More Mongolia: Don’t be sheepish, Mr Bush

PETER KAMMERER – The South China Morning Post

Friday, November 18, 2005
Copyright The South China Morning Post
US President George W. Bush’s staff clearly are not being terribly upfront with him these days. If they were, he would not be going to Mongolia next week at the end of his Asian tour.
When Mr Bush steps off Air Force One on Monday, he will be going where no American president has gone before – and for good reason. McDonald’s has not yet arrived in Mongolia, nor has Starbucks. In fact, the only US franchise establishment in the remote, landlocked country of just under 3 million people is a branch of a Michigan-based fast-food outlet called BD’s Mongolian Barbeque.
The neglect of Mongolia by American corporate globalisation will not last forever – the 10-per-cent-plus growth rate of its gross domestic product is bringing wealth and consumerism. Sooner or later, Mongolians will hanker for a slice of good old main-street USA.
This is where Mr Bush’s aides come into the equation and one of the reasons why they should be disciplined: Mongolian cuisine is said by many a traveller to be the worst in the world. Diplomatic protocol demands that at some stage during his brief visit, out of politeness to his hosts, he will have to go native.
The staple national dish is mutton, served in a variety of ways – boiled, stewed, cooked with fat and flour, served with noodles or in dumplings. As Mongolians do not season their food to any great degree, meals are bland and greasy – in effect, mutton dressed as, well, mutton.
Those wishing to escape mutton can choose yak, horse meat or the must-be-tried delicacy, roasted marmot. The animal is ready to be eaten when it bloats and its limbs extend, which is probably the time the diner slides into the abyss of Mongolia’s other national treat – milk.
Cheese and yoghurt made from yak’s milk are obvious accompaniments to a mutton or marmot feast, but why not go all-out authentic and try alcohol made from the same product? Many is the time, after a hard day at the office, I have wanted a tall glass of cold nermamilke, a relative of vodka distilled from yoghurt, or airag, created from fermented horse’s milk.
Mr Bush’s alcohol-swilling days ended about 20 years ago, so he will most likely opt for the national drink, suutei tsai, a salty tea made from hot water, milk, butter, rice, plenty of salt and – if any is available – tea. It is supposedly good for indigestion, most likely caused by mutton, yak, marmot or cheese.
But forcing their boss to be adventurous with his eating habits is not the main reason the president’s staff should be disciplined. By thinking he can escape his troubles – a disastrous showing at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, record low public-opinion figures, and top aide Lewis Libby’s resignation after being indicted for perjury – by taking him to the farthest-possible country from the US is foolish in the age of CNN.
Television pictures of Mr Bush checking out what is inside a yurt (carpets for walls and a dirt floor) and inspecting what remains of the military (170 Mongolian troops were sent to Iraq or Afghanistan) will do little for sceptical American viewers. Nor will congratulating leaders for embracing democracy – the nation still has strong communist roots. Worse, though, the president’s staff have committed the ultimate sin, which should constitute immediate dismissal. That is, giving international media attention to the mystique and breathtaking, wild beauty of one of the planet’s last untouched frontiers.
Without doubt, a horde of tourists will soon be heading there in Mr Bush’s wake, destroying what has for so long been the secret of a privileged few – albeit ones lacking taste buds. Their clamouring for McDonald’s and Starbucks will be the biggest tragedy of all.
Peter Kammerer is the Post’s foreign editor.

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