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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Sorry We Stole Your Winter, Moscow! Most Americans Would Happily Return It.

So apparently it’s been unseasonable warm in Moscow of late – and presumably elsewhere as well. Well, as my international readers may not know, there’s a reason for this, and it’s one my American readers have been hearing about for the past week: America stole Moscow’s winter. Sorry, Moscow.

Winter storms Hercules and Ion hit the Chicago are with nearly two feet of snow, as well as  a phenomenon that the media called a “Polar Vortex” – an area of low pressure that pulled a wide swath of arctic air over most of the country for several days. While places like Moscow and Alaska experienced unusually warm weather, Chicago and other mainland American cities were hit with the coldest temperatures they’d experienced in twenty years.

You’d have thought the world was going to end.

Weather emergencies were declared, people told not to go out unnecessarily. The commuter trains in Chicago were severely delayed, or in some cases, canceled altogether, because the rails were freezing, shrinking, and even breaking. The Chicago Public Schools canceled two days of classes, as did my own school district – a truly unprecedented event. (By contrast, in my twelve years in that system, I never once got a snow day because the snow removal systems are so efficient.) Three Amtrak trains en route to Chicago were stuck in twelve-foot snow drifts for over twelve hours; the passengers, including my friend Sarah, were eventually bussed to Chicago when six locomotives failed to dislodge the stuck trains.

And to a certain extent, I understand the hubbub. An 8˚F/-13˚C day in Atlanta is in many ways more dangerous than a -30˚F/-34˚C day in Mongolia because Atlanta and its people are not prepared for such weather; my friend Charlotte had never owned a real winter coat before she went to college in Ohio because she’d never needed to, and I’m sure she’s far from alone. -17˚F is ten to fifteen degrees colder than Chicago is used to enduring (and that for only a few days a year), and its extensive mass transit systems don’t handle it well. The large homeless population, even with a concerted effort to shelter all of its members during the polar blast, is also at obvious risk.

But I still think it was all blown way out of proportion.

Yes, cold is dangerous, but it’s a manageable danger; it won’t kill you if you’re properly prepared. But you wouldn’t know that from the reactions of the media or the general public. Slideshows of weird and beautiful weather phenomena are cool; public service announcements about frostbite prevention and proper layering are necessary; updates on the innumerable and inevitable airport, traffic, and rail delays are useful. But it’s one thing to provide useful and relevant information  on a current and far-reaching event, and another to treat it like the end of the world.

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The image at left, for instance, is from a Weather Channel listicle entitled, “10 Photos That Show How Insanely Cold Chicago It Is in Chicago.” The story was also carried on other news networks – CNN, WGN, and whatever radio station we were listening to at the time. When decontextualized, as at left, it’s a shocking, even frightening statement. But the oversimplification misses an important point: it’s too cold for a Chicago polar bear, one who doesn’t have the fat reserves put on by her cousins up north. Some news carriers included this detail, but others went for shock value and omitted it. Unsurprisingly, it was the simplified version that made it into social media.

Another example of public overreaction, this time a Facebook post by a friend of a friend: “Please say a prayer for all those who are working out in this horrid freezing weather, including my brother, those working to restore power, working on water lines, delivering mail, picking up garbage, etc. etc. It’s too dangerous out there for any human.”

She had me up until that last sentence. I don’t want to minimize the suffering or sacrifice of the people impacted by this winter; I know it was, and is, real. Not everyone has the resources or the know-how to protect themselves properly from this kind of weather, and for these people, Hercules and Ion were truly disastrous. And I certainly agree that the good people braving the cold to allow American life to continue as normally as possible do deserve our prayers, thanks, and recognition. But while the sentiment is well-intentioned, its conclusion is alarmist and just plain wrong. No, people shouldn’t be sent to work outside if they aren’t properly protected; no, they probably won’t be comfortable, even if they’re not in actual danger. But from the average American’s reaction to unexpected inconvenience, you’d think that uncomfortable and unbearable were synonyms.

Discomfort and cold are a way of life for a lot people. Trains and buses might have been running behind schedule, but at least we have them. My car was reluctant to start during the cold snap, and its windows froze shut, but I still had a car – as do most Americans. Waiting for a delayed train in the bitter cold is not fun, but it still beats walking that distance along unpaved roads in even more frigid temperatures. And no matter how cold it was outside, the vast majority of us were not dependent on wood- or coal-burning stoves to keep us from freezing to death.

If my time in Mongolia has changed me in any single, lasting way, it’s by changing my perspective. That’s a big part of why I picked Mongolia in the first place: I wanted to experience life outside the first world. I returned with a new appreciation of just how easy things are here: washing clothes and dishes, cleaning the floor, traveling across the city, the state, or even the country. When I’m stuck in traffic now, I’m more likely to be frustrated by the people around me who are frustrated at the traffic than by the traffic itself.

And when it’s not just a little traffic – when it’s a near-total log jam of transportation in which flights are grounded, highways closed, and trains stuck in snow drifts or canceled for fear of derailment? A lot of people turn downright ugly. Sarah told me, and the reporters who swarmed the passengers when they finally arrived in Chicago, that while arriving nearly a full day behind schedule was certainly less than ideal, the conditions on the train were reasonably comfortable: they had heat and light and were at least fed dinner, though there were no snacks and only limited water. The conductor made the rounds of the train and kept the passengers up to date on what Amtrak was doing to try to get them out.

The conductor’s attempts to maintain communication and keep things light were not reciprocated by all of the passengers, however. The conductor learned many new things from angry passengers, including “who she was, where she should go, and what she should do with herself,” including a number of word she hadn’t heard during her time in the Marines. In her shoes, I probably would have told the passengers in question that if they thought they could do a better job of getting the train unstuck, they were welcome to go out and push. There were also rumors of a fistfight, though Sarah did not witness it. The news was rife with interviews of similarly bilious grounded airline passengers.

I understand that the travel delays impeded people’s ability to go on carefully-planned vacations, or visit sick or dying loved ones, or to attend important career events. In their shoes, I’d be frustrated and angry too. But there’s only so much anyone can do when the puts a twelve-foot snowdrift in the way of your train, and taking your anger out on the conductor does nothing to fix it. It is not the railroad’s fault that the train does not have the supplies to feed its passengers several unscheduled meals; did no one think even to bring snacks with them?

These things happen. Winter happens. And while it doesn’t usually happen this badly in Chicago, it happens a lot. Winter inconveniences are just one of the hazards of living here, and I think if more Americans knew just how soft we have it and reacted accordingly, they’d be a lot more pleasant.


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Cold

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.


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I fail at hiking.

Or, to be more specific, I have thus far failed abysmally at hiking the hills around Erdenet. This is hard for me, as an avid outdoorswoman, long-time Scout, and veteran of several backpacking trips, to admit, but it’s true. And for this, I blame one trait: my hatred of wet feet and squelchy hiking boots.

“I must be cursed,” I recently commented to a Swedish long-time resident of this town. “Every time I try to set foot out of doors, it starts to rain.”

“That’s not a curse, it’s a blessing,” he replied. “Rain is always a blessing in Mongolia.”

He is, generally speaking, correct. If you look up Mongolia’s climate, chances are that one of the words your’e going to find describing it is arid. Even this far north of the Gobi, rain is still considered rare and special. The first rainfall of the year is considered especially lucky; when it fell on April 20th this year, during my friend’s wedding, we were told that this was a particularly auspicious sign for their marriage.

But while the rains did not begin until late this year, with skies that seemed not to remember how to deliver liquid precipitation and continued to dump snow on us until May 27th, they have fallen with a vengeance in the two months since. I would estimate that it has rained at least four or five days out of every week since that final blizzard; much to my dismay, the weekend always falls into the wet side of that statistic. It has rained on every single Saturday and Sunday since May.

The internet, in typical fashion, offers widely conflicting statistics as to Erdenet’s average rainfall and, so far as I’ve found, precisely none regarding this year’s actual rainfall to date, but all the Mongolians I’ve asked agree: this year has been unusually cold and wet.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Thus, I haven’t made much of an effort to get out onto the hills. When you’re on a week-long backpacking trip with a campsite to get to before nightfall, you trod onward through rain and muck, seeking shelter only when the conditions grow too dangerous for you to do otherwise; you’ve no other choice. But who willingly starts a day-hike in the rain, especially in the Land of Eternal Blue Skies? Especially especially in three-year-old hiking boots that only two weeks ago demonstrated how very not waterproof they are, in their old age?

Today, I vowed, would be different. I would set out in the morning and get a good chunk of the “trails” beneath my feet before thunderstorms started rolling in around noon, as they are wont to do.

Then, of course, I slept later than I’d intended, dallied about on the Internet, and decided to have one more cup of coffee before I left. I finally packed up the essentials (full Nalgene and knife, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, camera and phone, journal, walking stick, and some snacks) and headed out the front door around 10:30, just in time to hear the first rumble of thunder. I paused on the threshold, debating. The day was warm and, so far, sunny. I had a plastic bag to protect my journal and electronics, and if it rained, I’d end up with wet feet whether I had a raincoat or not. I was clad entirely in quick-drying synthetics (except for the wool hiking socks); did I really want to schlep my raincoat along with me?

No, I decided, I did not. The rain might not fall for hours, if it fell at all; the skies overhead were blue, and the sound of thunder carries a long way across the steppe. That storm was probably still far away. If, in despite of all this rationalizing, it rained anyway – well, then I’d just get wet.

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

Within minutes, I’d made my way beyond the roads and garages that circle Erdenet and started uphill. Grasses and wildflowers swayed in the light breeze, and the buzz of grasshoppers served as a pleasant – and, blessedly, quieter and less annoying – reminder of the cicadas that would be singing incessantly at home. I let my thoughts wander to previous hiking trips as I rambled back and forth in search of easy passage uphill. I stopped to take pictures of flowers and Tibetan prayer flags, mentally composing an entry I meant to write about the many scripts of Mongolia, and almost managing to ignore the continued grumbling of thunder from the west.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

As I approached the first peak along the ridge I meant to follow, the clouds shifted to cover the sun, and the wind began to pick up. The temperature dropped from uncomfortably warm to noticeably cool, and when I turned my eyes westward, I found that the clouds from the foreboding bluish-grey that threatens rain to the streaky, lighter hue in the process of delivering it. The clouds directly overhead, meanwhile, had begun to darken. Don’t be a baby, I told myself. It’s just rain.

But it wasn’t. As I watched, a bolt of lightning streaked through the clouds to the west. It was still far away, but was it far enough? Did I really want to be on an exposed mountaintop in a lightning storm? Or even one of the larch forests growing on the mountainsides – would that be better, or worse?

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far - I should be able to make that!

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far – I should be able to make that!

I changed my game plan. I’d summit this little mountain, circle its ovoo, and then head for Bayan-Undur. I hadn’t seen that spectacular ovoo since the fall, and I wanted pictures in a different season. Just those two peaks, I decided as I started uphill once more. I should be able to do both of those before the rains hit.

Then I heard a new sound from the west: not a crack or a boom, but a long, drawn-out rumble, the kind that lingers like a lion’s roar. It was answered in kind by a louder rumble just east of me before fading into a faint, scratchy crackling to the west. Either the western storm front had just thundered so loudly that the sound had echoed off the mountain on which I was standing and then been bounced back again by the mountains to the west, or the storm fronts to the east and west had begun to thunder in concert.

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim...

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim…

Either way, the message was clear. I picked my way over to a narrow, twisted track, the kind trod by many little hoofed feet, and started down the mountain. Sheep and goats might not have a whole lot in those tiny brains of theirs, bless them, but they do have the sense to seek shelter from the elements, and to create wonderfully nettle-free trails to places in which to do so. Without even pausing to tuck my camera and journal into the Ziploc bag I’d brought to protect them, I began the downward climb in earnest. IMG_1364

I made it home just as the first few drops began to splatter on the pavement around me. So far, as I sit and type this in my warm, dry apartment, it’s done no more than drizzle; the thunder has stopped, and the skies above this little valley have turned gorgeously, infuriatingly blue. But the sky to the north, above those hills I long to hike, maintains its threatening cast, and until it clears, I think I’ve tempted fate enough for the day. The heavens have spoken, and I shall obey.


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Rain

It tried hard to rain on the 22nd.

I looked out the window at midday to find the sky bisected by a streak of ominous grey, feathered along its northern edge with the striations typically indicative of rain. I quickly headed out the café door, knowing I still needed to stop by the school that day and wishing I’d had the sense to go earlier. I have no love for early spring rains; I can handle getting wet, and I tolerate cold with aplomb, but combining the two leaves me shivering, achy, and thoroughly miserable.

I felt a few drops spatter wetly across my face as I trudged up the hill to school. Here it comes, I thought, preparing to pull out my raincoat. But the precipitation I saw was coming down too erratically, in little fits and starts and the occasional swirl. After a few seconds of confusion, I realized it was also falling too slowly to be rain.

The snow, coming down in little balls not fluffy enough to be termed ‘flakes,’ melted instantly upon reaching the ground, which helped to create the illusion of rain. But though the clouds coughed and sputtered, it seemed they’d forgotten how to produce liquid precipitation. Theirs was a valiant effort, but a failed one nonetheless.

By five o’clock, the skies had given up on any pretense at rain. The dark clouds of the early afternoon had been replaced by a flat white blanket; the snowflakes, having grown thick and fluffy enough to house Polly Pocket and several of her friends, fell purposefully earthward in the absence of a breeze on which to tarry. Within an hour, cars and grass alike sported over an inch of the stuff, though the streets still remained stubbornly bare. I checked the weather on my desktop and chuckled at its naive insistence of 40-degree rain. The snows had no intent to relinquish this town so easily.

But I awoke this morning to an unfamiliar sound, one which even the insistent chirping of birds could not disguise. And the light was wrong; surely it should be brighter than this at 6 am? I knew what I would find when I dragged myself to the window to peer around my hideously-patterned floral curtains, but still I felt compelled to do so. I needed the visual confirmation to convince myself of what my other senses were telling me.

I’m not usually one to make a big deal about a little rain; Chicago’s no Seattle, but we still get plenty of the stuff. Rain floods our streets in the spring, cancels summer sports events, prevents outdoor recess for schoolchildren in the fall, and washes away snowmen and hopes of a white Christmas.

But not so here. Rain is not our constant companion in this land of high, cold desert. When you live in a place where the temperature drops below freezing and stays there for four straight months, and when that time is bracketed on either end by an additional month or two of snow, the first rain of the year is a big deal. It’s the long-awaited assurance that summer is finally on its way, that the grass will grow and the sheep will get fat and we won’t all freeze or starve (or both).

Its arrival is anticipated, noted, and celebrated – not ceremonially, perhaps, but personally. The week of the Boston bombing aligned with the week I was scheduled to teach my students about the news. After discussing the various media by which the news can be conveyed and obtained, I asked each class what had happened in the news that week. Over the course of the entire week, approximately three students answered my query with cries of, “Boston,” though a description of what had happened in Boston far outstripped their English abilities. (I was also highly impressed by the one student who called out, “Bad Korea.” Not a bad distinction when you don’t know the words for north or south.)

No, the word I heard again and again was “Khovsgol.” Erdenet had received only snow that week (several inches of it, at that),  but it had rained in Khovsgol, I was told time and again. Students in every class felt the need to inform me of this momentous event; the arrival of the spring rain was exciting and newsworthy even when a twelve-hour drive would be required to reach the area that it had fallen.

This morning’s rain was actually the third we’ve had this year, but it was the first to do more than drizzle lightly and leave a few puddles on the pavement. A steady, if light, fall like this was something I hadn’t seen since December (in Tokyo; our last real rainfall in Erdenet was in September). I stared for a while, wondering how something so simple could seem so momentous. And then I sighed in relief as I watched it turn once more to snow, glad that I could walk the half an hour to work without getting soaked.


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Outreach Trip, Part IV: Travel Hazards

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: traveling in Mongolia is a difficult business. Once we’d completed our morning presentation in Tariat, our schedules were clear of planned programming for nearly two days. No presentations to deliver or TV interviews to prepare for (or, more accurately, dread). The Embassy workers had described these two days as a “break,” and thus, we had assumed that we’d be able to rest: to sleep in, perhaps, or to hang out, play cards, and chat in a space larger than an SUV.

This, needless to say, was hilariously wrong.

We had nearly four hundred kilometers to cover over the course of those two days, the second two hundred of which took us beyond the roads recognized by Google Maps. The plan was simple: the first leg of the journey would take us from Tariat to Tosontsengel; the second, from Tosontsengel to Uliastai. We’d leave the Tariat area around 10:30, then stop for a late lunch in one of the driver’s family’s soums, and arrive in Tosontsengel in the late afternoon. The next morning we’d repeat the process, though without the helpful family rest stop. In America, neither day’s journey would take more than a few hours. But we were not in America, and not for a moment were we allowed to forget it.

It had begun to snow lightly before we left the volcano, but the skies cleared quickly once we got on the “road” (as it were). We passed hills turquoise-and rust-tinted hills and speculated about the mineral content of the soil; I observed that the grass looked greener than any I’d seen in months. We gloried in the sun and bright blue skies. It seemed the skies smiled on that day’s journey.

But that illusion evaporated as we approached a high mountain pass. The girls in the car behind me apparently took no notice of the warning signs, claiming the weather had sprung up out of nowhere, but I grew worried long before the problems started. The skies above might be blue, but those ahead spelled trouble.

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We’re driving into that?

Snow appeared on the ground as we began our ascent – a light dusting at first, then occasional drifts that grew in size and number as we climbed. The grey mass ahead grew closer and closer as we worked our way through the switchbacks. And then, suddenly, it was all around us. The road before us disappeared into the swirling white; but for their headlights, so too did the cars behind us. Only once have I experienced a whiteout more complete, and that was on a flat American highway. We inched along, unable to see the road more than a few feet in front of us. When the visibility cleared slightly, we found ourselves facing a serious problem.

No zoom on this picture - they're that close, and that hard to see.

No zoom on this picture – visibility’s that bad.

The snow on either side of the road was piled over a foot high; the road beneath us mercilessly slick, though free of drifts. But a few hundred yards in front of us, the snows continued unabated across the road, trapping nearly a dozen vehicles. It wasn’t just cars that were stuck, either: two mikrs were stuck as well, and, most worryingly, not one but three semis. One semi had clearly tried to pass the other after it got stuck, blocking the entire road.

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Trapped behind a long line of stuck trucks.

Any hope of making it to Dashaa’s family in time for lunch quickly evaporated. No one could go anywhere until both semis were freed, and while a crowd of men labored to dig them out, shovels seemed to be in short supply. Even more frustratingly, two more mikrs arrived while we waited – and rather than get in line with the rest of us, they apparently felt the need to pass us all and get themselves stuck in the snow as well. So there we stayed for the next four and a half hours while we waited for the roads to clear.

I can’t speak for the other cars, but everyone in mine cheered when the crowd ahead of us began to move one more. Imagine our dumbfounded disbelief when the snow ended abruptly just over the next ridge. Less than a thousand feet of snowed-over roadway had impeded our progress so long that we had not yet reached our “lunch” stop at the time we’d thought to arrive in Tosontsengel.

Surely, we thought, that was our trial for the day. The skies had cleared, we’d passed most of the snow, and our trusty Embassy vehicles were trucking along without any sign of a problem. Surely the road could have no more to throw at us that day.

And then we reached the river. At least, it had once been a river, before the heavy precipitation of the past year turned the entire area into a floodplain. Now it was a broad swath of ice occupying the entire valley, still littered with the carcasses it had swallowed. We passed a long-abandoned truck half-submerged in the ice, and then an entire hashaa filled with several inches of the stuff. I don’t know how quickly the waters must have risen around the ger that still sat there, but it must have been a chilly place to live.

Frozen Floodplain

Frozen floodplain.

However, these sights paled compared with that which was to come. The ice, we discovered, had begun to melt, and the resulting river flowed quite quickly. And, as rivers will do, it had chosen the smoothest course: the road.

Road, river... who's splitting hairs?

Road, river… who’s splitting hairs?

Our last embassy-organized trip had also involved an unfortunate encounter with a river, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in flashing back to it when I saw what lay before us. That river we had merely tried to cross, and still it had flooded our engine and left us paralyzed for hours. Surely we’d meet with even greater misfortune this time, when we were actually driving down the length of the river.

But there was no other way. The drivers judged that the water, though deep, was not too deep, and so in we went. I couldn’t believe we were doing this; none of us could. But somehow, we emerged from that water without so much as a hiccup in the proceedings. As the sun began to set in front of us, we neared our promised “lunch” stop, thrilled by the promise of real food at last.

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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.


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Dear Starks, Please Shut It: Winter Ain’t Coming, It’s HERE

Given the doomsday nature of Winter in “Game of Thrones”/A Song of Ice and Fire, it seems extremely appropriate that today, the supposed Mayan apocalypse, is also the first day that the Mongolians consider winter.

The Mongolians are no more immune to the apocalypse frenzy than the Chinese; I’ve heard reports of people from China buying gers and supplies and heading out into the Mongolian countryside, where they’ll be off the grid. I guess they figure it would safer to be out the hudoo and no longer relying on electricity or running water. They wouldn’t be safe rom the cold, though, or the dark; I’ve heard predictions that we’ll have twelve days of complete darkness, or that the temperature will drop to -70˚C. Given the choice between Frost’s options, the Mongolians definitely believe that the world will end in ice.

But the weather so far today is sunny, with a forecast high of -5F/-20C. That’s a lovely improvement over yesterday’s high of -14/-25. When last I wrote of the cold, it was to complain that the Mongolians kept telling me to wear warmer clothes, which I said I would do when it got colder. Well, it’s gotten colder. I acknowledged that the weather was “kind of cold” the first time we had a daily high of 0F. Given that when I checked on Wednesday, the highest temperature we were supposed to see for five days was -2F, I’d like to revise that description to “pretty cold.”

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It changes every time I check, but the forecast lows for this weekend have dropped as far as -38, and that, let me tell you, is pretty darn cold. I know I’ve experienced -10 in the states, and maybe even -15, but -20+ (or should that be -?) is a first. Or was. Now it’s a nightly thing.

And it’s only going to get colder. Today is the first day of the есөн ес ([jusən jus] or “yusen yuse” for those of you who read neither Cyrillic nor IPA), the nine nines of the Mongolian winter. Beginning with the winter solstice, their winter is comprised of nine sets of nine days. Each of these is associated with a certain level of cold, the first four being the coldest.

Нэг дүгээр ес: шимжин архи, or Mongolian vodka distilled from milk, freezes

Хоёр дугаар ес: vodka freezes

Горав дугаар ес: the tails of three-year-old yaks/oxen/bulls freeze (I’ve seen all three variations, but they’re all cattle…)

Дөрөв дүгээр ес: the horns of four-year-old yaks/oxen/bulls freeze

Тав дугаар ес: rice no longer freezes

Зургаа дугаар ес: snow melts off of paved roads

Долоо дугаар ес: snow melts off the hills

Найм дугаар ес: the ground becomes damp

Ес дугаар ес: the warmer weather starts

I haven’t tried freezing vodka outside, though I’ve been using the porch as a freezer for almost two months now. We might even exceed the levels of cold traditionally predicted by the есөн ес this year: I’m told it’s already a lot colder than it was at this time last year, and independent of the apocalypse frenzy, those in the know are predicting a colder-than-average winter, or possibly even a zud. (If we do have a zud, I’m hoping it’s the snowy kind).

So while fire is clearly out, ice is still a possibility. But if the apocalypse happens while I’m here, at least I’ll be safe from zombies. With the exception of UB, Mongolia’s population is too sparse for me to imagine the spread of an epidemic, and I think the cold here would kill most viruses. And, for that matter zombies: if you’re dead, or even undead, you are, by definition, cold. And here, cold means frozen.

Unless of course the zombies are White Walkers, in which case I, and the rest of Mongolia and Russia, are screwed. We are, after all, north of the Wall.