Thursday, January 18, 2007

Winter in Ulaanbaatur, Mongolia

Because I'm used to Fahrenheit, rather than Celsius, I tend not to understand the irregular temperature reports I receive, but I recently checked online and found that this week has a high of 6 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of -20. Tomorrow, the high is one degree, or -17 Celsius.

I could have told you it was cold. Obviously it is cold. I have a ten minute walk to work and by the time I arrive at my office each morning, the hair sticking out of my hood is frozen white. This is dry hair. Taking a shower in the morning here would be suicidal.

But because everyone warned me about the freakishly cold Mongolian winters, I came prepared. Patagonia's long underwear has been my savior, as it has for many other people I know here. I also wear a super warm coat, a scarf, a hat and mittens, beyond my regular attire. And all of the houses in Mongolia are heated nationally by the government, so there's nothing to worry about once inside.

All this means that it's actually hard to tell how cold it is here. Once you get below freezing, it's hard to distinguish one level of cold from the next, especially when you're wearing clothing covering every part of your body except for a narrow swath across the face.

So while I'm fine, the sewer children and "lost dogs" of the city are not.

While there is apparently a law in Mongolia against kicking anyone out of their home between December and March, even if they don't pay the rent, due to the cold, there are innumerable people, particularly children, who never had a home in the first place.

They tend to live in the sewers, next to the pipes shooting heat into apartments like mine. Occasionally, people are burned by the pipes, but, for the most part, they offer the best way to survive the winter here.

The dogs of the city have fewer options. For a while I was counting the number of dogs I saw loping around the city, and the number of dead dogs I saw strewn around haphazardly, but both were too depressing.

One of my friends was saying that Mongolia needs to learn about spaying animals. Another countered that until social problems are fixed, people have more important things to worry about than their pets. She suggested that the dead dogs, sad as it is, are probably better off dead, as life on the street is rather bleak. (On a side note, I recently learned that you have to register your pets with the local council and pay a fee of approximately $2 per month per dog, and $1 per month per cat.)

Two puppies have recently begun living outside my building. Someone put an old coat out there for them to sleep on, and a lot of us give them food, and, at night, people take the puppies inside out of the cold. I try to save meat for the puppies whenever I can, and I started taking in the little puppy, who looked about four weeks old, on Christmas Eve, pitying the poor thing as it mourned the cold outside.

I say this because I tend not to give any money to the sewer children I see daily on the street. I'm not exactly sure why that is. In part, I think, it's because of how aggressive the children can be, surrounding me and saying, "money, money, money," and then cursing at me and calling me "Russian" if I don't give them anything. In part, it's because Lonely Planet suggests that I shouldn't, saying it will only cause children to see begging as a viable solution, and in part, I think, because, awfully, they are not as cute as puppies.

Several of my friends volunteer at the orphanages here, and bring back horror stories of children chained to beds, but it is a wonderful service they are doing.

I'm not sure what I think is the best way for me to help. Is feeding two dogs scraps helping anyone? Is feeding two children food helping anyone? I'm not sure.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Reason #23 of why Mongolia is Mongolia

Because somehow I ended up dressed as snow girl at my work New Year's party, because that led me to writing an article about New Year's celebrations for the Mongol Messenger, and so a picture of me as a snow girl is in Mongolia's first English language newspaper, and because today, two weeks later, I received a text from a Mongolian boy I don't know saying, "Alexa, I think I love you. I know you are a snow girl."

Here I am on stage.

Friday, January 05, 2007


I came home one Saturday night recently at about 2 am and heard a loud argument occurring across the hall. An hour later, I could still hear the argument occurring. Then I heard screaming and yelling on the stairs, and suddenly, outside my window, there was a woman lying in the courtyard, crying hysterically. Several people were standing over her and yelling. I heard her come sobbing upstairs again and then there was more screaming and yelling in the apartment. I didn't know what to do, so I went and opened my apartment door. A woman was holding open the door of the apartment where the screaming was coming from, and several other neighbors and the building's security officer were standing in the hallway and on the stairs. The woman holding the door open kept saying everything is fine, even though everything is not fine. Then the screaming woman stumbles toward the door and her entire face was bleeding. I didn't know what to do. I grabbed the phone and called the police. I asked the woman who picked up, in Mongolian, if she spoke English. She hung up on me. I called two more times, and she hung up on me. The last time, she said, "We don't speak English here," in English, before hanging up on me. Finally, the woman holding the door open took the beaten woman outside and they got into a car.

Physical abuse is terrifyingly common in Mongolia, but it was the first time I was an eye-witness to it. I talked to my boss about it, and she said that abuse centers are sprouting up, with housing, because most of these women stay with their husbands because they have nowhere else to go. My boss also suggested getting some pamphlets from one of these centers and discreetly slipping them to the woman when I see her in the hall.

Almost equally disturbing though, was the emergency police woman hanging up on me several times in row. What if something serious had happened to me? She didn't care. I understand that not everyone in Mongolia speaks English, but my boss said that the police have the capacity to locate calls. At the very least, she should have sent someone over to make sure I was okay. I just hope that nothing happens to me or my friends while I'm here, because it's now obvious that if anything does happen, the police are not going to help.

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