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July 20, 2004

the great wall at mutianyu
a blue wall

Guess where I’ve been? Only China, is what!

I went there to visit Jess who was living in Beijing and is now, as we speak, probably hurtling towards Europe across the icy tundra on the trans-Siberian express. Wearing, I would like to think, a (vegetarian) mink coat. To be honest, China is so big and exciting that my head hurts when I try and think what to tell you about it.

I spent the first few days seeing the sights of Beijing (). I hired a bike, which makes getting round Beijing much more fun – partly because the main streets are all outrageously, imposingly wide and long (which makes for boring walking), and partly for the edge that the threat of imminent death lends to sightseeing. There’s something thrilling about being in the middle of a flock of bicycles weaving like fish through traffic on a busy intersection.

I’m not going to do my usual thing of trying to describe how amazing the places I saw were. What can I really say about the Great Wall of China? It’s more than six thousand kilometres long, dammit. What can you say to that? Nothing, because words are very small things, and they would just bounce harmlessly off it, as its builders intended. All I can say is that you should go there without fail, and while you’re at it, the Temple of Heaven is also outrageously spectacular and excellent.

After Beijing, we travelled on the overnight train to Xi’an (). Thirteen hours in ‘Hard Seat’ class – from the ominous name (and my assumptions about trains in developing countries), I expected narrow wooden benches. In fact, ‘Hard Seat’ is very similar to Standard Class on a GNER train from London to Edinburgh. But still, thirteen hours is hard on the buttocks, and also on the mind (chances of sleep are minimal). We whiled away the night eating tomato omelette and fried rice in the buffet car (which is actually a lot better than GNER), and inventing a range of radical new metaphors and similes. There was a lovely community atmosphere in the carriage, and I gathered a crowd by trying to learn to count to ten in Chinese.

…Wait! This is really exciting – I just typed “counting to ten in Chinese” into Google, because I tried writing how the numbers sound to me (“ii, ar, san, su…”), and then thought ‘wait! there must be a proper way of writing them in roman script! I know—I’ll check the internet’. And it turns out that there is only one occurrence of “counting to ten in Chinese” on the whole internet, which makes that a Googlewhack, which is a rare and beautiful thing, even if it does link you into Chapter 14 of a story called ‘The Wedding’, which begins:

Meilin, unlike her cousin and most of her family, had no magic. She could not sense nearby sources of power, nor could she manipulate the elements to aid her in battle. Nevertheless, her spine tingled with a sense of danger.

Right. Since (a) I’ve sidetracked myself, (b) I’ve written more than enough anyway, and (c) it’s past home-time and I need a coffee … I’m going to stop writing now. I’ll tell you about why Xi’an is interesting next time. Goodbye.

Nothing to do with China, this. Or Japan, for that matter. For anyone using Windows XP: I found an interesting little feature yesterday. Try going to control panel > display > appearance, clicking on effects…, and then selecting ‘cleartype’ (from the drop-down menu) as the method to smooth screen fonts. Look at that! A lot of the fonts become a lot more pretty-looking and legible. It’s a bit hit and miss: certain fonts become blurry, but others (like boring old Arial and Times New Roman) become much prettier. That this nice little feature is so tucked away as to be almost impossible to find is so typical of Windows’ bad design (I still can’t get my head round why you press a button labelled ‘Start’ to turn the computer off…), but it’s worth knowing about. Oh, by the way, I think it might only work for lcd screens.

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