I have a new pastime here.
On days when it feels like I’ve had little or no personal interaction, I like to go shopping for the sake of shopping. When I say this, I mean that I don’t particularly need anything–the weather is so cold here that I can stock up on food and it stays perfectly frozen just outside my door until I need it. I like to spread out my shopping between 3 or 4 different shops. Not because I can’t get everything I need at one, but because it makes me feel like I’ve got a little bit of a relationship with each shopkeeper. They probably think I’m a little nuts, coming in for a few onions and potatoes in one shop, eggs in another, and cabbage, rice and a few other odds and ends in a third.
Lately, now that we’ve entered the dreaded January, I’m sure to stoke the fire and add a large amount of coal before I leave. We’re in the midst of what Mongolians consider the 81 days of winter, or the “Nine Nines.” It is nine groups of nine days, and each has it’s own description–a rule of thumb for how cold it is supposed to be, and it all starts on December 22nd:
- First nine – Airag (mild alcoholic beverage made of milk) freezes
- Second nine – Vodka freezes (sometimes they say Russian vodka freezes)
- Third nine – tail of a three-year-old yak freezes
- Fourth – horns of a four-year-old yak freeze
- Fifth nine – boiled rice does not congeal anymore
- Sixth nine – roads blacken (ie, snow melting on blacktop)
- Seventh nine – hilltops blacken (snow melting on the lower hills)
- Eighth nine – ground becomes damp (snow melting on grass)
- Ninth nine – warm days set in
Bundled up these days, somewhere in my “second nine,” I really love walking into my yard with three bags of vegetables, and looking at a steady plume of white smoke pouring from my ger’s chimney. Something about it reinforces for me the fact that, so far, I’ve made it. I’m surviving in one of the harshest climates, in a traditional felt tent. And more than surviving perhaps, I’m walking into my 12-foot-in-diameter Mongolian sanctuary having just spoken with a few of my favorite shopkeepers, and it’s warm with a blazing fire in the stove.