It happened on my first trip to the capital city, Ulaan Bataar. I was staying with my co-teacher’s niece, a lovely young woman about my age. She spoke impeccable English, perhaps even better than her aunt. She spent the night telling me about her work with the environment, translation, and how she wanted to learn how to do nails so she could live in America. She left to go dancing with friends, and I retired for the evening.
I woke up to a surprise I won’t soon forget. It seems firsts have a way of sticking with you. I awoke and shuffled past the two women sleeping on the floor on my way to the restroom. I closed the door behind me and looked in the mirror. I washed my face, and proceeded to spit some water into the sink. The water came out grey in color. Surprised, I spat again, but this time it came out black. I shot my glance back to the mirror and stuck out my tongue. It had become coated in a thick, black layer. I tried brushing it off with my toothbrush, but no matter how many times I brushed, I couldn’t remove all the black from my tongue.
Ulaan Bataar has an air pollution problem. Why? Well, most people move to the city because that’s where jobs are, and with herders abandoning their traditional lifestyles for a piece of the pie, they literally set up camp on the outskirts of UB. The city itself is rather small, but it is the sprawling mass of make-shift fences and gers that expands on the periphery where most people live. In order to stay warm in the cold winter months, the tent dwellers burn coal. Imagine thousands of tiny tents burning coal simultaneously for months at a time. All of that smoke and emission has to go somewhere. It levitates, as if in suspended animation, above the capital.
This causes many healthy problems, and many say it is the leading health concern for the country. My first night in UB, simply from breathing the air, painted my tongue black with pollution. I’m not sure if I’m a sensitive fellow when it comes to air quality, having lived with pollen my whole life in Florida, but it was a stunning sight that made all the hear-say about UB’s horrible air a very real thing for me. Where I live isn’t nearly as polluted as UB, but on certain days, I do wake up with a tongue covered in soot.
There have been initiatives, most notably from the Millenium Challenge Corporation, to get cleaner burning stoves to the thousands of families in the ger districts. Even then, it doesn’t solve all of the air pollution challenges. There are a lot of social issues behind this health issue, woven together like an intricate spider’s web: Access to power and running water, infrastructure, unemployment, and so forth. The government and private organizations are making strides towards addressing these issues, so we can at least take comfort in knowing that others share the concern and are making moves to improve the situation for everyone.
I don’t imagine everyone gets a black tongue like me, but ever since then, I nod approvingly on days when it is its usual pink hue.