Posts Tagged 'ulaanbaatar'

3 weeks to go…

No luck with the Russian visa.  For one, they want 10 business days for processing.  For 2, they close from Jan 1 – Jan 11.  And for three, I don’t have 2 consecutive blank pages in my passport (thank you, US immigration, for the haphazard stamping all over the place).   The universe has decided that the spring of 2010 is not a good time for me to be in Russia…. so I’ll try again some other day.

In the meantime, I’ve booked my flights to/from India, Malaysia and S Korea.  It will be about 3 months of traveling, and it should cure the travel bug for a bit.  I’ll be coming back to UB on April 1 or so, and then heading back to the US for spring in the midwest.

Here in UB, the holiday season is in full swing.  There is a giant Christmas tree on Sukhbaatar Square, lending credence to the idea that Christmas (or at least the tree and gift-giving parts) is not just for Christians anymore. Snow is on the ground, also belying the age-old idea that it can be too cold to snow.

And cold it is.  Hovering around zero today, which an improvement from the negatives we had all last week (double negatives, at times).   While it’s surprisingly bearable, I won’t miss it when I’m yoga-ing on the beach in Kerala.

My work here is mostly wrapped up, and it was mostly a success.  There were some things I wanted to do that I didn’t a get a chance, but overall, I’ve gotten enough data to have a sense of a finished product… assuming I get around to writing.


merry christmas from the frozen north

It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. ~Dr. Seuss

Sukhbaatar Square on Christmas Night. A balmy -17 F.

Christmas Day in Mongolia is not unlike Christmas in the US, except that everything is still open.  Nevertheless, we gathered together for lunch and then later for the afternoon, sharing food, playing games, and enjoying each other’s company.  Then we attempted to find a karaoke place, and after an hour of walking around in subzero temperatures and with o luck, called it a night.  But it was a wonderful time.

Merry Christmas!

free again

The bans have been lifted, and the kids are back in school.  There is still swine flu, of course, but the infection rate is supposedly slowing down.  This means that we can stay out past 9 pm, though in this cold, I’m not sure that I will always want to.  But just in time for holiday season, at least.

baby it’s cold

We’re in the single digits (Fahrenheit) now during the day, which is a definite subzero overnight.  Rumor has it a cold front is moving in tonight, resulting in some seriously frigid weather for the next few days.  Of course, weather channel says nothing of this, but the Mongolian meteorologists seems to know what’s what.

It is a little unreal to check the weather and see consistently negative temperatures, and “highs” in the teens.  It seems absurdly cold to me, and yet when I go outside (in the daytime), it doesn’t seem too bad.  Of course, it will only get colder.  In two weeks, the “highs” will hover around zero degrees or so.

Times like these, I think that the Soviets weren’t half wrong in putting in centralized heating all over their cities.  Mongolia followed suit, and I’m left with a toasty warm apartment that is often hard to leave.  But the people in the ger districts are off the heating and water grid (though often have electricity), and I can only imagine living in a portable hut with felt walls in this weather.

Worse though, as the people with no dwelling whatsoever.  The homeless of Mongolia have it bad.  In the winter, they often sleep in the sewers and near hot water pipes.  The former is obviously not ideal, and the latter can be dangerous, as the pipes can be scalding hot.  The few unfortunate souls sleeping on the streets are left to fend for themselves and hope not to freeze to death overnight.   These same people are scorned for their excessive drunkenness, but maybe in the bitter bitter cold, half a bottle of vodka can very warming, and maybe the intoxication aspect is of lesser consequence.

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.

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.

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.