It’s the new year here in Mongolia. Or it was, on Monday morning.
Which was why at the literal crack of dawn I was on top of a mountain, shivering and trying to wiggle my toes in the hope that I wouldn’t loose feeling.
Smog and the crack of dawn over UB.
The morning started at about three am. I arrived home tired after a long walk, and didn’t sleep well. But my alarm went off faithfully at three fifteen, so I stumbled into the bathroom and screamed curses at the shower when it sprayed cold water on me. Ten minutes before the expected pickup, I had a text message. Then a phone call. The short of it was that my coworker had accumulated a DUI the night before, so he couldn’t drive us. Feeling that guilty relief of “Oh, well, the decision’s out of my hands now – guess I’ll just have to go back to bed”, I tumbled back under the covers.
But there was a phone call a half hour later.”Please be ready.” I was, albeit still grumpy. I’d contemplated putting on two layers of thermals, under my thick down jacket and ski pants, but decided against it. After all, I was warm enough on my ten kilometre walk yesterday, wasn’t I? To be safe, I threw them in the backpack.
In imagining this walk up the mountain, I’d pictured a path. Perhaps group of people, travelling up the path. This was wrong, because there was no path. Just a steep hill, its side made up of loose dirt and rocks that seemed eager to slide down the quite steep slope. So we scrambled up, sweat beading on my forehead (and some of it freezing in my hair minutes later), flashlight flailing all over the place. In the dark I almost stumbled on one or two people, other groups that had taken the same approach of trying to walk up this apparently almost vertical slope of gravel.
We reached the ridge of the hill, and looked down over Ulaanbaatar. If you’ve wondered if the smog is visible from a distance, it is. The lights were there, visible, a network of them – but poking through this grey green cloud that hung over the city, like some kind of twenty-first century plague.
Eventually we wandered on, stumbling through the rocks in the dark, finding our way along the ridge. We reached an ovoo at what had to be the highest point in the mountain and stood there, the sweat and body heat gradually dripping away. A short scramble down a slope later and we were out of the wind, but still extremely cold. I shivered for a minute, and then another, and then braved it – took off jacket, jumper, and pulled another layer of thermals on. I wasn’t brave enough to take off my ski pants.
After my foot stamping had lasted for another minute or two, and persisted even when they have me hot суутай цай, my fellow sunrise watchers were concerned about me. So at my colleague’s suggestion we wandered back along the ridge, the movement generating some delightful body warmth.
By this point the first light is breaking in the distance – you can see a tiny shimmer of red light along the top of the mountain ridge opposite us. As we walk around it gradually gets a little brighter, and now the sky is a deep, rich shade of blue, rather than pitch black. We stand near a group of men who seem to have some experience with this ‘first sunrise of the year’ business – they’re busy building a fire, and a few of them have come well prepared with flags. We have no flags. I do have, in my backpack, a bottle of vodka (as far as I can understand, vodka is appropriate in every situation in Mongolia. Every situation), some rice and a coffee jar filled with milk. But I do not have a lighter, or anything else to make fire with.
After a little while we wander back to our spot. By now the light is much stronger, and I can see where I’m walking. We stand at the ovoo, and after a few minutes wander down a little to crevass in the rocks, where we try to light some incense. This is comically unsuccessful in the face of a stiff breeze, and after the matches run out we leave several incense sticks and a pile of loose leaf incense – hopefully it really is the thought that counts.
Back up on the peak, we stand next to an ovoo, and I try to take photos. My camera’s shutting down, unhappy at operating at these temperatures, so I only get a few blurred snaps. Someone near us is depositing flags (or perhaps waving them?) – I’m unclear on the process that’s involved. We drink a glass of vodka, and then another – then it’s time to share things with the mountain spirits. We throw vodka westwards; because not all mountain spirits like vodka, and the one that does is westwards. The mountain spirit here, I understand, is an old man, but not so much into the vodka. Everyone, apparently, likes rice and milk – so we scatter these in four directions. The milk is clotting and comes out slightly lumpy – it hangs in the air for an instant before spattering back down on my jacket. An important thing in throwing offerings to the mountain spirits is to make sure you know which way the wind is blowing (nope, not a metaphor).
And then suddenly it’s here – the actual sunrise. We stand together in front of the ovoo, and watch as the first rays from the golden sphere slip over the horizon. My coworker is yelling something, and then we all are.
It’s a remarkably freeing experience – yelling, all together, on the top of this mountain, as the sun slips up into the sky. It is freedom and the crisp clean air and the voices of other supplicants at other points on the slope, their voices echoing in and around ours.
I’ve enjoyed this morning, at least the latter parts of it – the throwing, the yelling, the clean air all around us up here. It was cold and dark and horrible when I got up, and when I go home I end up sleeping for a good five hours – but I’m glad I came.