Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Smartest Air Filter In China

Picture of fan.

The Smart Air DIY.

I've been living in Beijing, China since last August. Whenever I talk to friends in other countries, the subject of air pollution comes up. Is it really as bad as the international media makes it out to be?

Yes and no.

Sometimes we get blue skies in Beijing, especially after a day of strong wind or rain clears the smoggy air. But then the pollution builds. If we go more than ten days without much wind or rain, the pollution can reach horrendous levels.

The typical metric used to measure air pollution is the PM2.5 count. This measures the concentration of particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter. A PM2.5 count below 50 is considered healthy. As I write this, Los Angeles is at 60 (moderate, few people will be affected).

Late last year, the PM2.5 count in Beijing reached 500.

Some friends and I rode across the city in a taxi that night. Visibility was so low, I felt like I was in Grand Theft Auto, and the background wasn't rendering properly. Or maybe “pea soup fog” is a better analogy. Either way, it was quite scary. Buildings, cars and people seemed to appear out of nowhere. I was worried there would be a traffic jam (a common occurrence in the city), and our driver wouldn't see it until it was too late.

Luckily, it rarely gets that bad. Typically, the level is high, but tolerable. And we usually get at least one blue sky day every week.

One thing I've learned since moving here is that everyone who can afford an air filter has one. The name brand filters are about twice the size of a desktop computer tower (remember those?), with blinking lights and other bells and whistles. They tend to cost upwards of $1000, with some models costing far more. Katie and I almost bought one right away, with the thought that you couldn't put a price on our health. But then I heard about Smart Air, a new company that aims to make air filters available to the masses. The concept is simple: buy a desktop fan and Velcro a HEPA filter to the front. Smart Air sells their fan/filter combos for $33. Replacement filters are $14. They ain't pretty, but the price is right.

I bought their DIY kit and set it up. After running the fan for a day, I was astonished. A dark circle had already formed on the front of it. After two months, I changed the filter. Here are the “before and after” photos:

Picture of filter.

Brand new.

Picture of filter.

After two months of use.

Of course this isn't scientific, but it sure looks like the filter did its job. It's scary to think of the amount of soot that would have ended up in my lungs had I not been using a filter.

Smart Air has some more extensive empirical data on their website. They even compare their filters with the most popular brands. The most expensive filters did perform slightly better than the HEPA filters that Smart Air sells, but at a significant cost.

I've become a big fan of my Smart Air fan. I plan to continue using it as long as I'm in Beijing. What do you think?

External Websites:
Smart Air
More info about PM2.5 from the EPA
Current pollution levels

Back to Civilization?

Picture of Apostles.

The Twelve Apostles

Missed the earlier sections? Here they are:
[Day 1] [Day 2] [Day 3] [Day 4]

Jan 5, 2015
Day 172
Great Ocean Walk, Day 5

Once again, I got up early, made breakfast and took down camp. I only had about sixteen kilometers to go, so I knew it would be a short day. Soon enough, I would be back in civilization. But for now I wanted to focus on the final bit of solitude that this trek could offer. Once again, I left camp alone, before Leon and Renee were up. I figured I wouldn't see them again.

The landscapes were more open than they had been the previous few days, with some broad fields and few trees. The cliffs prevented me from walking on the beach, not that I was keen to dig my boots into the sand anymore. The weather was great: warm, with blue skies.

Signs of civilization gradually appeared. First, I saw a couple of isolated farm houses. Later, I heard the noise of cars driving along a nearby road. And finally, people! The trail took me close to the village of Princetown, where Leon and Renee planned to grab lunch. And I passed a caravan park, full of people packing up their trailers after a long weekend of camping. I continued along the trail, and soon I was alone once again.

I walked up one final hill and got a glimpse of the majestic Twelve Apostles in the distance. Soon I reached a lookout point, with a plaque confirming that indeed, I had been walking on correct trail for the last five days. Then I saw two older ladies wearing yoga pants and day packs, carrying a trekking pole in each hand. They had started walking at the Twelve Apostles and would likely hike to Princetown before turning around. They were among the first day-hikers I had met on the trail.

Eventually I reached the Gibson Steps, just a few minutes from the end of the 100 KM hike. Hundreds of tourists were slowly making their way to the beach for a good view of the Twelve Apostles. I also walked down the steps, though with a different motive. I wanted to hitch a ride back to Geelong (public transportation was hard to find in these parts), but I was filthy and smelly from five days' walking without a shower. I had to do something about my body odor before I would have a prayer of catching a ride. Absent a shower, I figured an ocean bath would be my next best bet.

Picture of beach.

The gentle beach.

When I reached the beach at the bottom of the Steps, I saw that ocean was so turbulent, getting even close to the water would be a hazardous proposition. But I had to do something – my own stench was almost enough to knock me out. I walked away from the crowds and found a semi-private place to change into my swimsuit. I waited for the swell to drop, then I walked to the edge of the water, soap bar in hand. A giant wave crested, higher than my head, and I wished I had thought about this plan more thoroughly. I sucked in my breath, twisted my head and shoulders away from the wave and braced myself for a beat-down. The water hit me with such force, it brought me to my knees. Before I could react, another wave hit, and I found myself scraping along the sand, totally submerged. I rolled a few times, then somehow clung to the ground while the water was sucked outward. The wave left as quickly as it had come, and I took a fresh breath. I was disoriented, but I quickly figured out which direction was inland and ran. When the next wave struck, it only came up to my knees. Against all odds, I was still clinging to the bar of soap, but I decided not to lather up. No way I was going back into that swell to rinse off. I walked back to my backpack, caught my breath and brushed off as much sand from my scraped skin as I could. Then I put on my clean Hawaiian shirt and made my way back up the Steps. I hadn't exactly “bathed,” but I still felt like a new man.

From the top of the Steps, I walked the last few hundred meters to the Twelve Apostles Visitor Centre, the official end of the Great Ocean Walk. The building, full of overpriced food, souvenirs and tourists, was anti-climactic. Still, after five days and 100 KM of walking, I was ready to move on.

I walked out to the highway to look for a good place to hitchhike. Unfortunately, traffic was flying by, and there was no safe place for cars to pull over. I considered walking east with my thumb in the air (but not raised so high that unpleasant odors might escape). Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice. Renee was marching up the road, calling my name. It turned out that she and Leon had boarded a public bus a few miles back, and they had seen me walking. The bus had stopped at the Visitor Centre. In a few minutes, it would continue to the town of Warrnambool, from where we could take a train back to the city. I thanked Renee for finding me, and we headed to the bus together.

I paid the bus driver $4.60 for my ticket to Warrnambool and took a seat. A few other people were aboard, looking anxious to leave. Ten minutes after our scheduled departure time, a middle-aged couple climbed aboard. The bus driver hit the gas and said, “You're ten minutes late. You're lucky I didn't leave without you.”

“We were guaranteed thirty minutes at Twelve Apostles!” the man who had just boarded yelled, in a German accent, loud enough for everyone to hear. “You only gave us twenty minutes.”

“I have a schedule to follow,” the driver said. “We got here late because of a traffic jam. I'm still supposed to leave on time.”

“You are late because you drive too slow! We come here from Europe to see Twelve Apostles!”

“This is a public bus,” the driver said calmly. “You can join a tour group if you want to see the Twelve Apostles. Or rent a car.”

“I know the law here. You cannot make us miss Twelve Apostles. We come all the way from Europe!”

“Take a seat!” a woman yelled. “You're making us all late.”

The German man appeared to become self-conscious from his tantrum. He finally shut up and sat next to his mortified wife. We continued along the Great Ocean Road and pulled into a parking lot.

Picture of Gorge.

Loch Ard Gorge.

“This is the famous Loch Ard Gorge,” the driver said. “I would explain its history, but due to circumstances, we don't have time. We leave in ten minutes.”

The German man grunted, but he didn't say anything. I shuffled off of the bus, along with everyone else. To me, this situation was hilarious. I had already seen Loch Ard Gorge, so I didn't mind spending only a short time there. Everyone other than the German couple seemed fine with our short stop. Leon, Renee and I ran up to the lookout point, snapped a few photos and ran back to the bus. I felt like Clark Griswald checking out the Grand Canyon in Vacation.

We stopped at a couple more national landmarks for about five minutes each, then continued to a small town. At this point, the German man revealed that he and his wife were staying there. The driver stopped the bus and they got out. They had come “all the way from Europe” to spend $5 to ride a public bus that wasn't even meant for sightseeing. And their accommodation was less than an hour's walk from the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge. As I watched the Germans shuffle to their hotel, I realized that this was the most entertained I had been in a week. I thanked Renee again for showing me this bus.

Picture of train.

Reading on the train.

The bus dropped us off at the train station in Warrnambool. Leon and Renee bought tickets for Melbourne, and I got a ticket for Geelong. The train was big, clean and comfortable. We rode inland, passing many cattle ranches along the way. I did some reading on my Kindle and watched the scenery go by. It was a great way to end my trek.

When we reached Geelong, I said goodbye to my fellow hikers. Craig was waiting for me in the parking lot. He had decked out his van with surfboards and a kayak. We drove to a national park and set up camp. Craig kneaded a ball of dough, which he then sealed in a cast iron container and covered with coals from our campfire. The result was a loaf of delicious damper. We sat around the fire and shared our stories from the last few days. Craig loaned me his swag (traditional Australian bedroll) and I slept under the stars. Maybe I wouldn't be back in civilization quite so soon, after all.

What a Difference a Day Makes

Picture of me.

A good day.

Missed the earlier sections? Here they are:
[Day 1] [Day 2] [Day 3]

Jan 4, 2015
Day 171
Great Ocean Walk, Day 4

I got up at 7:00 a.m., after eleven hours of sleep. I felt significantly better than the previous day, but I still had no appetite. I cooked a half-sized oatmeal breakfast and did my best to eat. Half of my small meal ended up in the trash.

At least the heatwave was history. I even felt a bit of a chill from the morning breeze as I took down my tent. The only other tent in the campground belonged to Leon and Renee. They had yet to emerge when I started walking.

It was the easiest day on the trail. There were no monstrous hills, and no monotonous sections of beach. The temperature remained nice and cool. I spent almost the whole time in the forest, walking with the wallabies. My biggest mental challenge happened when I saw a sign for free beer and hot dogs, and it turned out to be nothing but a sick joke. I felt a bit hungry after that, but not for any of the carbohydrate-laden food I was carrying. I wouldn't be able to eat anything fatty for a few more days.

Picture of beach.

An ocean-side view.

I arrived at Devil's Kitchen Campground at 2:00 p.m. I was well-hydrated and not nearly as tired as I had been for the previous two days. I probably could have hiked the final sixteen kilometers and reached the Twelve Apostles by dark, but I decided to stay put. I had planned to take five days to do this trek, and I still had plenty of food. In fact, with how little I had been eating, I probably could have rested for a day or two and not gone hungry.

Leon and Renee showed up a few hours later. They clearly had been taking their time, but now there was a problem. As they cooked their supper, they lamented that they were almost out of food. In fact, they planned to snack on a meager portion of nuts for breakfast and stop for lunch in a village, close to the trail. I gave them some spare oatmeal, peanut butter and wraps. They now had plenty of food and I had a lighter backpack, a win-win-win for us.

The three of us tossed Leon's Frisbee in the empty campground. It was a Sunday, the last day of the New Year holiday for many locals. A lot of people might have timed their trek to finish yesterday or today. Still, I had expected the trail to be much busier than it was. Had the heatwave scared off most of the hikers?

Once again, I was in bed before dark. But this time, I felt strong. My appetite was even coming back. I was ready for the final section of the Great Ocean Walk. What a difference a day had made!

Continue to Day 5

The Map Is Not the Territory

Picture of beach.

A good place for a swim?

Missed the earlier sections? Here they are:
[Day 1] [Day 2]

Jan 3, 2015
Day 170
Great Ocean Walk, Day 3

For breakfast, I reheated yesterday's pasta dinner on my camp stove. I had been burning a lot of calories on this walk, but the extreme heat had taken away my appetite. I had hoped to finish my dinner this morning, but after forcing down a few bites, I felt ready to vomit. Half of the meal remained uneaten.

The good news was that I wouldn't have to walk nearly as far as the previous two days – I had already done five of the Great Ocean Walk's eight sections. For my final three days, I only had to walk one section per day. The bad news was that the heatwave showed no sign of abating. I briefly considered staying put for the day, but quickly abandoned the idea. According to the map posted at the campground's shelter, the next section was one of the easiest. I figured I could make it to the next campground by noon, and avoid walking during the hottest part of the day.

I took down my tent and quickly packed my stuff (one advantage of carrying last night's dinner: no dish-washing). Just like the previous morning, I gulped as much water as I could handle, then I loaded my Nalgene and Camelback. Carrying four liters of water would weigh me down, but I figured it would become vital later in the day. The Melbourne hikers were just starting to eat breakfast as I hoisted my backpack onto my back. I said goodbye to them and started walking at about 7:00 a.m. It was already over 30 degrees (86 F); I was sweating before I even left the campground.

Right away, I got a good view of what was in store for me. The trail wrapped around the east side of a hill with few trees, leaving it totally exposed to the early morning sun. The grass was a sickly yellow; the dirt trail felt like concrete under my hiking boots. A couple of wallabies bounded nearby as I walked; their light tan fur blended almost seamlessly with the arid vegetation.

About an hour into my walk, I plopped onto the trail, protected by a rare tree's shadow. I had been walking uphill the whole time, and there was no end in sight. I gulped my water and realized that I might need five or six liters to avoid another episode of severe dehydration. The Melbourne hikers caught up with me while I rested. They said “hi” and continued up the hill, on a mission. When they were out of my view, my mental challenge increased tenfold. As far as I knew, there were no other hikers on this section. If the heat knocked me out, it could be a day before anyone would find me. Given my limited supply of water, would I even last that long?

Finally, about two hours into my walk, I reached the top of the hill. The trail ahead mercifully led into a forest with western exposure. An hour later I was all the way back at the beach, and yet another “Decision Point.” My choice was difficult: the beach route was a bit shorter than the inland trail, and it would probably be breezy. But there would be little shade on the beach, and my boots would sink into the sand with each step. I still chose to walk along the shore, hopeful that I could find a calm pool to swim in.

Just like the previous two days, the tide was abnormally low. Waves crashed violently into the rocky shore and sprayed mist through the air. This did nothing to keep me cool, and I continued to gulp my precious water. Eventually I crossed a trail with access to a gravel road. A handful of people were surfing, and probably loving the high swell. I continued walking. This may have been a surfer's paradise, but I was certain that if I went swimming here, I would quickly be swept out to sea, or dragged under by the ferocious current.

Finally, I found a pool, protected from the open ocean. As a bonus, the seaside cliffs provided me with a bit of precious shade. I went for a swim and immediately felt the cold water's relief. Afterward, I took a long rest. But I knew I couldn't stay here all day – I was down to my last liter of water, and I was constantly craving more. Reluctantly, I continued.

I stumbled into Ryan's Den campground at 1:30 p.m. To my surprise, the Melbourne hikers were still there. They informed me that they had arrived at noon, and they were waiting until the worst heat of the day had passed. However, because they still had an entire section left to walk, they couldn't afford to relax much longer. And the temperature was still north of 40 degrees (104 F).

I was happy to be done for the day. Contrary the map's description, this was the hardest section of the trek, by far. I was desiccated, and worried about heat stroke. As soon as I arrived, I set my backpack down and gulped as much water as my body could handle. Then I lay on a picnic bench in the shelter's shade and fell asleep.

I felt a bit better when I woke, but my appetite was still gone. Instead of attempting to eat my standard lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I cooked a soup on my camp stove, hopeful that the high sodium content would aid my hydration.

At about 3:00, the Melbourne hikers took off again, looking refreshed and ready to hike another 15 K's. Then, without warning, dark clouds rolled in. Within minutes, it was pouring, and the temperature had dropped ten degrees. On top of that, my sodium injection kicked in, and I felt some of my energy return. I sat under the shelter, listening to the rumble of water all around me, thinking about the Melbourne hikers who were caught in this storm. Would they be happy to walk in the rain?

Just as the rain was dying down, two soaking wet hikers came into the shelter. They introduced themselves as Leon and Renee. Like almost everyone else I had met on the Great Ocean Walk, they were from Melbourne. This was their sixth day on the trail, and they planned to hike for two more. I started to think I was going about this trek all wrong, rushing through it in five days. Especially given today's and yesterday's torrid heat. But there wasn't anything I could do about it now. My final two days promised to be much cooler, and easier.

Now that the rain had stopped, I walked around the campground. It was in an amazing location, overlooking the beach from far above. It wasn't near any roads, so it was almost empty. Unfortunately, I couldn't keep my eyes open long enough to appreciate it. I ate a bit more of my previous dinner and threw out the rest. I was in bed at 8.

Continue to Day 4

AtW Podcast, Episode 3: Martin

Picture of Martin and Dan.

Martin and I contemplate the meaning of life.

Martin and I know each other through the Hoofer Outing and Mountaineering clubs in Madison, WI. After earning his masters degree in 2014, Martin took off on an adventure, traveling around the US, South Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia. Recently,we met up in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and we rode a tuk tuk to the famous Angkor Wat temple. It was a typical hot day, so we took some time off from our sightseeing to record this interview.

I hope Martin inspires you with his stories. Let me know what you think.

[Download] [iTunes] [Stitcher]

Here are my photos from Angkor Wat.

Show Notes (External Links):

Hoofer Outing Club
Hoofer Mountaineering Club
Bangkok's Ghost Tower
Black rhinoceros information (4000 left in the wild)
White rhinoceros information (17,000 left in the wild)
Fraser Island, the largest and island in the world
Australian Road trains

The Hottest Day of the Year

Picture of Craig on beach.
Missed the earlier section? Here it is:
[Day 1]

Jan 2, 2015
Day 169
Great Ocean Walk, Day 2

Craig and I got up at dawn, aware that today was going to be a stinker (stinking hot). We headed down to the beach and walked along the sandy shore while the sun came up. The trail then took us inland, past the famous Cape Otway Lighthouse. We stopped at a nearby campground for breakfast. This was to be the last place we could stock up on water all day, so we guzzled as much as our stomachs could handle. I filled my three-liter Camelback and my one-liter Nalgene bottle, but I still was worried that I wouldn't have enough for the day. It was 9:00 a.m. and the temperature was already over 30 (86 Fahrenheit).

Soon after our break, we walked along a world-class beach with turquoise water, crashing waves, golden sand, blue skies and not person in sight, one of the Great Ocean Walk's hidden gems. Seagulls circled overhead, and a baby seal sunbathed next to a rock. Luckily, the tide was low once again, so at the next Decision Point, we could forgo a steep scramble to the inland path. But beach-walking also proved difficult – our boots sank into the sand with each step, and we couldn't avoid the blazing sun.

Next we approached the Aire River. My map showed it as a wide waterway, impossible to cross near the coast without swimming. But today the “river” was more like an inland lake, with a wide stretch of sand between it and the ocean. Instead of a Decision Point, a sign simply warned us not to attempt the ocean-side route. The rising water would surely trap us, and eventually drag us under. However, given the low tide, we ignored the sign and continued along the shore. Craig even commented that he had never seen the tide so low. Maybe this had something to do with the full moon?

Picture of 24067.

One of the fabulous beaches we encountered that day.

We quickly ran out of sandy beach and were forced to scramble over sharp rocks. Craig ran ahead and soon was out of sight – this was his backyard. I was more tentative in making my way around and over the boulders. The waves were crashing next to me, and occasionally I had to wait for the swell to recede before scampering over long sections. Several times, I barely made it to the top of a waist-high rock when the water came rushing in, putting me on a temporary island. As soon as the water went back down, I ran for the next ghoul before the land flooded again. This was exhausting, and I was constantly drenched with sweat and gulping from my limited supply of drinking water. Given the extremely low tide, the difficulty of the terrain and the sign warning us not to attempt exactly what we were doing, we may have been the first people to take this section of “beach” in years.

Eventually we reconnected with the actual trail and walked the final few kilometers to Castle Cove Lookout. It was noon and the temperature had reached 41 degrees (106 F). I collapsed under a tree and finished my last few sips of water. I knew I was dehydrated and now I shook my head – my four liters of water had barely lasted half the day. Craig was faring much better than me – the extreme heat seemed to have no effect on him whatsoever. Still, even he didn't have much water left in his bottle. And the next water station was eight kilometers away, an infinite distance when you're parched. What was I going to do?

Luckily, this was the point where the Great Ocean Road was tangent to the Great Ocean Walk. Every few minutes, a car would pull up and their occupants would get out to take in the view and complain about the heat. It was also the point where Craig's walk ended (he had to work the next day). While I sat under a shady tree, recovering, Craig sweet-talked his way into a ride back to his van, and he scored me a bottle of water in the process. It was our own fault that we didn't have enough to drink – it was noon on Day Two, and we had already hiked half of the eight-day trail. The upside of this quick pace was that I could take it easy for the next few days.

I said goodbye to Craig; we planned to meet up after the trek for more shenanigans. As soon as he was gone, I fell asleep under the tree. The guy who had given me the water returned a few hours later with two more bottles. I was reinvigorated and grateful for his help. At about 4:00, the temperature finally began to drop and I decided to continue.

The precipitous cliffs made it impossible to walk along the shore, even in this freakishly low tide. I tramped, alone, through the forest for the next few hours, trying to keep my mind occupied. As is common after taking a long break, time droned on. I didn't even see any wildlife; the animals were probably doing the smart thing, waiting out the heat wave.

Finally, I stumbled into the Johanna Beach Campground about an hour before dark. At last, I had access to all of the water I could possibly drink, and I spent the rest of the day re-hydrating. Unfortunately, the next day was forecast to be even hotter than this one.

Four hikers from Melbourne were in the campsite's shelter, cooking dinner. For two of them, this was their first ever multi-day walk. Later, a father/daughter pair from Oklahoma joined us. The father was a charter airplane pilot who had flown scientists to all sorts of exotic destinations, including the South Pole. Unfortunately, my brain was so fried, it couldn't soak in his stories. At one point, one of the girls from Melbourne commented about how beautiful the snowy mountains in the background of my “Hoofer Outing Club” shirt looked. “Nope,” I said. “That's just salt from my dried sweat.”

Continue to Day 3

AtW Podcast, Episode 2: Chris Jackson

Picture of Chris and Dan with map.

Chris shows me the map of his route.

I met Chris Jackson on the Indian Pacific train, which runs across Australia, from Sydney to Perth. Chris was on his way home from a three-month motorcycle trip around the country. I stayed with his family in Perth for my last few days in Australia, and I was grateful for their hospitality. For this podcast, Chris and I discussed his trip in detail. He never ceased to impress me with his vast knowledge of the terrain in his native country.

[Download] [iTunes]

I'm always looking for new guests on this show. If you or someone you know is interested, send me a message from my contact page.

Here are links to some of the places we discussed in the interview:

The Duke of Edinburgh Award in the USA
Uluru (Ayers Rock)
Ulutu-Kata Tjuta National Park
The Bibbulmun Track
Kakadu National Park

Picture of guitar.

Chris traveled with this guitar.

Picture of nut.

Chris' carved baobab nut.

Finally, Texas (27 million people) indeed does have a larger population than Australia (23 million). The state of Western Australia is about 2.65 million square KM and has a population of 2.5 million. Texas is 696,241 square KM.