Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Eskimo Tools, and Other Cold Things

Just how cold is it here in Ulaanbaatar?  It is so cold the Others north of the Wall would be shivering.  It is so cold that Faerie Queen of Winter Mab would be wearing earmuffs.  It is so cold that I am asking myself just how badly I want that coke.

In other words: cold.  And it's only going to get colder.

I've considered occasionally (that occasion being around the end of May or beginning of June) the stages of hot.  I have never before had reason to think about the stages of cold.  Most of my adult life, there has been just one coat for me, and I wore it no matter how cold it was.  When it got too cold for a jacket, I started wearing my leather trenchcoat, and that was that.  But living in the world's coldest capital has given me cause to cast my mind upon it at long last.  Let's see...

First, it got cold enough to snow.  This doesn't mean a lot here - we apparently have had snow up in the hills at least once a month for many, many moons - so let's change that to "it got cold enough to snow regularly."

Then it got too cold for a jacket.  I wore a sweater and a jacket for a while, but around the beginning of November I had to give in and start wearing my coat (the red cashmere one I had made in China - I decided my trenchcoat should be saved for winters one could reason with.  Also, I couldn't button it up, even if it still had its buttons).  Followed by my hat, and shortly thereafter I discovered I needed a cashmere scarf to match my coat (I no longer had a black pashmina since my old one had gotten pretty ratty, and hell, cashmere is cheap here).

After that, it got cold enough that the snow did not go away.  This has led to complications such as slick-as-snot surfaces (say THAT five times fast).  I have come to admire our faithful...groundskeepers?  Guards???  Whatever their exact job title is, the men about the school have the Sisyphean task of removing the snow from walking and driving surfaces.  If the regular snowfall is not removed, it gets packed underfoot and becomes a thick, hard layer that is slippery, dirty, and spit-encrusted, because that isn't going anywhere til spring, either. 

Your better businesses will keep their sidewalks clear, and that's a godsend, because when your feet slide right out from underneath you and you hit so hard it brings tears to your eyes, guess what?  You'll find out about the next level of cold.  Any moisture coming out of your eyes will freeze to your eyelashes.  If you have a sniffly nose (such as the one I've been using for the last five weeks), the hairs in your nose will freeze together.  Frost will form on the outside of the scarf that is covering your mouth and funneling your breath up to your eyebrows and eyelashes, which will frost over, too.

And very shortly thereafter, the skies will turn white.  Not "snow-is-coming" white, but "forecast-calls-for-smoke" white.  Because everyone and his brother are burning coal to heat their gers.  Actually, that's not entirely fair.  There are plenty of people living in apartments, which are heated with radiators, and plenty more living in the sewers, heated by the pipes that bring the hot water to our radiators.  But the pollution is gradually getting worse, and I know a day is coming where it won't make me any warmer to stand in a sunny window because the smoke will be blocking out the power of the sun.

And people wonder why I've been sick as long as I have.  The good news is, at this point, I doubt it can get any worse.  The better news is that by the time I come back in January to find out, two-and-a-half weeks of fresh, Iowa air should get me over my cold.  The best news of all?  When I go to Harbin in February, I might actually find the weather manageable, rather than being unable to cope with it and, thus, missing the snow and ice sculptures that are the whole point of going to Harbin.

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