If you ask me what Mongolia was like, my answer will likely be flippant and short: “Cold.” Fifteen months’ worth of experiences cannot be condensed into a brief but all-encompassing summary with any degree of ease or accuracy, much less at the drop of hat. Thoughtful, targeted answers will be given only to those who ask thoughtful, targeted questions; all others will be met with the simplest, broadest truth I can muster.
I’ve given this answer more times than I can count in the past few months, but now, as I find myself watching the swirling of our new-fallen snow, calling in to the local country station to share the craziest thing I’ve ever been stuck doing in the cold, and helping to move the drinks in from the screened porch to prevent a repeat of the Exploding Pop Incident of ’99, it occurs to me that I’ve never really addressed what “cold,” in the Mongolian context, means.
I could tell you that a Mongolian winter means three solid months below freezing, bracketed on each end by two months of flirtation with the freezing point (better known as spring and fall). It means that there will be weeks in the heart of the season where you never once see temperatures above 0˚F. That none of my winter clothing was waterproof because there’s no such thing as slush or sleet in the middle of winter, when liquid water is a dream that exists only indoors. That at -22˚F (-30˚C), a cup of boiling water thrown into the air will disappear into a mist of snow and vapor.
I could tell you that one of my friends in the hudoo made do without a refrigerator by storing milk on the windowsill and meat in a plastic bag dangled out the window, and that my ger-dwelling friends had to sleep with their computers inside their sleeping bags so they wouldn’t be damaged by the temperatures inside their homes. That on multiple occasions, I underestimated how long it would take me to run a few errands and wore only one pair of yak-wool socks inside my fur-lined boots, a mistake that meant a twenty-minute soak in warm water to return the circulation to my frozen feet. A painful twenty-minute soak.
Moreover, I could tell you that all of this was true in an unusually warm winter, most of it in one of the warmest cities in the country. To my great disappointment, I never once saw -40, the temperature at which Fahrenheit and Celsius collide. Multi-day stretches in the negatives were not unusual though, and -35 was a familiar nighttime companion.
That is what winter, what cold, in Mongolia means: the awareness that if you are not careful, the very air outside will kill you.
But what does it feel like?
Imagine that you are heading to work, a trip that takes 15 minutes on foot in the summer. But today the roads are icy, as they have been for the past two months, and you have no desire to find yourself sprawled on the frozen, unforgiving ground, so you give yourself 25 to make the journey. The stars have not yet faded from the still-dark sky, and the nearly-full moon reflects off the snow to illuminate the streets in an absurd contrast with the sky. The effect is one of high visibility within the impression of darkness, of a world that appears to have split itself in two, with only the stars and the moon-cast shadows defying the separation of dark and light.
The sun will not rise until nearly 9 am for most of December and early January, with actual daylight holding out until almost 10.
You step outside, and before you can gasp at the cold, your nostrils are assaulted by a curious prickling sensation as all your nose hairs freeze. The sudden exhalation, when it does come, condenses in the frigid air before you face to form a comically large and opaque cloud, and you wonder when you learned to breathe smoke and whether your new dragon-like abilities include heat. Your eyes begin to water, and you blink to clear them – but quickly, lest your eyelashes freeze together. You understand why the women at work wait to apply their mascara until after they’ve arrived at school.
Within a few minutes, the exposed skin on your face begins to hurt, and the slightest breath of wind sends icy needles shooting into your flesh. Every inhalation sears the insides of your nose, your throat, your lungs. You can’t cover your nose without being blinded by the condensation that will freeze on your glasses, and your mouth goes dry after a minute of breathing through your mouth.
Time slows down in this kind of cold; the space before you expands as your destination recedes before your watering eyes, and an eternity passes between each ragged breath. The ethereal landscape that so enthralled you blurs from focus. The fish-eye lens of extreme cold allows you to see only the path before you, to hear only the muffled crunch of your own footsteps in the hard-packed snow.