January in Ulaanbaatar

January is my least favorite month of the year. For many people, it means the promise of a new year,  beginnings, rebirth, starting again. But for me, growing up in the northeastern US, it was always the heart of winter, the coldest month, the darkest time. December has the warmth of the holidays to look forward to. February is a short month, the days become noticeably longer, and often there are a couple of days in mid-February when you realize spring is really coming—they are warm and sunny, and you can feel the difference the sunlight makes. (When I was in college in Massachusetts, I would mark these days by going for a long walk along the Green River in my t-shirt). March has the Vernal Equinox, and it’s all uphill from there. You probably see the pattern. I am not a fan of cold, dark days. I like heat and light.

I had a certain amount of trepidation about January in Ulaanbaatar. My university is mostly shut down from the end of December until the end of February, and a lot of people go away. We had to come back from southern California in time for Emma to start school again on Monday, January 7, so we flew out of San Diego on January 2 to arrive here on the afternoon of the 4th (it’s a long trip). The idea was to give us time to readjust here before she had to be functional in school. Which, it turned out, was a good idea. But at the end of last semester, when I told people at MIU we’d be back in January, they were shocked. “January is the coldest, most polluted month. No one stays here in January.”

Well, except for the people who live here, right? I mean, they live here. And the people at Emma’s school, apparently. A lot of the other schools seem closed until after Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year, which happens in the first week of February this year. But Emma’s school is open. (In fact, I just learned that Emma’s school is the only one open in Ulaanbaatar at the moment; because of a major flu outbreak, other schools are staying closed until after Tsaagan Sar as a precautionary measure.) My theory about Ulaanbaatar is that it is a place where over a million people live, and that means that it is a place where people can live, so they must have figured out how to do it. And if they figured out how to do it, we could, too. Besides, it’s not even close to being the coldest city on Earth, though it is the coldest national capital based on its average annual temperature, which is only a bit below freezing.

On one level, I was not excited about January in Ulaanbaatar, but on another level, I was looking forward to seeing what the heart of winter is like here. I had also experienced another kind of winter extreme when I lived in Asahikawa, Japan, which has the record for the coldest temperature in Japan (-40° C) and the most days with snowfall (when I lived there, it started snowing on November 5 and snowed every single day until I left in late February, and probably a month or so beyond that). And living in New England for 10 winters had given me a certain amount of preparation, though my 19 years in San Diego had made me soft. The main thing was, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

The day we drove to the Chinggis Khan Airport in December, it was not as cold as it had been—around 10° F (-12° C)—but the pollution was absolutely the worst we’d seen. The smoke was thick and billowing, and you could hardly see the buildings across the street. I thought, oh, this is it. This is what January is going to be like. I was not very excited, but I thought, well, we’ll just get through it like everyone else.

December 16 pollution

But so far (and the month is almost over), it really hasn’t been like that at all. It certainly has been cold enough, but as long as you are equipped for it, it’s fine. It’s not the -40° everyone was telling me about (which, by the way, was the low, anyway). Last winter was extremely cold, and when I compare the temperatures from last January with this January, I can see the difference. In fact, last January, it did hit -40° (which is kind of where Fahrenheit and Celsius cross each other, so I’m not distinguishing them at that point). But the coldest temperature so far this January was -31°F (-35° C).

Now, these are just numbers.

For me, “real cold” is when your snot freezes instantly inside your nose when you go outside. I am not sure what temperature this is, exactly, but we started hitting it in November. Once it gets below a certain temperature, it’s just bloody cold, and you need to bundle up. In fact, the advantage of extreme cold over extreme heat (like what they are experiencing in Australia right now) is that you can dress for it. If it gets really cold, to the point where any skin exposure is bad, that becomes challenging, but we’re not talking that cold here. I have to be careful about my right ear because it got frostbitten once (again, while I was in college, walking during a cold snap), but as long as that’s covered, I feel OK. I did stock up on gloves, hats, and scarves, and I got myself a long down coat when I was back in the US for the holidays, which I absolutely love. I’ve noticed that the little finger on my left hand, which I broke a couple of years ago and still can’t bend, gets quite cold because I can’t ball it up into a fist with the other fingers. But other than that, it’s really been OK.

Emma goes out without a hat and gloves, but I don’t. She spends less time outside than I do, generally, at least during the week. She goes from the front door to the taxi, and from the taxi to the school entrance, and that’s pretty much it. They never go outside at her school, which is weird because at the orientation we were told they would, but given the environmental conditions, it’s understandable. When I go out, it’s to walk to the supermarket or to go for a walk around the neighborhood to get my blood circulating a bit after a few hours of writing. So I wear a couple of layers, my long coat, a cashmere scarf I bought here, gloves, a fleece hat I got in Tasmania, and my pollution mask.

Which brings me to what I was really concerned about this winter: the air pollution. Cold is something you can guard against. Air pollution is a lot harder. At home we have our air filter. When we go out, we wear our masks. They serve a dual purpose, keeping our noses and chins warm as well as filtering the air we breathe. But they aren’t perfect, and I am sure we are breathing a fair amount of air pollution even with them on, just because it seems to be difficult to keep the edges of the mask sealed to our faces. But I still think they are much better than nothing, and when I see how few people here wear masks when they are outside, I feel fortunate to have them.

The air pollution has been bad, as I’ve written about already and will write about again. It’s extremely unhealthy, and it kills. There is no question about that. Quite a few of my students were sick towards the end of last semester, and chronic respiratory illness is quite common here. It shortens people’s lives. Sometimes by quite a lot, as it’s a major cause of death among children under five. I was worried about our health, but I also knew that we were in a position to be able to leave if it got too bad. Most people here aren’t, though one bit of advice I got from both Mongolians and expats was to leave town on the weekends during the winter just to get fresh air. We weren’t able to follow that advice in December, because Emma was in a school play that had weekend rehearsals, but I was planning to try it in January if it seemed necessary. A lot of people here have family out in the countryside, and they go there when they can. It seems like a good idea.

Emma has had respiratory issues from her allergies in California. Miraculously, she has not had allergy problems here. I became concerned in October when she had major sinus congestion, but it turned out to be just a cold. I have had a couple of minor colds, though with bad sore throats that made teaching interesting. But so far, so good. (Especially since Emma is stocking up her sick days to take the last couple of weeks off school in June, or so she says. I suspect she’ll want to spend the time with her friends when it comes down to it.) We have a couple of humidifiers going around the clock in our apartment to mitigate the dry air, and I try to keep the dust level down. At her school, they have successfully addressed the air quality by installing filters throughout the school; at my school, there are windows that are cracked or don’t close all the way, so we breathe plenty of pollution, I imagine, though it doesn’t seem as bad indoors.  So when I start teaching again in February, I’ll probably have more exposure. (I feel like my lungs are already shot from living in Cairo for almost two years, and then from living in Addis Ababa for a year, but we have a family history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], so I need to be cautious as well.)

While it’s possible to have cleaner air indoors, you can’t control the air quality outdoors; you can only try to protect yourself from it. So we wear our masks, and try to stay in when the pollution levels get dangerous. I follow the air quality loosely on the US Embassy’s website (https://www.stateair.mn/) and a bit more closely on the Plume app on my phone; they give different levels, but I feel like I get enough of a sense of when to be careful and when I can relax a bit. For instance, for the last 12 hours, according to stateair.mn, levels have been good to moderate (less than 100 AQI), while Plume says very high pollution (100-150 AQI). Both indicate it is a good day to be outdoors, compared with previous days.

Waiting for the bus in winter gear

Overall, like the weather, the pollution has not been as bad as I thought it would be. These two things are, of course, connected, because the pollution is caused mostly by home heating here in Ulaanbaatar. Warmer temperatures mean less fuel being burned to heat homes, which means cleaner air. In fact, the last week or so has been quite warm, so the pollution is not nearly as bad as it has been. The nighttime temperatures really matter. So Emma and I have been taking advantage of the relatively warm weather and lower pollution levels to see a bit more of Ulaanbaatar.

The first weekend we were back from the US we spent mostly dealing with jetlag and shock over the change in temperatures. It had been “cold” in Carlsbad the last week we were there, with temperatures dropping close to freezing during the night and hovering around 60 F during the day. It is humid there, so the cold feels a lot colder than it is, and our house there is not the sauna that our apartment here is, so we spent a good bit of time complaining about the cold and laughing at ourselves for doing so. Even so, returning to this level of cold was a shock to the system, as was the 16-hour time difference.

The second weekend we were back, Emma had a friend over, so they were up quite late playing computer games. We didn’t do much. But then I decided that we needed to start getting out and about and seeing more of the city. Last weekend, we saw the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs, which was a lot of fun, but Emma also had a lot of homework, so we were hampered by that. Still, we had a chance to walk around a bit, and we saw the ice sculptures in Freedom Square, right in front of the museum. We resolved to spend more time exploring the city, which is what I’d been wanting to do since we got here. (Emma’s a bit less interested than I am, which sometimes makes it a challenge.)

Yesterday (Saturday), we decided to go to the Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum, which deserves a blog post of its own. It was an amazing museum, with some beautiful examples of art from many different periods of Mongolian history. Öndör Gegeen Zanabazar (1635-1723), a direct descendant of Chinggis Khan, was a prominent figure in the Gelugpa (yellow hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. He was their first Bogd Gegeen, or supreme spiritual authority. He was also a prolific artist and cultivated a cultural renaissance in 17th century Mongolia. The museum contains some of his most famous works as well as those of many other artists; it also contains examples of folk art and cultural artifacts. We were not allowed to take photographs inside, but we are planning to go back to study some of the pieces we saw in greater detail.

Zanabazar Museum

After the museum, we had lunch at one of Ulaanbaatar’s vegan restaurants, from the international Loving Hut chain. I haven’t had any trouble finding vegetarian or vegan food here, but it’s nice sometimes to be somewhere where you can order anything off the menu without asking if it has meat. It was also interesting to see the difference in the menu between this one and the one I went to in Mira Mesa, California, just north of San Diego. What stood out were the vegan khuushuur, a kind of fried filled pastry, which I will try the next time we go. I had “Mongol soup” and a beetroot salad, while Emma had their gyoza.

While we were eating, I was thinking about how different our life would be if we lived closer to that part of town. The thing about MIU is that it’s on the east end of the city, and there aren’t very many places to go out or things to do there. When we want to see something, we end up taking a bus to another part of the city. Our neighborhood also isn’t that great for walking around in. There are some funny things, like the car door store, and we are in walking distance of the Amgalan Botanical Garden, which we tried to visit in the fall but couldn’t find our way in because we went to the wrong side. But generally, our part of the city is not a great walking neighborhood.

Downtown Ulaanbaatar, on the other hand, is fun to walk around in. There is an interesting mixture of architecture, from historic buildings like the Zanabazar Museum (which was built in the early 1900s), to modern gleaming skyscrapers like the Blue Sky. The city government is working on establishing more green space, but there are some nice tree-lined streets and small parks and plazas as well. The center of the city is a big, open plaza that is now called Sükhbaatar Square, after the hero of the 1921 revolution against China. The national Parliament building sits on this square. The square is lined with the typical mixture of older structures, including a pink building with white pillars that serves as the State Opera and Ballet Academic Theater, and some new skyscrapers like the Central Tower. Overall, the city is hard to get excited about, between the traffic, the mishmash of architecture, and the pollution. But it’s easy to overlook what are its charms, including abundant public art and interesting monuments. We are going to spend more time exploring, especially if the weather stays reasonably good.

Overall, this January has been a good month. I have gotten a lot done, and for me the down-time between semesters is an idyllic novelty. At UCSD, there is almost no time between quarters, so there is no time to think or work on other projects. Here, I have had time to write, as well as help Emma out with some problems she’s been having with her school. We have reached the point in the winter where both of us are really tired of bundling up to go outside, and we’re looking forward to spring (though I’ve heard it’s windy and dusty here, but we’ll see). And I’m at the point where I really miss green grass and trees. But on the whole, I’d say I’m a fan of this particular January in Ulaanbaatar.

6 thoughts on “January in Ulaanbaatar

  1. Fabulous photo of Emma! Really great.

    That’s a long winter break, and interesting, the reasoning. I’m glad January hasn’t turned out as difficult as you thought it might be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marie! Thanks, as always, for commenting. I like that photo, too. I think it’s going to be emblematic of our stay here. Yes, the break is quite long! It’s one of the reasons our semester goes past mid-June, when a lot of universities get out in May. Some of my students have internships with TV stations, and the Language Education Institute (where I study Mongolian) is still open. Other departments offer intensive courses, too. But it’s really very quiet here now, and I’m enjoying it!


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