Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Yurt Warming

Inner Mongolia is a vast, uncompromising plain, limitless and rolling, punctuated sporadically by large, dusty handfuls of neon and concrete. In fact, this is one location that lived up surprisingly well to my expectations, which is rare. 

Many of China’s autonomous regions are characterized by an alternating succession of ghettoes, central cities populated predominantly by Han Chinese, and preposterously conceived minority themed tourist traps. A common opportunity at these carnivals is the prospect of dressing up in exaggerated minority costumes and posing for expensive laminated pictures. The robes are without exception garish, trimmed with gilt and fur, the inevitable  headdresses wobbly, spangled, ridiculously festooned.

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Now THIS is a vaCAtion!!!!

This glamorization of Minority sub-culture is typical of the prevailing Han philosophy regarding its ethnic “younger brothers,” ethnic minorities are nonthreatening, joyful, colorful, exotic and sexy. Few representations of Chinese ethnic groups include virile adult males, and instead focus on images of dancing women and children.


here to serve you (something that tastes god awful).

Similarly, minority themed “destinations” are sanitized facsimiles of reality, polished and fully equipped with bathhouses and Karaoke bars.


Row upon row of “yurt hotels” constructed for occupation by Han Chinese tourists. Although I actually love the fairy tale carriage look of these dwellings, they are neither traditional nor authentic. There is, actually, a karaoke bar to the right.


We decided we wanted to experience something slightly less obnoxious, something smacking less of exploitation. This dude on the train who fell asleep on Fred (the basis of many lasting friendships in Mongolia) had a good friend whose family farmed sheep in the middle of nowhere, and happened to have a couple yurts just lying around that he would be happy to rent to us for about as much money as your average hotel room.  When I mentioned we wanted something with less exploitation, obviously I was not referring to the reciprocal. At least we wouldn’t be living in a school of excitable vacationing Beijing tourists getting plastered on Heineken and photographing the waitress.


At least.

The plain stretched for an eternity, broken by deteriorating mud shacks and the occasional telephone pole. The family lives in a long mud house with four rooms end to end, which they share with another family. And about 50 sheep. Our hostess looked truly alarmed when I asked about a bathroom. Gesturing helplessly, she said, “just find a place where nobody is.”


Todo lo que ves es bano.

Our yurt was a beauty; perched on a platform at the base of a dry slope and surrounded by smooth stepping stones and sand, it rose solidly, if not majestically, from a scrubby field of still dry grass. The sides were made of sheets inside and thick canvas outside, both of which could be rolled up and pinned to allow for air circulation during the suffocating heat of the day, and pinned down to keep  various nocturnal intruders out (or in, as the case may be). The inside is composed of two distinct sections. The entrance comprehends about a quarter of the circular tent, floored in smooth concrete, affording you plenty of room to remove your dusty shoes. The rest of the tent is a raised padded platform with a small table, where you both eat and sleep.


Established in our new home, we were served a traditional Mongolian meal, which was about three pounds of boiled mutton and hot water to drink. We were also treated to a taste of traditional Mongolian “fermented horse milk wine,” which, from the taste, renders it impossible to determine which region of the horse produced it.

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No one claimed Mongolia was renowned for their cuisine.

During the golden age of Mongolia, when Kubla Khan’s hordes were conquering everything from Korea to Germany, long distance messengers and warriors on urgent missions would remain on horseback for weeks on end, subsiding on blood sucked from small wounds they would incise on their horses’ necks. From such roots do not grow a forest of culinary delights. We sucked it up and gnawed meekly at our greasy fare.


There’s probably something ironic and obscene about watching your dinner eat dinner while you’re eating dinner, but I don’t want to talk about it.

After dinner, we sat on the stoop outside our yurt and watched the horizon deepen in hue as the sun sank. The brief, soft breeze whistled eerily over the tops of our beer bottles. The steppe is silent, hot and dry, rasped by the circuitous progressions of enormous grasshoppers that alternately sputter like the engine of a Qing dynasty jalopy and click; loudly, arhythmically, strangely.

We rented some horses from our host and rode out into the grasslands as the sun set.



The endlessness of the plains is daunting; it’s inexplicable to me that a people with seemingly endless horizons could ever be motivated to conceive of lands farther away, let alone disseminate themselves so viciously and effectively. It’s difficult to imagine being anything other than phlegmatic and indolent on a diet of six pounds of boiled mutton a day and nothing to look at. Then again, we only stayed one night. It’s distinctly possible that by the end of a week, I would have developed a host of horde-like symptoms and massacred Fred and all the sheep.

Our inability to manufacture any violent tendencies or original thought made it difficult to extol the country the way it deserved, and we failed to write a new anthem about inner Mongolia, owing to the profound absence of any majestic purple mountains or amber waves of anything, which just goes to show how poorly equipped our national anthem is for adaptation to other countries.  “Above the dearthful plain” doesn’t quite have the desired ring to it. Also the spell check informs me that “dearthful” does not yet appear to be a word, so I suppose that even in our post-prandial meat stupor we invented something.

The night was inky black, the smell of the yurt a musty, grassy odor mingled with the oily scent of mutton, leather and sunscreen. The insects did not subside, and the moon shone like high beams through the circular aperture of the conical ceiling.  We fell into strange sleep, the steppe lulling us with the soft murmurs of sleeping sheep and the alien applause of the grasshoppers.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cooking with Auntie

I had a Chinese cooking lesson my first week in Nanjing, from a women who asked me to call her “Auntie.” Auntie began by taking me with her to the outdoor market, where, she explained, you can buy much fresher vegetables, and better quality meat than are available at the larger chain complexes.

Chinese markets are what constitute the nightmares of health inspectors. Grim legions of flies mince spastically across the fleshy cut surfaces of melons, the floor is slick with a rancid mix of fish chum, animal blood and vegetable detritus, meat sits on the chopping block in the stifling heat. Hundreds of people shove and chatter, piercing the air with sharp wails of dismay at high prices, anemic string beans, runty eel. Auntie eyed us nervously through the thick lenses of her glasses. “Maybe you won’t like it,” she said, glancing at a bucket holding what looked like a collection of snot on a ventilator. “ It’s kind of dirty.”


Crowded and noisy, the outdoor market would be hideously over-stimulating, were it not for the placid  slabs of cool tofu, the crisp colors of the heaped produce. The effect is both calming and opulent.  Regardless of the heady press taking all the oxygen in the place, it would be ridiculous to feel panic or anxiety in the face of the sculpted, stolid majesty of a block of tofu.  The contingency is so remote as to be unthinkable. IMG_1244

If you tried to freak out in front of this it would just quiver with disapproval.

Auntie weighed an eggplant speculatively. Did we have these in America? She asked. Her eyes squinted at me, expectant.


My favorite part of this picture is the beer bottle. Chinese people have no ridiculous illusions about the propriety of getting housed in a grocery store.

There is little movement in the thick air, and it is often necessary to dodge the assaults of some of the more aggressive wares, which escape from plastic buckets and crawl impotently around the stalls, viciously pinching exposed heels and toes.


Auntie saw one of these demons crawling on the floor and scooped it up. “Since he escaped, we don’t have to pay for him,” she explained, presenting it to me in a baggie. My precious pet.

We walked out of the market, harassed, yet triumphant, Auntie bearing a canvas bag full of things I only vaguely recognized, and some I had never even heard of.   I pointed to a bag of yellow tubes. “What did she say that was?” I asked Fred, who was acting as translator. Auntie delivered a lengthy response, which my brother translated laconically as “Pig’s Asshole.” Oooh.

Auntie is a Chinese teacher at a Nanjing high school, who lives in a tiny apartment filled with living things. Plants and Goldfish bowls line the walls,  two white Pekingese dogs hurtle madly through the cramped space, begging and whining.  Small green turtles paw slowly at the side of an aquarium. Auntie’s grandmother, a deaf powerhouse of ninety three, mumbles graciously from her perch next to the television, which plays incessant music videos from 2002 and which she complacently ignores.  The three rooms also hold Auntie’s daughter and her boyfriend.

“Before we can begin to cook,” quoth Auntie, appearing in the living room with a glass of tea and a pair of safety scissors, “We must prepare our ingredients!” She appraised me doubtfully. “Can you trim shrimp?”

It had never actually occurred to me that shrimp might need pruning. But after this experience I can assure you that they have an inconvenient amount of legs, which twitch galvanically even after the heads are removed, and which litter the space around you like billions of grisly filaments.


 here I pollard some shrimp. In case you are interested, Great Granny’s shirt reads, “Tibet is, was, and always will be a part of China!”

One of the foods I was introduced to is the thousand year old egg sausage. Thousand year old eggs are delicious, yet extremely complicated and time consuming to make, and so even seasoned cooks like Auntie prefer to buy them. When you are going to be using a lot, or cooking for a large number of people, it is inconvenient to shell so many, and so you simply buy an amalgam paste of thousand year old egg. The color is alarming; The loaf itself is a bluish gray, and the consistency, though much like that of a hardboiled egg, is a little perturbing when paired with the pigment. But once you slice it, it is almost dazzling, like a stained glass window. The albumin becomes transparent, and the yolks form a mosaic pattern.

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Auntie sliced up the pig intestine and cut thin strips of  a limp yellow fish.


When everything was chopped, gutted, trimmed, sliced and peeled, we got down to the business of cooking. Aside from the preparation, Auntie told me, cooking Chinese food is extremely simple, and almost the same in every recipe.  Here are some instructions I received from Auntie.

“First you heat the pan. Then, you add oil to the pan. Not too much oil! Perhaps a little more. A little more? Add some more  - You don’t understand what I’m saying, do you?”

“Basic Chinese cooking uses three spices, salt, sugar and MSG. MSG tastes terrible on its own! No, don’t taste it! See, I told you it was terrible.”

“Wow, you learned very quickly to turn the stove on! You are a very fast learner.”



Auntie’s kitchen is about three square feet. Seriously. To the left of the stove is about a foot of counter space, and a sink. It makes it very difficult to cram three or four people in at once, but we prevailed.


Auntie’s kitchen is also extremely hot.


I made all this! Above, clockwise: Tomatoes with sugar (I know.) Hong Shao Rou (“red cooked meat”) Xian Cai (Chinese greens with garlic) Sigua egg and mao dou beans, chopped tofu,  fish, youbao shrimp, potatoes and green pepper,  pig intestine, 1000 year old eggs.


We didn’t leave much uneaten. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

Let’s start this off RIGHT!

Shanghai is the largest city on China’s populous east coast. It rose meteorically from humble roots as a grimy fishing village on the mouth of the Yangtze, and now boasts about 20 million denizens, and is currently the host of the 2010 world expo. Most importantly, however, is the fact that in 1882, Shanghai initiated the world’s first ever large scale
Prostitutes have long held a special place in the glonous historical, economic and cultural development of China, and remain an integral element of China’s reality today. In a recent poll by magazine Insight China, it was discovered that people generally found prostitutes more trustworthy than the government.
Prostitution was technically made illegal in China in 1991, but remains one of the most highly taxed professions in the country.  Experts estimate from 10 to 20 million prostitutes currently working in China. That’s almost one whole hooker for every fifty people! 
Founded locally in 1870, the beauty pageant soon became Shanghai’s social event of the year, attracting more celebrities than the National Opera house.  Judges were highly prestigious members of the community such as newspaper editors and politicians.
The women were judged by myriad criteria, some as obvious as looks, manner, and charm. However, the truly competitive edge was given to those who could sing, dance, and play chess.  Each contestant was also evaluated for her ability to interact harmoniously with her customers, and the quality of her calligraphy.
The dude:prostitute ratio is actually much higher than depicted above.
I like to think that the winners got trophies, or at least a sticker to paste up in their windows. Then again, I’m not sure I would be overjoyed to find out that my companion was only a runner-up. “Third Place Miss Solicitation Shanghai 1887” is not really a title that inspires confidence.
Overall, prostitution was considered an honorable profession until the Communist party came to power in 1940 and declared it an amoral relict of the corruption of the previous republic. Slowly, the party began to crack down on the practice, closing down numerous brothels and illegitimate hair salons. My favorite part about this entire process is that the moral grounds upon which prostitution was objected to had absolutely NOTHING to do with the aspects of degradation and misogyny generally associated with the act, but instead focused on the depravity of third party earnings.
Party efforts to abolish prostitution economically came to a head in 1948, when a bunch of hookers in Shanghai actually had a revolution to protest the outrageous taxation their earnings were subject to.  It was not effective.
The good old days.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Perhaps you didn’t know

But I have a real fixation with living things that light up.  Whether it’s plant or animal, anything that uses an organic process to produce that eerie glow is just fine with me. And at the most basic level, the process is pretty much the same.

The pigment Luciferin  is the standard, light producing molecule, which interacts with the protein complex luciferase and oxygen to produce a brief, calculated flash, or a sustained glow.


originally I wanted this to be my tattoo but please imagine explaining THAT to a dude in Thailand while you’re on a bender. That would have been improvident.

Although this process uses energy from various sources, such as nitric oxide or photosynthesis, the reaction does not generate significant heat, separating it from phosphorescence, immolation or combustion.  This is why people in areas with bioluminescent organisms do not have to pay higher insurance premiums. When a firefly burns down your house, it is just considered plain arson.

combustion bleak house


There are a number of common explanations for the evolution of a phenomenon this striking. Fireflies and glow worms use rhythmic arbitrary sequences of emission to attract mates and prey, and to delineate the boundaries of territory.  It’s estimated that about 90% of deep sea marine life use bioluminescence for a wide variety of pedestrian reasons, such as seducing credulous food, frightening predators, or distracting from the existence of those hideous lantern jaws that are apparently mandatory for everything below 30,000 feet.

In comparison, anything you read about the dinoflagellates of Puerto Rico is likely to sound pretty slanderous, since these micro-organisms are basically nature’s favorite party trick, the light-up asshole. In a way I think this assessment is pretty harsh, since it’s never been conclusively admitted by a dinoflagellate that this is the case, but the evidence is as follows:

Dinoflagellates emit light as a result of movement. The agitation of currents, swimming fish, or the raspy foul breath of a psychotic serial microbe murderer cause them to light up, exuding a radiant halo three times the size of the organism. My personal interpretation of this would be that it intimidates would-be predators, which frankly I can identify with because that is not a characteristic I want to see manifested in my cheerios. HOWEVER, the official explanation of the bioluminescent adaptation is that it attracts bigger predators which will then consume the impending threat. These guys are pretty much the world’s most pernicious stool pigeons. This constitutional failing, however, does not detract from the overall experience of mosquito bay on Vieques Island.

Mosquito bay (COMPLETE APTONYM) is maintained as the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay by mere fortuitous concatenation, and the pusillanimity of early Spanish explorers.

The bay is ringed by the ubiquitous red mangrove, the roots of which release vitamin B12 into the water, and the leaves of which contribute vitamin E as they rot, both necessary nutrients for dinoflagellates.  The salination of Mosquito bay is 40% higher, or 3 times saltier than the ocean. Speedboats with their fatal fluorocarbons are not allowed in the bay. And, last but certainly not least in terms of contributing factors (though perhaps not in terms of character) come the oafish parade of superstitious, cowardly pukes who thought that the devil was possessing just this part of the ocean, which is entirely reasonable, and thus walled it off, allowing the concentration of luminous dinoflagellates to increase prodigiously. Hats off to you chumps!

Mosquito bay in the daylight is a dank swamp surrounding drab, stagnant water. At night, the twisted trunks of the red mangroves loom strangely from the darkness, lowering the ceiling of sultry air that presses into your forehead. The persistent whine of insects is maddening, and the lifejackets are damp and itchy. The mud has a sulfurous smell that intensifies as subdued tour groups squelch around in the watery beams of low powered headlights, struggling to get astride plastic kayaks before the midges chew through their ankles.

Once out of the dampening clutch of the mangroves, the air cools, the clean smell of salt replaces the stink of the shallows, and you are no longer martyred by hosts of rapacious pests. The sheepish rustle of uncomfortable, slightly overweight tourists in comically short life vests gives way to the soft slap of paddles on the surface of still water. There is very little light pollution, and the unfamiliar constellations of the southern hemisphere reflect brightly in the wake of the boats.  After a short time, the ripples behind the boat become more defined and shimmer less, and the swath the paddle cuts through the water exists as a path of greenish light after the pole is lifted from the water. To dip a hand over the side is to initiate a flurry of sparkles, and for several seconds afterwards your fingers are spotted with glowing dots that slip over the surfaces of your hand in droplets.

The guides led us to the center of the bay. There was no moon, and the milky way stood out whitely against the summer sky. In the east, clouds were gathering low on the horizon, and a few stray bursts of lightening blossomed in their midst. From the deep grey of the cloud bank, the night arched above us, cloudless and dazzling.  Venus was a creamy speck.

Then I got in the water.


Pictures from the Vieques Bio-Bay are all photoshopped for a reason – it’s really difficult to get an exposure length long enough for the kind of camera you can carry on a sea kayak. Plus all the rocking. But all the light around my arms? That is not the flash.

What it actually looks like to the naked eye is astounding. Your arms and legs leave streaks in the water as you move, and splashing is an entirely new experience. 

When you lift up your hands, tiny droplets of eerie green light slide down your arms, and for a brief moment you are illuminated. Then everything is still and salty.

I can honestly count Vieques Island among the most incredible experiences of my life, and although it may not be everyone’s most cherished dream to immerse themselves in a dormant soup of glowing protists, and though you probably aren’t quite as attached to bioluminescence as I am,


It is still completely awesome.