Saturday, December 8, 2012

The 'Long Winter' Ahead

The view from the dormitory kitchen. 
A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that one of my favorite books as a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter," one of the lesser known volumes of her Little House series.  Though it's famous for its portrayal of the 1881 blizzards that wreaked havoc across the Great Plains, it's probably not the book most children would pick as their "favorite" in the series since it’s a grim chronicle of near-starvation and near-death.

Unless you're me, of course.

Perhaps it was the obvious contrast to my own childhood in the sweltering tropical zone that drew me to this particular book and its description of something I could hardly being to imagine.  (If not that, I would be worried, right?).  What did it feel like, I wondered, to have the snow jabbing needles at your face, or the wind howling overhead for days like wailing banshee?

In the years since, I've been able to answer my curiosity with surprising precision.  Since college, I've been moving to places where winter weather defines more than half the year: Chicagoland, Russia, Michigan, and northern Wisconsin.  I used to joke that my life has been a series of upward moves, from the equator to the Arctic Circle, that one day, I may end up in the Yukon territory.  Astana -- and Kazakhstan -- certainly counts toward that goal.

Although it's located somewhere between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle, Astana has the special designation of being the second-coldest capital in the world after Ulaan-Bataar in Mongolia.  The decision to move the new nation’s capital in the late 1990s to the wind-swept steppes from Almaty in the warmer, often hotter, southern part of the country, contains surprising logic in the geopolitical and economic sense.  It makes zero sense when you consider the cold, snow, and wind that assaults this city for seven to eight months a year.  Capital cities across the world embrace their peculiar, oftentimes negative, distinctions -- Nairobi, Bangkok, Brasilia, Canberra among them -- but trying to sell your “city of the future” with a straight face as the air temperature hovers around -40C is downright ballsy.  

Winter arrives in Astana early.  The ground has been covered in snow for at least a month, if not more, and it already feels like northern Wisconsin in late January/early February.  Last weekend, we had one of the coldest days yet, when the mercury barely touched -20 degrees F during the daytime, and continued to dip lower into the night.  On average, temperatures remain below zero, oscillating between a reasonable 20-25 degrees F and the slightly less-reasonable sub-zero temperatures where numbers and reality lose all scale.  Of course, even the “warmest” day is a misnomer in Astana. Here, bone-chilling winds of between 20 and 40 mph on average course through the canyons between buildings and toss you across ice-covered pavement with unrelenting tenacity.   I find the wind the most egalitarian feature of his city, assaulting both businessman and pauper with no regard for age, dignity, or position in life, and I take a modicum of comfort in that thought as I find myself pushing against the wind in all directions just to get home from the bus stop.  

After more than a decade in the Midwestern United States, I’m no stranger to the cold or winter weather, though friends of mine may recall my occasional inability to cope (the joys of being introduced to the ice-scraper sticks out as one such amusing anecdote of my general Texan cluelessness about winter weather).  Having lived in Astana -- and ostensibly surviving the next few winter months -- I hope I find that I have both the ability to survive even the coldest weather, and perhaps acquire an appreciation for it.  The former is seeming easier than the latter.  Already, I find myself considering 25-degrees (F) warm enough to wear a skirt or dress, something I never did even when I lived in the upper Midwest. While I suspect I will always prefer warmer weather -- even the hot, tropical, sweat-inducing weather of southern Texas in August -- I am occasionally startled by the beauty of cold weather.  On the coldest of nights, when temperatures plummet with no regard for human frailty, the air begins to sparkle as the moisture in it instantly turns to ice.  If you can stop for a minute and endure the pain of exposed skin to that cold, you find yourself in a brief moment of pure calm before your body goes completely numb.

If nothing else, I hope this changing attitude toward the cold means I’m ready for the long winter ahead.


  1. I heard recently that it might be the coldest capital in the world if you count duration of cold days?

  2. Ooh, interesting. I'll take it. It boosts our street cred for living here!

  3. This was lovely to read--especially because you pay homage to Laura Ingalls' The Long Winter. Thanks for reminding us that such breath-freezing temperatures can have their own beauty. Now you have seen it!

  4. Just piping in to say I am also a big fan of The Long Winter! Also, I don't miss the cold of Minnesota OR the heat of Texas here.