Just as the dotcom boom went, well… boom, the chairman of Ali Baba declared that the new policy for the company would be known as B2C. You’ve heard of Ali Baba, of course, but please bear with me. The term Baba means Dad in Arabic, and is widely used in the Mid-East and Pakistan. But Father Ali was catapulted to fame by the Thousand and One Nights, a wonderful book (really a collection of stories) dating back to the days of the caliphate of Harun Al Rashid, in modern-day Baghdad.

For me the caliphate has a special meaning, because it is from here that the Sindhind, the Arab translation of the “Knowledge of the Sun”, an Indian treatise of astronomy from the VIth century, made its way west to Iberia in the XIIIth century. It was books like these, in the hands of astrologers like the Sephardi Jácome of Majorca, and Jehuda Ibn Verga, that paved the way for The India Road.

Add 4 to 100, multiply by 8, add 62000. The result is the approximate value of a circumference when the diameter is 20000.

The algorithm above was proposed by the sages of Pataliputra (now Patna) somewhere around 550 A.D. It gives the value of pi, correct to four decimal places.

The stories of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, as well as those of Aladdin, and Sinbad, are told by King Sharyar’s new bride. The king is bitterly disillusioned with women, and commands his vizier to procure a brand new virgin for him whenever he wishes to marry. I believe marriage here is really a euphemism for sex, and the king is obviously pretty frisky―he quickly runs out of virgins, due to the practice of executing every new bride the day after his wedding. A pretty literal interpretation of the “morning after” syndrome. Sherezade escapes her destiny by telling the king stories that continue the next day, thereby winning a stay of execution. Thus, she may well be the inventor of the soap opera.

During the Iraq War, Ali Baba was also the euphemism for insurgents used by British troops in Basra, when questioning the locals.

Jack Ma started the Chinese Ali Baba as an internet trade emporium, where the world wide web presumably corresponded to the magical “Open Sesame” formula. The company was based in Xiang Gang, known elsewhere as Hong Kong. When things started to go strange, and the buzzword B2B (business to business) began to lose momentum, Mr. Ma declared in an interview that his new strategy was B2C. This shift from business to consumer would be a major change to the business model, but in fact Ali Baba wasn’t changing its approach, only its location. B2C meant Back to China. It was in fact a triple whammy, because it also meant “Back to Central” and “Back to the Coast.”

Ali Baba returned to Hangzhou, a city in Zhejiang province famous for its West Lake and for its broken bridge, which perplexingly, is not broken.

I drove over the Hangzhou Bay bridge yesterday morning, all twenty two and a half miles of it. Ever since the bridge was opened, you can no longer fly from Shanghai to Ningbo, a mere 178 miles away now on the expressway. A sign on the bridge advises motorists not to “drive if fatiguering”, with a suggestive icon of a guy positively slumped over the steering wheel. So I guess I really shouldn’t have been on there, it had been a pretty long day.

 Unfortunately the bridge was covered in haze. There is an environmental cost to the Chinese industrial powerhouse, of which local people are increasingly aware. Certainly some of the young Chinese I spoke with expressed their concern. They had a firm grip on their country’s opportunities but also on its issues, and enlightened me on the views of Premier Wen Jiabao about progress in a gigantic nation. One challenge is that an improvement in China, even if substantial, would be divided by the huge population, now in excess of 1.3 billion, and would mean a small progress for each. On the other hand, a small problem at the individual level would scale up nationally as a very large obstacle.

My Chinese is very poor, and I’ve been doing my best to remember some of the few hundred words I know. The expressions are wonderful, one of my favourites being “Ren Shan Ren Hai”, which in what the locals delightfully term Chinese English, translates as “People Mountain, People Sea”. One other, designed to make sure two parties do not fail to attend a pre-arranged meeting, is: “you no see, you no go. I no see, I no go. No see, no go.” In other words, wait!

A Chinese banquet about to get into gear. A good banquet is always wonderfully chaotic. Afterward, an honored guest, well in his cups (in vino veritas), paid me the ultimate compliment: Your Chinese is very good, but no one can understand anything you say!

Before my flight, news everywhere of the Japanese disaster, and Libya almost forgotten. In London, a wonderful article in Private Eye (this week has a great cover) about the crazy colonel’s son. The LSE graduate has on occasion been seen in a positive light, which I believe to be a misjudgement. The story describes how a British female journalist, and her (also female) team member, arrived to interview Ghadafi Junior in London, to discuss (and presumably dispel) suspicions of political misconduct. On arrival, the two unfortunate ladies were apparently mistaken for a much awaited delegation from a local escort service.

So it’s a delight to wake up today in Ningbo and hear about the UN vote for the no fly zone. Before Benghazi really does go down the toilet.

I’ve been writing this in the early morning, watching the dawn traffic thickening up and the horns increasing in volume, the blare wafting up to the thirty-second floor and penetrating the double glazing.

But I fear I am now struck by ravenous hunger―so it’s time to go. I will leave you with two or three gems from a local review that describes what’s on and around in this small to mid-size city of six million. I assure you that my selection process presented an immense challenge, due to the high standard of competing entries.

Winner in the restaurants category:

They have normal dishes such as beef, seafood, chicken, goose, pig’s brain, and duck tongue. They have more exotic dishes such as kangaroo tail, camel hump, fish stomach, chicken kidney…

Winner in the bars category:

…Open the enormous refrigerator-style door, inside you will find an awesome trashy live show, which consists of a keyboard and guitar accompanied by a drum machine.

Runner up:

This little dive has got a karaoke and sound system on the big screen TV. The owner is a funny, enthusiastic fellow, who speaks some English.

Winner in the clubs category:

The one that looks like a church converted into a fire station. Pumpkin colored chandeliers… and aggressive, blinding lights. A reliably tacky stream of music, a couple hundred people sitting, waving free balloon swords, watching paid dancers text each other on stage.


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