Some say you’d be mad to travel to Mongolia in winter, but as Kate Sykes discovered there are precious rays of sunshine to be enjoyed even in the freezing temperatures.
Kate visited Mongolia as a volunteer for Lotus Children’s Centre, a dedicated non-government organisation that has been operating since 1995 and benefits from the support of The Intrepid Foundation and Intrepid travellers. There are 300 days a year of sunshine in Mongolia, but it’s the smiles of those children that warms Kate’s heart most…
“Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, is generally not a pretty city, especially in winter. The weather is bitterly cold, the building facades grimy, the pavement is cracked and undulating, making walking difficult even without the slippery ice, the haze grim and the cacophony of tinny car horns in rush hour punctuates what could possibly be calm mornings. There are a few diamonds in this rough place though, and certainly make a visit, even in winter, worthwhile.
Despite temperatures not reaching above -10 degrees Celsius since the end of November, the cold is not bad. Dressed appropriately, which is easy here given the availability of cashmere, camel wool and other delightful textiles, it is refreshing and much more effective than caffeine to jolt one into existence in the mornings. It is problematic without appropriate attire but all buildings are heated so a quick stop into a shop works wonders.
Construction is booming in Ulaanbaatar. Once no building was allowed to be constructed over 5-storeys high, now international companies are building tall office towers and apartment blocks at breakneck speed and the skyline is beginning to resemble any western city. Unfortunately, this construction does not extend to the majority of Soviet-era buildings and many are in a state of disrepair. With crumbling facades, peeling paint and large cracks, they are unattractive and belie the typically interesting apartments and offices that are inside. With rugs on the walls and traditional Mongolian handicrafts dotted around the rooms, Mongolian homes are warm and inviting.
Mongolians who cannot afford to live in the city live in the ger district, what we might term the suburbs but are very similar to shanty towns. In the winter when the thermometer plummets to -30 degrees Celsius during the day, and there is little money for warmth-giving fuel, people will burn anything – plastic bags, old car tyres, dung, and all manner of toxic plume-inducing goods.
Toxic pollution is not the only troublesome pollution. There is also the noise. Drivers here honk their horns at any opportunity, any possible opportunity. They are passing you – they honk; you are crossing the road and they want to let you know they are coming closer – they honk, there is a traffic jam – they honk; you are in the way – they honk; they have one of those idiotic musical horns – they honk to show off. And often it is not a short burst of car horn, it is a long, hold-your-hand-down-for-as-long-as-you-can honk to really get the message across. It is very different from the west, but adds another thread to the interesting tapestry that is Ulaanbaatar.
But amongst the pollution and griminess, snow and despair, is a little ray of sunshine – Lotus Children’s Centre. Located slightly outside of the city centre, this little oasis is a great elixir for the chaos that is the city centre. The ringing of children’s laughter and excited cries of “hello” are enough to brighten the coldest of Mongolian days, and who doesn’t love having children milling around, hugging one’s leg and giggling at a foreigner’s poor attempts at speaking Mongolian? These children all have the most heartbreaking stories of sexual and physical abuse, homelessness, poverty and neglect, yet it is impossible to tell for their eyes and smiles are so bright and their dispositions so cheerful. The Centre was founded by an Australian yoga teacher in 1995 with just a handful of children in one apartment. Now it has grown to over 130 children in three separate little enclaves. Staffed by Mongolian teachers and housemothers and a handful of foreign volunteers, this organisation is worth a visit when in UB. And, if you’re fortunate enough, is a great place to volunteer.
The other ray of light is the sunshine. With approximately 300 sunny days a year, Mongolia on a clear day is glorious. Some days when the pollution is not too bad the air is so clear that you can see every detail. Despite the bitterness of the cold air, the sunshine is powerful enough to warm even the most frostbitten of faces. There are myriad other reasons to visit Mongolia in the winter – sledding, ice skating, glaciers, the Gobi, nomadic herders, Kazakh textiles, cashmere clothing, jeep rides in the countryside, mutton fried in mutton fat – but the hook for me has been the children and the sunshine.”
Experience the raw beauty and traditional ways of remote Mongolia. Striking landscapes, nomads roaming the vast grasslands with precious livestock, camels, horses and the occasional marmot dotted through the sprawling valleys – see it all on a journey through a land that truly seems to have been forgotten by time.