Fried Chicken In Ulan Bator: KFC To Open In Mongolia

Would you like home-style biscuits or mashed potatoes to go with your yurt?

No country is out of reach for global food brands these days, and this week it’s Mongolia. In partnership with Ulan Bator-based Tavan Bogd Group, Yum! Brands is opening up four KFC outlets in Mongolia this year.

A country known for its nomads and ger yurts, it’s the most sparsely populated country in the world. But it’s also growing: the Mongolian economy is expected to expand 15.7% this year, the fastest pace in Asia.

That means it’s prime real estate for a large restaurant chain looking to expand. But how do you go about introducing fried chicken into a place that’s usually known for mutton and goat?

“We are conducting a market survey together with a global research company to determine the market potential and identify eating habits of Mongolians, which will outline our development road map,” said Ts. Baatarsaikhan, chief executive officer of Tavan Bogd Group.

Which begs the question: do Mongolians prefer original or extra crispy?

[Photo credit: pshegubj]

Budget Hong Kong: Renting A Room At The Notorious Chungking Mansions

There are two types of travelers: those who would go out of their way to avoid a place like Hong Kong‘s notorious Chungking Mansions – and those who would elect to stay there.

I’d probably put myself somewhere in the middle.

Nestled between luxury emporiums on one of Hong Kong’s most expensive thoroughfares, the Chungking Mansions is a chaotic complex of shops, food stalls, restaurants, wholesalers, budget guesthouses and low-income apartments. The 17-story compound is home to around 5,000 permanent residents, most hailing from South Asia and Africa. That’s not to mention the estimated 10,000 people that pass through its halls each day, trading in currencies, refurbished electronics, counterfeit bags and other slightly less legal commodities. TIME Magazine called the Chungking Mansions the “Best Example of Globalization in Action” because of its extensive network of informal trade, while The Economist compared it to Spaceport Cantina in the original “Star Wars” film. Travel articles alternately refer to it as a “heart of darkness,” a “den of iniquity” or, simply, a “hellhole.”

Naturally, I was hesitant to check out the Chungking Mansions for myself. But I was also intrigued. With single rooms running from HK$150 (US$19.35) to HK$500 (US$64.50), Chungking Mansions is one of the cheapest budget accommodation options in town, stairwell drug deals notwithstanding. Anthropologist Gordon Matthews estimates that more than 129 different nationalities pass through each year.

%Gallery-174068%What I found was … anticlimactic. After a number of high-profile deaths and disappearances in the 1990s, the owners of the Chungking Mansions installed an extensive CCTV system and employed round-the-clock security guards to monitor the complex. There are regular police patrols, and I witnessed no fewer than five crackdowns during my visit.

Because of the heavy monitoring, Chungking is actually a quite safe place to stay, compared with other Asian backpacker ghettoes. It is also conveniently located in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui, a lively district in the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Luxury hotels like The Peninsula and The Sheraton are steps away, along with malls, restaurants, museums, MTR subway stops and the scenic Tsim Sha Tsui promenade. If you don’t mind the cramped quarters and chaotic surroundings, it’s not a bad budget option. Some even claim it’s a quintessential Hong Kong experience.

Not all Chungking Mansion guesthouses are created equal, though. Quality varies wildly, and photos on booking sites like Hostelbookers and Agoda are often heavily edited. The best way to score a good value room is simply to show up and make the rounds of Chungking’s 80-plus options, most of which are clustered in blocks A and B. The Ashoka Hostel, consisting of nearly 100 rooms across three floors, is a popular option; their head reception desk is located on the 13th floor of Block A. The price per night depends on the month (or even the day) so don’t be afraid to negotiate, particularly if you’re traveling during off-season.

The reward? A chance to experience not only a different side of Hong Kong, but also the world. One guesthouse owner showed me his logbook of guests, hailing from Ghana, Bangladesh, Holland, Malaysia, the Philippines, Germany, Japan and even America. “People from everywhere come to stay here,” he boasted. Globalization in action.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Hong Kong Travel Tips

The sushi invasion of Eastern Europe

sushi in eastern europeTraveling through Eastern Europe recently, what stood out to me the most (aside from ultra low prices and varying success with capitalism) is the extreme popularity of sushi. Particularly in Kiev and Warsaw, sushi restaurants are nearly as prolific as the national cuisine and if you find yourself in a fashionable restaurant, odds are raw fish will be on the menu.

My husband and I had differing theories as to the sushi invasion. I figured it was popular as it is the exact opposite of most Eastern European food. After many years of boiled meat, heavy sauces, and pickled vegetables, sushi must make a refreshing palate cleanser and a delicious novelty. My husband, who was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, had a more subjective theory. He maintains it has to do with a way of thinking that is particular to post-Soviet and developing countries: after the oppression of communism, wealth and status are held in high regard; imported goods once impossible to obtain exemplify status and wealth. In other words, nothing says how far you’ve come from bread lines more than eating fish flown in from another country while wearing Louis Vuitton and texting on your iPhone.

In order to delve deeper into the sushi explosion, I consulted a few expats familiar with the former Eastern bloc to get their insights and found both of our theories supported.Political consultant, fellow Istanbullu, and Carpetblogger Christy Quirk easily qualifies as an expert in my book on the peculiarities of the FSU (former Soviet Union), with posts like how to tell if you’re in Crapistan (perhaps “many sushi restaurants” should be added to the checklist?) and how to buy a suit in the FSU. She agrees with the post-Soviet (and new money) mindset theory, noting “nothing says ‘I have more money than sense’ more than eating overpriced frozen sushi from Dubai. EVERY self-respecting restaurant in the FSU — especially those that appeal to the Oligarch class or, more accurately, oligarch wannabes — must have a sushi menu.” She adds: “Our favorite ‘Mexican’ restaurant in Kiev had an extensive one (I hold that up as the paragon of ridiculous dining in the FSU but it did have good chips and decent margaritas, for which it deserves praise, not derision).” As a fellow expat, I understand the importance of a place with decent margaritas, even if the menu is a bit geographically confused.

Prague-based food and travel writer Evan Rail has fully experienced the, uh, Prague-ification of the Czech Republic after living in the capital for the past decade, concurs with the novelty theory and adds that food trends tend to take a bit longer to arrive in this part of the world. Sushi became big especially as “most of this region is landlocked, it’s quite noteworthy to encounter the salty, briny flavors of seafood, especially raw seafood. Fines de claire oysters went through a similar vogue in Prague a few years back.”

Evan further reports that in Prague, sushi is no longer the flavor of the month. “After [sushi], it seemed like every restaurant on every cobblestone lane in Old Town was serving Thai soup, but only a weak interpretation of tom kha gai — you couldn’t get tom yum for love or money. Now the vogue seems to be about Vietnamese noodles, which makes more sense given the Czech Republic’s long-term and quite sizable Vietnamese community. I’ve actually had some of the best bun bo hue I’ve ever tasted here, far better than anything I’ve found in Paris or Berlin.
But banh mi? Well, maybe in another five years…”

While all this may be further evidence of globalization, it’s become part of the food culture, for better of for worse. If you travel to Eastern Europe, be sure to try the local food and keep your mind open to what might be “local.”

Do you have another take on the sushification of Eastern Europe? Noticed another foreign food trend abroad? Leave us a comment below.

[Photo by Flickr user quinn anya]

Do you buy too much junk in third world countries?

One of the biggest problems that I have when I’m traveling overseas is “strong dollar syndrome.” With a rough approximation of the exchange rate in my head and the smell of foreign commerce, everything looks cheap and I buy trinkets and souvenirs with reckless abandon.

This has happened all over the place, from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul to the artisan market in Ubud, Indonesia to the Old City in Shanghai, China. That amazing tea set — the one with the intricate detailing, matching coasters and sterling spoons is only 20 Turkish Lira? Oh, the hand carved chess board with tiny stone robot pawns is a mere 100,000 Rupiahs? Heck yeah I’ll shell out for that!

All too often I’ve over committed to a cheap, cultural travel trinket, tossed it into my bag and carried it across an entire continent — just to bring it home and set it lovingly under my living room coffee table. As I sit typing this from my dining room in Chicago, I look left at a twice-opened chess set from Turkey and the rarely used cracked-glass ice cream dish from Vietnam. Did I really need to bring those back with me?

In part, yes. The memories that come back from my travels run strong every time I see an artifact that I’ve collected from the road. And whether or not I put things I’ve collect to regular use, it’s still nice having a reminder of the good times.

But in today’s globalized economy where it’s almost cheaper to have bulk items sold shipped and resold across an entire ocean it’s easy to see how the line between cultural and kitsch can blur.

Here’s an example: one game I now like to play in foreign markets is “Could I find this at the dollar store at home?” Completely out of context, without the smells, tastes and experiences of the road, might this item be in a heap of discounted refuse at the local supermarket? In the case of the teacup that I bought in Shanghai three years ago, most definitely.

As a result, I now keep my overseas purchases confined to a tightly defined window. Yes, I still want the experience of buying a unique, cultural object from an exotic destination, and I definitely want these memories tied to the object. But unless it has significant cultural or functional value or can be purchased in no other place in the planet, I’ll check the local Target. The rest of my souvenirs I’ll bring back in my camera.

[Photo : Flickr | *Zoha.n]

Dim Sum Dialogues: The Chungking Mansions



This is Nadim.

Nadim is originally from Pakistan. He came to Hong Kong seven years ago with his wife and two children to find a better life. He tells me that he never envisioned his better life to be what he has today, but he’s happy, and enjoying moderate success selling mobile phones out of his shop.

The shop is actually a small stall, at most ten feet wide and four feet deep, situated in a maze of hallways perpetually bathed in dim fluorescent light. The stalls next to him sell a variety of cheap suitcases and even cheaper t-shirts and jackets. No one mentions the word ‘fake’, but it’s quite apparent that most of the items have emerged from a mysterious cloning lab in the heart of mainland China. Thirty footsteps down the hall brings you to the counter of a small Indian restaurant with fresh naan, thalis, curries, and samosas. Next to that is a convenience shop, stocked wall to wall with canned goods, bottled liquor, tobacco and candy. Ten more steps and you’ll be surrounded by head-high stacks of bootlegged Bollywood films.

Welcome to the Chungking Mansions.

The mansions are a series of five 17-story high blocks, connected by a two-level foyer with shops, food stalls, and currency exchange bureaus. On any given day an estimated 4,000 people live here, not including the backpackers that take advantage of an array of cheap guesthouses in the building, and the curious shoppers that wander through the halls. On a weekend, the five lines that form for the elevators in each block display Hong Kong’s multiculturalism at its best. Indian hawkers wait with their filipino girlfriends, young dreadlocked australians rub elbows with african women in brightly patterned dresses, and the chinese security guard carefully monitors the live CCTV footage that comes from inside the elevators.

Chungking, which means “great (and returning) prosperity” is just blocks away from the world-famous Peninsula Hotel in the Tsim Sha Tsui, or “TST” district. TST’s waterfront property offers the best panoramic views of Hong Kong’s iconic skyline, making it some of the most prime real estate in the city. Yet the Chungking Mansions have avoided any signs of gentrification, and seem to be proudly surviving as the central hub for minority culture in Hong Kong. Moreover, it’s an important place of business – a living example of how a low-end globalized economy functions.

I stand outside the entrance to the building, chatting with one of the many touts that persistently offers tailoring services and “copy watches”. The favorite line among this crowd is “Hey boss, guess how much for a suit!”, with the occasional peddler that approaches us to offer a slew of drugs. The tout says to me, “See, you can find anything you need in Chungking Mansions. Anything from A to Zed – you tell me, I can find it within twenty minutes.” I consider testing his offer, but decline and watch as two young men struggle to maneuver four grossly overstuffed suitcases down the entrance’s steps.

The young men with the suitcases are most likely carrying mobile phones. Nadim told me that most of the business he sees is from wholesalers that buy these cheap phones in bulk, and take them back to countries like Kenya, Zambia, and Nigeria. Apparently, one fifth of all of the mobile phones in sub Saharan Africa have passed through the Chungking Mansions at some point – and 70 percent of Kenya’s handsets come from here. Serious traders come to the Mansions with money and a destination, and everything else is handled for them.

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The mobile phone trade might be cheaper across the border in Guandong, but the trading laws and security of Hong Kong are more appealing to the Nigerians and Pakistanis that can’t easily obtain Chinese visas.

The Chungking Mansions have even been able to resist interference from the infamous Triad gangs – but still have issues with gangs of different nationalities that spar with one another. One restaurant owner tells me “These guys that deal drugs back here think they are big time dealers, but really they’re nothing – they are very small time in the scheme of things.”

The building has a bad history of electrical fires and suspicious activity. Signs can be seen at bars around Hong Kong advertising the disappearance of a female backpacker in March, last seen at an apartment in the Chungking Mansions. In 1988, a fire broke out and killed a Danish tourist. A series of arrests in the 90′s spurred the management to install 208 CCTV cameras throughout the building. Of course, it’s really not an extremeley dangerous place, but travelers that stay here should be aware of their surroundings, and shouldn’t entertain invitations into private rooms within the building.

A group of retired Americans in full tourist garb passes by Nadim’s stand, the fluorescent lighting only making their pale skin stand out more against the rest of their surroundings. I ask him what he thinks about tourists here, and he responds “I think it’s good – I don’t think you can come to Hong Kong and not see the Chungking Mansions. If you come to this city, and you don’t see this place, then you haven’t really seen Hong Kong.” Nadim has a valid point, and for a place that’s been dubbed “Asia’s World City”, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of globalization in action.