On a winter’s day in Sukhbaatar Square, I realize just how tough it is to be a journalist in the world’s coldest capital city.
The inside of my nostrils have frozen, a thick coat of white ice has formed on my eyelashes, I can’t feel my toes and despite wearing two layers of gloves – leather and yak wool mittens – my hands have seized up and a sharp pain pierced deep into my fingers.
As I try to record interviews, the bitterly cold wind seeps into my bones, and the ink in my pen has frozen, leaving blanks on my notebook.
I pull out my iPhone to record, but it’s not long until it too succumbs to the cold and turns off.
I’m meant to be here covering an anti-pollution rally but I can no longer concentrate on what my talent is saying, and my mind has turned to survival mode as I keep rolling my fingers up and down to check they’re still alive.
It’s January and only about minus 30 degrees Celsius, which, in an Ulaanbaatar winter, isn’t the worst it gets – trust me.
In most places, covering an event as a journalist is a straightforward job; turn up, find the organizers for an official run-down of the event, record a few interviews, take photos and return to the newsroom to write your story.
But I’m beginning to see that even basic newsgathering is a gruelling activity for a reporter in Mongolia.
The snow begins to sprinkle and I retreat to a nearby coffee shop to recover and warm up.
I’m joined by my fellow reporters and translators from The UB Post, Chintushig and Dulguun. Both are young reporters with promising futures ahead of them. We order lattes and hot chocolates and go over what we still need to do.
We’re not finished yet and there’s no way we’d head back to the office and face our editor, Khash-Erdene, without enough for a story, so we rug up with layers upon layers and head back with a promise to split and be done in a snappy 30 minutes and no more.
The newspaper has its fair share of foreign journalists and interns who join the newsroom every year but by November, most clear off to avoid winter. I’m told I’m one of the few who has stayed during the winter months.
As with international trends, journalists here are underpaid and resources are tight. Unlike Australia, we don’t have a dedicated available photographer and journalists often have to pay for their own transport, be it bus or taxi to cover a story.
Like most journalists, we work long hours, filing our stories just on deadline – just kidding – very rarely on deadline and then stay to help proof the pages.
Often times, I’d leave the office by 9 p.m. but not without slipping on my calf-length big woolen boots, my hefty Russian duck down jacket, thermals, scarf, beanie, gloves and my pollution mask (a little different to Australia where appropriate office footwear is a pair of flip-flops).
The black smog is at its worse around this time when families get home and start to warm up their gers and apartments.
The heavy traffic has died down but I still decide to walk to my apartment even though my weather app says it minus 35 degrees.
What strikes me about living through a winter like this is that life goes on as normal for Mongolians who are used to this, whereas in other places, daily life would come to a standstill.
Only a few kilometers from here, many locals burn 10 to 20 kgs of coal a day to heat their ger.
And they are the fortunate ones – others are forced to burn plastic, tires, and rubbish to keep their families warm.
During my five-month stint working for The UB Post, I covered stories on health, pollution, migration and the dzud, and was fortunate to hear perspectives from the local community and international sector.
Mongolia has many challenges ahead: solving infrastructure problems in the ger district, tackling corruption, reducing its serious pollution problem, addressing the future of herders’ livelihoods by striking a balance between nomadic roots and modern life, as well as reviving the national economy, just to name a few.
But for a young democracy, Mongolia is leading the way amongst transitioning democracies and making steady social progress with a strong civil society sector playing an important role.
While freedom of the press remains an issue and journalists have been attacked and silenced, some media observers believe governments are becoming more open to critical comments and debate.
Despite this, many media outlets continue to be discouraged from covering certain stories for fear of their safety. It’s a topic we discuss quietly, with an air of seriousness, amongst each other in the newsroom.
Independent, critical journalism is still an emerging industry in Mongolia after a long history of media being under Socialist rule when the press was a virtual mouthpiece for the government.
The media is now considered as an important pillar of democracy, and efforts to improve the standards of journalism are being undertaken by the Press Institute and other bodies.
Reflecting on my time in Mongolia, I have so many unforgettable experiences from dogsledding with huskies over a frozen river and staying in gers in the countryside, to visiting Kazakh eagle hunters in the West and going horse riding in the mountains.
I am eternally grateful for the support of my colleagues at The UB Post and their valuable support and advice as I navigated work and life in what I considered testing conditions.
Most of all, I have a newfound respect for what they have to endure as journalists where telling a story takes on a whole new dimension.
Casey-Ann Seaniger is an Australian journalist who worked for The UB Post as a journalist in 2016-2017.