Sunday, January 29, 2017

When It Hurts to Breathe

There are three things that absolutely suck about Mongolia - the traffic, the cold, and the pollution.  Most of the year, life is fine - the air is clean, the weather is brisk, and if the traffic's bad, it's not that far to walk.  Unfortunately, during the winter there is a limit to what you can do about any of them.
But at least you get to experience driving on the river
Before the Christmas break, everything seemed to be going wrong.  I had my first bad fall of the winter on a Sunday (blame it on one of the cars stuck in traffic scaring the heck out of me by blaring their horns, although packed-snow sidewalks glazed in I-don't-want-to-know-what didn't help), I spent so long waiting for a taxi a few nights later that I had to take off my shoes once I got picked up to massage the life back into them, and then the following day walking to dinner I very nearly impaled my head on a tree, and one of the bells in my hair ('twas the season!) swung around and hit me in the lip, which it immediately froze to. It is not encouraging when you feel like the entire country is trolling you.  Up until that point, I figured if I couldn't find a job, well, I had a perfectly good one right here - I could stay another year in Mongolia and try for Japan next year.

But that week changed things - I was over it all.  Since I'm trying to get back in the blogging habit, today I'm writing about that special weather condition unique to Ulaanbaatar - smoke.  Yesterday there was a protest for cleaner air, but I had to errands to run and report cards to write (did I actually do any reports yesterday?  Nope - I still have today to get them done).  But I was with them in spirit, because it's out of control.  There is an official air quality index thing with numbers and stuff, but I'm an art teacher with literary leanings, so I've classified the air in 8 easy-to-understand levels.  Observe:
Green alert - The skies are eye-wateringly blue.  You can see the Great Wall of China from the top of Bogd Khan Uul.  You think you've got freaking elf-eyes, like you're channeling Legolas or some shit.  You could can this air and sell it to China and make a killing.
Yellow Alert - There's a bit of haze in the air.  You can see everything in a 360-degree range, hilltop to hilltop.  The skies are still blue - it just doesn't hurt to look at them.

Orange Alert - There's a slight tang in the air downtown.  That beautiful blue has become discolored, but is still recognizable as blue.  Koreans start wearing face masks.

Red Alert - You can't see the hills on the other side of the city.  It smells like burning downtown, but it's not too bad in Zaisan.  White people start wearing face masks.

Defcon1 - You can't see the buildings on the other side of the city.  If you go outside, you will smell like smoke until your clothes have a chance to air out.  Mongolians start wearing face masks.

Defcon2 - You can't see the buildings on the other side of the Tuul River...or the slopes going into Bogd Khan.  If you go outside, you will smell like smoke unless you change your clothes.  Chinese people start wearing face masks.

Defcon3 - You can't see Zaisan Hill.  You'd willingly buy canned air from China - it would be fresher - that's how much it hurts to breathe.  Hell, it hurts to think.  If you go outside, you will smell like smoke until you shower.  

Apocalypse Now - You can't see the school on the other side of the parking lot.  You're considering taking up smoking because you're sure it would be an improvement on what you're currently breathing.  If you go outside, you will smell like smoke until you die...or visit a Korean bath house and get the top layers of skin scrubbed off your body.
From the Siloam Website

Actually, a good jjimjjilbang would not go amiss here.  On our way home at Christmas, Five, Engrish, and I stayed at Siloam, and I convinced them to try their first scrub, which makes you feel super squeaky clean.  Later we ventured upstairs and sat in the oxygen room for a while...well, Five did, anyways - there were too many men sacked out for all of us, but I got some on my way back.  My main problem with this strategy for dealing with the air is that I'd never want to leave - I'd have to teach my classes remotely, or have them all join me.  Our new school uniform could be the sauna t-shirt and shorts!  We could have figure drawing in the bathing area!

Yeah.  Or not.


  1. The air quality is one thing we definitely used to measure our school choice after UB. Chennai is quite clean most of the time!

    1. It's definitely on my list of considerations this go-round!

  2. Does it result from the burning of fossil fuels like carbon?

    1. Yes - a lot of the gers and small homes burn coal throughout the winter. There have been initiatives to deal with it, but so far it only seems to get worse from year to year.