It was a Tuesday in March. I was shuffling down ‘Tourist Street’ back to my office in Ulaanbaatar after lunch, savouring the apple and custard flavour of a Luna Blanca fruit smoothie. I was just outside the museum which housed my gallery, when my foot made a sound I hadn’t heard since arriving six months prior. There was a quiet ‘splash’ as it hit the ground, barely audible but loud enough to reach my ears. I stopped and looked down and a smile as big as the sky crossed my face.
There was water not ice; an unfrozen patch of pavement and drips from the drainpipe above.
I punched a mitten covered fist in the air in celebration.
It didn’t matter that it was seeping through the hole in the side of my boot where the stitching had come undone. It didn’t matter that my sock was now wet and my foot was freezing. It didn’t even matter that this would be short lived, that the temperature would plummet as soon as the sun went down and that this tiny precious puddle would freeze over and disappear as though it had never existed in the first place.
None of it mattered because right now, at this moment, it was above zero degrees!
During the long winter months Ulaanbaatar becomes the coldest capital city in the world. With temperatures as low as -40C it wasn’t surprising that such an inhospitable climate would have some kind of impact on my life. Before I left Australia I had prepared what I could, but thought only of the obvious like jackets, gloves and boots. Tried though I might, I couldn’t picture the reality of such a place. What did ‘eight months below zero’ actually mean?
I hadn’t thought that I would spend six months of it indoors. I hadn’t expected a 20 minute walk to be the limit of time outside. How could I have known that the snow wouldn’t melt, that plants wouldn’t grow, what I breathed wasn’t clean or that I’d miss the sight of running water? I certainly didn’t think that the air would hurt my skin.
But it wasn’t all bad.
Unlike back home where time passed too quickly, I become hyper-aware and focused on every moment I was living. It wasn’t a conscious decision – I thought I lived quite mindfully already – but one which slipped unnoticed into my day to day life.
Each morning the icy air would fill my lungs and draw attention to each breath. It made my eyeballs ache and I noticed every blink. I had never before thought of the inside of my nose but began to now that my snot would freeze. Layers and layers of clothing affected my senses and the ground was slippery underfoot, so walking became a concentrated shuffle as I tried to stay upright and alert.
It struck me how strange it was that so much escaped my notice.
Pretty quickly, I learnt to place importance on the insignificant because everything else was just too overwhelming. Correctly pronouncing a colleagues name was a win, as was hailing a cab without too long a wait. I savoured the burn of the vodka in my throat and the muffled quiet of fresh snow, and could find God in a bottle of Sriracha when times got tough.
Thinking about the temperature on the other hand, or counting the days til winters end was a sure fire way to welcome depression.
Looking back on it now, there were more celebrations than not. The conditions were tough but I was appreciative and aware of every second of my life. It wasn’t always productive, and there were times that I wanted to cry or to scream and to punch the stupid weather in a place it hurt most, but it clarified something that I thought I understood.
Every moment is a monument and nothing matters but the present.
It would be another month before the weather came close to what my Aussie bones could call warm, but for a minute I had a one girl party on the street.
I danced a little in my fur lined boots.
I shuffled my feet and waggled my hips and waved my arms above my head.
The locals passing me by gave looks of disapproval but I didn’t care. Not a tiny bit.
IT WAS ABOVE ZERO DEGREES AND I HAD A PUDDLE TO STAND IN.
About the Author: Jessie Lumb is an artist and writer from Adelaide, Australia.
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