One day in the life—Blossoming in the Mongolian winter

Music is the Winter Reel by Tasmanian band Bandecoute.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?—John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charley: In search of America

According to the traditional Mongolian herders’ calendar, the coldest part of the year is broken into nine portions of nine days, with the fourth nine being the coldest. And with that, right on cue, on the second day of the fourth nine it dropped to minus 40 here in Ulaanabaatar. Today is the start of the sixth nine, during which, according to the traditional herders’ wisdom, the roads should start to become visible through the snow.

Given that we have now survived the thick of it, this post is about a typical winter’s day in our lives. It follows on from our post about a typical autumn day back in October.

The alarm jars us out of bed at 7:00. We are both groggy, as we often seem to be in winter. It may be that it is because we have gradually filled our lives to take up most of the available time we have, or it may be because it is dark when we wake up, and dark when we leave work. The shortest day here occurred on December 22 when we only had 8 hours and 22 minutes of daylight. The sun rose at 8:39am, and set at 5:02pm. Consequently, it sometimes feels like someone has played a trick on us in the mornings, moving all of the clocks in our house back by an hour or two.

It may also be because of our diet. This is not due to a lack of fruit and vegies, although they have increased in price and decreased in quality. Rather, it is because we have not been eating meat, which our Mongolian friends solemnly tell us contains all of the vitamins and nutrients we need to keep us healthy and warm through winter. In particular, we have not been eating sheep’s tail which we are promised is extra good for us—kind of like an anti-viral/bacterial busting nuclear weapon.

We drag ourselves off to the gym to continue getting massive, before going our separate ways for the day. It is around minus thirty as I begin my walk to work. We have recently moved office and I am now a thirty minute walk to the north. The office is right on the edge of the ‘ger[1] district’. As Kate has described in the past, this is the large, sprawling area that wraps around Ulaanbaatar where many people still live in their traditional gers. Surviving the winter necessitates their furiously burning coal to stave off the cold, which means that the pollution in the ger district is often stifling. The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends that you avoid daily average levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above 35µg/m3. On some days we reach levels of over 1,000 µg/m3. Today, however, the pollution is not too bad—I can faintly see the buildings in the far off distance, and by the afternoon it is clear and beautiful from our 15th floor windows.

Kate meanwhile, has had a day off from her work both at the Judicial Council and the Cycling Federation. This means that she is free to continue writing the next great Australian novel. She heads off to a new old café, named the Bee Café, that has recently reopened, where the coffee is good, the décor warm and the service friendly.[2] After a few hours of graft, interspersed with reading articles about D. J. Trump and feeling angry, she heads off home for some lunch. Perhaps there is a silver lining to his rage-inducing actions—no happy artist was ever a good one.

Kate’s office for the morning – the Bee Cafe

After work I leg it back south for my first ever horse-head fiddle lesson, Kate’s birthday present to me. The horsehead fiddle is a traditional Mongolian two-stringed instrument played with a bow. Traditionally they were made with animal skin, but nowadays they are usually made of wood with European-style f-holes. They sound like a cross between a cello and a violin, which means that played well, they sound absolutely gorgeous.[3] Played like I am currently playing, however, they sound something like a cross between a horse having its head removed and an out-of tune drunken child doing wordless karaoke. I take it upon myself to practice as much as possible while Kate is around to add to the rage and do my bit for the great Australian novel.

After an afternoon of more writing Kate comes to meet me at Briti Grey, acute bar where they have recently begun holding jazz nights for a standing room only crowd. The players are all young Mongolian students studying together who have a passion for the genre that borders on that expressed by Elwood Blues for the blues. They are on a mission to bring great jazz to Mongolia, and we benefit. They are tight and skilled, and their passion washes over the keenly-listening audience.

Mongolia’s first jazz generation?

And after a couple of their sets, our day is done. We rug up and wander back to our apartment for a late snack before washing, rinsing and repeating. Winter has proven to be as interesting as autumn and summer. We have tried to follow the Mongolian example of not being cowed by the weather, but embracing it. And at the end of the day, the cold makes it even more agreeable to sit in a bar, red wine in hand, listening to jazz in the company of friends. It won’t feel quite the same in summer.

[1] ‘Ger’ is the Mongolian word for a yurt.

[2] It is above the Internom bookshop for any Mongolites reading this.

[3] This is what a horsehead fiddle (or morin khuur) should sound like:

Like what you’ve read? We also have a blog about cycletouring in Europe. Check it out here:


2 thoughts on “One day in the life—Blossoming in the Mongolian winter

  1. The horsehead fiddle actually sounds great – and it was a relief to see! Must say the horse head that first came to mind was that from The Godfather!! Keep writing , both of you – we really enjoy your stories 🙂


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