One lady in my apartment building had a scruffy black dog. Whenever we saw each other we’d say hello and wave. The lady’s legs were not so good and at times the pain got too bad and she couldn’t take her pooch outside for walks.
To cope she’d developed a system that everyone in the apartment building knew, from the guard ladies who lived under the stairs, to business men and small children, and even young teenagers.
She’d let her dog out of the apartment to make his own way downstairs, where he’d wait at the external door until someone let him out. He then went about his business, roaming the nearby ger neighbourhood at will.
When he was finally too cold and tired, and ready to go to sleep, he would front up at the external door again, waiting until someone walking past let him in. Then he’d trot back up the stairs to his owner and a warm nap. Everyone was happy!
I lived on the right hand side of the ger in Yarmag where the women traditionally live. Its where the kitchen area is, just behind me in the bright orange cupboard. That’s where we stored our food and cups and bowls and utenstils. To the right, the big blue container houses our water that we collected from the local well. To the left of the water is a squat round basin that we washed our dishes in, and occasionally our clothes and bodies.
Most of the time we took our washing downtown to a guesthouse where we also luxuriated in a hot shower, never quite able to scrub the black coal dust from our hands or neckline. The door of the ger stove opened to the right side of the ger so the women could stoke it and cook on it… and get up at 3 in the morning when the fire had gone out and it was -40C outside. My fellow ger dwelling pal Jennie also did her share of fire stoking, she just had further to shuffle from her side of the ger on cold crisp mornings.
So, this is a picture of washing day which you can see hanging from the ceiling rafters on the left above my couch-bed. And here I am, freshly scrubbed from my monthly shower, hands covered in coal dust again, as I feed the little black nuggets of warmth into our stove. Ah, bliss!
Over a long Mongolian winter my couch/bed and I became the very best of friends, snuggling into each other as the winds howled outside and the dogs hid from drifts of snow.
So here’s a sneaky peak into my winter bed setup in the Yarmag ger. There were many layers to keeping warm including a wonderful black satin, fur-lined del. It was all rolled up in the morning and stashed away so the bed became a comfy couch again.
So clever and versatile, the very best in ‘tiny house’ living!
The garbage chute in my Ulaanbaatar apartment block was a fascinating contraption. Essentially a huge metal intestinal tract running from the top floor to the bottom, it had little trap doors on each landing for inserting rubbish.
The garbage piled up in a garage-like room downstairs with big gates until the weekly collection. Often the gates would bulge open allowing stray dogs to rummage for scraps while hard-of-luck humans collected bottles and metal for a meagre income from recycling. I’d heard that people even collected glass lightglobes for the metal inside them.
Often the recyclers would walk the streets in groups of two or three calling out as they went. The magical tones of their voices echoing around the tall buildings like Buddhist chants letting people know what they were collecting. I placed my bottles in a separate bag before sending them down the chute, hoping they’d remain intact on their journey.
Occasionally the whole system ran into difficulty. If a bag got stuck inside it caused a backlog of household waste in indigestible proportions. Being a chimney sweep would be a hard job, but spare a thought for the poor soul who got to unblock the garbage chute.
The notorious Mongolian winds that tore through the suburbs, up dusty streets and between towing blocks complicated the task further. Opening the trap door was like opening the door to the underworld with an angry hurricane blowing you off your feet. Getting a plastic bag full of rubbish into that chute became a physical challenge. Eventually I discovered that throwing the bag up the chute was far easier than fighting the gale. I wondered if a whole collection of my garbage bags would be found at the top of the building by the end of winter.
My spacious one bedroom flat in the sixth micro-district of Ulaanbaatar was near the Mongol TV tower and a quick 30 minute walk to ‘downtown’ in autumn. Come winter this increased exponentially as snow, black ice and sub-zero temperatures worked together to thwart me. So far my encounters with black ice had been manageable, occasionally skidding a few feet across busy roads but not yet landing plump on my arse. I felt considerably better when I saw Mongolians just as out of control as me – usually small children or shuffling, bent-backed senior citizens.
The apartment was within spitting distance of the ger districts. Spitting in the literal sense. I nearly choked the first time I saw a well dressed business lady put her finger to the side of her nose and execute the ‘bush hanky’. She skillfully avoided getting any on her clothes, something I never managed to master. Urinating in public was a common sight too, but usually by drunks and small children, not business women.
Window-panes and crockery were regularly rattled by the passage of heavily over-laden, Russian trucks carting loads of building materials, or gers, complete with family perched precariously in the back. Other times, farming tractors hurtled past and occasionally herders moved their cattle along the suburban roads in search of edible weeds and grasses.
The Soviet-style flat had 10 inch concrete walls, kitsch gold striped wallpaper and groovy plastic chandeliers. Located on the first floor of a nine story apartment block its sunny, south facing aspect was topped with high ceilings and paint that peeled off and occasionally fell in my dinner. One night the light bulb in my kitchen exploded splattering glass all over the place. If it weren’t for the plastic fake crystal chandelier arresting its flight, the pieces would have flown much further. Somehow none of it hit me.
I was intrigued by the windows with their inner and outer layers, both opening inwards. In Australia I was used to windows that opened outwards. Surely if a window opens outwards the worst that could happen is that its blown closed. If it opened inwards and a big blizzard came along wouldn’t it blow in and my flat fill with snow? I pondered it a while. I guessed that opening the inner window outwards when the outer window was closed would be difficult. But couldn’t the inner window open inwards and the outer one open outwards? I vowed to keep my windows closed in all blizzards, just in case.
With all the dust of of the nearby ger suburbs blowing around, the windows were perpetually coated with an icky white film that darkened the room and made it hazy. I took to them one day with the cheapest, nastiest vodka I could find at the supermarket. Not for drinking mind you. Cleaning windows with scrunched up newspaper and vodka works a treat, plus its just cheaper than fancy cleaning products. So there I was on a Sunday morning with sparkling windows and a flat that smelled of cheap vodka when I heard a knock. It was my landlord coming to gather some things. I’m sure he wondered why I was getting into the strong stuff so early.
Winter in Ulaanbaatar brought with it new wonders and mysteries.
Walking along the footpaths I encountered strange marks in the flattened snow. There were indents the size of sultanas, set about a foot apart, making their way along the street. Had someone been walking with an unopened umbrella, touching its tip to the ground at measured intervals? Surely not. Rain only falls during the summer. This was the middle of winter. Perhaps the marks were from a walking stick. The more I looked, the more I saw. They were everywhere. I couldn’t believe that so many people were using walking sticks and I hadn’t seen any of them. Were walking sticks were on sale somewhere? Had they become the latest indispensable fashion accessory? I resolved to get to the bottom of this. The only thing missing as I sat on my balcony surveying the street, was my rocking chair and a shotgun. Soon one of the culprits walked past. Part of me was a little disappointed to discover that it was women who were responsible. Why couldn’t it have been part of an alien master plan to take over the world, by infiltrating human society disguised as walking sticks? It was so logical.
More precisely, it was the impractically high shoes favoured by women that were to blame. With chopsticks for heels, neat little divots were left as they stepped across the compacted snow. The shoes, with their pointy ‘winkle picker’ toes, made walking akin to flopping along the beach in swimming flippers. Some clutched their boyfriend’s arms for dear life as they tried to negotiate the icy footpaths. Others were braver and tackled rougher terrains, picking their way resolutely along rocky dirt roads, across snowy paddocks and up steep flights of wonky, concrete stairs. They provided me with no end of amusement. Watching these trendy young ladies teetering precariously about in six inches of snow with three inch stilettos I had to restrain myself from laughing. When they encountered black ice I felt a certain level of satisfaction as they slipped, swayed and toppled to the ground like miniature Mongolian Goliaths. What on earth had they been thinking when they dressed that morning? “Oooh look, it’s snowing! There’s bound to be plenty of ice around today, better wear my stilettos.” Perhaps the aliens were smarter than I thought. They had disguised themselves as indispensable high heels.
Apartment blocks in Ulaanbaatar have ‘guard ladies’ who sit in special rooms under the stairs. They keep an eye on the comings and goings of people and spend most of their day watching scratchy television on ancient sets. It gets quite cold under the stairs, with snowy gales blowing in each time the external door opens.
One day, the daughter of the guard lady came up to see me. She knocked on my door, placed a handwritten note in my hands and looked up with expectant brown eyes.
Her reddened cheeks were framed by thick black braids that fell heavily to her waist. On her feet were the most impractical platform shoes I’d ever seen – elevating her by a good three inches and bringing the top of her head up to my chin. What fourteen year old girl could possibly resist them? Padded black ski pants encased her willowy legs and a puffy yellow jacket with fur collar completed the picture.
The note was written in red ink on a page from a school notebook. It asked for a loan of 1000 T – about USD $1 – until her mother’s weekly wages came through. The note addressed me as ‘sister’ which took me by surprise.
I lent her the money and was repaid a few days later. I had made two new friends.
Winter stretched on and my adopted street-dog Tiger continued to grow. Ears sprouted from the top of her head like the bug-eyes of a giant black frog, their yawning depths swivelling about continuously tracking sounds. I wondered what kind of beast she was turning into. Perhaps her diet was to blame. A lack of dog biscuits at the market had prompted me to buy cat ones. I mentioned this to a friend and she burst into laughter. Her cat had been eating dog biscuits.
As Tiger grew our walks became longer and increasingly more adventuresome, allowing us to discover new places and wonders. Between the towering apartment blocks were spaces set aside as common areas with scatterings of archaic play equipment. Some districts had painted their equipment in gay and garish colours, but not my district. Or at least not that year. Despite a light dusting of snow lending an ethereal, almost other worldly air, the cold steel play equipment lurked maliciously, dormant in its sterile, grey concrete domain. Its finger-severing potential seethed between the buildings and across the common spaces like a venomous fog.
Patrolling these zones were grim faced sentinels. Siberian brown bears, polar bears, white seals, lions and tigers that stood forlornly in the snow, the colour peeling from their bodies. Tiger initially kept her distance. I walked up to one and patted it. It didn’t stir. Tiger moved forward, tentatively sniffing the paint-chipped crotch of a nearby bear. Nothing happened. She stepped back and cocked her head to one side before approaching the lion. Again, no reaction. “Well,” she barked, a triumphant gleam in her eye, “who’s the king of the jungle now, eh?!”
Our walks meandered about, weaving between old shipping containers. Some stood to attention in orderly rows, maintaining a watchful eye over the common areas, rancorous metal see-saws cowering in the centre as they silently plotted their escape. Others lent together, drunkenly supporting one another, frozen urine and smashed vodka bottles littering the snow at their feet. Units of them paraded in front and behind the towering apartment blocks, like busy ants on a frozen picnic rug, marching resolutely through drifts of unwanted playing cards, animal bones, dog faeces and hastily discarded underpants.
On icy morning dragons awoke within their depths, noxious clouds of exhaust steam billowing from the metal caves. Drivers ignorant or oblivious to the dangers of asphyxiation lingered in the lairs, doors partially closed while they warmed the engines of their beasts. Some containers were garden sheds, havens for ladders, leftover paints and spare building materials. Others served as giant metal cupboards, home to years of assorted junk and clutter. Shops and street stalls treated them as storerooms, stockpiling fruit, biscuits and vodka.
Once Tiger and I came across three dead goats lying in the snow at the entrance to one. Frozen stiff, their knobbly brown legs stuck up in the air like wonky candles on a birthday cake. Two men wrestled them inside. It seemed the containers could be huge freezers too.
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.”
“Ooooh, I’m so sorry! I’m from Australia. We don’t have ice in Melbourne.”
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.