Keeping cool in Ulaanbaatar

snow open window

One of the things I knew about Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, before we moved here was that it has the distinction of being the coldest capital city in the world. It has an average annual temperature of -0.4° C (31.3° F). I’ve lived in San Diego, California, for most of the last 18 years, so I wasn’t really looking forward to the cold. My daughter was born in San Diego, and only spent one year in another climate; we lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for almost a year when she was three. It was hard to get her to go outside in the cold there, and now she was taking great pleasure in telling people we were going to freeze our asses off in Mongolia.

It’s late October now, and it is cold outside. This morning, the Weather Channel app told me that it feels like 4° F, with snow and wind, a high of 24, and a low of 14 (the temperatures here are going to be in Fahrenheit; sorry, non-American readers). I’m looking out my office window now, and the snow is blowing across the school’s parking lot, though it seems to have stopped falling now. But the office window is open, and I’m sweating in my long-sleeved t-shirt. The Media and Communication Department office is really, really hot. The radiator has been blasting away for weeks now, with no way of shutting it down.

Our apartment is also hot. I was able to turn all the radiators off, but the hot water pipes in each room still radiate heat, and the building seems very well-insulated. I open the windows every day, for at least part of the day, to let things cool off a bit. I close the windows again at night, because the air quality gets worse as people start using their coal heaters and stoves in nearby neighborhoods. (Air quality here is a whole other story, which I’ll write about more than once, I’m sure.)

We fully anticipated being cold in Mongolia. We didn’t come prepared for it, because we didn’t have the clothes, and once I knew we’d be coming here the winter season had long passed in California, so we couldn’t really buy anything. But we brought our warmest clothes and boots (including Emma’s ski wear from Tahoe), and I planned on buying cashmere and parkas here, assuming Mongolia would specialize in warm outerwear. (We did buy parkas, but they ended up being Columbia, which were being sold at American prices.)

The first day we wore our parkas

We didn’t really anticipate being hot. Really, really hot. Back in August when we arrived, it was balmy, even during the night. We kept the windows open a lot, and we wore short sleeves. When it started to cool off a bit in September, and drop down into the 40s at night, I thought, here we go. We bought throw blankets to snuggle under in the cold evenings at home, warm blankets for the bed, and cashmere sweaters. We were set for the cold.

Then, the heat came. The city of Ulaanbaatar has a centralized steam and hot-water heating system for much of the city. The system comes on when the nights start to get cold in mid-September (temperatures dipped below freezing by September 6, which I remember because that’s my mother’s birthday). I heard that the heat was supposed to come on September 15, but that it might be a little later for MIU because it was on a different system. The 15th (high of 61, low of 23) came and went with no heat, but a couple of days later, hissing, sputtering, and moaning sounds filled the apartment. The heat had arrived.

snow view
The view from our apartment on the last day of summer 2018

And it is really hot. Did I mention that? Emma just had her fall break, a whole week off school (I was still working). She spent the whole time on the sofa, drawing and reading, and wearing a swimming suit top and shorts. I feel strong environmentalist guilt over keeping the windows open while the heat is cranking away, but the alternative seems unbearable. We have trouble sleeping at night because of the heat, as well. I am glad we are not freezing our asses off, like Emma had thought, but I miss being able to regulate the temperature, not to mention control my energy use.

I’ve been told it will get even hotter inside as it gets colder outside, so it’s hard to anticipate what it is really going to be like. We’ll just have to experience it.

4 thoughts on “Keeping cool in Ulaanbaatar

  1. I remember being in people’s apartments in Boston in winter years ago and stifling. I’m not sure if they chose it or the buildings were similarly regulated but it was hard to breathe. You might just have to get those baseball hats with built in fans! (That would only help with feeling cool air on your faces though.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good idea! Boston and Pittsburgh were similar – not able to control the heat in my apartment (also slept with the windows open – here you can’t because of the pollution). Those were old buildings without individual thermostats, so I guess it’s a similar problem in the new buildings here. It’s probably a way of reducing costs, ironically. Also maybe a holdover from the communist years of everything being centralized.


    1. Yes! I’ve run back and forth between buildings today, going to class and going home for lunch, in my long-sleeved t-shirt and a fleece vest. The parka seems like overkill for the minute or so I’m outside, but it’s such a shock to go through the door each time. I wonder how it will be when it’s really cold!


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