I Survived Winter in Siberia*

*Ok, not actually Siberia, but we did have a Siberian front in January so it’s basically the same thing.

My biggest concern when coming to Mongolia was the notorious winter. Ulaanbaatar has been invitingly nicknamed the ‘coldest capital in the world’ and the lowest temperatures average -40 across the country. In case you’re wondering if that’s in Fahrenheit or Celsius, the answer is it doesn’t matter. That’s about the point where they are the same. Even worse, this year was predicted to be the coldest winter in 100 years and the forth zuud (Mongolian for really, really bad winter) in five.

The first snow.

Beginning on the Winter Solstice, the Mongolian winter is divided into nine sets of nine days, for a total of 81 days. Of course, weather is a fickle thing and will not stick to any calendar, but the traditional measurement is interesting nonetheless and most importantly says that we are officially out of winter! Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the nine nines of the Mongolian Winter:

  1. Vodka made from milk freezes.
  2. Normal vodka freezes.
  3. The tail of a three year old ox freezes and falls off.
  4. The horns of a four year old ox freeze and fall off.
  5. Boiled rice no longer freezes.
  6. Roads start to become visible.
  7. Hill tops appear from beneath the snow.
  8. The ground gets damp.
  9. Warmer days have set in.

Unlike some other volunteers I had to pack most of my winter gear because I was warned that, thanks to my giantess proportions, I wouldn’t be able to find any boots or much clothing in my size once I arrived in Mongolia. So my coat which got me through the notorious Polar Vortex of 2014 was vacuum sealed to a quarter of its size and my LL Bean boots were stuffed with socks and into my suitcase they went.

Students break up the ice and compacted snow on the road in front of the school with shovel and bits of wood.

The winter was better and worse than I expected. I live in the south of the country in a pretty dry region so I could take the cold at face value. There was no dampness that required I feel the stinging chills down to my bones. Furthermore, we didn’t get a ton of snow so walking where I needed to go continued to be pretty easy. Well, except for the ice that turned the sidewalks and crosswalks into skating rinks and made you think twice before crossing the road in front of a car still over 100 meters away. Also I’m not living in a ger as I had so hoped I would be. I don’t have to chop wood or break coal to build multiple fires a day because I have a radiator and heating that is somehow supplied by the hospital across the street. This means that it was turned on early and it’s probably warmer than other residences which are not connected to the hospital’s heating. Suckers!

It was worse because it was so long! Ugh. The first time it snowed was in October and the bitter cold stretched on into March. What’s more, the pollution was terrible. The smoke from the ger fires and the coal smoke stacks would hang low over the town, trapped by the surrounding mountains. It was especially bad in the mornings and the evenings. Sometimes during the afternoon the smoke would almost clear entirely, but you could still feel it in your lungs.

See the lung cancer, taste the lung cancer.

Can you believe that my own mother had the gall to suggest that I did not truly experience winter in Mongolia because I didn’t suffer as much as I could have? My goodness. To those who reminded me that I should be thankful because I’m living in the south of the country and my winter was much milder than most PCVs winters I say, ‘I am complex. It is possible for me to be both thankful and miserable.’ Walt Whitman put it much better when he famously wrote, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ Or, as Shrek told Donkey, ‘Ogres are like onions, they have layers.’ Using Whitman and Shrek to support the same claim, just look at that range!

Things were much worse in other parts of the country. My friend Molly took this picture in her aimag.

Traveling during the winter was its own minefield of challenges. A thin layer of ice would quickly form on the inside of the windows of buses and purgons. You’d have to be careful not to let your knitted wears touch the window or they’d be frozen to it. On the bus to UB, knowing which rows the heaters are and where you’ll be in relation to them is a life saver. If you’re right behind the heater, more than two pairs of socks is excessive and you’ll be too hot, but if you find yourself far from the heaters then you’d be remiss to wear fewer than three if not four pairs of socks for fear of developing hypothermia and losing your little piggies.

You might not be able to tell from this picture, but the horses get pretty fuzzy during winter. PC: Molly

For some reason I have had great difficulty finding my site, although it is an aimag center, on any weather forecast app or website, so I trundled through this winter unaware of the day to day temperatures. I judged how many layers to wear by how cold it was when I went out to my outhouse first thing in the morning. (Fun fact: my outhouse is a pretty rudimentary metal box. Not the smartest choice of material for this climate, you say? I would have to agree with you. During the worst of it, I’d pull a Michael Jackson and wear one glove when I went to the toilet to avoid freezing my hand to the metal.) When my parents asked me during our weekly calls ‘What’s the temperature like over there?’ I could only answer with cold, really cold, face-numbingly cold, and I don’t know even know because at some point it all feels the same. I think not knowing the exact temperature was actually a blessing in disguise. It didn’t seem as bad without a number attached to it. I didn’t have the urge to brag about how I was surviving -30 degree walks to school or compare the temperature to other sites.

Did the dinosaurs like the cold? I dunno.

Just because it didn’t seem so bad doesn’t mean I didn’t take any opportunity to complain. My site mate Mary liked to remind me that I’m from Michigan and should be accustomed to this weather. Well, the truth is there are exactly three four occasions on which I love the snow and the cold: the first snow, Christmas, driving at night, and skiing. At any other time the most I want to be wearing is a sweater or light jacket. Winter is not my favorite and I’ve decided that I’m much better suited for a tropical climate.

Now the snow has mostly melted and I’ve exchanged my calf-length, down jacket for my lighter, waist-length one. I’m losing layers as fast as I can. No longer do I need to wear one or two pairs of leggings under my trousers. Pictures of soum-dwelling volunteers with baby animals are popping up on my Facebook newsfeed. The pollution is slowly receding and it is clearer everyday. Soon it will be warm enough to challenge the kiddos to outdoor pick up games of soccer, football, and basketball. Hurrah! Spring has sprung. Praise the warming sun and delight, ye, in the greening of the grass.

The kids are happy it’s spring too! PC: Rebecca

-Photo credit for the featured photo at the top of this post goes to my friend Molly-


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