Wednesday, February 01, 2012

If Genghis Khan, so khan I!

“Don’t worry – it is going to warm up next week.”

My head immediately perked up. We were at dinner with a mutual friend in a German themed beer garden with the -51F night lurking right behind the window of my right shoulder.  Warmer?  Thank god.  The cold was killing me.  You cannot imagine how cold it is in Ulaanbaatar in January.  I promise.  I have been nigh in the North Pole and a week ago I couldn’t have imagined it was possible to live in this weather.  You step outside at night and your nose feels funny – because the moist membranes that line it freeze almost instantly.  The window in my hotel room is frozen shut – on the inside – because the glass on the window is so cold that steam from the shower freezes instantly builds into an inch thicket layer of ice.  I go to work every day – in a heated building – wearing ski thermals and deep cold hiking socks under my turtleneck sweater under my suit.  And I spend all day drinking hot water (avoiding caffeine is really inconvenient here) to try to keep off the chill.  So the promise of warmer weather was deeply thrilling. 

“Really,” I ask tenatively, “how warm?”

“I don’t know – maybe 20s.”

For joy!  The 20s!  Whereas in DC I would take a taxi home from the corner when it was that cold – here it would be bikini time.

“Yes,” he continues, “maybe even up to 15.”

“Oh.  You mean minus.”

So in addition to being god-awful cold in January – Mongolia is a different place – big country with a relatively small population squashed in between two massive superpowers.  Known for cashmere, nomads, and Ghengis Khan (which I learned is actually spelled Chinngis – and literally everything here is named after him – airport, main roads, beer, vodka…). 

And though I will admit that I didn’t see as much of the country as I might have given the fact that I refused to leave my ultra heated hotel room for the first… um… week, I have a couple of observations from my time here.

(1)  They are really into ice sculpture.  It works just like concrete but longer lasting given the climate.

(2) There is no such thing as clean coal in Mongolia (or really anywhere else for that matter but you have to give credit to true marketing genius).  The city is rapidly expanding in population (downside risk of having a huge nomadic population is that they can migrate to the city likety-split).  The new arrivals live in traditional tents on the outskirts – which are heated by coal stoves.  Thousands of massively inefficient Chinese coal stoves running on full blast.  The resulting haze lead to what I believe to be my most memorable experience with – which gave the forecast as “-25F with Smoke.” 

(3) Mongolians like horses – equally as transport, companions, and the main course.  It’s not bad, tastes more or less like venison. 

(4) Mongolians also like vodka.  And beer.  These wondertwins combined forces on my last night for a memorable (or not) dinner with colleagues that ended with me sleeping in my bathtub. 

(5) UB city doesn’t have much in the way of sightseeing.  Given I didn’t go outside much but Sunday I sucked it up (desperate to do anything *besides* working) and decided to do a half-day walking tour.  This lasted literally less than five minutes before I hired a taxi.  First stop was Zaisan – which is the requisite Soviet friendship monument standing on a hill outside town.  In addition to some lovely murals depicting happy workers, cosmonauts, and vanquished Nazis, there is a nice panorama of the smoke below.  While there I met two other tourists who had climbed to the top.  At first I was really impressed by the Japanese guy – who despite his age had braved the endless ice covered steps.  Then I got close enough to talk to him – and saw that he was about my age.  His mustache and goatee were completely iced over to a perfect snow white.  Then I hit the Winter Palace – which was frigid – and in serious need of restoration in places – but contained some cool Buddhist tapestry art.  My third stop was the Ganden Temple Monastery – complete with requisite giant golden Buddha – which was bumpin’ on a Sunday.  And then… well.  My walking tour originally had six stops.  After three I decided, even with the car, screw it, I hadn’t been able to feel my toes for hours and my camera had frozen – I was going cashmere shopping. 

And that pretty much sums it up.  I would like to go back at some point (like July) and see a bit of the countryside.  The only other cool thing I have to report is on the way in to UB I flew through Beijing.  We were landing at night near the Chinese New Year – and below us hundreds of houses were shooting off fireworks.  It was really spectacular.  And now I am on a plane again – flying the ever-popular Ulaanbaatar to Bamako route (by way of Beijing, Addis Ababa, and Lome).  It’s a good thing that none of my toes froze off – it is going to be open-toed shoes weather in a few hours. 


Georgia Browne said...

Wonderful post. Now I can cross UB off my 'bucket' list.
I envy your travels.
Georgia Browne

Tara said...

UB to Bamako, huh? Crazy! At least it is sure to be warmer. Glad you got to sample some horse in UB, and I do hope you get to go back sometime when it's less painfully cold.

scout said...

I have a friend who is Mongolian and who recently returned to UB after years in the UK and the states. Let me know when/if you do head back and I'll introduce you.