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.


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