Page last updated at 08:01 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Mongolia: Life in the extreme cold

The United Nations has warned that extreme winter weather has killed more than one million livestock animals in Mongolia and is likely to harm the country's food supply and worsen poverty.

Volunteer workers in Mongolia have been telling the BBC News website their experiences of temperatures falling to around -35C (-31F).

Photo: Kara Estep
Kara Estep says Mongolians have been surviving these winters for centuries
I moved to Mongolia from Seattle last June to work as a community youth development volunteer with the US Peace Corps. This is the coldest winter I have ever experienced.

I know it is an especially cold day when I can see frost forming on my hood, my feet ache from the cold ice underneath them.

I have trouble making my hands function well enough to use a key to open my door after only a 10-minute walk.

It is an especially disheartening day when I pass by a frozen puppy or cat alongside the road that wasn't strong enough to survive.

Over the eight-hour bus ride through Mongolia's countryside, the bus passes pile after pile of dead, frozen animals
Kara Estep, Tsetserleg, Arkhangai

Mongolians have been surviving these winters for centuries and know how to cope.

Parents bundle their children up in so many layers that the small ones can barely keep their balance.

When walking through town, I could stumble into any Mongolian's home and would be immediately offered tea and maybe even food.

Not only is that kind and generous, but I think it also probably developed as a means of survival.

Everybody here knows what it feels like to be walking around, literally freezing, and what the comfort of a warm ger and a hot cup of tea will do for the body and spirit.

However, living in this harsh, cold Mongolian winter climate is mostly an inconvenience for me.

I am reminded of some of the most drastic effects this winter has had on the lives of many Mongolians when I take the bus into the capital city of Ulan Bator.

Over the eight-hour bus ride through Mongolia's countryside, the bus passes pile after pile of dead, frozen animals - goats, sheep, and even cows and horses.

These were not wild animals, they were some families' livelihood.

Photo: Kara Estep
The coldest period of the winter is known as "zud"

Because so many people in Mongolia are herders - nearly one third of the population - a winter that is even colder and snowier than usual can have life-altering effects.

Herds of animals dying result in impoverished families who relied on their animals as their sole means of income.

Children may have to drop out of school to help their families.

Savings dwindle as people spend it on food for themselves or extra food for their animals to try to keep those that remain alive.

More people may flood into the city in search of new jobs. Sadly, for so many Mongolians an extremely harsh winter like this one has negative effects that extend well beyond the end of the season.


Photo: Aleta Phelps
Aleta Phelps says 40% of the Mongolian population are herders
"Gadaad aimer huiten shuu!" is what you hear the rosy-cheeked elders say when they reach the solace of the indoors on a cold day - as they start unravelling layer after layer of clothing.

Stiff fur hats, bulky scarves, leather gloves, long jackets, down to their camel-fur cashmere sweaters.

The most common greeting during this time of the year begins by asking if your home is warm enough.

For my work as a community youth development volunteer for the US Peace Corps in the Baganuur District, about 140km (87 miles) east of Ulan Bator, I weave daily through the dense maze of Russian apartment buildings, schools complexes, and delguurs - small shops - in this small city of 27,000 people spanning no more than a few kilometres in diameter.

I wrap up tightly in my coat and drop my head downwards to face the whipping gusts of wind that frequently bring temperatures down to -30C.

Sometimes I wonder if the traditional fur-lined outerwear would be an improvement on my modern down jacket and hand-knitted hats and mittens.

Photo: Aleta Phelps
The average temperatures in January hover around -35C
I hail from Alaska, so the cold is no stranger to me, but what I feel here reaches deeper than any temperatures I've felt before. Still I stubbornly wear my knee-length skirts and stockings with clogs on a regular basis.

The majority of passer-bys unabashedly gawk at my thinly stocking-covered legs. "Some older people might get angry," they've said regarding my choice of foot-wear, but some things I refuse to change.

Mongolia is known as the "Land of the Blue Sky" and while the sun does shine brightly in a sea of blue most days out of the year, sunny days are not always warm.

The average temperatures in January hover around -35C, the coldest days reaching -55C, not necessarily factoring in the wind-chill.

There is actually a term for an extremely cold period of the winter: zud, when the ground is frozen or covered with snow - resulting in a food shortage for livestock.

The most common greeting during this time of the year begins by asking if your home is warm enough.
Aleta Phelps in the Baganuur District

Horses, cows, sheep, goats, and camels are the five traditional animals of Mongolia, and the horse to person ratio is 13:1. Many people rely heavily on animals for food, drink, transport, and other raw materials like wool, leather and bones.

According to reported national data, more than 1.7 million animals have died due to the zud this winter. People say that the weather generally improves after Tsagaan Sar, the largest Mongolian National holiday, a celebration akin to the Lunar New Year.

Tsagaan Sar landed on 14 February this year, so hopefully things will warm up soon. Nonetheless, many people also say that spring here is perhaps even more difficult than winter because of severe wind and dust storms.

The above content does not in any way represent the US Peace Corps.

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