and I’m in the midst of doing my 2nd Kiva placement in Kyrgyzstan (after doing doing a Kiva Fellowship in Kyrgyzstan and then a another volunteer assignment in India). So, I figured that it would be a good time to stop and reflect on the experience and the lessons learned. With just four weeks left before heading back to the good, old U.S. of A, you definitely start to wonder about what this meant for you.

10 Lessons Learned About Life, Microfinance and the Universe (in no particular order):

  1. On Patience: Things take time to work. Over the last 6 months, I started work in 3 different organizations (2 for Kiva and 1 was for an independent, non-Kiva placement but also in microfinance). The first few weeks in every place can feel slow and sometimes awkward, as you struggle to find your place within the organization and figure out what you can contribute. But then, the situation quickly changes and before you know it, you’re running around trying to handle everything on your plate. Patience really is a virtue.

  2. On Fitting In: You can live, have a fulfilling job, make friends and form connections no matter where you are. It really amazes me that within a short time span of just two months, you can really start to feel very comfortable in a completely new setting. It’s been quite rewarding to gain this greater feeling of confidence and independence about being able to make it anywhere in the world.

  3. On Assumptions: Your assumptions about the rest of the world are often wrong. I can’t even begin to describe the kind of assumptions I’ve had about Tajikistan or Central Asia in general before I went there. As I wrote previously in Is It Safe to Travel post, many places I’ve visited have a poor reputation in the Western media, but turn out to be very different in reality. And no, people don’t live in yurts in Kyrgyzstan or ride donkeys to work in Tajikistan.

  4. On Poverty: Poverty is very different from country to country. In India, a poor person can be somebody living in the slums or on the street with all of their belongings in a box next to them. In Central Asia, a person considered to be in poverty can have a roof over their head, some livestock or a garden they can raise food from, and so on. In both cases, people are poor; in both cases, they are struggling for survival and the well-being of their families. But the context makes a difference. I remember reading a profile of a client in Central Asia who bought a cow or two, sold some milk, then bought a Mercedes-Benz (although, a used one) – doesn’t necessarily fit the typical stereotype of a poor person, right?

  5. On Microfinance: I still remember how I learned about Kiva two years ago when I read the founder’s blog during one long night. I had this “ah-ha” moment – “Finally, I discovered the solution to poverty. It’s so simple!” When I embarked on the trip, I had a very “rose-colored” view of microfinance and the impact it has on the lives of the people. But, after spending this time in the microfinance environment, I’ve become a bit more pragmatic about this and have come to a realization that micro loans are not a solution to all of the world’s ills. It is a tool, however, and a powerful one at that. As another Kiva Fellow, Nemr Kanafani, has mentioned: “microfinance is about providing banking services to a segment of the population that has no access to it. Debt is a tool which, when available, can really empower someone.” But, like any tool, it’s only as good as a person who’s using it.

  6. On Travel: Traveling with a purpose is more fulfilling. I’ve spent 6 months in 3 countries working for different organizations and I felt like I only scratched the top of the surface. But, I was also lucky to have an opportunity to take a month off to travel around South and Southeast Asia. While those four weeks was incredibly interesting and rewarding, I have to admit that I was looking forward to settling down in my next destination for a couple of months with a sense of purpose and a reason to be there.

  7. On Language: Knowing a local language is priceless when you’re living somewhere new. I have to say that I’m very, very fortunate to know Russian, as it is a tremendous help in maximizing your time in Central Asia. Being able to easily communicate with the staff of the organization and the clients helps you form much stronger connections with them. It’s certainly interesting to hear when your colleagues say: “ti svoj” (you’re one of us)! 🙂

  8. On Hospitality: If there is one thing that I would like to be able to take back with me to New York is the incredible, gracious hospitality that I’ve encountered during this time. As one of my colleagues have remarked – “people may sometimes have very little to offer, but you should know that no matter where you go, you will always get a lepeshka (bread), tea and a roof over your head.” Over these months, I’ve spent time in people’s homes and have been helped by total strangers and it’s amazing to realize that no matter where you are in the world, there is always a hand available to help you. I hope that I can pass this forward when I’m back in New York.

  9. On Corruption: It’s a way of life for most and it exists because of a system that virtually makes it impossible to avoid it. When people are paid less than what they can survive on (e.g. police, doctors, teachers), bribes are the only way they can get the extra cash to provide for their families. But when the same corruption permeates every level of society, it creates true barriers for people to grow and succeed in their country. It’s not a merit system anymore – it’s the people with an uncle in the right place or a bigger bank account that “succeed.” Hell, if you can buy a post of a “minister” in the government for several tens of thousands of dollars, how well is that going to work for the general public?

  10. On Privilege: At every organization I have joined, sooner or later, somebody asks the question: “So, you’re doing this for half a year and not getting paid for it. So, why are you doing it?” The truth is that financial compensation pales in comparison by what I got out of this fellowship in terms of non-material things – be it new perspectives on the world, new knowledge or even personal growth that I’ve achieved. Every time I meet with a client, or drive with my colleagues to another office, or even take a walk in the park in the evening – I have an enormous sense of appreciation for being able to be here to experience it.

These 10 lessons are only the beginning – there could be many more such lists.

Summing Up – Where a Kiva Fellowship Can Take You:
* including projected travel over the next 4 weeks

Number of Flights Taken: 25*

Countries Visited: 12 (Tajikistan, Turkey, India, Nepal, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, *Kazakhstan, *United Arab Emirates)

Countries Lived/Worked In: Tajikistan, India, Kyrgyzstan

Onwards and upwards!