Before I ever stepped foot in Asia, I have never imagined visiting Mongolia. It seemed almost unreachable and beyond my expectations as Finisterre considered it to be “the edge of the world” in Roman times.
Now, after three times in the country and always as a photographer, Mongolia has become one of my favorite places in this part of the world. It is truly an incredible country.
Might be the nostalgia kicking in but things often seem better when I look back. As if it was an old hidden memory, I usually forget the struggles, the pain, the long hours waiting and…The freezing cold.
Airline perks and winter worries
I frequently travel and work with my friend journalist Zigor Aldama. Between you and me, this guy is a bit cheeky because I think the only reason why he still bears with me is because he can secretly pick flights and airlines in advance. Let’s say he knows how much I tend to dislike flying…
This time, in Mongolia, I returned to my beloved turboprop-powered Fokker aircraft. The thirty year Fokker-50 is basically a bus with wings that carries up to 62 passengers. Conditions were not ideal; a prehistoric plane, freezing temperatures and landing in runaways with ice and dirt.
But after each landing, everything became as easy as pie. I didn’t care anymore about how cold it was or the technical challenges that came with the freezing weather that photojournalists would surely understand (moisture trapped inside the lenses, smartphone gimbal stabilizer refused to work outdoors, etc.). Instead, I enjoyed the moment, the beautiful landscapes and overwhelming Mongol hospitality (Oh…, more vodka again?).
“Are you sure you want to be here?”
Oddly enough, Mongolians, friends and even our translators were puzzled when they found out we were going again during the winter. They thought we were crazy. As if they didn’t have to bear with the cold for basically 8 months a year!
This reaction makes me think Mongolia’ tourism department has a challenge ahead. Not only convincing foreigners to visit during the wintertime but also their own people. I vote for a more accurate slogan: “Welcome to the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky… but are you sure you want to be here?”
Similarly, most of my family and friends have never experienced such low temperatures. They wondered, for example, if I felt any difference while I was at -20°C or -30°C. Which they continue saying “Cold is cold, right? Must be the same”. Without any doubt, it absolutely makes a big difference especially if you need to be outdoors continuously for 1 or 2 hours.
Don’t embarrass yourself. Just do it
I remember when I was photographing the Tsagaan Sar celebration, Mongolian Lunar New Year, last 27th of February at 7 am. Locals go up to the mountain before the sun comes up. They believe the New year’s first sun brings luck and health to their families. As the sun edges over the horizon, Mongolians throw milk offerings into the air, while others shout excitedly, welcoming Spring. But the “Spring” was nowhere to be found when we were still at – 30°C. It was so cold that the milk, in a liquid state, became instantaneously into powder once in contact with the air.
Despite all the layers I was wearing (2 x full-body underneath base layer, shirt, sweater, windproof pant, 2 x pairs of gloves, 2 x pairs of socks, an extreme cold weather jacket and a winter hat), after a short while, I felt as hundreds of needles were stuck in my hands and feet. I have never felt this kind of pain before. I tried to shake it off but it was pointless so I could only keep my mind busy by focusing on the task at hand. In retrospective, I guess for people around me it seemed as if I was in a trance or nuts.
Finally, we noticed that not only the weather was getting warmer right after February but we also got acclimatized. We were proud of our toughness, in fact, we would often remove our jackets during the day. This boost in our spirits only lasted for a brief moment when we witnessed a man wearing just a T-shirt at -17°C in Ulaanbaatar. Mongols are really on a different level.
Taatai baih bolnoo (always a pleasure) Mongolia.