Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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My Visit to Govi-Altai, Part III: Delger

As vacations go, my visit to Delger wasn’t particularly eventful. I was staying with a friend, after all, and of the two of us, I was the only one on vacation. Exploring on my own wasn’t really an option, either; there’s not a lot to see in a soum, but I wasn’t about to venture outside of it. I may have lived in this country for almost eight months now, but my spoken language abilities, at best, rival those of a two-year-old, and my navigation abilities are, shall we say, notoriously lacking. I do a decent job if I’m paying attention, but if someone else was leading the group from point A point B, I won’t be able to find my way between them, even if I’ve walked the route five times. And I rely heavily on the sun to orient myself, which means I’m SOL at night or on overcast days. And this is Mongolia in the winter we’re talking about – sunny, but snow everywhere you look, and cold enough to kill you pretty quickly . Nope, I definitely wasn’t venturing out on my own.

So rather than sit around in Eric’s room all day, I helped him teach. It was a lot of fun, because it allowed us to show the kids what interactions between native speakers sound like. I wish I was able to do that in my own classes – to demonstrate “repeat after me” instead of having to translate it, to have a partner whose idea of team teaching wasn’t to sit at the back of the room on Facebook and translate as needed. I also liked getting to see how he managed his classroom: how he turns the usual “what day is it?” into a pronunciation exercise, for example (most Mongolians pronounce 2013 as ‘two tousand turty’). I came back with new ideas for games and tongue twisters to use with my classes, additions that are always appreciated.

But we did venture out of the school grounds on a couple of occasions, and not just to have dinner at a counterpart’s ger or wander from delguur to delguur in search of eggs, potatoes, and candles. We spent one afternoon hiking to a local landmark called surguul (cургууль) – “the school.” I guess that’s where the school was located once upon a time, though Delger’s school, like the rest of Delger, is now located on the other side of the lake. Its location means it’s a lot easier to reach in the winter than the summer; rather than having to take the long way around the lake, through mud and quicksand, we just walked straight across the ice.

There were large cracks in the lake’s surface where the ice had clearly melted and refrozen, which gave us some trepidation about walking upon it. But water in a Mongolian January, even a warm one, is pretty thoroughly frozen. The ice ma not have been ten feet thick like the surface of Khuuvsgul, but most of this lake was a lot less than ten feet deep to begin with. So we weren’t too worried.

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All the pictures that follow are actually from Eric’s camera, since mine ran out of battery as soon as I tried to take pictures of us in front of the rock. Camera batteries do not like cold, and they definitely don’t like Mongolian cold.

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“School” seems like a misnomer – that rock looks like a camel to me!

We actually climbed all the way to the top of the rock formation, the part that looks to me like a camel’s head. In doing so, I learned that I’m a lot more cautious about clambering around on rock formations in the winter. I’ve lost a lot of the mountain goat fearlessness I possessed as a child regardless, but I’m even less confident in the season of snow and ice. Even minor impacts are more painful in the cold, not to mention more likely. The clothes don’t help, either; it’s hard to clamber around in a knee-length coat, and Mongolian boots are not known for having good traction.

But we made it to the top anyway, even if we had to make our way carefully across the final gap instead of leaping it as we would have in the summer. We stayed there for a while, talking and taking in the view. And catching our breath: walking through snow, even shallow snow, requires more exertion than we’d anticipated. I shed several layers during the walk there and spent a good part of the walk back alternating between zipping and unzipping my coat, not to mention pushing back my scarf (I was too hot with it on) and pulling it back on (my ears were cold without it). Yep, that’s right: I can overheat even in a Mongolian winter.

I'm overheating; his breath is freezing on his scarf. This is why I came to Mongolia and not Thailand.

I’m overheating; his breath is freezing on his scarf. This is why I came to Mongolia and not Thailand.

We did have one more adventure, the much-anticipated highlight of my trip. But that one deserves a post of its own.

 

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It’s official, at least as far as I’m concerned: spring has come to Mongolia.

In Chicago, the transition point between seasons is pretty arbitrary. The first appearance of crocuses and snowdrops could mean spring has come and that mud and rain shall reign hereafter, but it’s just as likely that those brave little flowers will be bured under six inches of snow the day after they begin to unfurl, and that they’ll be encased in ice for another month.

Here, it’s a lot more clear-cut. Forget what the Mongolians say about winter beginning on December 21st (especially since January was much, much warmer than December); to my way of thinking, it started a few days before Halloween, with the first snowfall that didn’t melt. In the last week of October, the temperature dropped below freezing–and then it stayed that way until this week.

Temperatures continue to fall to single digits and below at night, but during the day we’ve got puddles on the streets, slush on the sidewalks, and mud everywhere else. As far as I’m concerned, that means it’s spring. When the liquid water disappears, it’s winter; when it comes back, it’s spring. Quite a simple distinction, really.

The thing is, I liked the water better when it stayed frozen. Walking was a lot less perilous, for one thing. Packed snow is packed snow, which in time gets worn away to dirt or pavement or whatever. But puddles are messy, especially when cars drive through them, and they freeze into ice slicks overnight. Walking to school in the morning in January was cold and kind of unpleasant, but now it’s downright dangerous.

And I’m told that’s just the beginning. Every PCV who’s already been here for a year or more has told me that spring is the worst season in Mongolia. The temperatures vary wildly, the wind is unbearable and kicks up the newly-exposed sand, the heat shuts off both too late and too early. You get mud in your shoes and grit in your teeth. I’m more than prepared to believe it.

But most of them rejoice at its coming anyway, since it means the end of the winter. I attribute this to their disproportionate origin from warmer climes; of the eight other Americans in Erdenet, two are from Oregon, one from Kansas, one from Kentucky, one from North Carolina, one from South Carolina, one from Los Angeles, and one from Florida. The North Carolinian and I are the only ones who are used to snow in any large quantity (he grew up in southern Wisconsin). And even he is more than ready for the end of winter.

But I actually enjoyed winter in Mongolia. While I do wish we’d had more snow, I didn’t miss the slushy streets and unending bleak grey skies of winter in Chicago. I liked the sunshine; I liked knowing that the weather today would only from the weather yesterday and the day before in its degree of coldness. Because it’s cold here, it’s cold. Throw-a-cup-of-boiling-water-into-the-air-and-watch-it-turn-into-snow cold. And as long as I’ve got enough layers on, I like the cold. I would rather it be too cold than too hot, which is why every part of me except my toes is glad I came to Mongolia and not, say, Thailand.

But my toes are glad it’s spring. And even if the rest of me would rather temperatures hover between, say, 0 and 15˚ Fahrenheit for another month or so, I suppose that’s still something.