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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Hiking

I started to go on a hike the other day. I did this quite often in the fall; Erdenet is nestled between several mountains, and since my home is on the northern edge of town, I can be out the door and at the top of the nearest one in under half an hour. Since I had scads of free time on my hands, I spent many an afternoon wandering the slopes with camera in hand, meandering amongst  larch and aspen and searching diligently for a good walking stick.

And then the snows started.

I’m no stranger to hiking in the snow; I joined the mountaineering club during the semester I spent in Ireland, and a number of the mountains we traversed in November and December had at least a thin coating of the stuff (even if it was only at the top, as was the case when we hiked Ben Nevis). But a wintry Irish day could be mistaken for summer here, and hiking is a lot less fun when every breath pierces your lungs like a knife. Besides, I’d had other people to hike with in Ireland. It’s one thing to go it alone on a sunny day in September (though even that worried my roommate), but quite another to do so in December. The chance of slipping on ice, breaking an ankle, and then freezing to death was not one I was willing to court.

But it’s spring now, though the snow is still fighting to maintain its title as predominant form of precipitation. They turned the heat off yesterday, after all; that must mean it’s almost summer.

Spring, like this statue, is of divided mind here.

Spring, like this statue, is of a divided mind here.

So a few days after the thick, stinging snow of the most recent spring storm had dissipated, I picked a sunny afternoon to head back up into the hills.

Earlier that day, my mother had asked whether leaves and flowers had begun to make an appearance here yet. I said no; the slow greening of the grass was the only reappearance of color I’d yet witnessed. But almost as soon as I left the town limits, I found that I was wrong. A few brave flowers had indeed begun to bloom – tiny, groundhugging blossoms of yellow and pink, as well as larger purple blooms.

There were a few reminders of death scattered amongst the stirrings of new life, of course. In a country where herd animals run free, dogs run wild, and even city-dwellers slaughter sheep in their yards or on their balconies, you can’t walk far without tripping over bones. Usually its the dogs who move the bones about, but people will as well, to adorn this or that ovoo with the skull of a horse, sheep, or cow.

No ovoo in sight, but someone must have brought this horse's skull up here deliberately.

No ovoo in sight, but someone must have brought this horse’s skull up here deliberately.

Even the mine seemed decked out to celebrate the changing seasons. It had never seemed anything but ugly to me before; the great grey hills with their unnaturally flat tops might be the reason this town exists, but they do little to improve the scenery and less to improve the local water quality. You can always find southeast in this town, even on a cloudy day. That scar on the land is unmistakeable.

Today, though… today I was seeing the mine through new eyes. The weather of the past few months had gone to work on it, streaking its sides with rust red and pale blue-green patina. Erdenet’s mine is not the largest or the most famous in the country, with a name as uninspiredly utilitarian as the Soviet bloc architecture of this town – GOK. (It’s a Russian acronym, though what the GO stand for, I can’t say; the K is kompani.) Looking at it from the mountains on a sunny spring day, however, I could see why the great copper mine in the Gobi had been called Оюу Толгой – Turquoise Hill.

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My hike never made it past the foothills. Sunny it may have been, but the wind that day was vicious once I left the shelter of valley and apartment buildings. In my halfhearted ascent of the first hill, I also noticed a Mongolian man making for the ovoo atop Bayan-Öndör – my destination as well. I decided I didn’t want to disturb his praying, or drinking, or both. Besides, Dances with Dragons was calling my name. Another day, I thought, and headed back.

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Just so long as that day doesn’t look like this.

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The Land of Perpetual Snow

My father is well-known, within my extended family, at least, for his propensity to rename that which is new to him. Thus, he refers to the ghost of Gryffindor house as “Almost-Headless Frank,” and that game they play on broomsticks as “wacky badminton.” So when I told him the Mongolian version of “how are you?” it came as no surprise that he did the same thing.

“How are you?” is sort of built into the Mongolian “hello;” сайна байна уу? translates roughly as “are you good?” Their follow-up question, therefore, is more like, “how was your rest?” (Cyrillic: Cайхан амарсан уу?, Latin: Saihan amarsan uu?; sounds like sa [like sat, without the t] han amarse no).

My father’s rendition? “So, how much snow?” As the first two examples illustrate, how well the dad-isms fit varies pretty widely. But this one’s pretty darn accurate.

To wit: In Chicago, and probably in the rest of the world, Chicago is primarily a winter phenomenon. Sure, we might get the occasional flurry in October or May, but in your average year, the majority of the snow falls in January or perhaps early February.

Not so here. A friend of mine once explained that she dislikes snow because it means that it’s too cold to rain; here, snow means that it’s relatively warm. For much of our winter, it is simply too cold to snow. We got the occasional flurry in December and January, but never enough for any serious accumulation. All we ever got was a thin, glittery layer of dry white powder that rendered sidewalks a deathtrap. Seriously, who decided tile sidewalks were a good idea in a country that’s frozen half the year?

The extreme cold and amount of ice crystals in the air do result in a number of cool atmospheric phenomena, like these parhelia. Photo credit to Jonathan Tavennic Renich.

If you’ll recall, my definition of Mongolian winter was pretty straightforward: winter starts when the snow stops melting and end when it starts to. But the presence of snow in both fall and spring are implicit in this definition; that the snow has started to melt does not mean there won’t be more.

The snow started on September 26th, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, we’d had at least twelve days of snowfall. December and January gave us a hiatus, but now it’s back. We got at least as much snow in February as in December and January combined, and as much again in March. Halfway into April, we’re still getting snow at least twice a week, though it’s now interspersed with several days of 40-60 degree weather.

And unlike the snowfall we got in the winter, this stuff means business. Spring snow doesn’t mean a flurry of the minuscule ice crystals we got in winter, but the big, thick flakes that weigh down your eyelashes and sparkle surreally in the presence of even a little light. The Friday before St. Patrick’s Day brought us five inches of the stuff; the last eight hours have given us at least another four, with drifts over a foot tall in some places.

As someone who enjoys cold and snow, I don’t really mind, but I know a lot of the Peace Corps Volunteers are pretty sick of the stuff.  This morning, I asked the director of the Children’s Palace when the snow usually stops. “Maybe May?” she said. “But last year it snowed on July 1st.”

So get used to the snow, folks. It doesn’t look like we’ll be rid of it anytime soon.


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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.