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.


At 1:30 PM, Blogger AODstudy said...

I really like your blog. its really interesting and insightful. The street kids thing is a tough one and I guess you would be faced with it everyday. Maybe begging is the only viable option for them at the moment. I've done English teaching in china before and i know you dont get paid much but I guess the best thing you could do for them would be or leave some blankets, clothing or food out for them. You could do this at night so they wouldn't know it was you. If you started giving out money during the day then you probably couldn't get to work anymore because you would get swamped everyday.

Its great to hear what its actually like to live in Mongolia. I've wanted to travel there for a while now.

At 2:34 AM, Blogger piggie1230 said...

Hi. I haven't lived in Mongolia full time, but I've spent several summers there.

In any case, generally speaking, the street children can be outright dangerous. I never gave them money. Sometimes, if several of us were out to dinner, an individual child might come and ask for our scraps. In that case I would give them over, because it was never more than one or two, and we were 'protected'. I've had friends were chased several blocks near the state store, when they gave something to a few of the children.

One thing that I know is very common is leaving your plastic out on the street for the homeless to pick up. They take it to the recycling center for money. (I think they also do this in China)

At 5:08 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I went to Mongolia last week for a visit as tourist, I really liked the country and the people. I am a Software Engineer working with reputed MNc in India. I would like to work in Mongolia.

But I was quite surprised by listening to weather in Mongolia. It is too cold in Winter. I would really appreciate if someone could tell me that, how things work out in winter.
Do people work in winter?? Or they sit back home waiting for summers to come???

At 8:31 AM, Blogger iaminmonoglia said...

I lived and worked among the mongolian people for two years! I love them with all my heart and speak their language fluently! the street kids act the way they do bc it is a survival mechanism! In there world you are not going to get much from asking nicely! They dont know any better. there are many ways to help them without teaching them to beg! i used to let them take my trash out or run get me things in exchange for food money and yes helping them is helping. try and get out to the country side and enjoy the mongolian people as the temp warms up! there is no place on earth like it! Good luck

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