While in Hong Kong airport, Tim McCready compares the facilities and service in three lounges open to Air New Zealand passengers.
When I checked in for my Air New Zealand Business Premier flight from Hong Kong to Auckland, I was told I had access to three lounges: United Airlines, Thai Airways, and Cathay Pacific.
United Airlines Club lounge
My first visit was to the United Airlines lounge. I initially thought the space was quite small but soon realised walls separate the lounge into different areas. This layout provides a good sense of privacy for relaxing before a flight, and a very quiet feel to the lounge.
On one side of the lounge, huge windows provide great views of the tarmac and the planes as they come and go. On the other side, the mezzanine lounge overlooks the departure hall and gates — as the world’s eighth-busiest airport by passenger traffic, there is no shortage of activity to keep an eye on, to pass the time before a flight.
There were plenty of seats of all varieties scattered around, and although it was a busy time at the airport, I didn’t struggle to find a space. The lounge also had a small shower room and a business centre.
The selection of food was underwhelming, but adequate for a short stay. The Thai green curry I tried was delicious; the cauliflower soup left a lot to be desired.
Thai Airways Royal Orchid lounge
The Thai Airways lounge is just around the corner from United’s. It also benefits from its position: great views out towards the planes, and the ability to people-watch below in the departure hall. Compared to United, this lounge felt much less private — there is a roped-off area for First-Class travellers but the rest of the lounge is wide open. The eclectic chair colours — bright green, orange, blue and yellow — were a jarring eyesore but the chairs were very comfortable.
Though the food selection was wider than that provided by United, it was still fairly standard. There was a reasonable selection of drinks to help yourself to. The bathroom had a single shower (which was occupied while I was visiting). A large business centre was available for use as well as a couple of massage chairs. I was tempted to give them a try but was also well aware of my need to fit another lounge in …
Cathay Pacific: The Bridge
Cathay Pacific is a member of the Oneworld alliance, rather than Air New Zealand’s Star Alliance, however Air New Zealand’s alliance with Cathay allows Airpoints Elite and Gold, and Business Class passengers access to its lounges on certain flights. Cathay has several lounges in Hong Kong airport (The Deck, The Wing, The Pier and The Bridge). I visited The Bridge, located closest to where Air New Zealand flights typically depart from.
The Bridge is just a few minutes’ walk from the United and Thai lounges, but as I descended the escalators into the lounge check-in area, I knew immediately I had saved the best for last. The lounge is enormous and is divided into a North and South Wing.
Each contains multiple zones, which provide a great sense of privacy and a feeling like you’re at home in one of the world’s top hotel lobbies.
Floor-to-ceiling windows span the length of the lounge, providing unobstructed views out to the tarmac. The natural colours inside the lounge — wooden floors with oak and brass accents — give a warm feeling that is often missing in airports, while the custom-made lounge chairs, bookshelves, art and sculptures throughout give the lounge a very sophisticated feel.
The food was spectacular. The North Wing is home to The Bakery, which offers freshly baked bread and pizzas, a generous buffet of Western and Asian dishes and a fresh salad bar. The Long Bar overlooks the tarmac and features an extensive wine and tapas list.
Bartenders are on hand to mix up a drink from the cocktail list — the espresso martini went down a treat.
The South Wing’s Coffee Loft has muffins, biscuits and pastries, as well as barista-made coffee. This wing also contains The Bistro — a second dining area with buffet — along with a fully equipped business centre and shower facilities.
There are nine shower rooms available, and despite the lounge being busy I didn’t need to wait to use one. They come equipped with everything you need to freshen up before a long-haul flight and are cleaned and restocked after each use.
This one’s easy. Thai Airways and United Airlines provide an adequate — albeit fairly standard — airport lounge, but if you have access to Cathay Pacific’s lounge, take advantage of it. It is truly world-class and showcases the very best of what an airport lounge can provide. Just make sure you leave enough time to explore everything that is on offer.
Tim McCready travels from Auckland to Brisbane on Air New Zealand 739.
The plane: One of Air New Zealand’s Airbus A320-232s. My plane was 15 years old — you could tell from the fitout that it wasn’t one of the airline’s newest, but it was very tidy. The flight was full, aside from a couple of empty middle seats.
The airport experience: Auckland Airport is in the midst of a major redevelopment — it feels as though the airport experience changes every few weeks. Although the departure terminal was a construction zone, you could see behind the plastic drop sheets that the transformation will see it become a real feature for the airport.
There was no queue whatsoever for the Air New Zealand bag drop, and customs and security were seamless. I was let loose in duty-free within minutes.
My seat: Having a window seat over the wing meant I had a very smooth flight across the Tasman, despite warnings from the flight deck that we could be in for a rough ride. The seat was comfortable, and the tray tables seemed larger than others I’ve experienced on the same route or on most long-haul economy flights. I had a fair amount of work to get done, so the space was appreciated.
The flight: We departed about 30 minutes late, after waiting for the late arrival of a few passengers from a connecting flight — but we landed just ahead of the scheduled time. I have been on the other side of that situation before, which makes it hard to hold it against the airline when you eventually see a handful of very relieved, sweaty people clambering down the aisle. With no headwind, our total time in the air was just under three hours.
Food and drink: I travelled with The Works option, and was given the choice of honey soy chicken with rice or a beef casserole with roast potatoes. I chose the beef — which according to a colleague on the flight (who described the chicken as “very oily”), was a wise decision. The meal was substantial, especially for a 4pm departure where it felt too late for lunch but too early for dinner. The meal came with Kāpiti ice cream. Although I love their icecream , the flavour was their latest summer creation: Chamomile and Salted Kāmahi Honey. I’m not a fan of chamomile, nor a strong honey flavour, and I found it very sweet. The most awkward thing on flights where you have an optional meal upgrade, is when the person sitting next to you hasn’t upgraded. My neighbour in the middle seat found herself in the unfortunate position of being wedged between people eating meals, and had to have the crew explain politely why this wasn’t an option for her.
The entertainment: Although there were a reasonable number of older films on board, the recent releases felt light. I got halfway through Tag (the premise wore thin after 20 minutes), and Leave No Trace (lost my attention), before settling on One Hour Photo – a Robin Williams classic I hadn’t seen since digital cameras became ubiquitous (the movie has dated incredibly quickly).
The bottom line: Air New Zealand does these transtasman flights well.
Tim McCready flies from Hong Kong to Munich aboard Lufthansa flight 731.
The plane: One of Lufthansa’s 14 superjumbo Airbus A380-800s. My plane was eight years old, with eight First Class suites, 78 lie-flat Business Class seats, 52 Premium Economy seats and 371 Economy seats. I was transiting on both sides, travelling Auckland-Hong Kong-Munich-Dublin. The flight was packed — there were several cheeky passengers attempting to bag an upgrade at the counter, but they were repeatedly told that all classes were full.
The airport experience: Transiting on either side was a dream. Hong Kong and Munich Airports are big and spread out but trains between terminals, and clear signage means you can’t really go wrong. Though there isn’t much to do in Munich Airport for three hours when you arrive at 5am, the Wi-Fi is free and it gave me the opportunity to get this review finished!
My seat: I flew Premium Economy with a window seat. The size and shape of the A380 means the window seats get a generous amount of extra space down the side, which was appreciated. I stored most of the airline’s (and my own) clutter down there throughout the flight — blankets, pillows, shoes. The seats were comfortable, though they were fairly basic in terms of adjustability compared to other Premium Economy options. The separate cabin added some privacy and meant there were never any queues for the cabin’s two toilets — which were kept extremely clean throughout.
Entertainment: While I found Lufthansa’s entertainment system to be less user-friendly than other set-ups, there was plenty to choose from: the usual mix of new release and classic movies, and TV shows, as well as live satellite TV news (which I appreciated given the US air strikes on Syria that took place while I was flying). I used my own headphones as the ones offered in Premium Economy didn’t seem to be any kind of upgrade over most basic Economy offerings.
The flight: As this was the second of two 12ish-hour flights, I spent most of this one asleep. There was a fairly hefty amount of turbulence at the start of the flight, but things settled down and the remaining ride was very smooth. We departed 25 minutes late but landed on time. Total time with wheels off the ground was 11h 32m.
Food and drink: I was disappointed not to see bratwurst and sauerkraut on the menu as I was hopeful for some hearty German fare on board. Instead, I chose the penne pasta with pork goulash for dinner (my third dinner in a row). I should have followed my own advice and steered clear of airline pasta — it didn’t stand up well to reheating. The scrambled eggs with mornay sauce and ratatouille for breakfast was surprisingly good. The drinks service was frequent, and the crew were notably friendlier than my earlier Cathay Pacific flight. The Toblerone was a nice touch.
The bottom line: This wasn’t my favourite Premium Economy experience. It felt as though Lufthansa hasn’t put the same level of innovation into the seat design, food offerings and technology as other airlines have. As for whether I’d fly again — I don’t have too much choice — I’m doing the return journey in a few weeks. But I won’t choose the pasta next time.
The Memorandum of Understanding of Economic Alliance between sister city triplets Auckland, Guangzhou and Los Angeles was signed in 2014 – and if a week is a long time in politics, three years certainly is.
Since then, New Zealand has had three prime ministers. Former Auckland mayor Len Brown “The Singing Mayor” hung up his chains – replaced by Phil Goff, known less for his singing abilities and instead for his prowess in forging New Zealand’s free trade agreement with China.
Guangzhou also changed its mayor in 2016, and although Democratic Party superdelegate Eric Garcetti is still mayor of LA, President Obama was replaced by the entirely different Trump Presidency.
Over that time, three summits were held to recognise the alliance. And just as with geopolitics, the alliance has come a long way.
The first summit, hosted by LA in 2015, was attended by a humble delegation of about 43 Auckland businesses.
In 2016, Auckland outdid the council’s own expectations with over 700 delegates and more than 330 formal business matching meetings.
Guangzhou’s turn to host took place last month, and saw 70 Auckland businesses take 97 delegates, with around 800 others from LA and Guangzhou.
“Auckland companies need to internationalise,” says Pam Ford, General Manager – Business, Innovation and Skills (Acting) at Ateed.
“They have to go global from day one – and it’s hard. “That’s why we ran workshops for attendees ahead of this latest summit. They helped to build the capability of businesses to maximise their time offshore, and gave them the confidence to take part.”
Alongside business matching, networking events and showcase functions, panel discussions and keynote presenters shared insights and ideas from speakers across the alliance.
Los Angeles 2015: New York is a river, Los Angeles is a lake
The first summit saw panellists discuss the cartoonish view of cities that people – including Americans – have about the US, and stressed that the City of Angels should be seen as more than just a gateway to the US, and certainly more than just Hollywood.
Hollywood makes up only a fraction of Los Angeles’ economy. As well as tourism, it is the US’ largest manufacturing centre, a hub for aerospace, logistics, clean technology and innovation, and home to the largest port in the Western hemisphere.
It is the country’s fastest growing tech start-up region – many arguing it has benefits over San Francisco or Silicon Valley for a tech launchpad.
Despite this, there is no denying LA remains the creative capital of the US. One in seven people are employed in a creative field, and it is the top American metro area for art, design and media employment, providing more than US$140b (NZ$203b) of annual economic impact to the city.
“One of the things the LA summit did was open people’s minds that it is more than just film,” says Ford.
“LA is the place for many of Auckland’s companies that create content. Content now fits across so many more mediums – from gaming and television to social media and particularly the influencer economy.”
“But LA is also about cleantech, food and beverage, design and manufacturing. “Because of this three-year relationship, we’ve developed solid partnerships with the organisations for our companies to access – whether that is through the World Trade Center Los Angeles or the Los Angeles Business Council – that we would not otherwise have had.”
One panellist – a resident of LA – described how the city unfolds as you spend more time there. “New York is a river, but Los Angeles is a lake. If you step outside in New York you will naturally go somewhere, the city itself will take you and it is simple to navigate.
“In Los Angeles, to get anywhere you have to actively swim there – or you risk never getting anywhere at all. But that’s what makes it so exciting.”
Auckland 2016: Partnerships, People, and Cross-pollination
The Auckland summit saw global heavyweights take to the stage at the Viaduct Events Centre, speaking about the importance of partnerships and collaboration, and the opportunities that arise when you bring people together and ‘cross-pollinate’ ideas.
Sunny Bates, a serial entrepreneur and a founding board member of Kickstarter who has served as an adviser to companies including GE, TED and P&G, insisted the economic driver of the future won’t come from factories, technology, or software – it will be down to the networks of people.
“Networks are the structural basis for globalisation and for modernisation,” says Bates.
“Networks know no boundaries, and cultural networks are extremely powerful.”
Former Nike innovation expert Erez Morag agreed that networks were critical, but said it wasn’t those networks on their own that lead to innovation, but instead the cross-pollination of ideas through those networks.
“Instead of chasing the competition, chase the insights, listen to everyone, and play bigger than your size,” he says.
Morag used jogging as an example of cross pollination. In 1961, Kiwi runner and athletics coach Arthur Lydiard organised the world’s first jogging club in Auckland, promoting the cardiovascular health benefits of easy distance running.
Lydiard introduced Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman to the concept of jogging on a chance visit to New Zealand.
“[Jogging was] invented in New Zealand and commercialised in the United States,” says Morag – all through the cross-pollination of ideas.
Throughout the Auckland Summit, then-Maori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell reinforced the importance of trusted partnerships to the Maori economy. “Maori want to hear your heart, not just slick words.
“If there is no connection to your heart, then there can be no deal – because it will be doomed from the start” – a message that resonated strongly with Chinese delegates, who rely on guanxi – long-term, strong business relationships, based on trust and mutual reciprocity.
Guangzhou 2017: Leverage our Chinese diaspora
Auckland-based Kenneth Leong, co-founder and director at Healthy Breath – an anti-pollution mask using natural New Zealand wool filter media for international markets – spoke about leveraging the Chinese diaspora.
“We sometimes forget Auckland is home to a large, well-connected Chinese business community,” he says.
The summit and surrounding events enabled new connections between the business delegates, and deepened existing relationships.
“Cross-cultural partnerships enrich all parties, by bringing people with great ideas together with people who have connections, capital and channels to market,” says Leong.
“There is a need to accelerate integration between the migrant Chinese and mainstream business communities in Auckland. Everyone is keen to do business together, we just need to create more opportunities for interaction and relationship building.”
New Zealand’s connection to Guangzhou goes back a long way – many of the first Chinese immigrants to New Zealand came from the Pearl River Delta region, including Guangzhou.
Now, Guangzhou is China’s third largest city, contains seemingly endless skyscrapers, and is considered a manufacturing and commercial hub.
It has been consistently ranked by Forbes magazine as the best commercial city in mainland China for ease of doing business, talent, location, and international connectivity, and in many cases, could be a more accessible market for New Zealand businesses than the more recognised larger markets of Shanghai and Beijing.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff has signed an agreement with Guangzhou Mayor Wen Guohui and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorell to extend the alliance between their three cities for another three years.
The third and final Tripartite Economic Summit took place in Guangzhou last week.
Los Angeles, Guangzhou, and Auckland are sister city triplets, and the past three years has seen the Summit rotate between the three ‘gateway cities’ – previously in Los Angeles in 2015 and Auckland last year.
The 97 Auckland delegates represented 70 businesses including tourism, urban planning and design, bioscience, creative, digital and education.
Auckland Council says this has been the largest ever trade delegation to come out of the city noting that business delegates all paid their own way to attend.
Goff – who signed the free trade deal between New Zealand and China during his period as Labour’s Trade Minister – said , “If like me you’ve been coming here for 30 years, you can appreciate just how quickly, how dramatically, how strongly this country has grown.”
“When I came to Guangzhou in the 1980s I travelled by steam engine on the rail. Today, we see a nation that has progressed more quickly and further than any nation I can recall in history.”
Now, Guangzhou is China’s third largest city, contains seemingly endless skyscrapers, and is considered a manufacturing and commercial hub. Although it may not always be the first city companies have in mind when they consider entering China, it has been consistently ranked as by Forbes magazine as the best commercial city in mainland China when considering ease of doing business, talent, location, and international connectivity. Many delegates left the Summit noting that Guangzhou may be a more accessible market for their business than the more recognised larger markets of Shanghai and Beijing.
New Zealand can tend to overuse the phrase “punching above its weight,” but in this sibling rivalry we indisputably are. Auckland’s population of 1.5 million is dwarfed by Guangzhou’s 14 million. Auckland’s estimated GDP of NZ$93.5 billion could be considered a mere rounding error when compared with Los Angeles’ over US$1 trillion.
Yet Auckland’s 97 delegates were met with around 500 others from Los Angeles and Guangzhou that saw value in making connections and seeking out opportunities to collaborate.
The biomedicine and health forum was an example of these collaborations, co-organised by Auckland’s Maurice Wilkins Centre – New Zealand’s Centre for Research Excellence targeting major human diseases – and the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health (GIBH), part of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The Maurice Wilkins Centre has been working closely with its Chinese counterparts since 2012, establishing a joint centre for biomedicine with the Guangzhou institute in 2015. The two research arms are now expanding their relationship with new projects, joint symposia in both countries, and increased exchange of staff and students.
“GIBH is one of China’s leading biomedical research groups and hosts many world leaders in their fields,” says Professor Rod Dunbar, Director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre.
“We are delighted that our colleagues in GIBH see such value in intensifying our collaboration, and look forward to working with them to deliver new treatments through the clinic.”
Businesses took part in business matching, sector specific sessions and forums, and a visit to tech giant Huawei’s nearby Shenzhen campus.
While New Zealand can be blasé about our mayors and local Councillors, in China they are considered almost like celebrities. It is for that reason that many of the Auckland business delegates considered the high-level representation to have helped connect them to significant players within companies that they would not have otherwise had access to. While the primary aim of the Summit is to build connections for the long-term outcomes that can eventuate, ATEED has said that several companies have made excellent progress at this year’s Summit.
The Council will track and report on the business outcomes of the Tripartite Summit where possible.
– Tim McCready travelled to China as a guest of Alibaba.
Step off the plane in China and there is no doubt about what day it is – Singles’ Day.
It’s hard to escape the sale buzz – billboards, the airport arrival hall, malls, hotel elevators – the advertisements are everywhere.
And the numbers are astounding: more than 140,000 brands offering 15 million product listings to hundreds of millions of consumers. The annual sales event dwarfs its Black Friday or Cyber Monday equivalents in the United States.
Last night, e-commerce giant Alibaba lived up to the hype. Oscars producer David Hill was responsible for the gala event that counted down to the start of the shopping extravaganza. Held at Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz stadium, the event was broadcast on three TV channels and featured American rapper Pharrell Williams, British singer-songwriter Jessie J and former world number one tennis superstar Maria Sharapova – plus 100 or so other celebrities.
“If you analyse why we are doing the show, it’s to turn shopping into sport and to make shopping into entertainment, so the show has got to reflect that philosophy. And the way the show is constructed – with so many segments, so many stars and fun bits – it reflects the overreaching theme of what Singles’ Day has become,” said Hill.
“We can do things in China we can’t do virtually anywhere else in the world. In America, if you stream to any more than one or two million people you get a swirling circle of death, meaning it’s not connecting. In China, we can stream to over 35 million people. It boggles the mind.”
This year’s 11/11 fiesta has been themed around “retail as entertainment”.
The company’s chief marketing officer, Chris Tung, describes the shopping festival as “bringing consumers around the world a step closer to realising the aspirational life where entertainment and retail becomes one”.
The event is also an opportunity for Alibaba to show off its latest shopping technologies, and gives us a glimpse into what the future of shopping might look like.
Alibaba’s “See Now, Buy Now” was an eight-hour marathon of singing, dancing and fashion. Broadcast on seven TV and online channels in China, the show encouraged viewers to shake their phones whenever they saw something they liked to immediately purchase it.
The Tmall platform is running a “Catch the Cat” promotion, designed to drive consumers to bricks and mortar locations including global brands Procter & Gamble, KFC and L’Occitane.
Customers use their mobiles to earn coupons, discounts and prizes by “catching” the e-store’s cat mascot – in much the same way as the game Pokemon Go.
Other online promotions are giving out virtual red envelopes containing a total of more than 250 million yuan ($54.3 million).
Maggie Zhou, managing director of Alibaba Group Australia and New Zealand, is keen to ensure New Zealand is one of the key markets supported in these new initiatives.
“New Zealand products are perceived as high quality and continue to outperform in China, and we are working … to engage more closely with New Zealand merchants and partners to further encourage this growth.”
Tim McCready travelled to Shanghai as a guest of Alibaba.
While participating in the Foundation’s offshore forum in Korea, Leadership Network member Tim McCready gauged the mood of the country following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. In this article, he describes a country divided along ideological and generational lines.
We arrived in Seoul for the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s offshore forum at the height of demonstrations over the the impeachment of President Park by the National Assembly. Accused of violating the constitution by helping her long-time friend extort donations from the country’s biggest business empires, Park was subsequently ousted from office in an unprecedented and unanimous ruling by the constitutional court.
The president’s ousting brought to the fore simmering tensions that run along ideological and generational lines, at the heart of which is how to deal with North Korea.
Peaceful protests are not uncommon in South Korea. The first time I visited South Korea was the one-year anniversary of the Sewol Ferry Disaster. The sinking in April 2014 cost the lives of 304 passengers and crew. This resulted in enormous protests, as South Koreans saw their government having failed to hold high-level officials accountable for the disaster.
Prior to Park’s removal, demonstrations and candlelight vigils – representing both sides – took place every Saturday over three months.
A few days after we arrived for the forum, the courts approved an arrest warrant for Park, and she was jailed. Demonstrations broke out again.
I spoke with a group of protestors living together in a tent within the city square. A man in his 70’s translated and explained to me their perspective of the situation.
“There are two distinct groups in South Korea,” he said. “One is the left wing, and the other is right wing.”
“We are the right-wing group. We follow democracy. We are protesting because the president was impeached by the left. We are embarrassed that has happened.
“It is our wish that in the future there will be unification. But it is important not to give in. The left – the younger generation – follows North Korea and China.”
While this is an extreme view, it does exemplify the generational divide in South Korea. On a simple level, the older generation think that North Korea should be dealt to with pressure and isolation. The left would prefer to have an open dialogue with the North.
A lot of this divide stems from South Korean President Park Chung-hee, the father of jailed President Park. He seized power through a military coup in 1961, at a time when South Korea was far less developed economically than the North.
By the time he was assassinated in 1979, South Korea had gone through what is referred to as the “Miracle on the Han River” – a period of rapid economic growth following the Korean War. It is because of this that Park, and his daughter, are looked on fondly by older South Koreans, despite his systematic disregard of human rights.
There are an estimated 6,700 people from separated families living in South Korea. The tragedy of the situation is most easily seen through those people who are divided from their family, who passionately long for reunification.
Now, 70 years on from the division, those with the closest ties to the North are getting very old. The requirement to seek peaceful unification between the two Korea’s is part of the South Korean constitution, yet speaking with younger South Korean’s, they are often agnostic about the prospect. They are already struggling economically, and point to the enormous economic disaster that will become their responsibility if the border were to collapse.
During a meeting with a senior banker at a major international bank in Seoul, I asked for his take on North Korea.
“I am just a simple banker,” he said, modestly.
“We are always in the shadow of war. But that aside, South Korea is a very safe place to live. That is what I care about. I don’t care what happens with North Korea.”
Younger South Korean’s I spoke with shared the banker’s point of view. They don’t worry about the looming threat of nuclear war. Instead, they are getting on with their lives, and their careers – like the rest of us.
A younger South Korean I spoke to on my flight from Seoul to Europe explained it best:
“We do not spend time worrying about what could happen. That threat has always been there,” he said.
“But we are very nationalistic. We love our country. And now our President has been jailed. We are embarrassed by her. We are embarrassed about what the rest of the world thinks of us.”
That sentiment seems to be something that all generations can agree on.
The day I arrived in Vladivostok, I was taken to an open day held by the Russian military. As they searched the bags of visitors at the entrance, my friend Igor warned me to not raise unnecessary suspicion by speaking to the soldiers.
I watched hundreds of Russians run the gauntlet through mud and a series of extreme obstacles – presumably designed to showcase the fun that can be had in the military (but resulting in multiple broken bones), and was then let loose with all kinds of guns, artillery, grenade launchers, tanks, and surface-to-air missiles. It was a rapid immersion into Russia, and I suddenly felt a world away from life in Auckland.
Kiwis are known to have a sense of adventure, but I’d been looking for something that would take me far from the typical tourist destinations, and truly challenge my comfort zone. So when Igor suggested a five week road trip over the summer across the largest country in the world – from Vladivostok to St Petersburg – I was game.
In the Russian Far East, near the borders of North Korea and China, Vladivostok is only one hour from Tokyo or two hours from Seoul, with a time zone just two hours behind New Zealand.
The city was closed to the outside world between World War II and 1992, and it remains the home of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet. It is often compared to San Francisco because of the ornate buildings that line its steep streets, and the striking hills that offer sweeping views over the city, the harbour, and the Pacific Ocean. Putin recently invested US$20 billion to upgrade the city, which included construction of the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge, an opera house, and an aquarium.
I was invited by Igor’s parents to their rural dacha. They live in the small two-level brick house an hour out of Vladivostok over the summer, surrounded by shrubs laden with berries, fruit trees, and a vegetable garden stretching out in all directions.
The ongoing Russian sanctions have caused meat and fish prices to increase, and some foods are just not available.
The most noticeable was cheese – traditionally sourced European varieties have been replaced with Russian equivalents that could be generously described as bland. But despite that, summertime in Russia has no shortage of delicious food.
Highlights of the dacha banquet were okroshka (cold sour cream-based soup) and Russian barbecue – chunks of marinated pork cooked on metal skewers over hot coals. Both are extremely popular in summer.
We left the relative comfort of Vladivostok and set off for our destination some 14,000 kilometres away. Igor, Darren (another Kiwi), and I took turns behind the wheel.
While one of us slept in the back, one drove, and the other kept an eye out for hazards – we needed all the help we could get. On the road we saw it all. Pristine highways suddenly became consumed with potholes. Roads decayed into rubble – or disappeared into mud. More often than not we would be met with hundreds of kilometres of roadworks.
We attempted a shortcut only once. We’d gone too far along a perilous 70km path (unknown by our GPS) to turn back. Just as our fuel was running precariously low, we arrived at a river and a questionable floating bridge with an outrageously high toll to get across. We gladly paid it.
I underestimated the amount of driving we would do until the day we needed to cover 1600 kilometres in a single day. We had no choice – that was the distance between the neighbouring cities Blagoveshchensk and Chita.
Between them was nothing but (very infrequent) gas stations. No cafes, no shops, no villages. It took 18 hours, and with an outside temperature above 35 degrees, we found ourselves driving through Siberian forest fires for most of the journey.
Of the total 14,000km we covered, we passed through seven time zones, 27 cities and towns, and seemingly hundreds of villages. Equivalent to driving from Auckland to Wellington over 21 times. Or from Auckland to New York City.
Before the trip I assumed Russia was roughly homogeneous, but I soon discovered that once you look past the Soviet-era buildings, Russian cities and villages have their own unique history, sights, culture, and people.
We closely followed the trans-Siberian railway route that skirts the borders of China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. But along the way, we explored:
Close to Mongolia, the city feels distinctly Asian. It is home to an enormous bronze head of Vladimir Lenin, which at 42 tonnes is the largest in the world, and casts intimidating shadows across the city square.
Ulan-Ude’s population is made up of a relatively large number of Buryats – an indigenous group descended from Siberian and Mongolian people. In stark contrast to the imposing Lenin head, we were given a warm welcome and assistance everywhere we went from the locals.
Driving out of the city, we were pulled over for speeding.
I was nervous as the policeman approached the car, but the officer was more interested in chatting to Igor about our journey and asking about our Toyota Prius – he had been looking to buy one. Russia was full of surprises.
The largest, oldest, deepest freshwater lake in the world, containing 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water. It’s also an extremely popular summer destination – Russia’s Coromandel. The plan had been to take a short car ferry trip to an island in the lake, but we were confronted with a 25-hour long queue. It wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, we found accommodation in a lakefront yurt. With three very comfortable beds and a central fireplace, I fell asleep to the sound of waves lapping the shore, and had one of my best sleeps in Russia. Our change in plans gave us time to spare, and after days on the road, the water was irresistible.
Deep within the Siberian forest, I felt honoured to be invited to stay with Igor’s aunt and uncle in a remote village – they hadn’t had any foreign visitors before.
Although they knew only one word in English (pencil, bizarrely), they welcomed us with open arms, piling far more food and homemade vodka onto their small kitchen table than it was ever made to hold, and offered us their beds. I immediately felt like family.
Before leaving their home, we were herded together to sit down for a minute in silence – a Russian custom before a long journey that helps to collect your thoughts and ensure you remember anything you may have forgotten before you set off.
It is a habit that has stuck with me, and worked in my favour several times.
Aside from St Petersburg, (arguably the most beautiful city in the world), Tobolsk really stood out. The historic capital of Siberia has an impeccably maintained stone Kremlin, perfectly manicured grassed squares, and streets and footpaths completely free of potholes and rubble. This was noteworthy because it was such a rare sight. It felt as though we had stumbled upon Disneyland.
Next to a riverbank on the Ural plains stands a giant computer keyboard monument. Rumour has it if you jump out a wish on the oversized keys, it will come true.
The city had a bizarre collection of monuments and statues, including immortalisations of Michael Jackson, The Beatles and, for no obvious reason, one of a giant credit card.
By the end of our journey I came to realise that monuments are especially important in Russia. My favourite was a huge lab rat in Novosibirsk. The giant rodent stands knitting a DNA double helix, and is dedicated to all animals that have had their lives sacrificed to advance science.
Perhaps most fascinating of all was the Fallen Monument Park in Moscow, which houses those statues that were hauled there after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The park was full of decrepit marble heads, and Lenins in various states of disrepair.
As Asia gives way to Europe, the “third capital of Russia” has a noticeable blend of Muslim and Christian architecture.
The Kazan Kremlin, once a Tatar fortress and now a UNESCO heritage site, contains a cathedral and vibrantly colourful mosque side-by-side.
Kazan is well set up for tourists with a variety of restaurants. Russian staples like blini (pancakes), borscht (beetroot soup), and pelmeni (dumplings), are a common feature on menus across the country. Even so, locals would often order pizza, or Russian-style sushi (which usually contained cream cheese or mayonnaise, served warm with a topping of melted mozzarella).
Some places were memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Not everything in Russia was impressive, and even when I ignored the graffiti and piles of rubbish, it was difficult to see past the decrepit Soviet architecture of this industrial city. The less said the better.
This was the furthest south we travelled in Western Russia, and without a doubt it provided the most spectacular sight of the trip.
The Motherland Calls statue stands atop a hill with 200 steps to the base – each step representing a day of World War II’s Battle of Stalingrad.
At twice the height of the Statue of Liberty (excluding the pedestal) the Motherland Calls is the world’s tallest statue of a woman, and is considered a remarkable feat of engineering due to her characteristic posture – a sword raised high in her right hand, her left arm extended in a summoning gesture, and her mouth screaming triumphantly. It truly dominates the skyline, and yet it’s another Russian landmark most people have never heard of.
We visited the statue during the day, but were drawn back in the evening to watch as her profile was lit up under the setting sun.
It is probably the most magnificent sight I have ever seen. It was also one of Igor’s highlights.
Russians don’t tend to travel far from their own city – Igor told us that without having a couple of Kiwis to travel with, he wasn’t sure he would have ever found the opportunity to visit the historic city he was taught so much about in school.
Moscow and St Petersburg
Without a doubt, Russia’s largest cities are the jewels in its crown, with an unmistakable presence of grandeur laced with authority.
The familiar tourist sights are more beautiful and majestic than I imagined, but by the time we reached them I realised the privilege of spending weeks visiting sights and attractions devoid of tourists. Suddenly having to queue among hundreds to view Lenin’s body and the Hermitage didn’t feel right.
If you are short on time, the Golden Ring (a ring of historic cities including Yaroslavl and Vladimir) is just outside Moscow, and offers an easily accessible taste of the Russian heartland, and a welcome escape from tourists.
On reflection, travelling without a Russian would have made the journey infinitely more challenging. Even with Igor, it seemed as though everything – no matter how trivial – could rapidly become a headache. More often than not, when we needed fuel the gas station had either run out, wasn’t accepting credit cards, was out of order, or was closed.
We tried to stay in apartments rather than hotels. They were generally more spacious, cleaner, cheaper, and gave us access to laundry and a kitchen. Booking accommodation on the fly worked well, until we discovered the apartment had been double booked, destroyed by the previous occupants, or was missing beds. We frequently found ourselves scrambling to find alternate accommodation, and stung with late night check-in fees.
Driving an average of 10 hours a day meant we needed a lot of fuel – sometimes up to four top-ups along a single drive. But thanks to the weak rouble, after we sold our car the total cost per person for five weeks on the road was $2200– including accommodation, food, entertainment, $225 worth of fuel, and one police fine ($12).
We reached the end of our journey unscathed – miraculously the only damage our 2011 Prius suffered was a dislodged mudguard.
Igor threw down one final challenge before leaving Russia – to take the lead and show him around Moscow. Thankfully we’d picked up enough Russian and Cyrillic to easily navigate the city, and one of the world’s busiest and most extensive metro systems with virtually no English signage. We passed the test.
Leadership Network member Tim McCready discusses being part of an Asia New Zealand Foundation delegation that travelled to Myanmar in September to learn about the rapidly changing Southeast Asian country and explore business opportunities.
The ‘Myanmar Matters’ trip was part of the Foundation’s ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative (YBLI), which builds networks between entrepreneurs and business leaders in Southeast Asia and New Zealand.
“Things are moving quickly in Myanmar,” says His Excellence Steve Marshall, New Zealand’s ambassador to Myanmar. “For some, not quickly enough, and for others too quickly.”
Marshall didn’t follow the traditional MFAT route to an ambassador position, but instead spent eight years heading the International Labour Organisation’s Myanmar office. As a result, he was able to offer the delegation of business leaders and entrepreneurs from Myanmar and New Zealand profound insights into the country.
Myanmar is part of ASEAN and the country has huge potential within the global economy. But more importantly, says Marshall, Myanmar matters because it is a country made up of over fifty million people, each deserving the opportunity to live their life without constant fear, and with the income, affordable education, and healthcare required to improve their situation.
“Myanmar has experienced decades of repression, with citizens living in a nation that essentially ran on fear.
“There are ethnic groups in the country voicing what they need and what they want, which will be important to build a unified and peaceful Myanmar.”
The country is going through a major transition. From over sixty years of military rule, to some form of democratic governance; years of fighting to – hopefully – some peace; and severe poverty to a time of inclusive growth.
“The military still plays a major role in the country in terms of control of the economy, and they will continue to have a big impact on the environmental and social fabric of the country – but the country has shifted from an arrogant government, to one that listens and is responsive to new ideas,” Marshall says.
Marshall reiterated that business can – and should – assist the government in making changes. While business must achieve a return on investment, to be truly successful they should also contribute to the environment in which they operate. “We shouldn’t hide until the government puts standards in place – we should be proactive,” he says.
Debbie Aung Din Taylor was born in Myanmar but her family left when the military took over. She grew up in Thailand, Nepal, Italy and the West Indies, before studying and working in the United States.
Taylor returned to Myanmar in 1994 and co-founded Proximity Design – a non-profit social enterprise that produces and sells clever agritech devices, and offers financial and farm advisory services.
The Myanmar Matters delegates visited Proximity Design’s factory in Yangon’s industrial zone and saw how it is providing a path out of poverty for rural families. Taylor agrees with Marshall that it is important for business to lead the charge as the country changes.
“Farming needs to be lucrative to attract young people, and it needs to have less drudgery,” Taylor explains.
“If you give things away for free, then you have no appreciation of whether something is valued or even used. It’s also difficult to distribute things fairly. You have to be able to scale, and run like a business.”
Taylor vehemently disagrees with the statement frequently made that Myanmar is ‘the new Vietnam’.
“It is not a new Vietnam,” she says. “Vietnam has a socialist foundation of healthcare and education that Myanmar doesn’t have.
“Myanmar is starting from feudalism – it’s pretty severe. We’re in a deep hole and don’t even have the basics to get the economy going yet.”
Thuta Aung, managing director of business consulting firm Hamsahub – a YBLI delegate and one of Myanmar’s strongest advocates for social entrepreneurship – argues that despite the challenges, there are exciting opportunities emerging in Myanmar.
“Myanmar is a country in transition. But it needs to be fixed further,” says Aung. “Myanmar’s transition brings with it significant opportunities.”
Myanmar’s place in the world – sandwiched between India and China, Bangladesh and Thailand provides connections that can be taken advantage of.
“Myanmar can be a useful partner to access neighbouring markets”, says Aung – “Myanmar can be an ideal launch pad for entering China.”
As the country is rapidly pushed into the 21st century, the people of Myanmar talk about ‘leapfrogging’. The Burmese didn’t grow up with computers, and had never used the internet. Just a few years ago mobile phone sim cards cost around NZ$2,500 each.
Upon arrival at Yangon airport, I picked up a sim card with 1GB of data for NZ$6. Now the country has one of the fastest growing mobile markets – more than 45 percent of the population uses mobile phones, bringing with it significant opportunity.
Although ranked the 167th country in the world for ease of doing business by the World Bank this year – ten places higher than last year – Myanmar still has a way to go in terms of enforcing contracts, facilitating trade across borders, protecting investors, construction standards. The list goes on.
Ever wanted to pack a bag and travel across Russia by car? Here’s how to do it the Russian way
Travelling from one side of the world’s largest country to the other by car is a dream that has no doubt been jotted down on many a bucket list — but how many people actually set out to make the daunting journey?
Tim McCready, a business development expert from New Zealand is one of them. Using the hashtag #TimInRussia, he has been documenting his journey with two friends. The trip, with the odd deviation from the route plan, will span five weeks across July and August, and McCready’s updates are a fascinating insight into its highs and occasional lows.
So far, the three friends have taken in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, Chita, Ulan-Ude, Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk Novosibirsk and Omsk — and that’s just the first half. From Omsk, the journey will take them to Tobolsk, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saratov, Volgograd, Moscow, a few of the Golden Ring towns to its north, Novgorod and finally, St. Petersburg.
Russia Insider caught up with Tim at the halfway point of his journey — the city of Omsk, roughly 7,500 kilometres from where he started.
What inspired you to get in a car and travel across Russia?
After my first visit to Russia [for a business trip], I became increasingly fascinated with the history, the culture, the food, and the people, and wanted to learn more about the country that was previously completely unknown to me. Over the last year I have been planning this trip with a Russian friend, Igor.
I had initially considered the trans-Siberian railway, but I felt like traveling by car would be a better way to experience ‘real Russia’ and would allow us more freedom to choose our own path and stop where we wanted.
How do you split up all that driving time?
We are dividing the driving roughly into thirds, taking turns where one drives, one entertains the driver, and the other sleeps in the back. So far we have insisted that Igor do all of the city driving. The roads and the drivers within cities seemed terrifying to begin with, but I think we are adapting well to the Russian driving style.
There are a huge number of trucks to constantly pass, and as most highways are only two lanes, it requires an intense level of concentration. Highways between cities occasionally have long stretches of road that are made up of gravel, rocks, and large potholes, but are mostly in surprisingly good shape.
How thoroughly did you plan your route beforehand? Is there any leeway for detours?
Fairly thoroughly. Over the course of a year I read a lot of books on Russian history, and watched several documentaries about cities across the country. I made a rough itinerary which we were all able to work on together to finalise which cities to visit, and how long to spend in each. We’ve kept the document as a live Google document and made constant alterations, even during the trip — so we do have a little bit of leeway for detours.
What’s been the most enjoyable aspect so far?
The most enjoyable aspect has been getting to know some Russian people. They have been incredibly hospitable – even when language has been a challenge, and made me feel extremely welcome.
Igor’s brother and his parents looked after me incredibly well in Vladivostok, baking us traditional Russian food, taking us to their dacha, and driving us around the city. We also stayed with Igor’s aunt and uncle in a small Siberian village who didn’t speak a word of English. Despite the language barrier, they spent a huge amount of time with us, taking us through the Siberian forest, showing us old family photos and videos, and over-feeding us with amazing meals and homemade vodka.
In terms of sights in Russia, seeing the incredibly diverse Russian geography, and how warm and green Russia is during summer has been a huge surprise. The amount of time we have spent in a car has really emphasised to me just how enormous this country is – particularly since I come from New Zealand, which is comparatively tiny.
And what about the most annoying thing so far?
Booking accommodation has been a frustrating challenge. We have opted to mostly stay in apartments. They’ve been cheaper than hotel rooms, provide more space for three people, and allow us to do washing and a bit of home cooking.
But booking accommodation in Russia has been less predictable than I have experienced in other countries. Even when using websites like booking.com, we have had the accommodation provider phone us on the day of check-in to tell us the apartment is no longer available, or the current guests want to stay on longer. There have been a fair few days when we have had to scramble to find accommodation for the night.
What’s the weirdest or best thing you’ve seen on your travels?
The best thing I have seen is definitely the architecture. The churches, and the buildings – particularly some of the traditional wooden buildings in Tomsk are incredibly impressive.
Some of the more unusual things would have to be the sheer number of unexpected and unusual monuments located across Russia. Tomsk has the monument to happiness, a cabbage monument outside a maternity hospital, a monument to a state traffic inspector, and a monument to football fans. Novosibirsk has a traffic light monument, a monument to electricians, and a monument to lab rats that have given their lives to medical research. This last one required us to detour for almost an hour to see, but given my background in biotechnology was one I was particularly keen to visit.
Is there any place or city that really surprised you?
Siberia surprised me a lot. I think generally Siberia is thought of as a region of the world where nothing much happens, and not much exists. What I discovered is that there’s a lot of great cities in Siberia, they are all quite different from one another, and there is a lot to see and do. Ulan-Ude stood out as an incredibly different city to the rest. The Buryat people, culture, and food all felt quite different from other parts of Russia.
There is still of course a lot of forest, and long stretches of highway with nothing much in between them besides a few gas stations.
How are your Russian language skills? Has not being a fluent speaker hindered you a lot?
I’ve been learning Russian recently, but my language skills could be described as beginner, at best. I had no problem getting by in Vladivostok, which is reasonably well set up for tourists, but navigating some of the other more remote cities we have stayed in would be extremely difficult without having Igor traveling with us.
He has made the trip feel seamless, although I know at times some of the unexpected complications have been stressful for him. He is doing a really great job at showing us the best of his country.
Okay, if you had one piece of advice for someone setting out on the same journey, what would it be?
If you are able to convince a Russian friend of yours to travel with you, you absolutely should. Not only do you have a handy translator — for both language and culture — but you also get to explore Russia a little more off the beaten track than I think would be achievable as a foreigner.
Also, make sure you allow yourself enough time to get between cities. The longest drive we have done was between Blagoveshchensk and Chita, which was 1600km (990 miles). We initially thought this journey would take just over 16 hours, but by the time you factor in the unpredictability of the roads, extremely long stretches of roadworks, and brief bathroom and food stops, it ended up taking much longer.