A Note on The Weather, 2

It’s April 26th. That means it’s almost May. Green grass, chirping birds, blossoming flowers, T-shirts – these are the things I should see when I look out my window.

But today, this is what I saw:

Enough said.

A Note on the Weather

The winter has undeniably passed. We can safely say that the days of -40 are over and pack our down coats and extra thermals away. Yet, just an hour ago, I stared out my window as giant snowflakes covered the streets of Ulaanbaatar.

I’m told that spring is Mongolia’s most tumultuous season. It’s when herders have to be most careful about their livestock, left vulnerable from the harsh winter. Many worry about getting sick from the rapid and extreme fluctuation in temperature and dew point. I can understand their concern too. For the first time since I arrived I’m actually feeling a bit under the weather.

This week's weather forecast

The weather of the past 24 hours perfectly illustrate a typical spring day in Ulaanbaatar. Around 11:00 AM yesterday I walked down to meet some people at a nearby art gallery. The sky was clear, there was no wind, and by the time I arrived at my destination I was actually sweating underneath my lightweight jacket. “Spring has sprung!” I thought. By 4:00, I had to venture out again. This time, winds had picked up and were aggressively pelting small dust particles in everyone’s faces. Most people who were outside were wearing sunglasses or scarves over their eyes. It was a dust storm if ever there was one. This morning I woke to a pleasant snowfall – big white flakes that I almost never saw during actual winter. Now, an hour after it stopped snowing, snow still covers some rooftops, but it’s mostly melted.

And it looks like we shall repeat this cycle until it is decisively summer.

Dust filled the air of Ulaanbaatar on Sunday, just hours after a friend of mine suggested it was a perfect day for a picnic!
(Picture by Claire Law)

(Photo by Claire Law)

I awoke to a late-April snowfall

The snow is almost completely gone on the sidewalk outside my apartment

What Herders Do Best

Last February, I spent a day with some herders just 2 hours outside of Ulaanbaatar. I was accompanying a friend of mine and her aunt as they went to buy two fresh sheep for the upcoming Tsagaan Sar celebration.

We arrived at the first family’s ger (home) around 10:00 am. They served us milk tea and some freshly made buuz. Then the husband and wife and their young son hopped in my friend’s small Toyota and we headed off to another herder family’s home about 10 km away. We were lucky to be on a paved road for about half of the way, but relied on the little hatchback to do her best as we off-roaded it over the snowy terrain to the second ger.

Amgalan's son runs to Amgalan and Batbayar as they examine a sheep

Upon arrival, we were again greeted and served milk tea, a standard sign of Mongolian hospitality. With the horses gone off to get water, we had to drive the Toyota through the snow to where the sheep were grazing – another several kilometers away.

I’ve never seen the herding process before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Perhaps it might be different if the men were on horseback, but I was surprised at just how time intensive and exhausting it was to round up so many sheep. I was also surprised to see the method of catching the sheep: basically spotting the one you want, running into the herd, and tackling it. It’s quite entertaining to observe.

Over the course of the next hour, the two herders caught four or five sheep. They would compare their legs and tails to judge which one would be the best for eating at such a high holiday. They were very concerned with finding the two best sheep, which, to be honest, all looked the same to me.

After they chose the two winners, they tied them up, and lobbed them into the trunk of my friend’s hatchback, and we returned to the ger.

Watch a Video of the Herding Process:

The next 4 hours were spent killing, skinning, and cleaning the sheep – not for the faint of heart.

Batbayar skins one of the sheep

The traditional Mongolian method for killing sheep might be surprising. They cut the sheep’s belly lengthwise, stick their hand into the chest cavity and stop the heart by pinching the aorta. It takes no more than 5 minutes and the sheep don’t make a sound.

A woman sorts through the organs of a sheep as she cleans them

After, the two herders each skinned one sheep – ripping the skin from the fat and muscle. The pair made the skinning process look rather easy – using the fat to grease their hands and separating the skin from the muscle. The young boy climbed all over his father as he was exerting himself, but he didn’t seem to mind much. After about 15 minutes, the sheep were fully skinned. They would sell the pelts and feet later.

Once the sheep were skinned, the women took over. They spent the next several hours methodically cleaning the innards inside the ger. Each wife was in charge of one sheep’s o

rgans. First they cleaned the small and large intestines, squeezing out feces and running water through them until they were clear. Then they mixed blood with onion and garlic, which they poured into the intestines. This would later be cooked to make a tasty sausage-like treat.

After all the organs and intestines were properly cleaned, they stuffed them into the sheep’s stomach. They stretchy tissue served as an extremely efficient sack.

Coming from the United States, where the commercial slaughtering process is less than ideal, it was refreshing to observe how intimate the herders are with their livestock. Not part of the animal was wasted – nothing is taken for granted.

Batbayar tells me about his life as a herder in Central Mongolia

After all was said and done, I sat down with Batbayar, the older and more experienced of the two herders. He was extremely proud of his profession, saying that there was nothing difficult about it at all. ‘With the fresh air in the countryside, herding is a really nice lifestyle,’ he told me.

Batbayar comes from a long line of herders out west in Zavkhan Province. He moved to this region just outside of Ulaanbaatar with his family and 400 goats and sheep just 5 years ago.

Batbayar told me that his family was quite busy recently, selling and preparing sheep for out-of-town customers almost everyday ahead of Tsagaan Sar.

He said his daily life is simple: wake up, take the herds out to pasture, look after them as they graze, and bring them home in the evening. There are additional chores like tending to the cows and cleaning out the pens. But, for the most part it’s the same everyday. “We never change our work, we just have one job,” he explained.


Mongolian children often learn to ride horses when they are as young as 3 or 4 years old

The two herders spent over an hour picking, catching and scrutinizing the sheep

Zaya holds down a sheep while the herders search for a second one

Batbayar examines one of his sheep

Amgalan leaves the ger to slaughter the sheep

Amgalan kills a sheep the traditional Mongolian way - by pinching the aorta

Amgalan's son climbs on him as he skins a sheep

The herders will sell the ankle bones of the sheep for pieces in a popular game similar to jacks or dice.

After the sheep are skinned, the women clean the innards inside the ger

Woman clean sheep intestines together

Blood is mixed with onion and later boiled inside the intestine

Zaya pours blood mixed with onion into an intestine

Women sit near the door to their ger cleaning sheep innards

Once all of the intestines have been cleaned, they are stuffed into the stomach, which also operates as a sack

Three days later the cooked sheep was featured on a table along with other food for Tsagaan Sar

The ‘Jersey Shore’ Reaches Remote Reindeer Herders

In January, I had the opportunity to visit one of the most remote communities in the world: the Tsaatan (literally, Reindeer People). It’s a small community of about 400 people who live a subsistence lifestyle by drinking the milk of the reindeer they herd, hunting, and foraging. The Tsaatan live in teepees (called urts), changing camps with each season.

In the summer, they are only reachable by a two day horse trek from the nearest town, Tsagaannuur (White Lake). It takes about four days to reach them from Ulaanbaatar. Their winter camp is much more accessible. They move closer to the town and the ground, which is terribly boggy in the summer, is frozen, allowing for people to come by car.

The Tsaatan live in teepees called 'urts'. While they traditionally used reindeer hides, they now buy Chinese canvas for the walls.

The Tsaatan divide into two groups in the winter. One moves to the western part of the forest, the other to the east, what they call ‘West Taiga and East Taiga’. We visited the community in the East Taiga, a group of about 18 families. Although, 8 of the families were spending the winter in town where their children went to school.

The camp consisted of two cabins and ten teepees, each with a solar panel outside and a small stove inside. When we arrived, all but two of the men had just left with the male reindeer. They were on a two week journey to locate the female reindeer who they had let wander wild a month earlier. The half-empty camp meant a leisurely visit.

Our host mother melting snow into ice on the iron stove that also provides the cabin's heat.

Every morning we arose with the sun around 9:00. We stayed with a Tsaatan family in their small one room cabin, seven people in total. When one person decides it’s time to get up, everyone wakes up. Once we had made our beds, transforming the sleeping area into a living room, we drank tea mixed with reindeer milk and munched on some cookies or bread. The women would wander out into the forest and fill a large bag full of snow, which they would then melt for water throughout the day. Other daily chores included retrieving and cutting firewood, carving reindeer antlers to sell during tourist season, sewing and mending various items, and cooking. They fill their free time by visiting each other’s urts and cabins for some tea and conversation. Dinner was served once the sun went down (around 5:00) and was some form of meat (in our case, moose), with noodles or rice. It’s not the most luxurious meal, but in the frigid temperatures meat and carbs were more than welcome.

Laundry hanging to dry outside one of the two cabins in the East Taiga.

It might be easy to think that because the Tsaatan are removed from society, living off of what they can herd or kill, that they might be out of touch. Not so.

Nearly everyone seemed to have a cell phone, which they kept charged on car batteries or via solar power. Members from the East and West Taiga call each other on a ham radio each day to check in and joke around. And the two cabins, erected a couple years ago, each had a television where community members would gather after dinner to watch a show on one of the 20 plus channels they received. The favorite choice was a Korean period drama popular throughout Mongolia.

Our host father making his daily call to the West Taiga via radio. His code name is 'Polar Bear'.

On our third night with the family, we were all sitting around the cabin. Some were chatting, my travel companion was writing, I was crocheting, and the man of the house was flipping through channels. You can imagine my surprise, and indeed, excitement when I heard a familiar voice on the screen. She was faint, and dubbed over in Mongolian, but nonetheless it was her. It was that unmistakable voice of Snooki. That’s right. I had traveled thousands of miles from Ulaanbaatar to visit one of the most remote communities in the world, and there was the cast of the “Jersey Shore”. JWoww, Pauly D, The Situation, Sammy, everyone.

This is globalization at its purest.

It must have been bizarre for the Tsaatan family to watch it.

The two groups of people couldn’t be more different. The characters on the television show lead a hedonistic lifestyle, seemingly unable to do even a few hours of legitimate labor. The Tsaatan, on the other hand, ration their flour to ensure it lasts them through the winter. I wonder if they had a similar reaction to watching “The Jersey Shore” as Americans might have to watching a show on National Geographic about Mongolian reindeer herders.

The 'Jersey Shore' captures our attention in a tiny cabin in the forest.

JWoww on the television in the remote East Taiga.

By the final night with the Tsaatan, my companion and I had grown quite comfortable with our family. We joked, played music, and managed to have very basic conversations (I only had three months of Mongolian language lessons under my belt). It was truly refreshing to feel so at home in a place that was so far away.

Still, I am not sure if I could live that lifestyle. It’s not easy to live so close to the land, so far from the things we take for granted: running water, central heating, access to medical care, etc. And yet, there’s something so freeing about only having enough possessions that will fit in a 10 foot diameter teepee.


The view of the sunrise through our cabin window (a plastic flap).

A Tsaatan man leading two of his reindeer.

Reindeer really are the most majestic animals.

Two feet of snow certainly doesn't make hiking any easier.

Our hike to the nearest mountaintop. One brave Australian companion did it in felt boots!

The rewarding view was short-lived. I could only take my hands out of my mittens long enough to take these pictures before they were frozen solid.

The dry cold made my eyes water. Then the tears would almost immediately freeze on my lashes.

My travel companion and me with our host family.

Tsaatan Reindeer

Destination: Reindeer Country

Tomorrow my friend and I are flying north to Murun, then catching a ride to Tsaagannuur where we will stay with a girl I met only a week ago, who will then take us to visit her extended family, who just happen to be living in one of the most remote parts of Mongolia: the taiga.

We are planning to visit the Tsaatan (Reindeer People) who live in Mongolia’s Khovsgol province, which borders Russia. We will be getting into the 4th set of 9 days by the time we reach the taiga, which means it’s going to be very, very cold. I’m still not sure if the feeling in the pit of my stomach is one of utter excitement or shear terror. Probably both.

I’m hoping to capture some of the Tsaatan music and gain some understanding of how people can live so close to the elements in some of the harshest winter weather in the world.

I first heard of the Reindeer People several years ago while working as an intern for Cultural Survival, an organization that works to promote the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. Among their many activities was the Totem People’s Preservation Project, an effort to help the reindeer herders maintain their lifestyle.

In preparation for my trip, I headed down to the nearby American Center for Mongolian Studies library which has several academic and research materials on Mongolia available for perusal. I found some helpful information from a series of studies conducted between 2002 and 2004 called The Deer Stone Project.

Here’s what know about the Tsaatan:

Population:  About 400, 200 are nomadic

Language:  Khovsgul Uighur – a Tuvan Dialect (as of 2005, 235 people spoke Khovsgul Uighur, and 235,000 spoke Tuvan

Religion:  Shamanism

Dwelling:  A teepee-like structure called a URTS

Reindeer Uses:  Transportation, milk products for sustenance, rarely eat reindeer meat

Diet:  Wild game and fish, products from reindeer milk, flour and rice, some horse and goat meat

Nomadism:  In the summer bring the reindeer to a higher elevation where they feed on the mosses and lichen that grow in the tundra, in winter they come to the feeding grounds at a  lower elevation

Herd Division:  The full herd is about 700 reindeer – in the summer the herders make one large camp, but in the autumn they divide by family in groups with about 100 reindeer each – in the winter they divide further so only one or two families are together

Reindeer per Family:  It varies widely – some families have only one or two, others have as many as 70

Threats:  Poor veterinary care, poor support after the end of socialism, geopolitical divisions, pressures for non-nomadic lifestyles, and possible effects of climate change

ABC Nightline traveled to the region in 2009. Read the article here and see photos from the journey here.

And, here’s one of the only videos I could find on YouTube depicting the life of the Tsaatan:


The Snow

There is something extremely special about the snow in Mongolia. As someone who spent the majority of her life in Iowa and Minnesota, I come from a snowy background. I am familiar with hard snow, snowball-making snow, powder, flurries, wet snow, and ice covered snow. As a child, I spent many winter afternoons digging snow forts until my nose was red with minor frost bite. But I have never seen snow like I have here.

It is the most glittery, sparkly snow I could imagine. It’s like tiny crystals dancing in the sky – and that is on a clear day. I suspect that it has something to do with the extremely dry atmosphere and would love confirmation from any of you helpful meteorologists or atmospheric scientists out there. I wish I could capture it on film, but the crystals are so microscopic it’s been almost impossible. I suppose being surrounded by fine glitter is more of an experience than an image anyway.

The other remarkable snow I’ve seen is on the ground. Rather than a powder of individual snowflakes, branches, grass, rocks, and dirt are covered in thick ice crystals. After some cursory research, I found that this is known as rime and occurs when water droplets freeze quickly. I suppose it’s a result of (trade off for?) the constant subzero weather.

Below is a collection of snowy photos for your viewing pleasure. Click here for more photos.

Snow on Frozen River

Snow on Frozen River

Glittery Snow

Glittery Snow

Snow Crystals

Snow Crystals

Ice Crystals on Rocks

Ice Crystals on Rocks

Frosty Grass

Frosty Grass

Sharon With Icy Snow

Sharon With Icy Snow

Icy Hill

Icy Hill

Proceed Slowly

Proceed Slowly

Beyonce the Puppy

Beyonce the Puppy

Frosty Trees

Frosty Trees in Ulaanbaatar

cold mountain

The Nines of Winter

You wouldn’t have guessed it based on the previous month’s temperatures, but today is the first day of winter. According to Weather Underground, the month’s mean temperature is a balmy -25 degrees C (-13 F).

December Temperature

December Temperature

But numbers mean little when you can’t see them through your frozen eyelashes.

Frozen Eyelashes on a Ski Lift

Frozen Eyelashes on a Ski Lift

In honor of the Winter Solstice and the reality that is finally sinking in, I’d like to share a Mongolian saying I just heard last night. It’s called “The Nines of Winter” and divides the upcoming chilly 81 days into nine sets of nine days.

The First Nine: Milk vodka congeals and freezes
The Second Nine: Vodka congeals and freezes
The Third Nine: Tail of a three-year-old ox freezes
The Fourth Nine: Horns of a four-year-old ox freezes
The Fifth Nine: Boiled rice no longer congeals and freezes
The Sixth Nine: Roads become visible from under the snow and ice
The Seventh Nine: Hilltops appear
The Eighth Nine:  Ground becomes damp
The Ninth Nine: Warmer days set in

So, there you have it. Maybe it’s time to get that extra pair of long johns I’ve had my eye on.

Hibernation Central

Last night was the first time I decided not to leave my apartment almost entirely because it was too cold outside. I have a sneaking suspicion this marks the beginning of the end (at least for the next few months).

Since I arrived in Mongolia, there has been this sense of impending doom that hovers like a cloud of smog over the city. Nearly everyone I’ve met has warned me of the coming cold. I couldn’t help but be reminded of (nerd alert) ‘Game of Thrones’ when they say, “Winter is coming,” with a hint of restrained fear and also paternal warning.

Just this morning, in my Mongolian language lesson, my teacher explained to me (in Mongolian!) that today it was only -18 degrees C (-1 degrees F), in just a few weeks, it will be -30 degrees C (-22 degrees F). Later, a Mongolian friend explained that this is very warm for this time of year and soon it will actually be cold.

Street merchants have been selling camel and yak wool socks, all sorts of long underwear (including fur-lined), and a myriad of hats, mittens, and scarfs for the past month or so, but suddenly these all seem more urgent. I’ve also noticed that people who tend to dress in traditional Mongolian garb have added a felt boot cover to their normal footwear. While this giant-looking foot seems comical at first, I am never more a fan of function over fashion than when faced with extreme weather.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am absolutely not complaining (well, maybe a little). I’m mostly amazed at how people can live in such challenging environments. Thus far I have no problems with hot water and heat in my building. But many Mongolians live in gers (yurts) heated by a small stove in the center of the structure and have to go outside to use a communal water source. Of course, the gers are built for this kind of weather, and I haven’t seen many people complaining.

Perhaps I am indulging my masochistic side a bit, but everyday I’ve been comparing Ulaanbaatar’s temperature to that of Minneapolis, MN (where I’m from originally). Here’s the current forecast (as of 8:00 pm UB time). Note the current condition reads “Smoke”.



I’m sure this will not be the last time I have something to say about the cold here, as it is something that can not be avoided. But for now, I’ll leave you on a positive note. The cold causes the bus windows to frost in lovely patterns at times. When all of the windows are frosted over, one has no choice but to melt the frost with body heat, which creates a pleasant-looking miniature window through which to find your bus stop.

Here are a few photos I took on the bus today with my iPhone: