I was losing a battle with a toner cartridge when the third grade teacher sauntered into the copy room. My hello morphed into an involuntary, “Oh, wow.” “What?” she asked, startled.
“I love the boots.”
“Huh?” She followed my stare to her shiny, black thigh-highs. “Oh, thanks. Are we out of paper again?” I gaped unabashedly at her legs as she rooted through the cupboards. I won't lie; I was filled with lust. I wanted those boots.
I don’t know about you, but none of my grade school teachers came to class in a full yard of high-heeled leather. But in Mongolia, that’s just how they roll. Our entire female staff, from kindergarten to admin, is shod like runway models. And there's apparently a knee-high minimum.
I’m ok with this. Teaching is essentially lion-taming, and we should be allowed to dress accordingly. But I was too frugal and lazy to go shopping and contented myself with wistful glances. Until a Mongolian coworker stopped me in the hall.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked, eyeing my bare nylons and black pumps.
“Nope.” After three years in Korea, I was just thrilled I didn't have to teach in mittens.
But she seemed unconvinced. “Are you sure?”
I immediately took this as a hint that I was indecently dressed. After all, I'd been down this path before. But my coworker’s lips pursed with motherly concern.
“You're going to get sick. You need some boots.”
“That’s why everyone wears them?” I asked.
“Of course.” She gestured to her own legs, encased in crushed velvet with silver chains at the ankles. “They're for our health.”
So the only responsible thing to do was buy a pair of hot-as-hell knee-highs asap. She offered to take me shopping, and I gratefully accepted. For medicinal purposes.
It turns out that accessorizing is a Mongolian survival technique. There’s no way to make it through winter without packing yourself into every fur-lined, wind-resistant thing you can find. And if it happens to make you look amazing? Well, no harm done.
She took me to Dunjingarav Market.* Women packed the aisles, buying their winter look: full-leg yak wool socks, camel hair leggings, and cashmere sweaters. Traditionally, Mongolia is a herding culture, so most of the selection involved some species of wool. But we also found imported mink hats from Russia and puffy down coats from Turkey and China. And to my secret delight, leg warmers were definitely still in style.
And of course there were boots.
LOTS of boots.
We found traditional Mongolian boots made of etched leather with up-curled toes. There were displays of reindeer and horse-hide boots, lined with wool or animal hair. And more than a few sported fuzzy exteriors, which the salesman identified as dog fur.
Other stands stocked the modern pleather and leather my colleagues wore. Brown or black, high-heeled or flat—the choices were the same as in America, though the prices were notably lower.
In the end, I got two pairs: fur-lined knee-highs for school and Russian sheep’s wool for the outdoors. It is possible this is merely the start of a new and impressive collection. I have two full Mongolian winters to prepare for, after all. And fortunately, these acquisitions will look amazing with my new leg warmers.
*Dunjingarav is an indoor market on the south-eastern edge of Ulaanbaatar, near the (so-called) Black Market. Unlike the Black Market, where you should supposedly bring a Mongolian friend, Dunjingarav is perfectly easy and safe to navigate. The selection and prices are much better than at the State Department Store, and we definitely recommend it. And as always in Ulaanbaatar, beware of pickpockets.