Posts Tagged 'winter'

travel diary: terelj

This travel experience is a bit different.  Previous trips to the countryside entailed hopping in a car and driving for hours…. This time, we eschewed our normal mode of transportation and tried another – dog sled.

Terelj is probably the most visited destination outside of UB, because it’s close to the city, but far enough that, as a national park, it seems like you are in the countryside.  And because of its proximity to the capital, it plays host to a wide range of ger camps, resort facilities, and nomadic families, offering conveniences for every taste.  Surprisingly, I’ve never been to Terelj before, and I do appreciate being able to leave Mongolia haven’t visited at least once.

This time around, we embarked on a trip with a French tour guide who runs the only dog sledding operation in Mongolia.  Joel is originally from France, but has made Mongolia his own, along with his 44 Alaskan huskies.  He’s been dog sledding for a long time, and it was quite a treat to share his love for the sport for even just a weekend.

So early Saturday morning we departed UB and headed to the countryside.  It was nice to escape the pollution and breathe clean air, and I gladly traded my warm apartment for more rustic conditions.  We arrived in Terelj and after suiting up (which included waterproof boots, massive sheepskin mittens, and every layer of clothing I brought with me), we met our team of dogs.

I think the usual team comprises 6-11 dogs, but as beginners, we only had 5.  Enough for me, as my dogs were ready to run, run, run.   We set off almost immediately along the frozen Terelj River, and after maybe 30 minutes of trying to get used to this strange new sensation, we learned to relax and go with the flow.  I think riding the sled must be like skiing – you stand on two planks of wood and adjust with movement of the dogs and the sled.  The key, I guess, is staying loose.

After 3 or so hours (30 kms), we arrived at a family’s hasha, where we would stay the night.  The family was warm and welcoming, and we played Mongolian card games and drank vodka into the late hours, before stoking the fire and heading to bed.  The ger was surprisingly well-insulated, keeping us warm for almost the entire night.

The next day, we hopped back on our sleds and headed out again; this time, though, I managed to wreck my sled almost immediately on a steep decline with rocks.  But the dogs ran on like nothing happened, and I hopped back on and kept going, getting comfortable again after a few minutes or so.   Again, we raced along the frozen river, driving through slush occasionally, which I will confess made me slightly apprehensive.

And at the end, we warmed up in the home ger again, glad to have had this wonderful experience.   I had expected to be very cold, but was surprisingly ok, despite temperatures far below 0 F. The dogs were adorable and fun – each has a name and a distinct personality and it was fun to watch them interact with us and each other.  Definitely a worthwhile experience!

More pictures found here.

nine nines of winter

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, it’s really quite cold here.  There are those who insist that it’s colder “back home”, but “back home”, I’ve never put on long underwear just to walk to a friend’s house.  Here, I wear a down-fill jacket fit for arctic temperatures.

The Mongolians know a cold winter.  In fact, they’ve got a system going, lovingly known as “the nine nines of winter” (Yucen Yuc).  Winter begins on the winter solstice (this season, December 22nd), and continues for 81 days, broken down into 9 sets of 9.   Each nine is marked by some action or observance.  Generally, it goes:

  • First nine – shimijn arkhi (mild alcoholic beverage made of milk) freezes
  • Second nine – arkhi (vodka) freezes (second distillation, also sometimes, they say Russian vodka freezes)
  • Third nine – tail of three-year-old yak freezes
  • Fourth – horns of four-year-old yak freeze
  • Fifth nine – boiled rice does not congeal any more
  • Sixth nine – roads blacken (ie, snow melting on blacktop)
  • Seventh nine – hilltops blacken (snow melting on the lower hills)
  • Eighth nine – ground becomes damp (snow melting on grass)
  • Ninth nine – warm days set in

We are in the second of the nines currently, which started on New Year’s Eve.  I’ve got some vodka on my balcony – not yet frozen.  But arkhi has less alcohol than bottled vodka, and I’ve heard some frozen vodka stories from others.  Up next, January 8th, we test some yak tails.

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!

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.

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.