The Nine Nines of Winter

Here in Mongolia, winter is traditionally thought of as nine periods of nine days each, or the “Nine Nines of Winter.” Obviously winter in Mongolia lasts longer than 81 days, but the Nines represent the coldest part of winter. The Nines start on the winter solstice (so they started on December 22 in 2015), and each of the Nines is associated with an event related to how cold it supposedly is:

1st Nine: Mongolian vodka (made from milk) freezes

2nd Nine: Regular vodka freezes

3rd Nine: The horns of 3-year-old bulls freeze and fall off

4th Nine: The horns of 4-year-old bulls freeze and fall off

5th Nine: Boiled rice no longer freezes

6th Nine: Roads start to become visible through the snow

7th Nine: Snow on hill tops begins to melt

8th Nine: The ground becomes damp

9th Nine: Warmer days have arrived

Yes, I know most of you can't read this, but it basically says what I just talked about, and I thought the pictures were cute (from http://news.gogo.mn/r/176271)

Yes, I know most of you can’t read this, but it basically says what I just talked about, and I thought the pictures were cute (from http://news.gogo.mn/r/176271)

Today is the first day of the 6th Nine, and I can say the roads are still very much covered in ice and snow, and likely will be for quite some time. Maybe this system was developed by Mongolians in the Gobi or somewhere else warmer than Zavkhan (okay, everywhere in Mongolia is warmer than Zavkhan, but still…). The idea that “warmer” days will have arrived by the end of the Nines (which will be March 12 this year) is laughable. But I guess it’s all relative, and considering the past few weeks we had, it wouldn’t take much to make it “warmer.”

The 4th and 5th Nines are thought to be the coldest, and that was definitely true this year. There were a couple weeks in mid to late January when it was well into the -30s F (-35 to -40 C) every single night, and never even got close to breaking 0 degrees F (-18 C) during the day.

Courtesy of Saruul Sora on Facebook

Different hemispheres and all, but still (photo credit to Saruul Sora on Facebook)

I’ve been chopping so much wood recently to keep the fire in my stove burning that I was really worried for a bit that I had injured my shoulder (it’s better now because I got a little wood-chopping break thanks to my sitemate).

I spend the first hour or so after I get home from work huddling next to my stove, then slowly start taking the layers off as my ger warms up. Even the nights when it got close to -40, I couldn’t keep a fire going all night because that would have required me to wake up several times during the night (I don’t know if it’s the kind of stove I have or just the fact that my ger is relatively large and therefor has more air to heat, but it is impossible to keep it warm without tending to the fire every hour or so, even when I use coal). So instead of keeping warm that way, I go to bed wearing two layers plus my winter deel, sleep in my Peace Corps-issued sleeping bag (rated to -20 degrees F/-29C!), under my down comforter, along with a winter hat and gloves. Then I wake up in the morning, quickly start a fire, then run back under the covers for another 30-40 minutes until my ger is bearable. Even then, I can still see my breath while getting ready in the morning, and all my toiletries (toothpaste, face wash, moisturizer, etc.) are pretty much frozen (but ice crystals are exfoliating, right?). It’s really cold is what I’m saying.

This was predicted to be a particularly harsh winter, and I can say that it’s definitely much colder than last winter. I can’t even escape the cold at work, since the radiators we have at the health department only provide so much heat unless you’re sitting right next to them. So, most of the time I’m wearing my jacket (and sometimes even gloves) in my office at work.

But, the Nines are over half-way through, and even though what I perceive as winter will continue for 3 or 4 more months, the coming above-zero days will feel like a sauna by comparison!

 

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Visiting the Smoggy City

I spent a few days last week in UB for a training (ok, the training was only one day but with Zavkhan’s twice-weekly flight schedule, I got to stick around for a few extra days). It was a seminar regarding PC/Mongolia’s  EAP (Emergency Action Plan), so since it concerns the safety and security of PCVs in-country, I probably shouldn’t really talk about here.

So instead, I’ll discuss just how insanely smoggy UB is, particularly in the winter. I knew UB had an air pollution problem, but I just don’t remember it being so bad the couple of times I was there last winter. I guess I didn’t spend as much time walking around outside during my last winter visit, since all the sessions and meals during our IST last year were held at the same hotel we were staying at.

But this time around, I was walking outside a lot, and my lungs did not appreciate the air quality. It was worst in the evening; every time I went out to dinner with friends, I would step out of the restaurant and immediately start hacking my lungs out.

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There’s been several news articles about UB’s air pollution problem since I’ve been in Mongolia, including:

Not that UB’s smog is a new development. I found articles from 2013 that discuss how UB is the second most polluted city in the world–not exactly what you’d expect of a city in the sparsely-populated, wide-open land of Mongolia. But get nearly half of the country’s population living in one city, and then get half of that group of people living in traditional gers and wooden houses in the “ger districts” of UB, and you’re left with well over 500,000 people who all rely on old-fashioned wood and coal-burning stoves to cook food and not freeze to death during the long, harsh winters.

The coal-fueled power plants and growing number of cars on the streets are certainly also contributing to the air pollution, as is the fact that UB is located in a valley surrounded by mountains that reduce air circulation, but air pollution from household stoves is a somewhat unique contributor that other top air pollution cities don’t really deal with.

ub air pollution

The Mongolian government, as well as several international organizations, have been looking into possible solutions, such as cleaner-burning stoves and continuing to expand the public transportation system, but it looks like for now, I’ll just have to appreciate the fresh mountain air of Uliastai even more.

 

Spring Has Sprung!

After roughly 7 months of winter, it looks like spring has finally arrived here in Uliastai! And by “arrived,” I mean one week it was still frigid with sub-zero temperatures during the night, and the next I could comfortably walk around town with jeans and a thin long-sleeved shirt. Now I only have to make a small fire in my stove in the morning to get the chill out from the night before and maybe a small fire late in the evening depending on how long I plan to stay up. I somehow still have over half of my firewood left, probably because it was a relatively “mild” winter by Mongolian standards. The sun doesn’t set until almost 10pm, so even accounting for daylight saving time, that’s an extra 3-4 hours of light during the evening. But unfortunately, the warmer weather means my ger spiders have come back. Stupid spiders.

Most of the snow on the surrounding mountains has melted…

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…and some parts of the rivers have completely thawed as well.

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

The weather was even nice enough yesterday for us to go on our first hike of spring!

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Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

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Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

It was a nice little excursion, but I didn’t even think about how my ghost-white skin would react to seeing the sun for the first time in over half a year. I remembered to put sunscreen on my face and neck, but completely forgot about my arms. So now they’re sunburned. 😦