Breathing in Northern Asia

Breathing in Northern Asia

Breathing in Northern Asia

A short story to cool you off

It’s late July, North America’s just endured its worst heat wave of the year so far, and I can’t wait for things to cool off. If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you already know my affinity for cold weather. Otherwise, “The Polar Route” says it all.

I wrote this in bed before I slept in Tyumen, Russia in February of this year. I took short breaks as I wrote, getting out of bed to get some fresh air on the small, top floor balcony of our rented apartment. I savored every breath. Here’s why.



A taste of home off our balcony in Tyumen, Russia

Breathing in Deep

It’s akin to throwing a rusted soda can into the last few smoldering embers of a dying campfire, and I can only imagine it’s shortly followed by heavy metal and particulate matter setting deep into my lungs. It’s wintertime in Tuymen, Russia, and I’m breathing in deep.

I’m no stranger to breathing soot. I grew up in Los Angeles and I’ve traveled quite a bit through Asia. But no other place has quite the kick of that lovely frozen, metallic North Asian air. Cities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and China all have hints of it. In Bali, trash is burned throughout the island, mixed with incense that imparts a pleasantly sweet note to the smoked out garbage. But nobody’s adding incense to whatever it is those factories are spewing out here on the outskirts of Tyumen.

Intense cold always imparts an empty feeling to the air, and Siberia is home to some of the most intense cold on this planet. The cold isolates and lends a crisp clarity to the smell. It’s interesting if not wholly refreshing, and I truly do enjoy it. Perhaps I savor it so much because it’s a continual reminder of being in a new, distant, and exciting place.

I was in Beijing the first time I caught a hint of it. It was a particularly hazy and cold night in late October, 2011. To walk around any Asian city at night is to willingly surrender yourself to the flashing lights, sounds, crowds, and myriad distractions, and Beijing has it all in spades. I remember the lights reflecting off the overcast night sky and the thick, heavy air of the night adding to the feel of being helplessly awash in it all. It was just a whiff though, a faint scent muted by fried foods from the nearby markets.

A few weeks later, in November 2011, I smelled it again. This time in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the smell was smoky, metallic, and strong. A high pressure system sits over Mongolia for the duration of winter. This means generally good weather (apart from the life threatening cold) and sunny skies. The freezing air is dense, heavy, and it doesn’t move. Whatever’s in the ash clouds spewed out from those factories hangs around for a long time. Ulaanbaatar’s skyline is defined by its always-running factories mixed with newly built, haphazardly arranged apartment highrises.

The vast majority of North Asia is empty, devoid of people and cities and factories and soot and ash. You don’t have to go far to get out of the cities, and the metallic smell quickly fades in favor of completely neutral air. Outside the cities, the only experience is that of quiet, peaceful cold.

I can’t wait for the cold.



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