Winter is Coming
Only a week in Mongolia now and the intrinsic link between the community and its environment, whether rural or urban, has been the most dominating observation.
Although traditionally a nomadic society, in the second half of the 20th century sedentary culture has become a more prominent lifestyle - shifting from nomadism to settlement living(2). Autumn, September and October, is a time for transition - where herders in rural regions, just as well as Mongolians living in the ger districts, migrate to new locations - allowing the felt of the ger to temporarily breathe as they dismantle and reassemble their ger in preparation for Winter. While herders will migrate to new and warmer pastures, Mongolians living in the ger districts will move primarily to warmer settlements along the hills and hollow valleys in Sukhbaatar, Chingeltei, Songinokhairkhan and Bayanzurkh districts - although gers currently exist in all nine districts of Ulaanbaatar (2).
As I arrive on the brink of winter and inform locals that I will largely be based in Ulaanbaatar, I watch disappointment move across their face. They share with me romantic stories of the beautiful countryside in the land of the eternal blue sky through the past summer months. In a landscape where man is believed to be in harmony between earth and sky; earth, specifically mountains, must not be disturbed (or dug up) and Tengri (Тэнгэр "sky") is the chief deity worshiped by the steppes people(3).
Yet the fast developing urban life of Ulaanbaatar conveniently contradicts these long standing traditions and value systems due to modern initiatives for economic growth and development. Sitting in a tall contemporary building wrapped in glass with heavy foundations burrowing deep into the ground, I am reminded that Ulaanbaatar is the exception to the 250 days of sun that one would traditionally benefit from in year in the countryside (4). Instead, I am to take heed of the fast approaching below freezing winter - which brings about a heavy pollution that casts the city in a dark smog for at least six months throughout the year.
“Winter is coming” has been a daily reminder from locals since my arrival. And while I am fully aware that Ulaanbaatar’s current pollution problem is not a fiction, I smile as I can’t help but be reminded of a popular American fantasy television series, Game of Thrones, and a theory that the show is really all about climate change (5). The show is an adaptation of “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R. R. Martin, a novel series that tells the story of five different noble houses that are too busy fighting each other over control of the kingdom instead of coming together over a common threat - sometimes even denying that the threat is real at all, even though the characters repeat incessantly that “winter is coming”. While in the show the common threat is the White Walkers, horrifying monsters with a zombie army that kills everyone, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Charlie Carpenter, calls Game of Thrones a collective action story; where “the story of the northern wall and the forces that hold it at bay, is about the mistaken belief that the industrial civilization can stand against the changing forces of nature” (5).
Cover Photo - Ulaanbaatar in the Winter : Rezwan. “Nomad Green: Air Pollution in Winter in Mongolia.” Rising Voices, 27 Mar. 2010, rising.globalvoices.org/files/2010/03/Nomad-green-smog-ulaanbaater-640x480.jpg.
Bayartsetseg, Terbish. “Emerging Subjects Blog.” Emerging Subjects Blog RSS, 24 June 2015,blogs.ucl.ac.uk/mongolian-economy/2015/06/24/social-exclusion-in-the-ger-districts-of-ulaanbaatar/.
“Tengri.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Sept. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tengri.
“ Weeping Camel: A Real Mongolian Tear-Jerker.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 2 Oct. 2017, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/07/0719_040719_weepingcamel_2.html.
Beauchamp, Christophe Haubursin and Zack. “Game of Thrones Is Secretly All about Climate Change.” Vox, Vox, 14 July 2017, www.vox.com/videos/2017/7/14/15969034/game-of-thrones-theory-climate-change.