winter camaraderie

A warm camaraderie surfaces in the extreme weather of a Mongolian winter. While its still there in summer, the sub-zero temperatures really bring it alive.

Mongolians are all part of one big family, living in one of the world’s harshest climates. I was standing in my local shop the other day when a small boy stumbled in. He wasn’t wearing a hat or gloves and with temperatures of -27C outside his checks were flushed a deep red. Upon seeing him, the young storekeeper rushed over to him, clasped his head to her bosom and covered his ears to warm them. Soon, everyone in the store was huddled around him protectively, muttering in Mongolian, “Silly boy, he forgot his hat and gloves. Look how cold he is.”

Complete strangers lock arms together to help each other cross particularly icy patches of road, offering their balance and support to less able pedestrians. I now understand why Mongolians avoid the inane use of ‘thank-you’ and ‘please,’ so loved by native English speakers. Otherwise, it would be quite exhausting as you bumped and slid your way down the street.

“Ooh, sorry about that.”

“Whoops, my fault. Sorry.”

“Hmmmph. Thanks, still getting my ice legs.”

“Whooooooaaaaaa!”

“Ooooh, I’m so sorry! I’m from Australia. We don’t have ice in Melbourne.”

“Damn.”

“Whoops. Did I knock you over?”

“Sorry!!!..”

“Bugger this….Taxi!”

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(2004)

a winter shortcut

It started out as a shortcut. A quick jaunt across a snow-covered park to bypass a nastily icy intersection.

The park was on a hill with an ovoo – a pile of sacred stones – at its apex. One side of the hill was bordered by a monastery, one by a busy road, and the other by a frozen river. I was walking from the busy road, past the monastery to the river side.

Going up the hill was easy enough, as I trudged through fluffy white powder.

But the other side was criss-crossed with wide tracts of ice, polished to perfection by Mongolians sliding and skating across the snow in their shoes.

I must have looked uncertain as I stood there at the top. The old lady shuffling along beside me in her traditional red del (coat) flashed me a toothless grin. She stuck out her leather gloved hand and began leading me down.

We shuffled along until a passing monk pointed out a better route – one which didn’t end in a steep cliff. At the river bank she dropped my hand as if she’d suddenly remembered something important, and made a bee-line for the nearest ger.

I was just above the river, pondering how to cross, when a man in a suit ran past. He bolted down the bank, across the river, up the other side and out of sight before I could ask advice.

At least I knew where to cross now… but was it completely frozen? Would I sink if I shuffled too slowly? How long does it actually take to freeze to death?

A man walking on the opposite bank had stopped to watch me. He could see I was perplexed by the simple task and started walking towards me. He offered me his hand with a grin and lead me safely across the river and up the steep slope on the other side. I thanked him profusely.

What had been intended as a shortcut had turned into an adventure and introduced me to some of the nicest, friendliest people along the way. I love the Mongolian people for their generosity and openness and willingness to help others without question.

Mash-ikh bayarlaa! (Thank-you very much!)

(2004)

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A carpet of white snow, under Mongolia’s blue sky

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As the brief wet of summer passed into vague memory, static electricity began to build.

Tiny white sparks of energy that earthed on my skin were generated when I brushed Tiger’s black coat. Her fur so static that the brushing attracted more dirt than it removed. And her kisses stung – a forked tongue zapping with tiny charges.

Frictional voltage was a winter icebreaker. I shocked shop assistants with cold hard currents and exclaimed loudly after incidental, physical contact with strangers. It happened everywhere – shaking hands with colleagues, handing over money, or helping someone cross the icy street. It was a running gag, coaxing smiles from stoic Mongolians.

The parched air was brilliant for drying washing. I discovered this after draping my washing over the kitchen heaters. Lurking under the window and looking like old truck radiators, these steel contraptions carried hot water from the city’s central power stations to every apartment in UB. The heating systems were turned on at the start of winter, then turned off at the start of summer. Like clockwork. You could not tinker with them. You could not turn them off. Regulating temperature was done by opening a window to the freezing air. Mine were painted sky blue. While the washing dried quickly, my undies’ heat-shrunken elastic threatened the circulation in my legs, and sported rust-stains from spots where the paint had peeled off.

The air ached with all consuming dryness. One night I forgot to re-lid my moisturiser. Three quarters full when I left it, I found the jar next morning, lid flung asunder, its insides exposed to the world. It was a pitiful sight, with sticky residue remnants. Merciless evaporation had claimed another victim. It had cared little that the cream wasn’t tested on animals, or that it was made of kelp, thousands of miles away in Australia. The arid air was like an addict craving release from a gnawing gut, devouring all in its path to help ease it’s pain.

It hounded my skin, withering it unforgivingly. My scalp was a moonscape, desiccated and deflated, with coconut flakes dusting my shoulders as I moved. Rubbing my leg loosened a snowstorm of dead skin, littering the carpet with epidermal detritus. Hardened banana chips broke off in chunks and crashed to the floor. Dust mites loved me. Crevices developed on my heels, their rough edges painfully snagging threads in my socks and catching at bed sheets as I tossed and turned. My hands aged ten years, brittle nails shattering and snapping when I touched things. Slathering myself in moisturiser helped for a time. But no amount of moisturiser could coax flexibility or suppleness to return. They had fled. Been consumed.

My nose was so dry that nosebleeds were common. At night I would wake choking, my throat so parched I could not swallow. It made me anxious. I tried boiling pots of water to increase the flat’s humidity… but I couldn’t do that all night.

In theory, my window sill plants and bowls of water balancing on the radiators were evaporating moisture into the flat and creating a mini ecosystem. In reality, it made little difference. Most days I could live with my red and blotchy, uncomfortable skin. But on days when it felt like fish scales chafing the wrong way against rough hessian, I became irritable and cranky and would blindly run to the corner shop in search of moisturiser… generating static sparks as I went and howling like a banshee in my head, yearning to slake the ache of my skin.

Could this be anywhere near the depth of pain experienced by Mongolia’s seared landscape over the eons? No wonder it was merciless.

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(January 2003)

to market, to market

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Shrouded in a cloud of steam and petrol fumes, a rusted white sedan carries its load of meat to a local market in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.

An array of legs and rumps wedge the boot open and wave stiffly at the cars behind. Shoulders and elbows jostle for prime window spots, pressing their flesh against glass from the back-seat. Proud chests and torsos, steadied on the roof by aging rope, sun themselves in the weak winter rays as they reminisce about great races that once set them heaving with exertion.

A series of muddied potholes filled with melted snow, throw themselves at the sedan’s tyres. The vehicle lurches, sending a pair of over-excited legs flying into the air and thudding heavily to earth. The driver stops, shakes his head, and gets out to stuff the limbs back in place. The slow journey continues.

Eventually the market gates present themselves, nestled among towering Soviet apartment blocks. The gateway draws in people and vehicles alike – in past the rusty play equipment, around the scavenging dogs, and through the concrete walls with their chipped paint and faded colours, peeling off in giant flakes.

More potholes rock the sedan and again impatient limbs leap skyward and then hit the ground. The driver doesn’t notice and they’re scooped up by a keen-eyed pedestrian, with worn clothes and a grumbling belly.

The vehicle grinds to a halt near a squat wooden building with windows patched with cardboard and tape. The driver heads to the boot – a passenger is missing. He shrugs, mutters and unloads his remaining charges onto a well-used metal trolley. Groaning under the weight, it is pushed across partly frozen, muddy ground towards the closest door of the market.

Soon the lumps of meat are sitting proudly on a worn, wooden bench, ready to be carved and presented for sale.

(2004)

Published in The Age Travel section, 7 May 2005.

driving like a horse race

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The other night it was -33C.

There was a very thick, heavy fog hanging in the air, weighing everything down.

The roads – icy and hectic at the best of times – were bedlam. Traffic was banked up for blocks in both directions. Exhaust clouds from the stationary cars worsening the already limited visibility.

Cars were detouring the wrong way up streets to avoid the gridlock… bouncing along footpaths and trying to dodge frozen pedestrians. It was every man for himself.

Inching along the road in a taxi it felt like we were stuck in a slow motion horserace, competitors only moving forward every minute or so.

Our car would inch forward. The one next door inched forward a bit further.

Then, as suddenly as slow motion will allow, “HONK, HONK! Someone’s coming up from behind. Look out! Don’t let him get past us! Bastard! Toot your horn! Flash your lights!”

It was just like a midwinter Naadam, on tarmac.

There were many competitors, all jostling for the lead. There was chaos. There was anarchy. There were clouds of steam belching from the cars like the hot, heavy breath of horses. And there were Mongolians yelling – unpronounceable and possibly unrepeatable – things to one another.

Yes, it was just like a Naadam.

(2004)

 

(*Naadam = Traditional Mongolian festival held in summer, featuring the three manly sports of horseriding, archery and wrestling.)

welcome to Yarmag

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Ucka, my Mongolian mother

I lived a ger in Yarmag for nine months over 2004-2005 (including winter) with my hitch hiking pal Jennie.

We bought our ger from the Black Market (Naran Tuul Zac) and built it in the hasha (yard) of a friend’s family.

We had no running water or electricity, collected well water from down the street and bought coal and wood to help look after our three dogs and horse.

It was hard and tough, and rewarding and invigorating. It made you appreciate the people around you and all the little things you usually take for granted.

Our friend’s mother became our Mongolian mother – our Mongol eej.

new year’s eve

2003-fireworks

The week leading up to New Year’s turned Ulaanbaatar into a temporary war zone.

Staccato gunshots echoed around the apartment buildings as fuses were lit and cardboard tubes were aimed. Firecrackers burst like fireflies colliding with electric fry-pans, as they flickered in and out of existence with brilliant white flashes. Whole streetscapes were illuminated as pyrotechnics flared, raining cars with incandescent friendly fire.

But casualties were at a minimum, it wasn’t until New Year’s Eve that the big guns were brought out. There was stiff competition on the streets that night as people ignited the biggest and brightest crackers they could afford.

Supernovas exploded across the cosmos in scintillating displays of red and green, while comets blazed fiery trails of yellow and white across the night sky. ‘Blooming Thunders’ were deployed from rooftops setting off chain reactions as the geographically challenged ‘Bright Pegasus of Beifing’ and the confusingly titled ‘Hundred Changer of Stars’ were fired, in answer, from surrounding apartment buildings and street corners.

Stray dogs ran for cover, their tails between their legs as they tried to escape the shrill whistles and violent detonations that crackled through the air.

Budding war correspondents, Tiger and I boldly braved the streets.

We stuck to the shadows avoiding bullets and shrapnel as best we could. The smell of sulphur mixed with burnt matches and blown out candles had the feel of some warped kid’s birthday party.

Thunderous detonations and luminescent blasts all around reminded us that it wasn’t. We watched incredulously as three rockets were ignited and flung haphazardly out of a window. The flaring projectiles spiraled into the darkness disgorging fire and brimstone which showered down on us.

Too surprised to move I stood there with my mouth hanging open like a clown at the sideshow my head turning slowly as I waited for someone to stuff a ball in it. The white flicker of crackers near my feet woke me from my stupor, exploding less than a foot from where we stood. Tiger darted behind my legs. Residual flashes danced around in my eyelids. It was time to seek shelter.

The agitated sky continued to fulgurate as we made a hasty retreat. We sought refuge in the common areas between the apartment buildings only to find that huge scud missiles were being launched from there. They belched smoke and flames before they erupted into the sky penetrating the heavens.

Loud wails filled the air as tortured banshees burst from their cardboard confines in a cloud of sulphurous smoke, making my eyes water and my ears ring. Vicious tongues of green fire darted forty foot into the air, licking the nearby buildings and splashing the area with flickering light.

It was too dangerous. What would happen if one of the fireworks hit a car, a building or a person? Retreat was our only option. We made a dash for it as a ‘Hellfire’ pinwheel whirled and spun out of control nearby.

The following day we returned to survey the damage. Footpaths were strewn with discarded cartridges. Spent fireworks littered the streets like the shredded remnants of giant bonbons that had been ripped apart by ferocious dogs.

New Year’s Eve had certainly gone off with a bang!

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(2004)

post!

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The arrival of a parcel in Mongolia meant a summons from the Central Post Office.

Handing over my passport, with a slip detailing collection instructions, I would wait while the ‘International Post Lady’ bustled off. Parcel successfully retrieved, she would direct me to the enigmatic ‘Cashier Ladies’.

‘Cashier Lady Number One’ required 10 cents for the processing of my form. I was obliged to sign the resulting receipt in triplicate before it was methodically cut into three. One part was retained, one was handed to me, and the other was passed to the second cashier.

A step to my right brought me face to face with ‘Cashier Lady Number Two’. She never looked very happy. Couldn’t anybody see that she was busy reading the newspaper? Or filing her nails?

When my receipts interrupted her she would glare at me with narrowed eyes, her pursed lips accusing me silently. She would demand payment for the $2 storage fees which created another receipt for my collection.

The ‘Customs Lady’ was another shuffle to my right. She was fairly blasé about her job, but would occasionally shove a sharp knife in my direction, brusquely demanding that I open my parcel with it. A cursory glance inside and I would be dismissed with a curt wave. She wasn’t interested in the contents. The power trip was far more important.

Attempts to reseal my parcels were usually futile. There was not a scrap of sticking tape to be found in the post office. With the contents threatening to spill all over the floor, I would lug my prize back to the ‘Customs Lady’ and hand in my triplicate signed receipt. Then back to the ‘International Post Lady’ to retrieve my passport.

If the parcel could be located swiftly, the whole process would be over in half an hour. If not, it could take up to an hour. In a quirky Soviet way, the manhandling and paper shuffling made sense. If one person had done the job there would have been three more people looking for work.

(2004)

my first parcel

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My first parcel took four months to arrive.

Intriguingly, it had arrived in Mongolia (a landlocked country) via sea mail.

The decrepit box that was handed to me looked like it had sat in something wet, shortly after it was beaten and electrocuted.

Heavy text books spilled from its guts and crashed to the floor. Black pepper and curry powder, freed from their packets, were spread throughout the pages.

I transferred the books to a sturdier box, sending a heady cloud of exquisite aromas into the air.

My mouth watered. I remembered those scents. Cumin. Coriander. Pepper.

There was a sniffle behind me. Turmeric. Pepper. Garlic.

A nose exploded. Pepper. Cardamom. Pepper.

And another. Pepper. Ginger. Pepper.

As the post office erupted, I made my exit, my victims blinded by watering eyes.

(2004)