Sunday, February 2, 2014

Snow Bunnies

Engish - a hobbit amongst elves
Today - which is apparently a very auspicious day for people who believe in such things - was the first ever Ulaanbaatar Winter Festival.  When Engrish, Blondie, Champ, and I are old and grey, we just might be telling our grandkids (or great-great niblings) about the winter of 2014, and how we were at UB's very first winter festival.  We school-dwellers set out from the teachers' apartments with the newest newbies, Young and Love, for the Tuul River bright and early at 10:30 yesterday morning.  We should have known better - as much as I love Mongolia, things rarely start on time, especially when it's the first time - but I was really excited about this festival.  Ice archery!  Knucklebone shooting!  And the thing I was looking forward to most - dogsledding!
If you're not wondering about where at the river I was talking about, you should.  Where I come from, you just don't go out "on the ice" unless you're ready to get wet, because there's no guarantee that it will be able to hold you.  It just doesn't get that cold in the mid-Midwest, and I've fallen into the creek on my parent's place at least a couple of times in winter.  On the other hand, I know from experience that back in Iowa I can walk home from it and not have to have my toes amputated from frostbite.  Now, if the ice on the Tuul River is thick enough to drive on (and it is - Enkhaa and I were joking last week that if the traffic was bad we could always take the river), it's probably safe for even someone as Rubenesque as me, but the cracks in the ice and the bitter cold (around -30C) did make me consider how bad the frostbite would be before I got home.

We wandered around, watching them set up, during which we lost Young/Love (they went home because it was kinda cold and nothing was happening), but it was kind of interesting watching everything get set up.  We were particularly fascinated by seeing them get the archery course ready.  This is Uriankhai archery, a kind of Mongolian archery that - from what I can tell, involved shooting targets (snowballs, in this case) that are lying on the ground.  The problem was that there wasn't a back side to the course, so we spent some time trying to figure out which direction they were supposed to shoot from:  Engrish - in her rush to find Enkhaa at one point - nearly walked between the archers and their target.  The good thing is that if she had, the arrows are blunted.
Since my New Year's Resolution - if I believed in them - is to elf myself, I was tempted to get Enkhaa to ask them to teach me to shoot.  Engrish, on the other hand, was more interested in the knucklebone shooting....
These guys were shooting while things were still setting up, but later it became an open invitational, and everyone, including foreigners, were allowed to participate.  Engrish was a little too late to sign up for it, and because she's a nice polite Canadian she didn't force the issue.  Manners are overrated, and since I'm a loud American I offered to convince someone to let her take a shot, but she insisted it was fine.  So now I have to go find some shagai in town so we can try it out on the school ice rink.
Dogsledding is one of the things that's been on my list for a while now.  A friend got to do it here last winter, and I passed up the opportunity because I was supposed to be running an activity at church that Saturday.  Since November I've been trying to figure out a way to do it with the French guy in town that runs it, but his tours were too long and expensive.  I was determined to get in one of those sleds yesterday - and then I didn't.  Engrish got the brochure from the Mongolian guy who runs this company (ie, this isn't the French guy), and it's way more reasonably priced.  I might not get to do it this winter, but I'm definitely staying for another year, so it's definitely going to happen.
The events were great, but it was just a really good experience.  It was great getting out of our apartments and breathing some fresh (-ish) cold air (and - as Bear Grylls says - you burn twice as many calories at extreme temperatures!)  Seeing the kids all bundled up was too freaking cute, and I may have said, "I can't put my arms down!" more than once.  It also amazes me to see how well the Mongolians have adapted - and continue to live with - the cold.  Unlike some places where I have lived that are extremely hot, they keep living and thriving in the cold, instead of just staying inside for the worst of it.  Engrish and Blondie followed up the morning by even more walking around in the cold as we headed up to Gandan ONE LAST TIME after thawing out at California's (where Engrish was glad NOT to eat buuz!)  I STILL didn't get to see sand painting, so I guess it just wasn't meant to be, but I'll say it again, a monastery is never a bad place to be during a holiday, especially when it's a very auspicious day.

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