The winter technically began on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year – December 22. Although from October, families have been making fires to keep warm and temperatures have been well below freezing for some time. Now, we’re in the fourth set of nines in the Mongolian winter, the coldest set! I woke up this morning to -33 degree Fahrenheit temperatures in the capital city. In the countryside, it’s even colder! One of the coldest provinces, Uvs, is -41 degrees Fahrenheit today, without factoring in the wind chill. Here’s the breakdown of the 9 Nines:
- The First Nine: Milk vodka congeals and freezes
- The Second Nine: Vodka congeals and freezes
- The Third Nine: Tail of a three-year-old ox freezes
- The Fourth Nine: Horns of a four-year-old ox freezes
- The Fifth Nine: Boiled rice no longer congeals and freezes
- The Sixth Nine: Roads become visible from under the snow and ice
- The Seventh Nine: Hilltops appear
- The Eighth Nine: Ground becomes damp
- The Ninth Nine: Warmer days set in
The nine sets of nine days originated hundreds of years ago when clocks and calendars weren’t available to herding families. It’s set from the lunar calendar.
The seasonal calendar greatly influences the types of micro businesses in Mongolia. In the wintertime, many of the businesses focus on keeping the general population warm.
- Importing winter clothing from China – coats, hats, long underwear, and gloves
- Selling animal hides to line traditional clothing and boots
- Sewing traditional warm clothing, deels, and modern warm clothing
- Distributing wood and coal in order to heat gers, brick and wooden houses
- Producing and distributing traditional winter housing items – stoves, fire tongs, extra felt ger lining
- Transporting people throughout cities so they don’t have to walk long distances in the cold
- Creating thick wool shoes and wool shoe inserts
In order to keep warm, Mongolians must prepare their homes for the drastic temperature change from the summer to wintertime. Living in a ger, sometimes the family will add another layer of felt around the outside and put dirt around the outer rim of the ger in order to block wind from entering. Rugs are sometimes hung inside the walls to create additional insulation.
Keeping a fire going throughout the winter is quite expensive, too! Different parts of the country use different types of fuel. A combination of coal, wood, and animal dung are used depending on preference and availability. If they have savings, families can buy the fuel in bulk at the beginning of the winter, usually at a cheaper price than buying smaller quantities throughout the winter. Buying coal in bulk could cost around 150,000 MNT (about $120 USD) for the entire winter, plus an additional cost of wood around 150,000 MNT (about $120). The prices vary by region depending on the availability of the certain fuel, though.
If a family doesn’t have enough savings to purchase in bulk, they can purchase fuel in smaller quantities on a weekly or daily basis. In Ulaanbaatar, 1 bag of coal is about $1 and 1 bag of wood is about $1. On a warmer day, and based upon preference, 1 bag of coal and 1/2 a bag of wood is used. On a colder day, 2 bags of coal and 1 bag of wood can be used. In the coldest of the winter months, January, to stay comfortably warm, a family would need to spend $90! By the lunar calendar, the winter lasts just under 3 months; however, families sometimes need to be making fires to stay warm from October until May – 8 months!
Unfortunately, not everyone has enough money to heat their homes. If a ger isn’t heated, it’s most likely to be the same temperature as outside. Today it’s – 31 degrees Fahrenheit. In the ger districts, families without fuel money burn car tires and bricks soaked in gasoline to stay warm. Also, homelessness does exist in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. In the wintertime, street children live in the sewer system to stay warm. The homeless sometimes hide in apartment stairwells and make fires from trash.
The extreme winter affects all social classes of Mongolia. The three Kiva field partners in Mongolia, XacBank, Credit Mongol, and Transcapital, are able provide financial services to micro entrepreneurs, many of them who live in the ger districts. The micro entrepreneurs have an opportunity to better their living situation by generating income from their small business.
Amber Barger is currently serving as a Kiva Fellow in Mongolia. She has lived for the past two years in rural Mongolia as a community economic development Peace Corps Volunteer. Along with her Kiva Fellowship, she is extending a third year with the Peace Corps as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader.