Archive for July, 2007
A disease in pigs is currently spreading across China. The government is desperately trying to keep a lid on things however news about it is leaking out.
This reduction in pork supply is pushing the price upwards. The average price of pork in June was 74.6% higher than at the same time 12 months ago.
Called Blue Ear Disease (also known as Porcine Respiratory and Reproductive Syndrome), it has killed thousands of pigs across China. So far this month there have been outbreaks recorded in 11 provinces. This year there have been outbreaks found in 22 provinces, not bad for a country with only 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions and 4 self-governed municipalities.
News reports are bringing patchy and sometimes contradictory information about what's going on. Some reports claim a few thousand pigs have died, others claim that the disease has killed over 1 million animals in 2007 alone. The most common numbers are that 40,000 - 50,000 animals have died due to the disease. Some reports claim that the disease does not affect people whilst other reports claim that 35 people have died already and China is on the verge of a human pandemic. Officially, the disease is 'under control'.
China is a strange country. Just recently the US complained to China about some imported foods being contaminated. What was the response by the Chinese government? To ban the import of pork and chicken's feet from a few selected companies from the US back into China! It may seem childish but it shows in a small way just how much political weight China is gaining on the world stage.
I tried barley tea whilst in Korea. If you can imagine tea that tastes like it's full of wheat you'll get the idea. Apparently it's very popular here. It's much like green tea in China, you get used to it after a while and even start to like it.
I also tried a local corn iced tea that is apparently very popular. Imagine chilled green tea that has had popcorn soaking in it for a while and that's pretty much what it tasted like. Not unpleasant, just strange.
I was making observations about some of the similarities of Korea to the Japanese. One of the locals was explaining some of the differences and he summarised it for me like this: Koreans have very strong relationships with those that they know but collectively as a nation they're not that strong. Japan has much weaker inter-personal relationships yet their strength as a nation is very high. I found all the people I dealt with to be friendly, sociable and willing to chat about any particular topic that was ventured, particularly soccer. Manchester United played the Seoul football club on Friday night (which Man U won 4:0) and you'd think that it was the world cup final or something, such was the interest. Apparently 40 million of Manchester United's 75 million fans live in Asia.
Meal times were interesting and good fun. The first night we went to a local restaurant next to the hotel as it was one of the few places open when we went looking for a feed at 9:00pm. The floor was wooden and slightly raised. Shoes were removed as the doorway and we sat on the floor at low tables with just enough room to slide your folded legs underneath. Mats were available if desired. The food itself was quite OK. The meal consisted of several small servings of things and a bowl of beef, rice, lettuce and bunch of strange spicy sauces, all mixed in and prepared for us by the waitress. The next night we ate out at a classier restaurant, but it was still an on-the floor affair. These floors are heated in winter to keep you warm. This time dinner consisted of a seemingly endless stream of small dishes. There was fried fish, sashimi, fruits, various shelled seafood, stewed fish, sushi, water chestnuts, beans, crumbed potato, rice and so on. There must have been about 30 different dishes for the 3 of us! Some of it was really spicy and I was drinking to try and put the fire out. I can also tell you that Kimchi isn't anything special, just spicily flavoured fermented cabbage really.
South Korea still has signs that it's a slightly male-dominated society. The man does the hard work, the man puts the roof over the heads of the family, the man drives the car, etc. Despite a healthy array of western influences, particularly western branding, there's still some traditional customs to be observed. One example of this is the man seeking permission and approval from the father of his woman before getting married. If the father says 'no' the the chance of being married is very small. Once consent is given a formal dinner is held where the two families meet. There are then some customs to be observed in preparing for the wedding too, such as the groom providing the house to live in, often a gift from his parents, and the bride, and her family, providing all the interior furnishings.
I found Seoul as a city is not particularly interesting. The people were interesting but as a city it seemed fairly stereotypical as far as modern Asian cities go. Typical apartment buildings top out at about 20 stories and there's lots of buildings down around the 6 or 7 story mark. The building architecture is relatively straight forward, most buildings are well maintained, others not. The buildings are missing the design element that cities like Shanghai or Hong Kong put into everything they're building these days. There's a comprehensive subway system and lots of buses and taxis charging around everywhere. About 10 million live in Seoul proper and there's another 10 million living in the metropolitan area.
There is a lot of protection for local industries here. For example, 90% of the cars on the roads are built locally by local brands. The local industries are protected through import tariffs. Standards are often in place that make it difficult to take off-the-shelf products from other countries and sell them in South Korea. This stimulates the local industry to develop skills internally, as the Koreans want to have all the things that the Japanese (and others) have however importing can be expensive. As such, the general skill level of Koreans in technical fields is fairly high.
The Koreans follow technical fads quite quickly. If someone has the latest thingy then his friends just have to have it. The latest techno fad in South Korea is GPS in cars. It's happened so fast that about 80% of the cars I saw had a GPS screen stuck with a suction cup to the windscreen and the manufacturers haven't had a chance to integrate the technology across their model ranges. This all seems fine however apparently these dash-mounted screens are causing lots of injuries in car accidents.
Seoul was fine to visit but I don't have any burning desire to go back there. Some cool toys, some friendly people, lots of bright lights and a bit of Asian history. That's how I'd sum it up.
Wednesday afternoon saw me setting out to Seoul for work for a few days. Both flights to and from Seoul were with Cathay Pacific, an Airbus A330 to and a Boeing 777 from Seoul. Flight times were both about 3 1/2 hours. Interestingly, the pilots of the flights to and from Seoul were both Australian. I already knew that numerous airlines are quite fond of offering Australia's military pilots rich carrots to come and fly for them. I later learned that Cathay also have a pilot training school in Adelaide.
In 2001 Seoul opened a new international airport, called Incheon International Airport, in a similar style to Hong Kong, i.e. it's about an hour away from the CBD and out in the sea. The biggest difference is that South Korea already had most of the island out of the water . The set-up is quite standard in that it has 2 parallel runways that are used simultaneously, one for take-off and one for landing. It's a very modern, clean and efficient airport, up there with the best in the world.
A trap for young players is that Korea uses a different mobile phone system to the rest of the world. That means that your global roaming service won't help you here. To handle this, mobile phones are available for rent at the airport. A daily rental fee is paid as well as the cost of the calls. For two days worth of phone rental and a mix of local and international calls the cost was about 37,000 Won (about AU$46). Rates drop for longer rentals.
We jumped on one of the buses (a 608 at bus station 12B) to take us into town. Unlike a regular "jam as many on as possible" style of bus this was more of a limousine bus. Despite it's conventional bus size there were only 26 seats in total, 2 seats on the left side and 1 on the right. Each seat was more like an armchair with multi-way adjustment and acres of legroom. This was a public bus like no other I'd ever seen.
Upon arrival at our bus station we had to take a taxi. The previously-shared information about the lack of English of Koreans quickly reared it's head. Despite having a map with Korean writing on it the taxi driver was still unable to take us to our destination. A different taxi, a phone call later to a local colleague and we were on our way. Apparently this is very common. The Korean people are very proud of their language and the study of English is not so widespread. Often a manager will speak reasonable English but he's usually the odd man out.