Writing a quick post from rainy Takayama, Japan, where we are on vacation for the next few days, after six days in Tokyo. Japan makes quite a contrast to Mongolia, though navigating a Tokyo train station at rush hour reminds me a lot of crossing the street in Ulaanbaatar. I’ve been thinking about UB a lot, and I wanted to make sure I wrote about how different the city is in the summertime. We only had a few summer weeks there, but the transformation of the city was amazing.
UB took a long time to get green, but once it did, it seemed like a whole different place. The brown sticks along Peace Avenue turned out to be lilac bushes, and you can smell their sweet scent nearly the whole way from MIU to the State Department Store. Lilacs are my favorites, and it was so nice to see and smell them again (we don’t have them in southern California). The planting along the main streets, including evergreens (no longer coated in black by pollution), shrubs, lilacs, and some forsythia, provide a much more effective buffer from the traffic and the vehicle exhaust in the summer than they do in the winter. Emma and I both noticed this as we spent more time walking around the city. Areas along city streets that had been barren during the winter were now covered with flowers, planted by city employees over the early days of June. Flowers appear in outdoor pots and window boxes, splashes of color amid the drab asphalt and concrete.
The city’s surroundings also change so much by the middle of June. A slight greenish tinge starts in the mountains in the second half of May, as the larches and the grass begin to come back to life. We had snow on May 13, possibly the largest snowfall of the winter (a few inches), but then it melted quickly as the temperature went back up into the 40s F. After that, the greening that had begun already seemed to speed up. But the mountains, where that mid-May snowfall lingered for several days, didn’t start to look really green until early June. Within a couple of weeks, everything became almost lush compared to the long brown spring, and the Bogd Khan mountain to the south of the city started to look like it had when we arrived in Mongolia on August 17. The vegetation seems to be trying to make the most of the two short months it has to grow before fall sets in in late August.
People are also much more noticeable in the summer. The whole city comes to life again after the long, harsh winter and blustery spring. The sidewalks become crowded as people get out and go places. Kids are playing outside in the playgrounds that have been mostly empty since last summer. Pedestrians have to start looking out for bicyclists again, not to mention roller-bladers and skateboarders. And the much longer evenings mean people have many more daylight hours to enjoy. The sun was setting at nearly 9 pm (and rising just before 5 am) when we left on the summer solstice.
Life in the city moves outside. It was fun to see the outdoor spaces fill up with everything from bouncy houses and inflatable pools for the kids to outdoor seating at cafes and restaurants to streetside barbecues. Spaces that have been empty and dormant for months suddenly bustle with activity. The fruit and vegetable stalls around the bus stops are full and active again, and stand selling hats and sunglasses appear along city streets, especially downtown. Ice cream becomes a staple, sold from trucks and small booths near bus stops. Stores pop up selling camping gear, pool toys, scooters, and bicycles to equip people to enjoy their outdoor time to the max. After all, they only have a couple of months.
This is the seasonality of life that I had forgotten after 20 years in southern California, where, yeah, it’s a little chilly, but you can still go to the beach and even swim in the ocean in January as easily as in July; more easily, even, since the beaches in January aren’t crammed with tourists from out of town. I grew up with this way of carving up time, and the summers spent outdoors were by far my favorite season. I still feel a sense of freedom in summer that fades with the noticeably shortening days of September. But in Mongolia, the extremes are much greater. The winter is spent surviving, so that the summer can be spent living.