The Climate Scientist’s Wife

This piece is part of the the Eucid Series, which highlights the voices of contemporary, urban women from Mongolia to draw up a genealogy of female mentorship. At the end of each interview, each woman was asked to name a role model, who was then interviewed—and theirs is the story which will be published next.

This week, we meet Munhtuya Goulden.

I met my second husband, Clyde, because of the three-day rain.

My first husband had died four years before. He always said he wanted to take me to Khovsgol Lake, but he never had a chance, so I went myself. I backpacked. I was probably the first woman to backpack like this. Everyone was asking me: How can you? Do you know someone in Khovsgol? How do you travel by yourself?

I said, “It’s Mongolia. What are you talking about?”

I first met Clyde at the Khovsgol airport. He was with his friends, waiting for a plane. His friend had gone dancing and tore the tendons in her ankle. He needed to put her on a plane to leave Mongolia, but there were no planes. The planes were delayed by the Naadam festival and rain.

I was staying in the back room at the airport, where the pilots usually rest, because I had a friend working for the commercial airlines. I was waiting for a plane to the countryside. I was stuck. Everyone was stuck.

Early in the morning, I saw foreigners staying in a tent next to the airport. One of the Americans approached and asked if he had hot water. He was asking in Russian, and I knew some Russian and some little English, and I helped him. He kept coming back, needing more help—could I help his friend fly out on the first available plane? I helped them find a helicopter to fly out.

He was grateful. He asked me if I needed a ride somewhere. I told him I was here to see the lake, so he offered me a chance to join his expedition—he was with a group of American and Mongolian researchers studying the lake.

He was struggling. He couldn’t communicate with his logistics manager, because the man he hired had no English, no Russian, no background in science. He was a throat-singer. I had worked as a banker. I helped him with his finances and translated for him.

When we got back to the airport, he asked me if I wanted to go to Ulaanbaatar. He would pay. I said no. I said, “I’m not finished yet.” So he gave me the number of his room at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel, and he told me to call when I got back to the city. I went northwest, to a remote and beautiful soum called Rinchinlhumbe. I saw a shaman. I saw beautiful landscapes. When I got back to the city, there was a call, and I was going to meet him at his hotel.

But it was a funny time in Mongolia. Mongolian girls did not really hang with the foreigners. It was very sensitive. The girls who did see foreigners even were called prostitutes. I was very shy, personally, and I was very concerned—how could I meet him? And worse, I’d tanned so bad traveling in the countryside. My skin was funny. What would I wear to meet him? I had nothing to wear but a Mongolian deel. I thought: if Mongolian people see a girl wearing a deel and meeting foreigners, they will believe that she is going to a business meeting. She can’t be a prostitute.


After he left, we emailed. I went to visit him in the U.S. to practice my English. I left my kids with my brother-in-law and sister. I went only for three months. I ended up married.

Now it’s 22 years we have worked together. All of his projects, I am behind him. I volunteered as a translator, coordinated the expedition logistics, proposed programs and grants with him. I served as his interpreter as we interviewed Mongolian nomads about their perceptions of climate change. In the early years, I had no job, no title, I was just Clyde’s wife. But we accomplished a lot. Later, we got funding from the National Science Foundation for the PIRE Project. We brought students from the University of Pennsylvania and students from the National University of Mongolia together to study climate change.

We used to have seven rains in Mongolia. Hard rain. Spitting rain. Gray rain. Aadar, angry rain. Days-long rain we called shivree rain. The shivree rain in the summer used to last two to three days or a week nonstop. I was a downtown girl, raised in the city, and in the summer my family went to the countryside for vacation. We were so bored, because it was raining and raining, and we were kept inside. But the countryside kids, they went out barefoot into the rain, the boys without shirts, playing in the warm and gentle rain.

We don’t have that rain anymore. Only the older generations know the shivree rain. The ones who are 20, 25 years old—they don’t know this rain. They know only the aadar rain, the angry rain. The aadar rain pours cats and rats, pours like half-thawed milk through a sieve. It is cold and hard and all at once. Five minutes. Ten. That rain is common now. It makes no moisture. The ground before the rain is dry and hard; the rain runs off, causing floods. You can’t do anything with a rain like that.

The countryside kids refuse, now, to play in the rain.

With the herders, Clyde and I never talk about climate change. We talk about cheese. We drink milk tea or yogurt. We sit down with them. We just ask them: What is happening? How are the animals? What is the change in their environment—the weather, the seasons, grass growth, pasture, the rivers, the snow, rain patterns?

They say: We used to follow the calendar—the hunting starts on this day, exactly the same day generation to generation—the first day of our cuckoo singing, the first day of snow, the first day of shearing. We no longer can follow our calendar. We used to know the monkey years are the bad years. Now maybe the ox year is the worst, or the dragon. It is impossible to predict.

They used to shear the sheep in early July, and then one year there was a snowstorm, suddenly, in the middle of July. The sheared animals got hypothermia and died. But you leave the wool too long in summer, and there are a few hot days, days hot like we’ve never seen before—and if the animals are suffering or they drop the wool, it’s lost, wasted.

All the life-bringing things—the water and the sun—they are harsher each year. It is four degrees hotter now in Mongolia than it was 50 years ago. In the summer, sometimes there are three or four days so hot the grass just dies from the sun. You walk out in the pasture, you’d think there was a fire, but it’s just the heat. Because there is no good grass, women milk the cows only once a day. Less milking means less milk. Less milk means less hard cheese, less cream and butter to sell in the market or save for winter. Less sales means less money or profit, less food…

Even the winter wind is blowing backwards. Mongolian gers, you know, are always built with the door facing to south—so when the north wind comes, the ger stays warm and the doorway free of snow. Now the wind’s direction changed. Snow piles into the door. It used to stop snowing in December. Now it’s snowing late, melting during the day and at night freezing into a sheet of ice. Animals can dig for old grass through the snow, but not this ice. It cuts their hooves.

And there is the dzud. The dzud takes your animals. The white dzud. When the dzud comes, the ground is white. The sky is white. You lose your animals in the whiteness. There were my in-laws—they had 1,000 sheep, 300 cows, as many horses. In the winter of 2009, they lost almost all their cows to the dzud.

Some families try to sell their cars for fodder. They take a loan to buy hay. But look at what I am saying: Poor rainfall. Poor grass growth. Poor feeding. No fat. Heavy snow. Extreme cold—negative 50 degrees Celsius at night. You see the sheep trying to sleep all together in a pile, and some in the middle even suffocate. The bones in spring are always stacked together. These animals do not die from hunger. They freeze to death.

My first husband’s family were herders. His grandfather, before the collectivization, was a wealthy man with many animals. He had to give everything to the workers cooperative. Then he worked for the cooperative. Everyone did. It wasn’t like the traditional herding, where every family has the five animals—cow, camel, sheep, goats, horses. There was a special horse unit, a milk-cow unit, a female sheep unit. All divided. Separate.

And some of collectivization was good. Some was very good—a shift to community. Healthcare access. Education. School and hospitals. Entertainment. A real community sense. It helped a lot. But the salary was fixed. They were working hard; if there was bad weather or loss of animals, they were punished hard. And the planned economy demands, every year, growth. This many more animals. This much more wool.

I know one herder—he is now doing well on his own, because he works hard and he is very experienced. He told me: “I’m so glad it all collapsed.”

But for me? My first husband died from the democratic revolution, the peaceful revolution. 1991. We’d been married nine years. He was a jet pilot, a military pilot. He died in training.  He died, because, you know, the country was a total mess. Everything was changing. The government was broke. The Russians left, and that military unit was run by Russians. The mechanics were ill-prepared. There was no money for maintenance.

The first plane crashed, and my husband died.

And it’s not really talked about. Still. Not many people know there was that unit, those planes. After his death, I didn’t talk about it. I had—my daughter was born within 12 hours of his death, almost the very same day, so I was in a very difficult situation. Two young kids. I had no desire to deal with it. I just let it go.

But then the second plane crashed. And then the third plane. And five pilots were dead. We were five women, all the wives of the pilots. We met. We started talking. We tried. We did try. To get some small support, even some small pension. One journalist wrote an article, but it was never picked up. No one wanted to say whose fault it was, how it happened.

Our government was an infant, this democracy. The people in the government, even the president, they were just ordinary people. They weren’t experienced. And it was such a small community. Twenty pilots. Two dozen mechanics. We shut our mouths. We don’t want to fight. We don’t want the families supported by the unit—the mechanics, the other pilots—we don’t want anyone to be hurt.

The jets never went to the sky again. There is no one to train new pilots, because the people at the top were killed. There is no money for maintenance. They have only a helicopter unit. In 1993, the last jet crashed—and no more.

His family, they were herders. He could have been, maybe. But the herders don’t want their children growing up to be herders.

My in-laws, from my first husband, have seven children. Two were moved to the city. One was totally lost—driving back and forth every two weeks to Oyu Tolgoi, driving the workers back and forth from the city to the desert, to mining site. Since the democratic revolution, every herder is alone. No veterinary support. No social support. In cooperative times, there were wheels in the pastures, metal wheels and generators for watering the land. After privatization, the people stripped those wheels and the generators. They cut and sold the metal—to China, to the factory in Darkhan. Now there are few wheels in the pastures, water is scarce.

Everyone grazes the same land. Near the markets. Near the rivers. There is no cooperation. Before, everyone would prepare together for winter. Hay was distributed to families when needed. That doesn’t happen now. It’s market driven. When the summer is dry, families slaughter animals too weak for winter, and there is a lot of meat to sell, and the price of the meat goes down.

There was a family, they walked for a week to get to Ulaanbaatar. Walked in the snow, no animals, pulling their ger in the cart themselves.

The herders say, “The weather is like an angry, mean man. What can you do with the weather?” Say, “The next year will be worse.” Say, “When I walk behind my herds, I walk shoulder to shoulder with disaster.”

I don’t have a name for you. I could give dozens of names. The young people. The young women. There are no barriers to Mongolian women in science. Clyde was training young researchers, and looked for men, but still out of 24 researchers, 19 were women. The young women know what they want and are hardworking—and if there are barriers, it is like they don’t notice them.


Morgan Thomas received her MFA from the University of Oregon and was the recipient of a 2016-2017 Fulbright grant to Mongolia.