Austin American Statesman on China Home Improvement Retailers

The Austin Texas paper (Austin American Statesman) published a rather strange article in its December 31st issue – (Home improvement, Chinese style Growing incomes and construction boom lure U.S. chains)

The reason I say that the article is rather strangely titled is that in the printed version of the paper it is actually written as US chains moving into China... However, reading through the article the author talks primarily about retailers like IKEA (not a US one), B&Q (also not a US one). For all of us who have spent significant amount of time in China in the last couple of years, this is rather strange — although B&Q looks very much like Home Depot (in terms of color schemes in the stores), the actual Home Depot chain (a US one) is essentially non-existent in China…

The second problem with the article is that it refers to the thin margins the retailers operate with in China and sort of suggest that those low margins are due to low prices in the stores. Well, I have recently shopped in both IKEA in Beijing and in IKEA in Austin and prices in both locations are very similar. A floor lamp my wife had bought in IKEA Beijing carried the same price in IKEA Austin (bought it in the Spring in Beijing and in December in Austin)…..

I can only conclude that the journalists writing these types of articles have either:

a. not actually visited the area they write about (I wonder if the guy who wrote the Austin American article has been in IKEA in Beijing)


b. not paying too much attention to detail — i.e. Home Depot is not yet in China (they are developing their entry strategy, but IKEA and B&Q are the main retailers now)

In today’s world of blogs and Internet I would recommend to journalists to get in touch with folks who live at the locations they write about via the numerous blogs and Web sites and check facts, get better up to date information. I encourage more writing about every day life in China — that provides more realistic view of the country to people / readers back in the States, but lets make it more accurate.

Airline Elite status has potentially new advantage

Well folks there is a new crazy thing the airlines are experimenting with — they are trying to offer new low cost ticket fares for which you will not have a seat assignment or checked luggage allowance. Currently most airlines allow you to check in for “free” two pieces of luggage each of 50lbs. (it used to be just until a year ago that in business class on some airlines – e.g. American, you could check even up to 2 pieces at 75 lbs each)

Now, per news articles published by New York Times, (here is a link) United, and other airlines are thinking of this new experiment — to charge you fees for an advanced seat assignment and for checked in luggage…. I find this quite strange as this “ploy” to disguise costs as optional fees, will certainly be quickly seen by travelers as not good at all and will backfire on the airlines…

At the same time, hold on to your frequent flyer status as most likely it will shield you from those new “junk fees” (as Clark Howard ( refers to those types of fees). I gave some suggestions about obtaining frequent flyer status here, you may want to review it. Happy Travels!

Vacation in Phuket – Patong Beach

Secluded Beach - off the coast of Phuket Nai Harn beach Nai Harn Beach Holiday Inn at Patong Beach, Phuket Holiday Inn Patong

Well, I am sure many of you are thinking about the next holiday — there are several coming very soon:
New Year’s, Chinese (Lunar) New Year, Valentine’s Day…wedding anniversaries (there must be some between now and March 🙂 for some of you)… Any of those holidays warrants a trip to a beautiful place like Phuket. My family (my wife, daughter, and I) spent a wonderful week there during the last Chinese New Year. It took me a while to write about it because we had many other things to write about plus Phuket is tough to write about — you simply have to go there to truly appreciate it.

Nevertheless, I decided to write a few lines and give you some ideas as to where to go and what makes sense to do:

Places to stay — we recommend the Holiday Inn Busakorn Wing at Patong Beach

Beaches to go to: Patong Beach, Nai Harn Beach — probably the most beautiful beach in Phuket

Places to eat: sounds strange but the Thai restaurant at the Holiday Inn in the Busakorn Wing is excellent!!! Try it – you will enjoy it.

Things to do: (1) Diving/snorkeling at Nai Harn Beach, rent a speed boat for the day and go to James Bond rock and then to other uninhabitted islands with pristine beached.

(2) Visit a rubber plantation and take an elephant ride. Interesting experience.
Kristin on an elephant ride Elephant ride view_from_island_speedboat_cruise1small.jpg Islands off Phuket Kristin and Sarah at Patong Beach street Kristin and Sarah in Patong

Kazanlak – Next stop on the trip in Bulgaria

Kazanlak is located in the province of Stara Zagora, in the foothills of the Balkan range in Central Bulgaria. The travel time from Nessebar (on the Black Sea coast) to Kazanlak was about 3 hours (if traffic is not heavy as the road is a divided highway with one lane in each direction — thus passing could be tricky if you encounter slower traffic).

Kazanlak is famous for several things:

  • The Thracian Tomb – a UNESCO protected site dating back to 4th century B.C. Here is a link to a detailed description of the architecture of the Tomb
  • The Rose Festival and the Valley of Roses — the city is located in this famous rose growing region of Bulgaria. Based on information I heard in Kazanlak, the Rose Valley produces some 70% of the world’s supply of rose oil – essential component in perfumes;

Here are some images from the region of Kazanlak to give you some idea of the area and local color:

EntranceThracianTomb2_small.JPG Entrance to the Thracian Tomb Kazanlak_view_small.JPG View of the old town of Kazanlak (from a hotel terrace)

KrqnView_small.JPG view from one of the suburbs of Kazanlak PicturesqueHotelTerrace_Kazanlak_small.JPG Another vew from a hotel terrace

Near the town of Kazanlak is the Shipka mountain pass (a pass allowing you to cross the Balkan range and go from Northern into Southern Bulgaria). The Shipka pass is famous for a huge battle fought during the Rusia-Turkey Liberation War (1877-1878) – a war that lead to the liberation of Bulgaria. A big monument reminds the visitors of the fierce battle fought during July and August 1877. Today you can also visit a great chirch – Храм-паметник „Рождество Христово“
(in Bulgarian) which is a great example of East Orthdox (sometimes refered to as Greek or Bulgarian Orthodox) architecture. The village of Shipka (near-by where is the chirch) is several miles to the North-west of Kazanlak, while the mountain pass is high in the Balkan range (above Kazanlak) at about 1300 meters (4000 feet) elevation.

If you go to the mountani pass location you could also sample some “Bivolsko mylako” – yogurt produced from water buffalo milk. It is very good and rich tasting type of yogurt (you could also purchase just milk).

Aside from these monuments, you can just enjoy the beautiful mountains and country side and also visit a big dam (the Koprinka dam) on the bottom of which is the ancient town of Seuthopolis (currently under water but the local government is creating plans and gathering funds to uncover and preserve the ancient town and site. Here is a an image (courtesy of the local government – obshtina Kazanlak) of the project concept:

Seuthopolis.jpg If you would like further informaton on this area of the country please contact us. Happy travels!

More on Nessebar, Bulgaria

What can I summarize about Nessebar? I have visited the place more than once or twice in my visits back to Bulgaria. As far as I understand, the town used to be a fishing village in the 19th century….The history of the place dates back way back to the Roman and Byzantine Empires.

Today Nessebar is one of the well developed beach resorts in Bulgaria. You can find here both modern hotels as well as rent a room or a complete old house / villa.

If you rent a house/appartment, you can get deals in the range of US$50 (for 2 people renting an appartment in the new town) per day…or US$60 for 3 people for an appartment. So you can get a good deal.

Then, there is the new trend — buying a holiday property in Bulgaria. To give you some idea, a 2-bedroom appartment about 60 square meters / 600 square feet, will set you back about 40K euros.

At the same time a similar appartment further south along the Black Sea coast — in Sozopol (a place I like as well) will be slightly more pricey — at about 45K euros.

Then for a comparison you should consider a similar size appartment in one of he major cities of Northern Bulgaria – Pleven. There the prices are in the range of 20K to 30K euros (approximately)….So, the Black Sea coast is a desirable place…

Next step on our trip — 4 day stay in Nessebar, Bulgaria

After leaving Bansko my family and I headed to the Black Sea coast. The interesting thing about Bulgaria (in a very summary description form) is that you can experience the pleasure of hiking tall beautiful mountains and 5-6 hours drive later you could be at one of the many seaside resorts. Our trip took us to the resort town of Nessebar located in the central part of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast (please see the map in the previous post)

We had booked an all inclusive stay at the Nessebar IFA hotel (I believe this was a German hotel chain). The all inclusive meant meals and hotel rooms for all of us were included.

The hotel was located South of the old town of Nessebar in the newer section of town. Nevertheless it was not far away (within 10 minutes driving) from the ancient (what used to be B.C. era — as I understand approximately 550 B.C.) town. Here are some images from the town:

Nessebar 2 Nessebar Chirch Nessebar Nessebar_IFA_small.JPG

We stayed for 4 days and enjoyed both the sea beaches as well as the hotel pools and entertainment. One of the afternoons we visited the old town (where the photos are from) but more of the time we spent relaxing on the beach or at the pool area. Not bad after all…

Bulgaria trip — renewable energy

Renewable Energy

Here we go with a quick snippet of info on reneable energy in Bulgaria – just an observation…After leaving the Bansko region my family and I headed for the Black sea coast. The trip from the southwest corner of Bulgaria (where Bansko is located) to Nessebar (on the Black Sea coast) took about 7 hours of driving. It was an interesting drive – going through mountains, passing through mountain villages and observing life. You can see some photos here:

Rodopi But the most interesting site probably was this –> Renewable Energy energy generating wind farm located right next to a roadside gas station on one of the highways on the way to the Black Sea cost. During our drive through Bulgaria we saw a large number of these wind farms — obviously a number of investors believe in "green energy" — a nice thought and a very progressive step for a country which has a significant revenue generating tourism industry.

Travel to Melnik, Bulgaria

First let me give you an idea as to where we have traveled so far and where we will be going next. Here is a map of Bulgaria with our route (step 1 through 5) on this trip:

Map of travels Melnik5 Melnik2 Melnik7

After staying in Bansko for two days, we decided that it is time to experience some more of the nature and sites Bulgaria has to offer. So we drove to the town of Melnik — according to government and provincial statistics (Melnik is located in the province of Blagoevgrad) – this is the smallest town in Bulgaria. Population: approximately 230.

The town is not that difficult to find. From Bansko, we first drove through the town of Razlog, to Simitli, where we got on the E79 highway (which leads also from Sofia to Greece). While on E79 watch out for the city of Sandanski (it will be about 40 minutes before you get close to the city). After you go through Sandanski, look for exit for Melnik. The road to Melnik after E79 is a tiny one with hardly any traffic… You will pass through several small villages before you reach Melnik. The long journey is well worth it. Melnik is a very old settlement (according to scholars dating back to Thrace and the Roman Empire). Later on in the middle ages, the Crusades passed through and currently the town is restoring a small chirch which dates from that time.

Melnik is famous for its sand piramides (limestone or porous stone formations in the mountains surrounding the town), interesting houses (see pictures in this posting) and very good wines. The climate is good and there are many wineries in the town.

KristinSarah_Melnik Sarah in Melnik Kristin and Sarah in Melnik Kristin and Sarah in Melnik (they enjoyed the trip)
With regard to timing, you can make the trip from Bansko to Melnik as a day visit. This will give you plenty of time to walk around the town, sample some of the wines, see the architecture, may be even do a short hike in the hills outside of the town. Enjoy!

Travel in Bansko, Bulgaria, part 2

So we continue with the trip in Bansko. Once in the hotel (we stayed at the Kempinski on the outskirts of town) you are almost a stone throw away from a great mountain park. Here are some images to give you an idea about the location of the hotel:
Kempinski hotel Kempinski View from Kempinski view from the hotel towards the Pirin mountain. As you can tell the high peaks, skiing and hiking are all near by

If you leave from the hotel, turn right and head up the street you will encounter one of the many entrances to the mountain park. Drive or hike up the road and you will come to many beautiful ski lodges, hotels, and just wonderful nature. Here are some more photos:

Pirin peaks Wild flowers Sarah with flowers in the Pirin mountain Pirin Ski Lift Wild flowers
Climb or drive up the road and you will find many places where you can park your car (if you drove) and from there embark on a hike for a few hours or a day. You will enjoy it.