Winter

This post actually backdates to November 18th; for some reason it decided not to autopost.

In Mongolia, it’s said that the year of the monkey — this year — is often especially cold. I think this explains a lot about the geography of my life. I was born in the year of the monkey, and while I haven’t got any especial affection for winter, I always seem to end up in places where the season is particularly infamous.

In Buffalo, winter is marked by a change in color and in scent. Autumn brilliance falls away from the trees, leaving a bare, grey tracery in the sky; the sweet brown smell of fallen leaves fades as the weather grows colder, and the air turns crisp with snow. Then the first storms blow in and cover everything in white.

In Mongolia, the transition is not so marked. It’s dry out here, so it doesn’t snow often; the dangers of winter lie not with storms, but with the intense cold. (In Ulaanbaatar, winter temperatures reach -40 degrees. Out in my aimag it’s a little bit less frigid.) Nor are there enough trees to make fallen leaves a notable phenomenon. Winter this year, for me, has come as a gradual adding of layers to keep the half-hour walk to school pleasant, and in watching the river vanish under layers of snow and ice.

Today I spent half the walk contemplating the wisdom of taking a cab because it simply was not possible to cover the skin around my eyes, and observed that someone set up a skating rink in the middle of the river. I think it’s safe to say winter is here.

As I said, snow isn’t a common event in my part of Mongolia. It’s only snowed twice this year — once in mid-October and once last week — and my counterparts say it’s not likely to happen again. Kids are as excited to play in the snow as they are anywhere, though, and they do the same things as kids in the States: snowball fights, snowmen, snow drawings, sliding around on icy surfaces and down hills.

Last week, after it snowed, the entire school ran outside during the ten-minute midday break to have a giant snowball fight, and after fifteen minutes the training manager (sort of like a vice principal) had to go outside to shepherd the kids to their classes. Apparently it’s a thing here for boys to dump snow on girls and stuff it down the backs of their shirts. I’m not sure whether it’s a badly executed gesture of repressed affection or a socially acceptable outlet for the innate urge to be a hormonal ass that overcomes most adolescents at some point or another. Most of the girls ran outside to join the fight anyway, though.

One snow-related difficulty has to do with Mongolian urban geography. That is to say, most roads aren’t paved, and there aren’t really things like trees or gardens or even grassy lawns to get in the way of walking, so pretty much any space that is not inhabited by a building is fair game to be traversed. It simply isn’t possible to clear the snow from all those roads and plazas. A few very major paved roads are salted, but other than that, people just seem to drive/walk slowly and entrust themselves to fate. Having driven in snow for the last five or so winters, and knowing that I cannot count on most Mongolian cars to have snow tires or even tires that would pass inspection in the US, I have zero intention of being in a car on any road that has turned mostly to ice.

Fortunately, the walkways seem to progress from packed snow to ice to ground right back down to bare dirt and safe, in contrast to New York, where icy paths just get snowed on again and add another layer of impossible-to-remove slipperiness.

While all the trappings of winter have arrived, we’re not yet caught in its grip. I’m not really looking forward to February — when early darkness and frigid cold have long ceased to be a novelty, and everyone holes up in their separate homes waiting for winter to end — but I’m curious to see how it compares to my previous experiences.