Cold Mornings in Mongolia

As we all suffer through the heat and humidity, I thought it might be fun to republish a piece about cold weather. A wonderful short essay by Matt Heller we published a few years ago.

Cold Mornings in Mongolia
by Matt Heller (Mongolia 1995-97)

OUR FAMILY ALWAYS LIVED where we needed a snow shovel. I remember one snowstorm in particular when I was nine. My best friend, Bobby Frost, and I shoveled our entire driveway ourselves, which is no small feat for nine-year-olds.

When we were done, my father was waiting in the kitchen to reward us with grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, and a silver dollar for the work we had done. Dipping my grilled cheese into the steaming tomato soup (in my opinion, truly the best way to eat the two together), I am sure I was oblivious to how lucky I was; how Norman Rockwell-beautiful shoveling a driveway can be.

Because I grew up in New England, winter was always my favorite season. It meant ice hockey, snow days off from school, and sledding until dinner was ready. Winter meant scratchy wool hats, scarves that always choked me, jackets that made me look like a mini-sumo wrestler, snow pants that made peeing an ordeal, and moon boots. My moon boots were my favorite. I may even have worn them to bed a few times, afraid someone would take them from me while I slept. I loved winter as much as I loved those moon boots.

I still love winter, but to say I enjoy it as I did when I was nine years old would be a lie. I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia for eighteen months now and I live in a ger, a tent with a small wood stove in the center. It is strong and practical, the perfect domicile for a nomadic herder living on the Asian steppe. It packs up in about half an hour. I, however, am not a herder, but an English teacher in a small secondary school in rural Mongolia. Ger life is not easy. It makes twenty year-olds look thirty-five. It makes your soul hard.

Mongolians are very proud of their history and traditions. Once, while sitting on the train going from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to my own town, Bor-Undur, a Mongolian pointed to his arm and said, “In here is the blood of Genghis Khan. Beware.” Really, there is no argument to that statement. I responded, “Yes, older brother (a respectful title addressed to elders), your country is beautiful. Mongolians are lucky people.”

Unfortunately, many Mongolians are big vodka drinkers, and this very drunk herder was on his way home from selling cashmere wool and meat in the city. He had been successful in his business, and celebrating now he wanted to teach me the custom of taking the traditional three shots of vodka that new acquaintances must drink. His shots were too big for me, and I only wanted to taste the vodka, not help him finish the bottle. That’s when Genghis’ blood came into the conversation. I drank the three shots. Herders are tough people. They don’t wear moon boots.

Maybe if I had been born here and lived in a ger all my life I would be tough too. But I wasn’t, and I’m not. I can trace no lineage to the man who was once the world’s most powerful ruler, but I am blessed. I am blessed with the gift of a Peace Corps/Mongolia standard issue sleeping bag rated to -30 degrees. When combined with another sleeping bag of my own and some wool blankets, I am completely protected from the cold that invades my ger every night when the fire goes out.

When it’s time to wake up and start my day, the first thing I do is build a fire. In the quiet darkness of morning, huddling next to my stove and sipping hot coffee, I listen to the Voice of America on my shortwave radio and remind myself who I am, where I’m from, and what I’m doing. I’m a young Volunteer spending eight hours a day with Mongolians, building a greenhouse with the other teachers in my school so there will be more vegetables in our town. Along with many other things, I’m learning how they live. In the steppe there is very little snow, only biting wind and dust. It gets as cold as -50 degrees, not counting the wind chill factor. If I leave leftover tea in a mug, it will freeze solid by morning. I’ve broken three mugs that way. When it is this cold I sometimes ask myself, “How valuable is the contribution I’m making? And is it really worth being this cold?”

For eighteen months now I’ve been waking up and thinking, yes, it is. I love working with Mongolians, but the time of day I look forward to most is building my morning fire. It is my time of epiphany. As I feel the warmth that my own hands created, a fire that pushes back the cold and the dark, replacing them with warmth and light, I know I will live another day. Such an experience defines what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

We all build fires in one way or another, and the warmth we create is as good as eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on a winter day when you’re only nine years old. Being a Volunteer in Mongolia and having the opportunity to live in a ger may mean enduring very cold mornings, but it’s worth more than all the silver dollars in the world.

Matt Heller (Mongolia 1995–97)

4 Comments

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  • A beautifully written essay. But thinking of living in a ger in Mongolia in the winter does not overcome the triple digit heat and humidity of an August day in Washington.

  • This is one of the best! Matt, please consider choosing a special object you brought home from Mongolia, writing a short story about it, and submitting the story and object to the Museum of the Peace Corps Experience Your story would be another shining star among the 5 dozen or so we’ve already published on the Museum website.

  • Congratulations on a well-written, meaningful memory from Mongolia, Matt. You should seriously consider Patricia Wand’s offer for the Museum of the Peace Corps Experience’s website. I would add that your personal insights are valuable to new, in-training PCVs as well as reminders of why we went for grizzled RPCVs like me.
    Best wishes,
    Vic Cox
    Brasil health vol 1964-66

  • Great story, Matt. So moving. The risks and hardships that go with the territory of our volunteering make life all the more sweet and encourage and strengthen us to take even more risks and embedded in your story is the unspoken truism spoken by Matisse that creativity takes courage … Eric Madeen (Gabon 1981-83)

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