Mornings are the hardest part of the day. Night temperatures drop to -40C (and sometimes even as low as -50) so willing myself out of my cozy sleeping bag takes extra effort. During the day, a ger can be kept warm throughout -20- -30C temperatures as wood is continuously added to the stove. It can become quite toasty like a sauna in there! However, during the night, the stove is cooled, so the top of the ger can be closed. There’s no wind chill factor, but the temperature is still pretty much what it is outside.
I unbury myself from my cocoon to find hoarfrost coating the outer shell of my sleeping bag. The fog from my breath as it hits the freezing morning air is thick and sluggish. First thought: “Must. Get. Warm!” Shivering, I urge my stiff muscles to the stove and build a fire after opening the top of the ger and attaching the stovepipe. Minutes later, half choking on smoke from the burning wood that had ice crystals in it, I add more layers over my thermals which have more or less become a second skin. To get circulation moving, I recommend some sort of exercise. It doesn’t matter what it is; jumping jacks, push ups, river dancing, the Electric Slide…whatever does the trick to regain feeling in frozen limbs.
Outside, the livestock owned by my host are getting restless. Goats and sheep are bleating, the cows are bellowing, and the anxious horses snort at the ends of their tie lines ready to work to lead the herds out to pasture. Soon the herders will be cracking their whips and whistling for the livestock to move off of the slope behind camp. Sometimes, my teammate and I climb up the mountain to help encourage the goats down. Nothing like climbing a mountain to warm you up before a day of climbing mountains!
But first, breakfast. More importantly, coffee! I gather containers of snow to boil for our day’s drinking water. By now the fire is warm enough to thaw things out. Everything is frozen, the boortsog (Mongolian donuts), jam, peanut butter, my stash of granola bars, our batch of eggs…everything. As I go about my morning routine of gathering snow, answering “Nature’s call” behind a boulder hoping not to get frostbite on my arse (which would be pretty inconvenient), and cleaning the dishes from last night’s dinner, I’m followed around by a couple of the camp dogs. Covered in thick, wooly coats, they try to mooch for any food scraps. Frost still sprinkles their fur, but they don’t seem to notice. Visitors to Mongolia are generally warned to keep a distance from the dogs, but I’ve managed to make friends with the four at our camp.
Winter days in Mongolia are very short. The sun doesn’t even start to rise until 9am, and then sets by 5pm. By the time its light enough out, and my teammate and I are ready for field work after morning chores, its almost noon. That leaves us for a few good hours to hike transects that might have snow leopard sign before having to head back off the mountains before dark. When we return from collecting data along various ridges, we prepare our dinner from scratch.
I clean and peel vegetables: a carrot, onion, several potatoes, and sometimes a bit of cabbage, while my teammate cuts them and the thawed mutton before we mix them into some pasta or rice. The meal is usually a soup, and is generally bland in flavor. If we are feeling fancy, we may season it or add some salsa type sauce. Enough food is made each night to feed at least 10 people. Why? Because we have to make enough food for the host and his nephew, as well as our neighbor and other random visitors who may stop by on their way home. Herders are out with their animals all day without eating, so each person is hungry enough to eat about 4 heaping bowls (I’m content with one serving). When people stop by, even unannounced, you are obligated to feed them. There are never any leftovers for the next day.
After dinner, I’m left to myself for the remainder of the night, reading or writing in my journal to pass the time by the light of my headlamp.
By around 6-7pm, the herd has returned on their own from grazing, so the muffled sound of hundreds of hooves can be heard through the walls of my ger. Goats bleat to one another as they settle in at the base of the mountain, sounding almost human in their calls. At the host’s ger, the dogs growl and snap at each other, asserting dominance over who gets the larger portion of scraps tossed out to them.
By around 8pm, the evening is relatively quiet. I step outside to admire the clear night sky, unable to remember the names of all the constellations, as they are all visible. The snow covered steppe glows blue, reflecting the bright moon as it positions itself from over a nearby mountain. A light dusting of snow gently falls, shimmering against the moonlight. A peaceful end to another day…