Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Into the Cold

Into the Cold1
It’s winter and I’ve been tracking the “Snowmageddon” that’s ravaging the East Coast where I spent a good part of my wonder years. So in the spirit of this, I’m going to write about something wintery. I’m a warm weather soul and the cold is dreadful to me. This brings me to recall one of the coldest journeys of my life thus far. This segment leads up to the just before the expedition out of town into the chill of –50 C. People know me for my many excursions into Mongolia and Central Asia. Well, most people go there during the “On Season” when it’s mild. Blue skies; windy perhaps, and chilly at times to some. During the good weather on the open steppes or in the Gobi Desert, the morning sun rises fast, it warms up and then the nightfall brings in the chill of a crisp starry night. It’s challenging but tolerable. My point is you don’t really know a place until you’ve gone through what the good folks there do when no one else wants to come around. Meet Mongolia in mid January. The near empty plane flew me in from Tokyo via Seoul. I was arriving just before midnight and nothing prepared me for the next. As I disembarked I felt a sting of cold seeping through the cracks of the terminal boarding ramps. Through immigration and to the only baggage carousel in the international airport I went without any major delay. When you are one of only a few planes of the day, you can begin to miss lines. I flew in sitting next to a Pro Wrestler “The Blue Wolf” who makes the routine flight each month between family and matches. Blue Wolf and I chatted and then parted ways as we headed to the reception area. Already I saw people covered in bundles and multiple layers upon layers of clothing. My best friend and like a brother from another mother Enkhtuvshin called out from across the havoc and grabbed my things. “Welcome back, I’m sorry it’s not too bad out but only a little bit cold outside tonight” he said in his accented baritone voice. –27 Celsius which about –16.6 Fahrenheit is only a little bit cold I thought; what the hell? This before the wind hits you.  Out in the open nigh air, the first parts that felt it were my ears then my nose and fingers. It’s not cold to me anymore, it hurts. My cheeks seemed leathery and I thought it wiser to rush to the vehicle. Well crunching over the frozen airport parking lot I could smell the acrid smoke from coal fires. The nearby “The Three Mile Island” looking coal power plant was in full force and a huge plume of smoke and steam rose skyward. Adding to this were the smaller fires pouring out of more smoke from the smoke stacks of the ger (yurt) districts. These were basically unevenly fenced in tent ghettos consisting of thousands gers on the hillside overlooking Ulaan Baatar. Coal dust tainted the air with bitter. Into the car and towards town we went passed the gray white snow landscape. Ulaan Baatar is quaint at night; I like the warm lights from windows and bright blinking signs for bars, restaurants, clubs, makeshift kiosks, and oddly enough light up coconuts trees. Yes, some genius urban planner thought it a good idea to decorate the median strip of a major road with large fake coconut trees that have colorful light up coconuts and all. This in a place where the nearest beach or coconut tree is at least a thousand of miles away. It’s a splendid ironic image. Tonight was a good baptism into the cold. Hardly any tourists and I’m the only person booked in on the floor of my hotel, somewhat of a “Shining” moment. All work and no play makes Linh a dull boy. After checking in and clambering about with more layers of insulation. I went out to the square to meet up with friends. There was some sort of celebration incurring. In the cold night the Christmas decorations were still up. Music came from an unknown source and sparse crowds loitered together. One person handed me a cup of vodka which I faked drinking then tossed the contents to the sidewalk. To my surprise it hit the ground and sounded like coins. I was stunned, upon noticing this, they laughed and then one of them demonstrated that if you spit, it freezes in mid air then just lands on the ground and rolls away. Which we all confirmed thereafter. I was cold. My feet were numb, my face was stuck in a leathery stare, tears frosted to my eye lashes, and the hairs in my nostrils were frozen as I crouched and slouched in my coat to keep warm. I believe that at this temperature if you sucked air through with my teeth, they’d shatter. A few of my friends looked at me and asked me “Why would you ever want to come when it’s so cold and difficult?” Before I answered that it hit me. Not many people ever experience this. It sets me apart for a tourist and something between an outsider and one of them. I think the right word is visceral to describe something it all. “I like it and it makes Mongolia real to me was all I said.”  They seemed to understand then there was mutual laughter at the skinny Vietnamese American man trying to keep warm. Later I headed back to my hotel to plan out the next. I’ve found a whole new world for me in a place I’ve come to visit so often. Incredibly, the hotel room was toasty warm. The large Soviet era monolithic architecture proved practical. Blocky and blunt, but they do a good job at providing shelter. I tried to look out the window which was actually 3 sets of windows spaced within a very deep wall. To no avail, the windows were a solid block of ice about 2 feet thick. I laid in bed thinking about how the countryside people dealt with all this year after year.  Now I wanted to head out and find out for myself. I’m going to see how people can live in felt tents under such conditions. It's a hardship you have to admire. I really don’t think you can get to know Mongolia until you spend some time in winter here. Soon I'm getting my gear together and heading out. I’m going to be cold, miserable, begging to get back to a warm place, but I’ll love every near regrettable instance of it. More on the journey out into the frozen countryside in the next installment…