Saturday, December 31, 2011

"I see the winter. She's crawlin' up the lawn."

Baganuur, from the steppe
So winter officially started last week with the solstice. Mongolia, being a landlocked country bordered by the Himalayas in the south and the Siberian High—a mass of high-pressured cold, dry air—in the north, has one of the harshest winter climates in the world. Thrilling. Back in the day, herders developed a system to monitor the passing winter season despite their lack of access to Gregorian calendars. Thus, the 9 9’s of the Mongolian winter was established following the lunar calendar. This measurement is 9 sets of 9-day periods, each categorized by a different winter “happening.” Here’s the breakdown:

Beyond my apartment building
1st 9: milk vodka congeals and freezes
2nd 9: vodka congeals and freezes
3rd 9: tail of a 3-year old ox freezes
4th 9: horns of a 4-year old ox freeze
5th 9: boiled rice no longer congeals
6th 9: roads become visible under the ice
7th 9: hilltops appear
8th 9: ground becomes damp
9th 9: warmer days set in

Pollution from the ger district
Cows in the ger district
Supposedly, the 3rd and 4th nines are the worst. Regardless, we’ve got 81 days of winter ahead, a confusing fact to reconcile since we haven’t seen temperatures above 0F in over a month already.

An ovoo outside my town
Yesterday, however, was a warmer day (only -10F or so). Since the sun was out, I decided to take a hike out beyond my town’s limits. I was greeted by frozen steppe shadowed by distant mountains. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world, a statistic that is immediately remembered upon gazing out into the distance. I thought to myself, If I could climb to the top of that hill, I will see evidence of people on the other side. If I make it to the horizon of the steppe, another town will magically appear. However, I’ve travelled enough to know that many towns, including mine, are hours from the next. In only three minutes, I was beyond my apartment block in utter nothingness. The calm was beautiful.

The Christmas dog we let thaw inside

With the onset of winter came Christmas. I went to Ondorkhaan, the aimag center of Khentii Aimag, the province that my town borders. I have several friends who live in the town center, and it was great to spend the holidays with familiar faces. We had a non-traditional Christmas Eve dinner: macaroni and cheese, stuffing, biscuits, and chicken. We made up for the lack of turkey with the array of pies that were present, including pumpkin, apple, and peanut butter. We exchanged white elephant gifts (I gave phone units and received a can of baked beans and a can of mixed vegetables!) and since 3 other volunteers and I bought controllers at the electronics black market in UB when we visited for Thanksgiving, we also were able to play multiplayer Golden Eye 007 (that’s right.) on our computers. Nothing says it’s Christmas like using the cheats to unlock all weapons! Albeit, it was strange to not be fighting my brothers for first player as we did when we were kids. The next day, we celebrated Christmas by eating too much Chinese food a la “A Christmas Story.” Overall, I had a wonderful holiday and am blessed to have such great friends here and such a supportive family back home (whom I got to Skype on Christmas!).

Christmas Eve dinner!
I hope that the holidays have found you happy and healthy. Today, I’ll be ringing in the New Year with my sitemates (14 hours before you folks!). Happy New Year! Шинэ жилийн мэнд хүргэe!
I'll leave you with cows in blankets. Eating the garbage.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"Have you take a medicine?"

For the past several days, I have been sick with a pretty bad cold. It is my second this “winter,” the first being only three weeks ago. Until this point, I had remained very healthy in my new home. But I guess the weather is getting to me.

I’ve avoided going outside, and have been sleeping most of the day. On Saturday, I managed to make a big pot of my granny’s chicken and dumplings, and that lasted me until today. This morning, I called my training manager at school and told her I wouldn’t be coming in. Several hours later, around lunchtime, I heard a knock at my door. Hesitant to answer, I got out of bed and looked through the peephole.

Three of my teachers, Enkhjargal, Bayartsetseg, and Sarantuya, were standing outside. I let them in and was overwhelmed with an onslaught of hospitality. My friends had brought me everything they thought I might need to get better: lemon juice, garlic, vitamin c, chocolate, some horse meat, and soup made from the meat. They poured me some soup immediately, and we talked for a while. They told me what each remedy was for: put the lemon in tea, cook with the garlic, the horse meat will keep you the warmest in winter, melt the chocolate in hot milk before bed. When they discovered that I had just ran out of milk, Bayartsetseg even went back out in the cold to get me some from the store across the playground. When lunch was finished, Sarantuya wanted to leave the rest of the soup with me to have as leftovers, but unfortunately, my only pot was still in the sink from the chicken and dumplings. Enkhjargal quickly began to wash it out, despite my attempt to beat her to it. I was told to go back to bed, and that she was happy to clean my dishes for me. After reminding me to wear my hat and scarf whenever I go outside, they left.

I don’t know what I did as to be so lucky to work with such wonderful people, that even when I cancel class on them, they still come and help me. I can only hope to be as selfless and generous as they are in return.

Friday, December 2, 2011

6 months down...

6 months ago, I left my familiar home for a place I had only read about. I didn’t yet know about the great friends I would make, both with my fellow volunteers and my Mongolian counterparts, the family from the tiniest, isolated town that I would grow to love even through our language barriers, the customs that would become my daily routines, or the weather that would make me redefine any notion of seasons I had ever held. I didn’t know how much I would cherish letters sent from home or the single can of jalapenos that I have been saving, but I knew that I was in for an adventure.

Despite living alone, I have been cared for by many people. Through the magic of the internet, I am able to call home often. When I have a problem, my counterparts are quick to my rescue. With my first cold of the winter arrived teachers to my home, bringing tea and chocolates, giving me remedies for my illness. I feel compassion from the members of my community with whom I interact. It is shown in my store lady’s concern: “Make sure to dress warm. It’s good that you live close.” It’s in the students who follow me to and from school yelling, “Bagshaa!” reminding me of my role as their teacher, and it’s in the ones who scribble down lyrics to Mongolian pop songs for me, reminding me of my role as their friend.

I am thankful for my past 6 months in Mongolia, for my friends and family back home, and for the ones that I have made in-country. Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to you all!