Mongolian Winter

Mongolia and the Mongolian people surprise me everyday – from the food, the customs to some more prosaic challenges a naive expat faces when venturing out to the coldest capital of the Earth in the middle of the winter.

The winter… a challenge in a league of its own. Although it officially starts on the day of the winter solstice, the freezing temperatures usually last from early October to late April. The entire country becomes slowly covered in ice and snow (or, more precisely, dry, frozen snow) which stay put for months at a time. All rivers and lakes are frozen – a mesmerising view, especially when the river becomes a race track for local skaters or a skip-the-traffic lane for local taxis.

When I first got off at the airport and came outside, it felt like going inside a huge, industrial freezer. It was “only” -25C outside.

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Winter Abstraction No. 1

The “Nine Nines”

When I first heard about the nine nines, I was flabbergasted; allow me to explain.

The nine nines refer to the nine sets of nine days (aka Nine Circles of Hell) that define the Mongolian winter. They have been used by Mongolian herders for centuries in order to guide them through the seemingly monotonous winter months. The eighty one days start from 22 December and follow this bewildering order:

The First Nine:  Milk vodka congeals and freezes (presumably when left outside).

The Second Nine:  Vodka (the usual kind) congeals and freezes.

The Third Nine: The tail of a three-year-old ox freezes and falls off (what???).

The Fourth Nine: The horns of a four-year-old ox freeze and fall off (what about the three-year-old ox’s horns I wonder…)

The Fifth Nine: Boiled rice no longer congeals or freezes. 

The Sixth Nine: Roads become visible from underneath the snow and ice.

The Seventh Nine: Hilltops appear.

The Eighth Nine: The ground becomes damp.

The Ninth Nine: Warmer days set in (“warmer” being a very arbitrary notion in the Mongolian language).

It is just my luck that I arrived in Mongolia to experience the coldest part of its winter – the fourth nine which only finished last week. I never thought that I was going to feel hot when the temperature rose to -12C at some point last week. Just when I started hoping for some milder weather, we experienced the coldest day this winter with the temperature dropping to -40C on Sunday. Only six months ago I was in Spain experiencing +40C – it’s mind-boggling just to think of the 80-degree difference between these two places.

When in Rome…

Despite looking for the most suitable winter gear in London before the trip, my gloves and boots proved completely useless in -30C. Sick of having frozen hands and feet, and constantly escaping a potential frostbite, I decided to ask the locals for advice. Here’s what can keep you warm during the Siberian weather front:

  • Gloves – two pairs: lamb wool mittens on the outside (£2, purchased at the local black market) and cashmere gloves on the inside (£10, available at any self-respecting cashmere stockist).
  • Socks – made from camel or yak wool (£2, the black market is the winner again)
  • Boots – my personal favourite – made of reindeer fur and lined with sheep wool (£200-£250, depending on shoe size). These are not only the warmest shoes I have ever owned but they are also waterproof and sturdy enough to allow for walks in the countryside.
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Hand-made reindeer boots

The above combination has allowed me to start enjoying being outside and makes me feel prepared for the number of countryside trips in the coming weeks.

But what to do if the temperature falls below -40C and no amount of cashmere can help?

According to my friend, Sarul: ‘just pour and rub some vodka on your legs. Yes, you are going to smell like a street-working lady but at least you will be warm. I couldn’t care less; if I could, I would bathe in vodka everyday’.

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