Letter from Beijing

I must apologize. In all probability, this piece is going to be problematic and perhaps even more incoherent than usual. The reason: I left my Viagra in Thessaloniki. As a matter of fact, I forgot to buy them altogether. I have with me pills for all sorts of health conditions, yet not the ones required for my condition: Viagra. Now, let me explain myself. I flew Saturday night from Vienna to Beijing non-stop. It was a pleasant eight-hour-something Austrian Airlines flight, although it was packed full, mainly of Chinese. We arrived around 11 a.m. in the Chinese capital. There is a difference of five hours with Greece, which meant it was dawn for me when we arrived in Beijing at 11.30 p.m. Now, almost anyone who has flown across several time zones has experienced jet lag – that disturbing fatigue, the fogginess and vague discomfort felt by travelers whose body clocks are out of synch with their environment. In my case, it was worse than usual. The reason: I was flying eastward, something I do not do often. Recent studies have found jet lag’s effects to be worse when flying toward the direction of the sunrise, and less severe when flying westward. It seems this is because flying westward lengthens the day, whereas flying eastward shortens it. «Long distance flights with rapid time zone shifts of more than three hours lead to a dissociation of the inner circadian clock to the outer pacer.» So said the Polish physician, an experienced voyager, sitting beside me. «It takes about a day for every time zone you’ve crossed for your rhythm to catch up with you.» He further lectured: «Take me, I had difficulty remembering my room number at the hotel in which I was staying in Shanghai on my previous trip,» he recalled. «I kept forcing myself to make sure I put things in the same spot because otherwise I would have no clue as to how to retrace my steps.» «I am going to follow your advice,» I told him. «Did you bring any Viagra with you?« he inquired. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. «You’ll be amazed how Viagra could be used to help people flying eastward recover from jet lag. No kidding. It’s according to new research. A team of Argentinean scientists found the drug helped hamsters recover up to 50 percent faster from forward shifts in their daily time cycles.» Up until now, I have tried to use small psychological tricks, such as immediately setting my watch forward (or backward) upon boarding the plane. However, I have learned that jet lag simply can’t be completely avoided. One has to pay the price of traveling huge distances in such a short time. The dry and cramped conditions of most airplane cabins don’t help to improve things either. From 41 million users a year ago, China now has more than 56 million and looks set to overtake the USA as the world’s largest broadband market this year. Upon disembarking one notices immediately China’s rampant growth. It was five years ago that I last came here. The country’s economic boom must have helped to create an affluent urban middle class that fills airports. China is suffering from an obvious embarrassment of riches. As the «factory» servicing the world’s consumers, it has, literally, been manufacturing money. At last count, its foreign exchange reserves were more than -1 trillion and growing by -50 million a month. In Beijing, I took another flight to Nanjing, Jiangsu’s capital, with a population of 5.4 million, lying on the lower stretches of the Yangtze River. It has always been one of China’s more pleasant and prosperous cities. I am here for the fifth Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) Journalists’ Colloquium, an event held back-to-back with the ASEM Interfaith Dialogue, which starts today. The ASEF celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Launched on February 15, 1997, in Singapore, the foundation’s mission is to promote greater mutual understanding between the peoples of Asia and Europe through closer intellectual, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Yet more about all that next time. Now back to Nanjing with it’s leafy boulevards, stylish apartment blocks and high office towers among a beautiful landscape of lakes, thickly forested parks and rivers. The city has twice served briefly as the nation’s capital. First in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, where all that famous pottery came from (1368-1644) and then as the capital of the Republic of China in the early years of the 20th century. Far and forbidden, China was the place to go for its story value for many years. Next year’s Beijing’s Olympics has provided a fillip for the market with the government demanding that every household in the big cities receive high-speed Internet access in time for the Games. That is how I now write this piece. It is already clear that the emerging superpower China is going to be for our century what Great Britain was for the 18th and 19th centuries and America was for the 20th. More next time.

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