*cough cough*

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Bloomberg posted an illuminating article yesterday that broke down the current pollution issues. Guess what? Beijing can move over. Ulaanbaatar’s pollution has it beat–five times over.

Because it’s the Year of the Monkey, Mongolians have been predicting an extra cold, extra long winter. One of our coworkers said they are expecting four months of winter rather than three. (To me, it feels like winter lasts for six months anyway so…don’t listen to the expat who apparently doesn’t know these things. 😉 ) I’ve also heard that there might be an extra nine added to the “nine nines” of winter. What I’ve come to learn about Mongolian weather, however, is that you can never predict what might happen.

We’ve had snow on the ground for well over a month now, which has been nice in some ways. It’s kept the dust down, and the times that it’s been warm enough to snow has helped the air quality. The snow clears out the pollution for a couple of days before it gets bad again. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to stay indoors with Z more often than not. The pollution is so bad that one of the military hospitals is opening a wing for children with pneumonia because all of the other hospitals are full to overflowing. Even one of our teammate’s kids is recovering from pneumonia, and we are fortunate enough to live in a part of the city where the pollution is not so concentrated.

The pollution is so bad…that even Mongolians are wearing pollution masks, and that is an uncommon sight indeed. Usually, the only face masks we see people wearing are because they are sick (or vulnerable) and don’t want to pass on/catch others’ germs. So if you think of us, remember Mongolians this winter, especially those in Ulaanbaatar.

Beth sig

Winter Air Pollution

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It’s September, the morning after the first snowfall of the season, and Otgontuuya already knows that winter will be brutal. She sits on a pink plastic chair in her living room, takes off her thick jacket and breast-feeds her crying toddler. She has just gotten home, having walked across the uneven dirt roads overlooking the city, where the white ground is slowly turning a slushy gray. Even when the weather is nice, sharp turns and steep inclines often make it impossible for off-road vehicles to reach her neighborhood.

Otgontuuya is 28, and like most Mongolians, goes by only her first name. She is married, a stay-at-home mother who spends her free time sewing traditional tunic-like clothes for her kids. “I live for my children,” she says, rocking her 1-year-old daughter in her lap.

Along with freezing temperatures, winter brings memories of the child that never came. Six years ago, Otgontuuya was informed during a routine checkup that her baby had stopped growing. She miscarried at 12 weeks.

The culprit, doctors told her, was air pollution.

Thus begins this article on maternal health in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, by Liana Aghajanian (on Al Jazeera). I very strongly recommend that you read that article, which explains the tenuous situation well and includes photographs of life in the capital city for its residents who do not live in apartment buildings.

Somehow, in all of our preparations and research about Mongolia prior to arriving in the country, we missed the fact that Ulaanbaatar has terrible winter air pollution. Still not sure how that happened. Although I’ve read conflicting reports on this, UB is purportedly the most polluted capital city in the world in winter and the pollution is worse than in Beijing, China. The primary reason for this is that central heating comes from steam plants, which run on coal, and the city is lined with ger districts with residents burning coal and other flammable items for heat and cooking. I don’t suppose it helps that the city lies snugly between mountain ranges.

We are fortunate to live and work on the southern end of the city where we have a lot of wind that helps clear out the worst of the pollution. Even so, the outside air smells of coal smoke from late October to March or thereabouts. Depending on how cold it is, there are times when we can’t see certain parts of the city because of how thick the smoke is. Like all difficulties, it’s manageable with the right gear, but I have yet to meet a UB resident who doesn’t complain about the pollution. Looking at the rest of winter ahead of us (and this year’s winter looks like it might be a dzud), I don’t suspect we’ll have clear air for awhile. Fortunately, this too shall pass.

Do keep mothers and babies in your thoughts as winter progresses. (And sorry that this is not a cheerier post so close to the holidays…)

Beth sig

Cold

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Hot dang it’s cold in Seattle these days. Yesterday, we stood in downtown Seattle for many hours so that we could watch the Seahawks Victory Parade. It was a blast, but it was anywhere between 20-30F with lots of wind blowing up from Puget Sound. This morning, when I left my home for the bus, it was ~18F. Let me tell you, my fingers got awfully cold awfully fast.

I feel like this right now. How will it feel next year? (from Depressed Alien)

I feel like this right now. How will it feel next year? (from Depressed Alien)

This is a rather unusual cold snap for the Seattle area because usually February is fairly mild. In fact, a few years ago, I went to a friend’s wedding in mid-February and got away without wearing a jacket or long pants. I wore a sundress and a lace bolero and was perfectly comfortable in the warm sunshine. So February is the tease of spring to come, March and sometimes April are like late winter, and then we have spring-like weather from May-June. All this to say, February should not be this cold, but it is cold and me no likey.

All of that to say that I am growing increasingly worried about how in the world I will be able to survive the cold in Ulaanbaatar next year. As I type this post, the weather in UB is -9F/-23C at 5:30am. I don’t think I’ve ever been in negative degree weather. I grew up in equatorial Africa, and I am only kind of used to the weather here in Seattle, so how in the world do I dress for Mongolian winters? Seriously, I need some help figuring out how to plan for that amount of cold.

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Mongolian Winter

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Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Here in the US, people have been writing about the frigid temperatures, and it really has been very cold this season! The good news in the US is that most people have access to warm housing and their livelihoods are not agrarian. This is not the case for Mongolia, where much of the population lives nomadically and relies on raised livestock.

Mongolia is also experiencing a brutal winter (or dzud) with temperatures reaching -40 C. The Telegraph reports that 2.7 million head of livestock have died from the cold so far. (The link to the Telegraph is for a gallery reporting on this and contains some graphic pictures of dead animals. If you are sensitive to this sort of imagery, be aware.) With winter lasting for several months more, the results could be devastating.

When I bundle up every morning to take the bus to work, I think about Mongolia. As the winter continues, I’ll keep posting about how things are going in the land of the blue sky.

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