Winter is here

Snow in the park

I’m going to do my best to write a post every weekend, even if it’s a short one, because I want to keep my writing habit going. It’s already the last weekend in November, and winter is definitely here. Thanks to human-induced climate change, we are having a much warmer winter so far this year than we did three years ago. Of course, there are short-term fluctuations in temperature, but since 1960 (when the airport started keeping regular temperature records), the average temperature has risen 4° Celsius. Winter has also been drier here, with only one real snowfall so far, of a couple of centimeters in the city.

But even so, the cold is an adjustment for two people who spent the last two years in southern California, where the coldest day is in the 50s Fahrenheit (low teens Celsius). I realized, despite all my encouraging people to bring warm boots when they come to Mongolia, especially If they have larger feet, that I don’t have a good warm pair of city boots myself. I have my summer hiking boots (“breathable” and waterproof, but not insulated), and I have a pair of insulated boots for wearing out in the countryside (if we ever get to go), but they are a bit too clunky for going to work, even if I change into shoes when I get there. I do a lot more walking in the city on a daily basis, since I’m now the one with the commute to work, and for that, my Gore-Tex shoes are not sufficient. We have a three-day weekend, and one of our goals is to get warm boots that are good for wearing to school/work. (Emerson has a pair, but they didn’t choose them, so they don’t wear them. Sigh. And their feet are way smaller than mine, so I can’t use them myself.)

We had the first shock just this past Monday (November 22). I knew it was going to be cold. I kept checking the forecast, and for Sunday, it was a high of -13° and low of -27° Celsius (7 and -17 Fahrenheit). This was after a month of temperatures in the high to mid-30s Fahrenheit, above zero degrees Celsius, for the most part. (I have found that I still prefer to use Fahrenheit here, because it just seems warmer. Compare 7 to -13. It’s completely in my head, and I understand that, but there you are.) There had been a couple of days of light snow, but it hadn’t been that cold, so this was a sudden dip. I warned Emerson Sunday night to wear their warmest clothes on Monday morning, especially waiting for the school bus.

So, Emerson left to wait for the school bus at around 7:27 (the bus is supposed to stop at the entrance to our complex at 7:30), wearing a t-shirt and cotton hoodie under a parka, with a mid-weight beanie and a scarf I threw at them at the last minute, and a pair of leather-like sneakers over “not my warmest socks, but warmer than usual.” I was cold just looking at them. They came back into the apartment 20 minutes later to grab their gloves; it turns out the bus was way late, so they and their classmate were waiting in the lobby to our building until her mom told them the bus was near. (How her mom knows these things remains a mystery because Emerson keeps forgetting to ask her.) They eventually made it to school but were 10 minutes late for math.

This brings us to another cold-weather phenomenon here: The massive increase in traffic. It makes sense that people prefer to take their own cars when the weather drops well below zero, and as a result, traffic comes to a grinding halt. You can lose hours just going a couple of kilometers. So for a few days this week, Emerson’s bus was 20 to 25 minutes late. They changed the pick-up time to 7:20 (just ten minutes earlier!), and now the bus is on time. It’s like the San Diego phenomenon of leaving 15-20 minutes earlier for school/work and saving about 40 minutes of commuting time.


My bus route has been completely messed up. I usually take the bus from one of two stops that are either a 12- or 20-minute walk from my apartment. Since it started getting a bit colder, I was going to the closer stop. I leave for work somewhere between 9 and 10 am, depending on where I am in my class prep and what I need to do on campus before I start teaching at 1 pm. It’s a few degrees warmer when I leave, and the sun has come up, which really helps. (Sunrise these days is at around 8:10-8:15 these days.) Overall, I’m glad to have a bus commute because I can work on the bus. If I walk, which I did every day for a couple of weeks after we started having classes on campus mid-September, I can still think about things, but I can’t write anything down. And if I take a taxi, which I’ve had to do several times, I get car sick if I do anything but look out the window. So usually bus it is.

Until this week. That first frigid morning I didn’t have to wait too long for a bus, but after I was finished teaching and went to the bus stop at around 4:15, the UB Smart Bus app showed a bus about 15 minutes away. I decided that wasn’t too bad, so I would just wait at the bus stop. I waited around an hour. It got progressively colder and colder, and I think the cold froze my brain, because instead of walking to the spot where I usually get a taxi home (about a 15-minute walk from the bus stop), I kept waiting.

It wasn’t entirely ridiculous on my part because I’ve had taxis refuse to take me to Marshall Town since the traffic that way can be terrible. It can take longer to drive than the hour or so walk. I thought about walking, but I could already tell my feet wouldn’t do very well. I was wearing two pairs of socks (a pair of cashmere socks I use as an under-layer, and then my warmest hiking socks), but my toes were already numb. And the bus was 15 minutes away, then eight minutes, then four. None of these numbers were remotely accurate. By the time the bus arrived (and sat across the street for about 5 minutes while the driver went to do something), I’d been waiting for over an hour.

At last, I was on the bus, and it took a mere hour and a half to get to my stop, and then about 15 minutes to walk home on my newly warmed up feet. The good part was that I got a lot of work done on that bus.

The rest of the week, I noticed that the buses on my route have really tended to clump together. I have noticed this before, a phenomenon I’ve taken to calling a “clusterbus.” The first time it happened, I walked home, because all the buses were on the far end of the route heading away from me. They’d have to get to the end, turn around, and come all the way back. It happened another time after that, and I took a taxi because I thought I could get work done in the taxi. That’s when I discovered that I still get car sick.

This week, for whatever reason, there were clusterbuses every day. Tuesday and Wednesday, I didn’t even bother with the bus. I walked partway to campus and then took a taxi, once I was past the worst traffic light. I did the same thing coming home, walked partway and then got a taxi. Taxis here are not very expensive (it’s around US$2 to get from near where I live to campus, less if I go partway), and they are sometimes quicker than the bus, depending on how well the driver knows the area. Once, when I took a taxi home the day after I got my Pfizer booster shot, the guy took all these crazy back routes, but it still took an hour because of the traffic. The bus would probably have been around 90 minutes.

Eventually, we will adjust to the colder temperatures. That first really cold day was a shock for both of us, but then the week warmed up (it’s supposed to hit 32F/0C today!). Sunday will be colder again, with Monday morning well below zero degrees once again. It adds an extra 10 minutes to getting ready for work in the morning, and a bit more planning ahead, but soon we’ll have the routine down again and won’t have to think about it so much. Every once in a while, we look at each other and say, “Why didn’t we move to Thailand?” but every place has its tradeoffs, and we’re still happy to be here.

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