The Ulaanbaatar winter is brutal. As someone who spent most of her previous Mongolia winters in the Gobi I am unprepared for how knife-like the cold is. It is only October and yet I cannot go outside without wincing. The snow has a dry quality that only extreme cold can create. There is a cheeky, powdery texture to the stuff that says "I am not going anywhere." The snow I knew in the US would be wet and downy, melting in less than 40 hours. Not so in UB.
And yet, despite all the hardships... the skin-peeling cold, the stinging breezes, the fact that the 200 thousand won pea coat you bought in Seoul last year does not seem to be doing the trick.... everybody is happy. The sky is clear blue with the sparkling clean quality that only extreme cold can bring. The mountains surrounding UB are snow-covered and clearly visible despite the fact that all the ger smoke from the UB inhabitents trying not to freeze to death should obscure the peaks.
And I should mention that the lack of smog is rather strange right now... considering that smog increases in inverse proportion to the temperature.
I tend to write blog entries at a molassas-like pace so now, on October 21st, the familier coal smog has returned. It is too bad. There are few sights more dynamically amazing than the sail-boat glass building of UB shooting up from Peace avenue like a spaceship against a backdrop of encompassing crisp blue sky, white clouds in sharp relief and those beautiful, beautiful snowy mountains that surround the city.
And yet the cold keeps continuing. I have been in cold environments before. I have survived winters in Indiana. I have stalked around Paris during a time of such extreme cold that the Eiffel Tower was closed due to the fact that the structure was "gelee." Hell, I've even survived winters in Mongolia, but that was while I was in the Gobi. I have never had a true Mongolian winter, a northern Mongolian winter.
The cold is so extreme that nobody goes out during Friday and Saturday nights anymore. People are avoiding the outdoors quite a bit. I'm wondering about how this sort of weather would affect trick-or-treating if it descended onto the US. Kids wearing even the warmest costumes would not survive fifteen minutes of this holiday pastime.
"It's going to get colder," my friend Munkhtsetseg (notherrealname) said as she cooked dinner last night. She was dressed in a nighty and long johns, her face quite cheerful despite the deadening statement she had just uttered. Colder that this?!!!! Already the cold was almost beyond belief. It's less than a quarter mile between our apartment buildings but I always end up exhausted whenever I arrive at her place. The sheer amount of energy it takes to both maintain core temperature and propel myself down the street is such that after a hearty meal at my toasty apartment I inevitably end up exhausted and starving once I reach Munkhtsetseg's place.
I really can't imagine what could be colder than this. My Korean friends have all flown the coup, whooshing back to Seoul or Los Angelos to escape the winter. Even my university, which was founded by Korean missionaries in Mongolia, was forced to declare the months between December and February a vacation since none of their foreign teachers wished to experience Mongolia's flesh-eating winter weather.
But it is not like there aren't amusing stories to be told (indoors while drinking coffee and watching bad movies whilst the winter winds turn all outdoor matter to solid carbon) and morals to ponder. "Did you hear about the Peace Corps Volunteer who went outside during January while wearing his stupid emo hoop-stud earings? The metal froze to the lobs of his ears and they turned black from frostbite. The surgeon had to cut off most of the flesh on his ears. That dumbass PCV got to go to Thailand for the operation though." Still, my favorite story came from my friend Bold (nothisrealname), a business man and independant consultant in UB.
"I had a friend," Bold told me one day, "Who worked for Procter and Gamble. You know that company?"
"Well anyway, he worked for the international distribution department of Procter and Gamble. He concentrated on Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia.... those areas of the world."
"The areas with the frigid winters."
"Oh yes. Anyway, one of the villages where he distributed Procter and Gamble goods was one of those tiny places with about 500 people.... roughly half of them male and the other half female. About twenty percent of the population were children. Anyway, my friend discovered that this village was buying female menstruation pads at an enormous rate... far more than was normal for a community that size. It was like the women were menstruating year-round and the men were doing a fair bit of bleeding too. It was amazing just how-"
"Yes yes, that's pretty strange," I said, trying to fight the visual.
"Anyway, my friend was wondering why on Earth everybody in the village was buying pads. He did loads of market research and finally found out the answer after an overnight stay."
Bold stopped a bit for effect, looking at my face as I anticipated the answer.
"It turned out that, well, the men in the village were putting the pads in their shoes."
"Yes! They were using the pads as cushions for the soles of their shoes! They were changing the pads twice a day as they used them up! It turns out that menstrual pads are excellent insulators for boot and shoe interiors during the winter!"
"Wow!" I said "That's.... ingenious! You could use 'Light Days' for spring and autumn when it's chilly but not too cold. You could use the 'Overnights' for deep winter... Omigod the possibilities are amazing! Did Procter and Gamble continue to perpetuate this belief? They would have made a killing in cold countries."
"Uh, no, they didn't," said Bold, "I mean, my friend didn't really go beyond telling me what the pads were used for. I just thought it was funny."
"It IS funny!" I said. "And they could use condoms as actual one-finger gloves! Y'know, for those girls who wear fashionable finger-less striped gloves that go up to the elbow. Those chicks must freeze to death outside... and now they don't have to! They can use 'Ultra-Thin' so that the fingers are kept fashionably visible but not uncovered.... 'Ribbed' in case they have to riffle through papers or something."
Bold told me to stick to teaching verb tenses but I still remember that story of the menstrual shoe-warmers very well. It really is wonderful what the un-indoctrinated human mind can devise when put to it. My shoes remain pad-less to this day but there have been times while walking down the street to Munkhtsetseg's house or even just gritting my teeth to make it the hundrred yards between the building with my classroom and the building with my office that I have not thought about a little protection for my sole.
It's that cold here.