Brief Gasp for Air in New York

Arrived back in Newark this evening, exhausted after our twenty-day non-stop whirlwind of deserted China. Beijing, Xian, and Yinchuan's air quality control make Mexico City look like an oxygenated mountain health spa retreat. Despite my swollen glands and shooting neck pains from ingesting all the pollution, I have endless materiel to post here. Already I know some of it will fall by the wayside as this job drags me to new destinations, but don't be dismayed if the odd Chinese photo-essay pops up out of sequence over the next couple of weeks.

Already I leave for Europe in four days. This lifestyle is becoming more and more absurd. I've been on the road almost continuously since early August of 06. Thankfully I tidied up the Red Hook homestead before departing and it is a warm and unslovenly environment to return to. After a couple of glasses of Mendoza table wine, utterly unavailable outside of Beijing at any price, and therefore a sensible welcome home drink, I dove straight into bed. At 9AM China time. Welcome me back while you can, for I will be gone soon.

Below, selections from the six-thousand strong Terra-Cotta Army of Dunhuong, arrayed inside a vast quonset hut to protect them from the elements, in this case toxic chemical rain. Clay models buried alongside their emperor, all have different expressions and visages, and may well be a sort of photorealist orgy, with each sculpture based on a real, once-living soldier. All of the figures you see here are life-size.


Reading: The Last Opium Den by Nick Tosches

That desired literary condition of reading in the place and in the moment has been frustratingly difficult on my current gig. Last year, in Antarctica for months on end, I had the luxury of time to read more than most any rational person would want to of the literature of polar exploration. Now, jetting from continent to continent with only a week here, a fortnight there, I've become geographically dislocated from my reading; I can't keep up with the frantic traveling. From a literary point of view I'm still making my way across Chile with Sara Wheeler's Travels in a Thin Country. Since actually being there an astonishingly long eight weeks ago, working on Generation Earth has had me back to Antarctica, in Argentina, on the reefs off of Belize, and now in inner Mongolia, where the only thing that resonates in Wheeler's book is her descriptions of the bone-dry lands in the north of Chile. "You end up driving around a lot in the desert," she writes. "You have to. Distances between anything except sand are long, and when you do get somewhere, nothing happens." She observes that the temperature drops so fast after sunset that one can imagine watching the mercury fall in the thermometer. After a twelve-hour kidney-churning drive through the lunar wastes of the southern Gobi between Jiu Quan and Ejina this speaks to me.

The eco-team convoy on pee-break somewhere in the wastes of the Gobi, one of three twelve-plus-hour drives we endured on this leg of our video shoot. Miles and miles and miles, and not another person or a camel in sight. Where is China hiding its 1.2 billion people?

I considered bringing Tiziano Terzani's Behind the Forbidden Door with me, removing it from my carry-on only moments before heading out the door of the Red Hook homestead in a fit of paranoia. Ignorant of just how wide open the gates of this historically xenophobic and introspective superpower have been blown open in the last fifteen years, I imagined myself pulled aside and strip-searched, my books burned, myself marked as a subversive at the customs gate from the very first moment on Chinese soil. Instead we strolled into the country without so much as a glance being cast at our fifty-odd bits of film-related luggage--cases and cases of cameras, batteries, walkie-talkies, tripods, radio transmitters, microphones and what-not. Terzani, whose book was indeed banned in China and himself ejected in the 1980s, would have slid right through. After my friend Zoe passed on his A Fortune Teller Told Me down in McMurdo I bought all his other books. They are still waiting patiently at home on the shelves.

Instead I brought The Last Opium Den by Nick Tosches, assuming it to be in some way about China and especially hoping that its brevity might enable me to play geographic catch-up in my reading. So short that it may only be called a book because it is hardbound and has a dust jacket, this gift from my very good friend K_____ has also languished unread on my bookcase for years, although I know that my friend, himself a sort of George Plimpton of exotic drug experiences, considers it a masterpiece of narco-reportage.

Tosches sets out in search of an authentic opium-smoking experience, hobnobbing with Hong-Kong hooligans, Lao lowlifes, Viet veterans, Thai touts and Cambodian contrabandeers. He envisions himself lounging on a comfortable velvet chaise being attended to by divine asiatic nymphs in silk brocade, and imagines opium as a godly and intellectual habit, an ancient way of life destroyed by the faster cheaper deadlier road to oblivion offered by its bastard child, heroin.

Opium, it turns out, is a difficult thing to find. In New York nobody knows of it--among other things Tosches essay is a brief but fascinating history of the drug, and he finds that the last den was busted in 1957. Tosches goes to Hong-Kong, recently swallowed up by China. There nothing seems to be unavailable. Nonetheless no opium is to be had amongst the sex-slavers and bulk H dealers he apparently has no difficulty meeting. Even these last romantic charms of the city Tosches sees disappearing in the new Hong-Kong. "Communism," he writes, "is a cement mixer that spews forth drab and indistinguishable gray concrete. Wherever Communism comes, everything--the physical architecture of the place, then its soul--turns drab and gray, and in its weakness crumbles to a drabness and a grayness uglier and grimmer by far." As our train through north-central China rolled on for twenty-four hours through a brown and rocky plain, a desolation carved by dry rivulets and jeep trails to nowhere, once in a great while passing the occasional factory, placed in the middle of nothing, spewing soot into the air, this seemed a quite perfect description. Little did Tosches know that the rabid shoot-the-prisoners capitalism of Hong-Kong would devour China whole, while the great red and yellow menace seems to have done nothing to even try and bury the former colony in its ubiquitous gray cement sludge.

Cameraman Will Edwards considers the meaning of life during a rest stop.

Tosches moves on to Thailand, where the nymphs are available, but not the elusive buzz. There are "more than two hundred Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Thailand, not a single opium den." (The former now abound in Beijing and Xian as well, in only the best of neighborhoods).

There are some delightful snippets thrown in as Tosches, with admirable single-mindedness, criss-crosses south-east asia on his quest. One of my favorites is a putative etymology for the word "hip," or hipster, as in cool, with-it, and down. This slang may have reached us, he writes, via opium smoking, during which one reclines, sideways, like Caesar eating peeled grapes, and lies on one's hip. "Hip" having therefore become a way of self-identifying as a user.

In Cambodia, he finally scores, but only when introduced to a career addict. Still there is no den. Tosches gets high nonetheless. Since nothing is more dull than someone rhapsodically yammering on recounting their drug experiences, except possibly the company of those nimrods who chronically recite bits from Monty Python, I am thankful that Tosches spares us the details of his journey to the other side. "You want enlightenment? Go get it yourself," he writes.

At last, in an Indochinese city and even country he declines to name, the intrepid reporter tracks down an opium den, the last of them, he proposes, only to find that its squalor, pathos and lack of opulence rivals that conjured up by thoughts of a crack-house more than it does his romantic notion of a moody, velvety health-spa of the mind. Naturally, he gets high again anyway and proclaims it glorious.

Gobi Rorschach Test

I'm back in civilization, if that is an appropriate description of modern China, after five days in the desert. The Chinese call the south central Gobi the sand sea, and it is one of the most spectacular landscapes I have ever encountered. Endless waves of dunes protect pocket lakes which, having no outlet, are as saline as the Dead Sea. Years of evaporation have concentrated naturally occurring salts within them. Reed-fringed and overgrazed by the goat and camels of the once-nomadic yurt-dwelling Mongols, the lakes, on a still morning, are as enormous mirrors unrolled on the sands.


Yearning for a yurt of my own

A few years ago, while researching alternative housing, I spent quite a bit of time online looking into yurts. These traditional mongol dwellings are ideally suited to the nomadic lifestyle to which I seem, more or less by default, to subscribe. Warm, portable, comparatively spacious and cheap, yurts have a certain hippy appeal, especially in the Pacific northwest, where, to judge by the blogosphere, quantities of patchouli-burning yurt-dwellers are to be found living in harmony with nature. I imagined myself buying a small patch of upstate meadow and avoiding pernicious local building codes by erecting a yurt of my own. They are, after all, nothing much more than a glorified tent. Now that I've actually been inside a yurt this seems like an even better idea, one, perhaps, to be revisited.

Ejina, here in inner mongolia, is the base for visiting the "Black City," the melted ruins of a Great Wall era desert outpost. The site, a walled city that was made of unfired clay, is an eery and rarely visited compound about an hour's drive out into the southern Gobi. Before clambering up a massive dune to the top of the city wall, we visited the lone guardian, a yurt-dwelling Mongol who invited us into his cosy spot. What I first noticed is how roomy the perfectly round space seemed, and how natural a shape the structure provided for socializing. Around the perimeter were two sofa-cum-daybeds, one presumably serving as an actual bed at night, and a variety of armchairs. The floor was dirt. A low woodstove occupied the place of honor in the dead center. Our man here told us through a translator that he can erect his six panel yurt in forty five minutes, although I suspect this would require assistance.

As the true nomadic lifestyles of the world have fallen into decline so too have the traditional ways of the Mongol camel herder. More common today than the archetypal felt yurt are permanent bricks-and-mortar (or, more likely, cinder-block and stucco) yurts like this one. I particularly like the glass atrium.

The apex of the yurt, its defining structural characteristic, and its only source of natural light, is a great ring into which the many, many radial roof supports are fitted. This itself is supported by two poles, in this case a wooden post on the left and an old length of metal angle, perhaps recycled from an abandoned bed frame, on the right. towards the center is the chimney for the wood stove. The windward side of the hole is covered over with felt; the downwind side is screened to keep out desert flies. Electric power is supplied by a small jury-rigged windmill outside; this yurt has a television, cell-phone charger, and the compact flourescent fixture seen here dangling from the central ring.

One downside to the yurt is the wall height, which is only a meter and a half or so, maximum. Entry and exit is therefore via a small, low doorway, the only other solid structural element of the building. This is a sort of Ozark or Appalachian style yurt: note the decrepit armchair on the front porch.

The walls of a yurt are made of layers of fabric; thick one or two centimeter felt on the exterior for insulation, opulent textured fabrics and carpets on the interior.
Yurts are measured by the number of lattice panels used to create their diameter, with most using either six, for a small yurt, or eight, for one rather larger. These fold down for transport in accordion fashion, like those wooden gates used to prevent small children from falling down stairs or entering unauthorized rooms. The roof supports sit in the cross-pieces formed when these lattice panels are unfolded, pressing down on them and thereby maintaining the integrity of the structure. The panels are bent gently into an inward curve, together forming the round wall.
Personal buddhist shrine in the Black City guardian's yurt, complete with fake Garfield alarm clock.

Decorative yurt doorway.
I hadn't expected a yurt to be so cosy. As Will Edwards, our camerman, put it, "I love wooden buildings for their warmth, and a fabric building, that's just a whole other level." The thick felt walls totally block the raging desert winds, even if during duststorms a sprinkling of sand does waft down through the shaft of sunlight coming through the roof. Inside the yurt it was positively dozy, the carpeted walls and comfy couches urging one to consider nothing more taxing than a long afternoon nap.


It's a small world, full of Chinamen and Antarcticians

One of the aspects of the McMurdo lifestyle often described by its chronic subscribers is that one can never be quite sure when an ice person is going to crop up again in life. Invite someone from the normal world to stop by and visit next time they are passing through your state and, although they just might, they probably won't, I remember someone saying. But invite someone you met on the ice of Antarctica and sooner or later they are going to turn up. They are everywhere, and may turn up anywhere.

This afternoon, after surreptitiously filming the ecoteam wandering through Beijing's Forbidden City, we headed off to the Silk St. market, hundreds of thousands of square feet of multi-level shopping emporium that are the epicenter of Beijing knockoff sales. Here the vast and expensive marketing and advertising campaigns of all the world's famous brand names get their comeuppance. Everything from fresh-off-the-loading-dock Diesel jeans to Ray-Ban sunglasses stamped "made in USA" to never-swung Callaway golf clubs is available for pennies on the dollar of its billboard-bloated retail price. There were hot and trendy brands I had never even heard of, copied down to the last stitch. Or it may be that they have not even been copied, just fallen off the truck on the route west.

So complete is the collection of counterfeits on offer that I found, amongst the North Face all conditions gear and the Mountain Hardware fleece jackets, a pile of standard Antarctica issue "Canada Goose" three-quarter length snorkel parkas, the legendary "Big Red" worn by everyone at McMurdo Station, complete with "arctic" embroidered patches.

I hadn't seen a Big Red since I relinquished my kerosene soot and funk impregnated triple XL coat to the Clothing Distribution Center at Christchurch, New Zealand last December 16th, and here, in balmy Beijing, was a perfect copy, down to the coyote-fur trim around the hood. These jackets cost about $400 and are something like wearing a sleeping bag. I thought about buying one for Anne as a joke; she passionately hated hers on the grounds of claustrophobia, and she refused to wear it except when obliged to, on helicopter flights. In seconds the asking price for this carbon copy dropped from 860 Yuan, a bit more than $100, to 200 Yuan. As I walked away, the salesgirl was desperately splashing water onto the pile of coats to demonstrate their waterproofness.

We headed back down into the subway, some bearing bundles of bogus booty. Then, in the crush of passengers jostling to board the train, I spotted a familiar face. There are some 1.2 billion Chinese in China, of whom I know personally, none. Amongst them, elbowing his way onto the train beside me, was Georg Bakker, the McMurdo deejay and medical clinician with whom I had spent a pleasant October Sunday morning rifling through the ancient armed forces radio network salsa archive. My mind was blown.

Staggered by the coincidence, we renewed our aquaintance over the next three subway stops while the rest of the ecoteam shopping excursion looked on in amazement; an hour later we were jawing on the phone from one hotel to the other. Then Georg kindly schlepped it back into center city Beijing. We spent the evening being served cold Tsingdaos by a terrifying giant of a man, a gentle slab-faced Mongol with a few battered square formica tables set up on the sidewalk in front of his shop and some towering piles of sesame and red bean buns.

Communism, we agreed, about midnight, is an archaic, extinct construct, a future theme park theme. Already Mao's little red book is just another tourist knick-knack hawked in Tiananmen Square along with kites and facsimiles of old posters that feature workers joyfully waving their shovels in the air, even these being reproductions and reissues for the tourist trade.

Georg should by now be back in Vermont. I'm in Dunhuong, preparing to trek through the outskirts of the Gobi. But I'm looking forward to meeting him again.

Photo: Night parking lot watchman at the Grand Hotel Beijing, courtesy Georg Bakker

The Quaalude of Poultry

Peking Duck in Peking, at Quanjude


Is Boomeranging a Symptom of Premature Senility?

The term "to boomerang" is, as far as I know, unique to McMurdo Station, Antarctica aviation. It refers to a flight south from CHC (Cheech, or Christchurch, New Zealand) which is turned back in mid-route when the weather ahead makes it impossible to reach the Antarctic continent and land safely. Legend speaks of undoubtedly apocryphal episodes involving would-be ice visitors being backed up for weeks at a time in Christchurch as one flight after another fails to touch down in the face of the incessant southerly gales.

Today I boomeranged in a far less romantic fashion. After schlepping it from Brooklyn to Newark Airport for a ghastly non-stop flight to Beijing on the dreaded Continental Airlines I made my way to the international check-in desk expecting to see the entire Gen-Earth team lounging on the linoleum with our usual pyramid of luggage. Nobody to be seen anywhere. Thank God for mobile phones. I called Josh, our stellar production manager.

"Hey Rich, how's it going?"

"Good, man. Just wondering where you are. I'm at international check-in."

"You're a little early."

"I thought we said ten."

"Yeah, ten. On the eleventh."

"You're joking."

"We've always been leaving on the eleventh."

"Well, what day is today?"

"The tenth. As in Tuesday."

See you tomorrow, then."

But on the upside the rugs are already vacuumed, the fridge emptied of all perishables, the errands run, the bags packed. So I have a completely free day with absolutely no obligations. I wasn't in that much of a hurry to get to inner mongolia anyway.


Top Ten Number One Google Search Strings

In my ongoing quest to burn as much jet fuel as possible during the making of an environmentally sensitive documentary series I leave shortly for inner mongolia. My short stay in New York has been quiet except for some excellent news which it may, unfortunately, be a bit premature to share. Having bled antarctica dry I have little to report, so this seems a perfect opportunity to indulge in the narcissism that plagues all bloggers, who sit typing away and blasting missives off into the void of the web.

Like all such self-involved bloggers, I have, buried in the background code of antarcticiana, a counter to collect data on the vast multitudes of visitors who grace these pages. These statistics I check with an unhealthy obsessiveness. Beyond a simple count of the multitudes, all sorts of fascinating information is to be had from parsing the figures. (I have so far had visitors from 47 countries, for instance). Most interesting, or perhaps most amusing, is that my counter provides a referral url. Although many good friends have links to antarcticiana, the vast majority of these referrals come from Google. I am in a position to tell you, from my personal statistical analysis, that a maximum of 1% of internet searches are done on all other search engines combined. With a 99% market share, no wonder Google stock is up in the stratosphere despite the dot com bomb.

Most of those who are looking for me find me by searching for "brooklynite on the ice," "brooklyn antarctica," "frozen richard," and so on. But it is those who stumble upon these pages by accident who provide the most interesting food for thought. By far the next most common search which reaches me is one for "unused band names." At least once a day some poor uncreative musician desperate for a catchy name for their power trio washes up here, only to discover that my solution to their dilemma was "The Cicada Husk Trilogy." In some cases the information people hope to obtain with their search is obvious; in others I am left scratching my head wondering what they could possibly have wished to uncover with their selection of terms. In many the combinations of words seem odd and improbable, until I remember that I must have used something resembling them, for if not the search would not have found me. Sometimes I remember immediately what it was that I wrote to seduce Google into heading my way, but in others I'm tempted to repeat the search.

The following selection is guaranteed accurate to the letter. In most cases antarcticiana was the #1 hit for the search at the time it appeared in my statistics, and in all cases was in the top ten of returned results. Enjoy, and if any of you are responsible for any of these searches, my apologies for exposing you.

"fresh ox gall" live

is there anything good in antarctica

pierced fanny

brain teaser if a boulder is taken out of a canoe, does the water level rise or fall?

superglue on hands and treatment

People who have survived deserted islands

guidi boots brad pitt

fish names slime head toothfish

female armpit stains photos

arctic bamboo

how many feet does a cassowary have

horrible weather of march 2007

fly agaric christmas cards eBay

"black rock" herb erection aid

spine tailed iguana

what is the 'Pecten'?

festooned means

Belize Politician caught by candid camera.

literary coincidences

deep in between thighs photo

picture + "mobile home on Stilts"

farthest reach of penguins


Pass the Hoosh Please, Captain Worsley

Although on this last trip to Antarctica we were only "on the continent" for some three days, this blog is, after all, named antarcticiana, so bear with me as I squeeze as much mileage as possible out of the whole experience. And despite its flatulent length, that last Worsley entry ended rather abruptly, I thought. His book contains one juicy quotable morsel of rugged adventure after another and I just had to share as much as possible. You really should just buy the book for yourself and save me quoting it every time I feel the need to serve up another dollop of Antarctic peril. Until that happens, however, you will have to put up with it.

What passes for Hoosh on board the Alexey Maryshev. Believe it or not, after a week of this constant gourment overload we were begging for beef jerky and pop-tarts.

On each and every one of the great Antarctic expeditions on which English was the primary language spoken, the joy of mealtime in the frozen wastes of the deep south were summoned with one word, bellowed out by the cook: "Hoosh!" It is always the cry of "Hoosh" that brings the men running for their hot sustenance. Hoosh? Why, in the Antarctic literature in general, is "hoosh" a synonym for food? Is this archaic slang? Transplanted navalese, like the army's "grub"? An onomatopoeia derived from the hissing of a Primus stove? Until I read Shackleton's Boat Journey I was mystified, but Worsley provides an explanation. "Hoosh," he writes, "what a joyous sound that word had for us. A corruption of a North American Indian word 'hooch,' meaning a drink, but now used in the form "hoosh" for a sloppy food that can be consumed by drinking--not necessarily by inhaling."

Although all descriptions of what is actually in it sound revolting to anyone who has not spent their day freezing near to death, pulling a sledge of provisions over a glacier, or repairing a rowboat on an ice-strewn beach, whipped by stinging salt-slush, the word hoosh is used with reverence and savor in so many explorers accounts that one almost wishes one could taste some of the life-giving manna.

In Worsley's account hoosh is any pot of hot and soupy stuff. He lists the principal ingredients of their party's hoosh, which, he adds, had wonderful antiscorbutic properties: lard, oatmeal, beef protein, vegetable protein, salt and sugar. "It had the consistency of a new cheese and a yellow-brown color, but looked, when boiled with water, like thick pea soup. In cooking, the aroma of this ambrosia rose as incense to the gods. Any one of us would cheerfully have murdered a Chinaman for a pound of it. With a gill of Johnnie Walker it would have made a noble libation to Bacchus."

But supplies often ran thin, or out, and to the carefully prepared hoosh mixture was added any of a host of other ingredients that happened by: milk powder, penguin liver, butter, a shot of sherry, snow, seal blubber, pemmican, cutlet of skua, Xavier Mertz, baby albatross, elephant seal, pack dog, and old leather boots.

The intrepid crew working up an appetite on the "monkey deck."
photo: Alejandro de Onis