Archive for November, 2009

thanksgiving in mongolia

Thanksgiving in Mongolia was suprisingly like Thanksgiving in America, though not without considerable effort.  First, there was the matter of the turkey.  Not a common sight here, but the embassy staff receives a special shipment of over 1000 turkeys in mid-November.  This year, unfortunately, they didn’t arrive, due to some ill-timed bad weather.

But, Thanksgiving isn’t the same without the turkey, so a good friend rallied his resources and managed to get his hands on one, raised by a farmer in the far east of the country.   Apparently, this lucky soul only had 10, and the US embassy suggested to him that now would be an opportune time to sell them.  So he did, and $98 later, our 3.4 kilo crowning jewel arrived.

The rest of the ingredients proved easy enough to find, except perhaps sweet potatoes.  Yams were possible, but this year Thanksgiving fell on the same day as Mongolia’s constitutional independence, and as a national holiday, the markets were closed (though some stores remained open).  So no yams either, but potatoes, beans, corn, carrots, bread for stuffing, pumpkin, and all sorts of other goodies were procured in advance.  The night before, we set to cooking, producing pie, ricotta cheesecake, and the foundations of several other dishes besides.

The day of, vegetables were chopped, and the bird soaked in a pot of salt water.   3.4 kilos is nothing spectacular, and the only indication that we had a turkey was its long neck.  When you are used to American butchering of fowl, the sight of the long neck and the cavity on the other side is a bit disconcerting.  After several minutes of grossing ourselves out, we managed to marinate the bird and put it in the oven (where it barely fit – 3.4 kilos was perhaps the perfect size).

Because two of us live in the same building, we managed to move chairs and a table from one apartment to another, so that we were able to squeeze 12 people around one table.  Everything else was prepared, and an extra chicken obtained just in case.

All told, we had the turkey and chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, roasted carrots and leeks, sauteed spinach and mushrooms, savory zucchini ricotta cheesecake, apple-walnut stuffing, sesame green beans, rolls, pumpkin bread, a hearty salad, pumpkin pie, chocolate pecan pie, strawberry cake, ice cream, and even fresh mongolian cream.  And, at the 11th hour, as we lamented for the 10th time that we would have no cranberry sauce, a friend walked in with a bag of hawthorn (or perhaps goji) berries – small, bright red, and most important, tart.  So we boiled them in a sugar syrup, added orange rind and juice, and made the best approximation of cranberry sauce that we could have manged.  Dinner was complete.

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cough cough hack

So lockdown continues for another 14 days, with schools and other things still closed.  But I’m mostly concerned about the pollution and the constant hacking and nose-blowing that never seems to stop.

The air is hazy, and the smell lingers in everything.   It isn’t so bad in the day time, but at night, it can be a major disincentive to going out (which works for now, since everything closes at 9 pm). I think as it gets colder, the daytime haze will grow, as more people burn things 24-hours a day.   Sometimes, the haze is so bad that the mountains that ring the city are not visible.

The smell is not the pleasant one of smoke.  It’s more like plastic, and dung, and maybe even tires.   It is acrid and vaguely nauseating, and with the biting cold, it sears the inside of your nostrils.  Only two months left, and its not the cold that will get me, but the pollution.

swine flu

H1N1 came late to Mongolia, but it came in like a lion.  Since the initial cases were reported in early October, the headcount has gone up to over 900 (remember, pop: 2.7 million), with 9 deaths (ie, 1% case fatality rate).  To combat the spread of the disease, we are basically on lockdown.

Schools have been closed for 2 weeks, and will remain closed for another 2 weeks.  The local stations are broadcasting lessons, so students are still learning and keeping up.  Universities are still open, however (not sure why).

Everything closes at 9 pm, with a strict penalty imposed for violators.  There is nothing like being harried through a nice meal to remind you to which extreme measures people can often resort.   Entertainment facilities, sporting events, and pretty much all public gatherings have been canceled.  This leaves most people very little to do, and unfortunately, the city’s youth have found hanging out on the street behaving like hooligans an adequate way to pass the time.  Luckily, its getting colder and colder, so most will stay indoors anyway.  I am guessing the liquor companies are doing brisk business at the stores.

The most recent decision has been to stop all domestic travel, except flights.  This means no buses, and potentially even no trains.  Private cars are still allowed around, but many people are not going anywhere. Rumor has it the city will be closed entirely this weekend, meaning no one will go in or out.

The most alarming news is that the land border with China is closed for 2 weeks, meaning imports will slow to a trickle.  Given how much produce and other food items come across that border, I imagine the prices are going to start rising soon.

What does this mean for the economy?  I guess we will soon see….

winter starts…

It’s November now, and my jokes about the frozen north don’t seem quite so entertaining anymore, as the temperatures sit consistently below freezing.  I decided I wouldn’t break out my winter parka until the temps dropped below zero (fahrenheit), which they have started to do in the evenings/nights.

So out it comes, and god bless Marmot for making the warmest coat I have ever worn.  We’re still above zero in the day time, but the coat is worn almost constantly now.   It is quite the wind block, and with the hood up, I’m toasty all over, except where the wind blows around my legs.  But I haven’t pulled out the long underwear just yet.

Winter is not nearly as bad as I was expecting, but then again, single digits (again, fahrenheit) are what I grew up with.  It’s been a while, still, but it shouldn’t be unbearable.  When we go below zero in the daytime (thus double digits below at night), then I’ll be truly cold.

In the midst of this, I think about Mongolians who live off the grid (and the few expats, ie, PCVs, who do too).  I am lucky, in my apartment so warm, I almost never actually have the heat on, and my running hot water.  I wake to warmth, and if I wanted, I could wear tank tops and shorts and sit on my couch and watch TV.

Off the grid, people live in buildings, occasionally, but more often in gers.  True, a well-constructed ger can be incredibly insulated.  But the cloth felt and latticed wood is still no match for concrete bricks when it comes to keeping out the cold.  Worse, off the grid means no heat or electricity or plumbing.  That is, mornings are sharply cold until someone ventures out from under heavy blankets to light a fire in the ger stove.  Nights are dark. And all together, bathroom breaks mean leaving the ger in the middle of the cold night. I periodically think that I should experience this, and then I venture outside and the sharp winds remind me why I live in relative luxury.

On the other hand, a ger in the countryside has one significant advantage over an apartment in the city: far less pollution.  The haze and black smoke hangs over UB constantly now, powered by the burning of trash, plastic bottles, raw coal, dung, and whatever else, in hundreds of thousands of ger stoves.  And as the ger districts surround the city (further ringed by mountains), the pollutions drifts lazily towards the center and lingers, often it seems, in my parking lot.  The particulate matter is visible, and at night, my cold breath hangs in the air for a moment, suspended, before blowing away.