Sunday, January 31, 2016

It’s Very, Very Cold Outside (Part 3: The Final Chapter) Энд Гадаа Амар Хуйтэн Байх

            Mongolia has been a democracy since the year of my birth, 1990. Peace Corps Mongolia has been active part of Mongolia for the same amount of time. This year marks 26 years of service in this country. However, the volunteers that come here in the summer will be the 27th cohort. This inconsistency can be explained through the “Legend of the Lost Cohort”.

Sally at the Snow Festival

            Some time ago, when I was a child, headquarters in Washington decided to send a new group of volunteers to Mongolia to train in the winter instead of the summer.  No one currently working for Peace Corps Mongolia remembers the year or reason, but the closest guess places this cohort around the 7th or 8th to come to Mongolia.

            The fresh green volunteers disembarked from their airplane at Genghis Khan International Airport directly into the freezing sub-zero temperatures of Mongolian December. We know little of what happened during that miserable PST; all that is known is that the culture and climate shock was too intense and one-by-one they returned to the states. The oral tradition passed from cohort to cohort further tells that the last trainee of this miserable PST gave an ugly Christmas sweater to the then current PCV’s before embarking on his plane back home. This sweater has been passed down from cohort to cohort in remembrance of those poor souls who came to train in the Mongolian winter.

            So while my school fellows and I jokingly shouted, “Remember the Alamo!” PCV’s in Mongolia solemnly whispered, “Remember the Lost Cohort.” Not one of the trainees that had arrived that winter swore in to become PCVs.
People standing around a fire on a frozen river at the Snow Festival
            Before coming to Mongolia, Sally and I researched several blogs to see how the current PCVs survived the winter. One blog described Mongolian winter using Harry Potter. “It is as if there is a Dementor standing next to you all the time. All that is warm and good in the world is replaced with endless cold.” I paraphrase, but I thought the description humorous at the time.

            Now having been through hopefully the worst that this winter has to offer, I can safely say that while it is miserably cold, it is entirely manageable. The winter has been filled with lessons and skills. Here are a few that I have learned.
Mongolian's skating on frozen river
Lessons of a Bama Boy in a Mongolian Winter

1.      It seems that around 0º F ice will form on the mustache from hot breath. In -10 to -20º F The ice formation will spread to the rest of the beard if face is exposed.
2.      In -20 and below, metal (door handles, etc) will leave an instantaneous burning sensation of exposed skin.  
3.      On slippery surfaces, it is important to walk like a penguin with your center of balance positioned over your feet.
4.      Walking to a local store in Toms is most difficult around dusk when the ice refreezes to a slick hard surface that conforms to potholes in the dirt roads.
5.      When breathing through a fabric or face covering, it will most likely freeze to facial hair. To avoid ripping off hair, place hand over ice and melt it prior to removal of fabric.
6.      Wind chill is everything. -20 is not too bad, but coupled with a wind chill it quickly becomes -40.
7.      In -10º F and below the first breath outside should be taken slowly. A deep first breath can lead to a coughing fit from the shock of the cold.
8.      When spitting in subzero temperatures, it is important to spit down wind. If you do not and the spit lands on your parka, it will freeze instantly and everyone will know what you did.
9.      Keep tissues in an accessible pocket while walking in cold to wipe off snot before it freezes where everyone can see it and again knows what you did.
10.  Standing still in subzero temperatures is not advised, cold feet quickly become frozen.
11.  If the need to urinate occurs, calculate the time it takes to reach through your multiple layers by the time it takes for hands to freeze and choose a course of action accordingly.
12.  Above all, keep your head. Don’t let any part of your body go numb, and don’t be afraid to seek shelter if the need arises.
A relay competition at the Snow Festival that involved running on the frozen river while dragging a sled behind you.
Mongolian man rocking a deel at the Snow Festival
Last Friday the high was -15º F.  The low in the evening was -38 with a wind-chill that registered around -59º F. On Saturday morning the education department hosted a snow festival for all of the teachers in the Aimag Center. The Festival was to occur at the completely frozen river outside of town and involved competitions among schools.

That morning prior to leaving, Dylan (another PCV in our Aimag staying at our apartment that weekend) glanced at his phone and saw with horror that the Russian research station in Antarctica was experiencing a balmy -31º F which was four degrees warmer than our -35º F.
I can safely say that while the snow festival was a lot of fun, I have never been so cold in my life. The festival had competitions in ice skating and other winter sports. I participated with my school in tug-of-war. (We lost our match to Kyra’s school while Kyra was on the other end of the rope. Kyra beat me in tug-of-war...) There was milk tea, a variety of meat (horse and muskrat included, both tasted like boiled meat…), and vodka. Sally and I had our winter jackets so we at least maintained the appearance of warmth. The Mongolians were concerned with Dylan who took on the appearance of a homeless man in his misery. 
Dylan looking a little cold.
Themes of the snow festival from an American perspective included: Standing next to fires that could never be big enough, drinking vodka in hopes that it would provide warmth, and losing feeling in one’s feet after standing still for a few seconds. Prior to the tug-of-war match, I became deeply concerned for my feet and started pacing and doing exercises to get the blood flowing.
While I may be smiling, the only thing on my mind is how cold my feet are.

Despite the cold, the festival was a lot of fun and we really enjoyed going out and doing something in the countryside after months inside. I am optimistic that our coldest time has passed. The fifteen day forecast has consistent highs in teens, so we may be on the downhill sideof winter. As a Bama boy in this Mongolian winter, my experience has taught me that you can adapt to almost anything. Sure it has been cold in ways that are almost beyond comprehension, but it really hasn’t been that bad. Making smart choices and preparing well has made this winter completely bearable. Sally and I can now say we have lived someplace with lows reaching the -40s and survived. 


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