F.D.A. Tracked Tainted Drugs, but Trail Went Cold in China

Back on May 7th this year I posted an entry on this blog about From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine which concerned the export of “a poisonous solvent sold by counterfeiters and mixed into drugs [which] has figured in mass poisonings around the world that killed thousands.” The blog entry originated from an article that came From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine by Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker and was published on 6 May 2007 in the New York Times.

The New York Times has followed that article up with another one today. This is titled D.A. Tracked Tainted Drugs, but Trail Went Cold in China and is by Walt Bogdanich and discusses

Two poisoning cases 10 years apart illustrate what happens when nations fail to police the global pipeline of drug ingredients.

The real worry about all this is that the counterfeiting affects the users, not by making the real product more expensive but rather by killing the user. Even more worrying is the attempt by China to preserve its reputation rather than enhance its reputation as a responsible member of the world.

The times noted:

The F.D.A.’s efforts to investigate the Haiti poisonings, documented in internal F.D.A. memorandums obtained by The New York Times, demonstrate not only the intransigence of Chinese officials, but also the same regulatory failings that allowed a virtually identical poisoning to occur 10 years later. The cases further illustrate what happens when nations fail to police the global pipeline of pharmaceutical ingredients.

Innocent people die but reputations must be preserved. I said it before and I will say it again, this is the worst kind of counterfeiting. It is a good tim, however, for China to show that it is a responsible global citizen, rather than trying to protect a reputation that is tainted already.

The Chinese talk the talk about cracking down on Piracy and Copying but a quick trip to Silk Street in Beijing shows that it really is only talking to talk. It’s time for the Chinese to put their boots on and start walking the walk.

IKEA in Jeddah

Tonight I went to the IKEA store here in Jeddah. The main reason for going there was for kjøttboller (meatballs) and to check out the furniture and knick knacks. I like IKEA. I like their furnishings, the simple style of them and I particularly like their knick knacks.

I have been to IKEA stores in Australia, England, China and now Saudi Arabia. The Jeddah store is by far the worst IKEA store I have been to, one that is not really true to the spirit that is IKEA. I am not talking about the stupidity that is the segregated eating area (families in one area, bachelors in another) – especially as just across the road is the Megamall which has mixed seating in the food court on the top floor – but rather I am talking about the service levels and customer treatment in the store.

The bachelor eating area is small – 6 tables wide by 4 rows deep. The 3 table width to the left is a smoking area, to the right, a non-smoking area. Better not to try and segregate the smokers and non-smokers at all as the smokers just sat where they felt like and IKEA staff would not do anything. Better to ban smoking outright from in the store, after all, there are children present in large numbers and I did think that IKEA had a social conscience.

The store itself was laid out like all other IKEA stores, just smaller because it was in Jeddah. Maybe the Riyadh store is bigger. There were many things not displayed, near as I could see, because of the smaller size. When shopping though there were catalogues available with a note on the red/blue plastic covers that these were for use in the store. The covers noted that there were copies available in customer service on the way out. There were not. They were out of stock.

The only positive thing I could say about the trip to IKEA here was that the kjøttboller tasted the same as in every other IKEA store. However, it was not a pleasant experience eating there, or indeed shopping there. I really hope that IKEA senior management take a trip there and have a look at the absolutely worst IKEA store in the world.

From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine

The New York Times noted in an article called From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine by Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker and published on 6 May 2007:

A poisonous solvent sold by counterfeiters and mixed into drugs has figured in mass poisonings around the world that killed thousands.

This is something that has concerned us in particular in Mongolia where Chinese counterfeit items turn up everywhere and where there is no real control over them. Medications in particular are a problem. We have purchased medicines only to find out later that the use by date on the medication was two years in the past.

The Times further noted about Panama where the latest wave of deaths appears to have occurred:

Panama’s death toll leads directly to Chinese companies that made and exported the poison [diethylene glycol] as 99.5 percent pure glycerin.

Beyond Panama and China, toxic syrup has caused mass poisonings in Haiti, Bangladesh, Argentina, Nigeria and twice in India.

Remember too the pet deaths in the US recently? The Times noted about these:

China is already being accused by United States authorities of exporting wheat gluten containing an industrial chemical, melamine, that ended up in pet food and livestock feed. The F.D.A. recently banned imports of Chinese-made wheat gluten after it was linked to pet deaths in the United States.

This is something to be concerned about in Mongolia, where much medicine must, for economic reasons only, be sourced from cheaper suppliers. China is one of those suppliers and the toxic syrup is used in cough and cold medications amongst other things.

In addition, on a more personal basis, friends of mine have taken locally sourced diabetes (this is referred to as “sugar disease” in Mongolia) medicine but their sugar levels have been all over the place. Their sugar levels have not been controlled. Replacing the locally sourced medications with the “same” drugs but purchased overseas has resulted in his sugar levels coming under control.

The medications taken were supposed to have been from German or Indonesian manufacturers but given the amount of counterfeit material that ends up in Mongolia, who can tell. Significantly, when the medications were sourced from suppliers that were known to provide reliable medicines, the sugar levels came under control – there was no change in the type of medicine taken, just the supplier.

This is the worst type of counterfeiting and one that governments should pursue vigorously, and the Chinese government in particular.

By Rail – Moscow to Beijing

Legend Tours has a page on their website called “Train schedule in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)” which contains information about travelling by train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia.

One of the paragraphs of useful information for the traveller is the one shown below:

Customs & Immigration. There are major delays of three to six hours at both, the China-Mongolia and Russia-Mongolia borders. Often the trains cross the border during the middle of the night, when the alert Mongolian and Russian officials maintain the upper hand. The whole process is not difficult or a hassle – just annoying because they keep interrupting your sleep. Your passport will be taken for inspection and stamping.
During these stops, you can alight and wander around the station, which is just as well since the toilets on the train are locked during the whole inspection procedure.

Immigration Officials Wait At Zamin-uud, Mongolia
Zamin-uud Railway Station, Mongolia, with very cute Customs Officers

This is sort of understatement. Yes, the officialdom part is onerous and a couple of hours each side of the border are given up to much inspecting of documents, checking visas and so on.

In fact, when travelling across from the Mongolian side of the border to the Chinese side, all the Mongolian Immigration officers come through the train in Zamin-uud (and contrary to the article, you are encouraged to remain in the train). Everything is checked, papers and passport. The Mongolian border crossing at Zamin-uud is the only place I have ever been where a customs declaration has to be completed for departure (at the Chinggis Khaan airport in UB, customs forms are only required when arriving). What you should be aware of is that if you travel back INTO Mongolia through Zamin-uud, the Customs folks will want to see the form you completed when you were leaving.

Erlian Station, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China
Erlian Station, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, where the Customs officers are hidden and not cute

The train then crawls along for maybe 30 minutes or so to cover the 5 kilometres between Zamin-uud and Erlian. The Chinese Immigration folks then take the next 2 hours to check your entry papers. There is a detention area half way between Zamin-uud and Erlian and sometimes the train stops there and a young Chinese guy or two will be escorted off the train and into detention. Presumably their papers are not in order.

Of course, the trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar is the same, just the waits are reversed. Seems though that the trains tend to get to the border late at night (when travelling either way). The other thing not mentioned is that Chinese Railways run on Standard Gauge track (4 foot 8 1/2 inches between rails). Mongolian Railways run to Russian Gauge (5 foot between rails). So, at the border, apart from the immigration delays, there is a further delay of a couple of hours while the entire train undergoes a change of bogies. This entails jacking each carriage up and replacing the bogies underneath them. This is done with much bumping and banging whilst the passengers are all still in the train trying to sleep.

As mentioned, the toilets are locked but it is near impossible to get out of the carriage. Also, if it is winter, the temperature in the carriage falls as well. The combination of drinking beer before the border (or coffee) and cold temperature puts an unbelievable strain on one’s plumbing.

Indeed, my friend had saved a couple of plastic beer bottle precisely for this event. Out with the Swiss Army knife, quickly remove the top of the bottle and voila, instant relief.

The one thing that still has me frustrated about this whole process is that there is no reason why the Mongolian AND the Chinese Immigration staff could not check all the passengers at the same time. This would take at least 2 hours off the entire process and reduce the time to travel between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing to about 1 day 4 hours.

You’ve Never Really Travelled Until You’ve Travelled With An Ironing Board

’tis true. How boring international travel can be. Lots of waiting around. The same old boring things – taxis, check in counters, Duty Free Shops that are all the same no matter which country you are in and just waiting, waiting, waiting.

Liven up that next trip. Travel with an ironing board. I did!

It started in Beijing. Whilst shopping for some things, an ironing board found it’s way into our shopping trolley. Not being one to refuse the unexplained when it happens, we paid for the ironing board and took it back to the hotel.

Well, that was the plan. Getting into the taxi was fun though as the ironing board was about 4 cms longer than the taxi was wide so some angled pushing and shoving managed to get it into the taxi and the door closed with no breakages.

Then arriving at the hotel “would sir care for assistance in getting that to sir’s room?”

“Nope. I’ll manage” says sir 🙂

Walk through lobby of five star hotel with ironing board under the arm all the time smiling at the Japanese guests the Chinese staff are fussing over. The Japanese guests laugh.

Up to the room, park the ironing board.

A couple of days pass and it is time to travel so I call the Bell Hop to come collect the bags from the room … and the ironing board. He smiles and scratches his head wondering how he’ll get it on the trolley as it is 10 cm longer than the trolley. He balances it.

Down to the lobby, check out and catch a taxi. Again, the ironing board is 3 cms too wide for the taxi. Squeeze it all in to two taxis and drive to the airport. Walk through the security checks with the ironing board and check in.

“That’ll need to be checked into the oversize items check in counter sir”.

“Oh, you mean this, my ‘board’? OK, I am planning on surfing the Steppe with it”.

“Very good sir”.

Check the ironing board into the oversize items counter and go through to the aircraft.

Arrive at Ulaanbaatar (at the newly renamed Chinggis Khaan Airport) and get to the baggage collection area. Baggage handler carries out the ironing board by hand.

Collect the board and push it along with the other bags out to the car. Board fits the back of this car … it is a bigger car. Board is home now and and happy.

Coopers in Beijing

The shopping centre at Scitech Plaza in Beijing has South Australia’s best product available (forget all that sissy wine stuff). Coopers Sparkling Ale, Pale Ale and Stout are on sale at the supermarket. And don’t the locals look amazed (and respectfully) at you when you twist the top off whilst they are looking for a bottle opener? 😀

Mongolian Restaurant Cars

Mongolian Railways Restaurant Car
Mongolian Railways Restaurant Car

The train journey back from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar was, in many respects, better and more interesting than the journey down (we do, after all, drop from 1316 metres about sea level at Ulaanbaatar to 55 metres about sea level in Beijing).

We got to see the Great Wall of China a third time as the train passed through it. The compartments we were travelling in were a whole lot nicer (well, they were deluxe after all). We got to rock across the Chinese countryside again (and to rock I would suggest a 1 gigabyte MP3 player as there is a lot of countryside to rock across).

However, probably the most interesting thing (well, apart from the Mongolian Immigration folks at Zamin-uud disappearing with my passport for what seemed an eternity), occurred at Erlian. When the bogies were changed on all the carriages from the Chinese Standard Gauge (4 foot, 8 and a half inches between the rails) to the Mongolian Russian Gauge (5 foot between the rails), the restaurant car was also changed.

Gone was the Chinese Railways Restaurant Car, with its sweet and sour pork, with the funny beef dish and so on. Gone was the “greasy spoon” appearance of the car (I swear there was Formica on the tables under the dirty tablecloths). Gone was the Restaurant Car. Replacing it was a Mongolian Railways Restaurant Car.

What a difference the car made. The Chinese menu changed to Mongolian foods. The car was clean but most impressive of all was the decoration. I cannot find the words to describe this. Best I just let the picture speak for this one – click on it for a larger view.

Haggling In China

So I was at Silk Street again today, as were many other foreigners. I have been studying the haggling process there and managed to put it into some perspective.

Essentially, the first rule of haggling here is to have a rough idea of the value of the item you are haggling for. Now somewhere like Silk Street, the value is generally going to be low. Regardless of the press reports (there was one recently that said all 1000 shopkeepers here at Silk Street had said they were no longer stocking copies and only stocking genuine articles … yeah right!) most items for sale there are copies and of reasonable to poor quality.

So, first step is to have a look around. See if you can find something you are interested in that is for sale in three or four shops. This is not so much as to play the shopkeepers off on the price but rather so that there is somewhere else to go to if you fail on the first haggling efforts.

The next step is to assess the value of the item. A good rule of thumb is to walk in and BEFORE asking about sizes or looking too closely, point to one garment and say “how much for this?” You will get a reply about size and trying and quality and how many do you want and so on. Ignore the reply and with a little annoyance in your voice say “look, I haven’t got time for playing around, just tell me the price or I’ll go somewhere else”.

This will normally get you a response of a price. This will normally be presented on a calculator so there are no problems with language and accent. It will normally be presented AFTER you have been told that the full price is something like US $109.00. The shopkeeper (usually a young lady) will then say “but for you, I give you discount, only 380 Yuan” – this is, of course, just under $50.00.

At this point, you best response is to say “that is too expensive” and start to leave. The shopkeeper will normally grab your arm and tell you to wait and ask you for the price you think it is worth. This is the important point as this is the real start of the negotiation. Most people make the mistake of believing that they are beating the price down. However, what is really happening is the shopkeeper is, in fact, beating the price up.

So, how much do you say? A good rule of thumb that I use now (after being taught by one of the best hagglers I have ever seen) is to start at 10-15% of the shops first price. So, in our example here I would, for a pair of trousers, say 40 to 50 Yuan.

Usually the shopkeeper will laugh and say “impossible – this is below my cost” or she will say “dollars?”

A good answer to “dollars” I have found is to say “yes … Hong Kong dollars”.

Shopkeeper will then say “seriously, what is your best price?”

The response to this is is “look, I have not got all day, what is your best price, your pretty lady/handsome man price, your last price – I have not got time for all this”.

At this point she will likely come back with with 320. The response to this is “too high, be serious, what is best price?”

Now she will either show you a price of 250 or stick to 320. At this point say “no, no” look disappointed, wave your hand in a dismissive way and SLOWLY walk off, looking at stuff in the other shops nearby – but keep an ear cocked to the original store.

She will likely grab your arm to hold you and say “OK. OK, what is your best price, no kidding price”.

If you feel a little guilty or uncomfortable then tell her (type it on the calculator) a figure 5 or maybe 10 Yuan more than your first offer – let’s assume it is 60.

She will look hurt, maybe even sound a little angry and tell you it is “too small, below my cost”. That’s OK, just start moving off slowly. She will ask you as you walk away “seriously, what is best price?” Just keep walking slowly and say “60”.

As you move off, she will now start calling “OK, OK, 200. Best price 200”.

Keep walking slowly.

“OK, 150”

Keep walking slowly and looking at other stores.

“100”

“80 – that is best offer”.

At this point you can either accept it or turn to her and pretend not to have heard and say “60 did you say?”

She will say “no”.

Start walking away again. One of two things will happen.You will hear nothing else (so move onto the next store selling the same garments and accept the 80 if you want) or you will hear “OK”. Turn back and then agree the 60.

Now comes the interesting part. Once you have agreed the price, you should buy unless there is some compelling reason not to. Now then, as you have agreed on the price, you can start to check the size. Ask to try the goods on. Most places have a sheet that can be pulled across for modesty … or up to you. Many places may try “cannot try”. This is more usual with tops than trousers so again, up to you. I usually say “no try no buy”, especially for pants.

Try them, buy them, give her the agreed price and you have been successful. Really, somewhere like Silk Street at the moment, you should be paying no more than about 20% of the first quoted price. Note also too that if you want a second item from the shop you have just bought the first item at, you will still need to go back through the whole haggling process.

Remember too, always agree the price BEFORE you try the garment on. This is doubly important as once you have tried the garment, the shopkeeper KNOWS that you will not really walk away from it and it is harder to get a lower price.

Happy haggling!

Beijing Taxis

I have noted before about Mongolian Taxis. I have now had a chance to study Beijing Taxis more thoroughly. So far I have taken 10 taxi trips in Beijing and 3 of them have been dodgy – either the route taken or the fare.

Today was the corker. We got into a taxi outside my hotel which is next to the West Station in Beijing. I asked the taxi driver to drive me to Silk Street. Now this is a distance of about 15 to 20 kilometres maximum. Beijing Taxis today charge CNY 1.60 per kilometre so a charge of 26 to 30 Yuan is appropriate. This driver took me the shortest and most direct route.

When we arrived at Silk Street he switched the meter off very quickly (not that I could see the bloody thing anyway) and printed a receipt. The receipt he gave me was for CNY 109. He also had the temerity to look at me with a hurt look when I called him a big liar. In any case, in double quick time he folded and accepted 30 Yuan.

Then there was the driver a couple of days ago that took me three sides of a square for 65 Yuan and when I pointed out to him that he had taken a really really long way to the Australian Embassy (which is just down the road a little from Silk Street as it would happen), he accepted 30 Yuan.

So, 10 to 15% of the taxi rides in Beijing have been a bit suspect. Seems the biggest problems are in the little red taxis and the black taxis (although to be fair the red taxi that took me back to the hotel tonight was spectacularly good and fair in his charging). I am starting to think that there is a “taxi Mafia” operating outside the hotel here as all the bad taxis have been called over by the guy at the front of the hotel.

My best advice when travelling by taxi in Beijing is:

  1. Check the odometer in the car if you can. The fare should be about 1.5 times the distance travelled (plus or minus a little). This could change to twice soon as the government has approved a price increase.
  2. When the taxi driver flips the “For Hire” sign you should hear the recorded message in Chinese and then English thanking you for using Beijing Taxis.
  3. Look for a clear and easy to see taxi driver license. If the picture is really faded then probably he stopped being licensed a couple of years ago.
  4. Never be afraid to argue the price when it is excessive. In Beijing a foreigner is treated as “fair game” and prices are always excessively high. To give you an idea, when buying a pair of pants today, the price quoted was CNY 380 per pair. The price paid was CNY 60.

Like most places, in Beijing you need to be alert to what is going on around you. This is doubly so with taxis. If you are staying at a 5-star hotel, then the hotel will record the taxi details of the driver that collects you and if you have a problem they will contact the appropriate authorities so even the Chinese are aware of the problem.

China International Travel Service (CITS)

The word “International” is somewhat odd in the title of this company as it is “sort of” international. Mind you, I had to deal with them the other day. I went to the CITS Office upstairs at the Beijing International Hotel to buy a train ticket from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. This went well and when tendering my International VISA Card I was told that 4% would be added to cover the fee. “OK” says I. I am used to that from a number of places now and whilst I would normally use cash as much as possible, I did not have the CNY 999.00 with me at the time.

The staff in the office calculated the 4% as follows:

999 yuan divide by 0.96 equals 1040.63 yuan – which was what was billed to my credit card.

I told the staff “but that is 4.17% added, not 4%”! From my point of view, if you add 4%, then the following calculation is performed:

999 yuan multiplied by 1.04 equals 1038.96 yuan.

They replied that dividing by 0.96 was the way that their Head Office had explained that they do it. Maybe mathematics works differently here.

I did have a few days spare though so thought I would slip down to Hong Kong for a couple of days. There is a train from Beijing to Kowloon in Hong Kong. “Can I buy a ticket for the train to Hong Kong here?” I asked. “No” was the answer. “You need to buy that from either Beijing Station or West Station”.

More on that matter in another blog entry.

So, I returned to the hotel with my train ticket to Ulaanbaatar. There is a CITS office in my hotel as well so I thought I would ask about the train to Hong Kong. After an original “yes we can” that changed to a “no, you need to get that from the train station”. More on the train station later.

“Fly me to Hong Kong” I said. CITS organised my ticket. I whipped out my International VISA Card (see earlier in this entry).

” I am sorry sir, we cannot take international VISA cards here, only local cards – this is our company policy. Can you pay cash please?”

Sigh!

So I went and got a fist full of dollars (sorry, yuan) from the bank and came back and paid for my ticket.

So, one branch of CITS selling train tickets can use international VISA cards adding 4.17% on, whilst another branch of CITS cannot.

Seems China has this only half done. It will be fun when there are a flood of Olympic Visitors in 835 days time to China, especially as VISA is a sponsor (I think) of the Olympics.