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Surviving Winter in the Coldest Capital on Earth

Elaina Giolando

Mongolia is one of the most isolated and least densely populated countries on Earth with only 3 million inhabitants, 50% of which live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. The other 1.5 million citizens living scattered across the largest landlocked country on the planet, making it is possible to drive for days across the dry, roadless steppes and see no more than a few dozen people. While the traditional Mongolian way of life is nomadic and intimately connected to animals and nature, the country also boasts one the world’s harshest climates, with temperatures rising to over 40 degrees Celsius during the scorching summers and wintertime temperatures plummeting to negative 40 degrees Celsius. This begs the question: how do the locals survive out on the frozen steppes during the harshest winter on Earth?

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Mongolians have been surviving in this climate for centuries and have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. Most Mongolians, even those who live in Ulaanbaatar, still live in a form of ancient nomadic shelter called a ger or yurt, which are circular tent-like structures made of white felt. Gers provide a warm communal space, decorated with animal skins and horse hair, and follow a predictable structure: the door always faces south, at the back is a place set aside for elders and guests, and the back wall has a family altar with Buddhist images and family photos. The center of the ger is the coal fireplace (which is also why Ulaanbaatar is the third most polluted city in the world) and guests bury themselves under thick wool blankets, sitting on small wooden stools close to the fire. The downside? The high cost of staying warm in negative 40 degree temperatures consumes up to 40% of the monthly income of Ulaanbaatar’s poorest residents.

Food and drink play an important role in keeping the people warm and hearty. Breakfast and lunch, the most important meals for Mongolians, usually consist of boiled horse meat or mutton with lots of fat and flour noodles or rice. They drink warm, salty tea called suutei tsai and, if that’s too weak, the herders ferment raw mare’s milk into an alcoholic drink called airag, which they pass around in a small wooden bowl for guests to turns sipping the thick, potent brew. If you pass on a sip, you will be punished by either the host or the cold.

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During the most frigid months, Mongolians in rural areas bundle up in thickly padded winter dels, a traditional long gown with high collar, lined with sheepskin and wool and tied with a contrasting silk sash, worn by both men and women. The sash also serves a practical purpose as back support for long horseback rides across the steppes, and the color, cut, and trimming distinguishes each of the roughly 30 ethnic groups in the country - decipherable only to the well-informed observer, of course. In the cities, only the elderly still wear dels, while urbanites layer to the point of tipping over: thick long underwear, camel fur or sheepskin boots, cashmere sweaters, plus big fur coats, hats, and cashmere gloves. Don’t forget the thick wool or cashmere socks, too.

To most rosy-cheeked locals, the cold is nothing but an inconvenience, but for the roughly 25% percent of the population living in poverty (according to UNICEF and the World Bank), it is a tremendous, life-threatening burden. The homeless population in Mongolia who can’t afford to live in warm gers, coat themselves in thick dels, plush cashmere, and camel fur, and eat fatty meats and drink airag face a uniquely daunting challenge for up to 6 months of the year. They have become a phenomena garnering global attention known as the “ant people” because their solution is to live in Ulaanbaatar’s sewage system, staying warm by sleeping near the underground heating pipes. The cold also proves lethal for wild animals, hundreds of thousands of which die every year, resulting in a huge economic hit for those herder families that rely on their animals for food, shelter, transport, and trade. In one particularly cold winter in 2010, 1.7 million goats, sheep, cows, horses, and camels were reported dead by the national government.

Surviving winter in one of the coldest countries on Earth is formidable task indeed, but it is one that deeply woven into the fabric of Mongolian way of life. Understanding their adaptations to the severe cold provides insight into one of the richest modern-day cultures still in existence and allows us to reflect more deeply on how environment and climate shape all communities around the world.