Counting the Cold in Mongolia

My biggest accomplishment recently is learning to count to five in Mongolian. Neg, khoier, corro, gorro, tao. See I can do it! Now to get to ten. Unfortunately this isn’t going to help me with shopping as my bills are usually in the 30000Tg range and that is way beyond what I am probably going to be able to do. One to five was difficult enough. However this is one of the bonuses of teaching ESL. All of the kids love teaching me how to count, say hello, and thank you in their own languages as they learn the words in English. I have also learned other things from my students. For example, never make the mistake of asking a child from Taiwan which Chinese language they speak in Taiwan (Cantonese by the way) if you don’t want a very indignant lecture from an eight year old on the fact that Taiwan is NOT China. I was aware of that but I am certainly going to make sure that I never use the word China and Taiwan in the same sentence again! 

It is finally cold here in Ulaanbaatar I say that as if I am super excited to be freezing my tush off but to be honest I was beginning to wonder if the amazing cold of Mongolia that I kept being told about was just talk. I don’t think that it has gotten too much below -5F but that is quiet cold enough when you aren’t dressed in the gear for it. How much do you think people would stare if I brought back my goggles from New York when I visit there? Probably not too much more than they already do… 

I have been trying to acclimate myself to the metric system. It isn’t going all that well. Instead of learning the metric system I am simply forgetting the standard system. How big is a yard? Don’t ask me? Is -5 c really cold? Let me go outside and find out. This is not a very convenient development and I have to say that I am a bit disappointed with myself. I am simply hoping that this is some sort of stage and that eventually I will be able to intelligently answer such questions as, “How far away from the school do you live?”, with an intelligent answer, such as “4.1 km, of course.” 

Seeing the people adjustments to the cold has been interesting. For reasons that are beyond me most of the sidewalks here are either pavement that someone has taken a jackhammer to or something like polished granite. With the smallest amount of snow on that you can imagine how deadly it becomes. And, yes I do have bruises from it. The Mongolian women are not at all bothered by it. To the extent that about 90% of them wear 4 inch boots at all times. I have to hold myself back from staring at the sheer artistry that walking on that surface with those shoes truly requires. Impressive! 

There are other concessions to the cold. People seem to carry large felt blankets in their cars to through over the engines so that they will stay warm. I have heard of people doing that in Fairbanks when it is 30- f but it is hovering around 0f right now here and seems a bit extreme to me. Are their cars made differently? I know that Asian models of the same cars that we have in North America are still a bit different. They certainly don’t have to comply with anti pollution laws. I am sure that the blankets are probably necessary. Mongolian men if they are nothing else are mechanical geniuses. They can fix anything. I was watching a bit of the Mongolian channel the other day and I saw an old man fix a Russian jeep way out in the gobi with nothing more than an metal nail file. It is truly amazing. Which might explain why there are cars on the road here that shock me simply by virtue of the fact that they are running. 

My housekeeper taped up all my windows on Friday to keep out the drafts. My building is pretty old and so it has been pretty cold here the last few days. Maintenance must be a pain. The person who lives above me has flooded their bathroom pretty regularly. Either that or there is some sort of burst pipe. Anyhow, someone finally came to look at it yesterday. With a combination of writing, very basic Mongolian, and mime, I was able to understand the fact that he would be back in a week to fix it. I was so proud of myself as I remembered the extremely useful word for “I don’t understand”, that I had learned the night before. I have a feeling that I will be using that one a whole bunch. 

Anyone care to take bets on whether or not it will collapse in on me in the week before it is fixed?

While he was there he stepped on my toe. Not hard at all. I wasn’t at all hurt. However, almost reflexively he reached over and squeezed my arm. I was taken aback and confused for a second before I remember that when you step on someone’s foot here you have to shake hands with that person. Since my hands were folded he had to do the best he could. It was almost unconscious, like saying “bless you”, when someone sneezes. This led me to ask around a bit about other customs of that nature here in Mongolia. 

Apparently good and bad omens were traditionally looked for to see if good or bad things were coming. Talking about negative things simply talking about someone too much could bring misfortune. Children were the most vulnerable family members of course, and that's why they would sometimes be given no-names like Nergui which in Mongolian means “without name” or Enebish meaning “ not this one”, or boys would be dressed up as girls. I haven’t seen that at all but I was told that in the countryside it is still fairly common. What I have seen is the aftermath of the haircut. For a Mongolian Child, the first big celebration is the first haircut which happens sometime between the ages of three and five. All of the family takes turn cutting the child’s hair. The result isn’t neat but I think that most mothers recut the child’s hair eventually to make it neater. I am going to keep my eyes open to see if I can observe more. 

So that was most of my cold week here. Tune in for the next exciting segment of “ Random American in Mongolia”.