A visit to the local museum cut a guided swath through 300 million years of western Mongolian history. I felt like part of the family of their local hero, Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal, Mongolia’s longest tenured prime minister. Photos of Yumjaagiin with Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro even Ghandi. His couch, his slippers, his books, it was all there above the city library. In the adjoining rooms there were bones of dinosaurs, mouldering stuffed wildlife specimens, paleolithic cave paintings and bronze age burials. Cap it off with a display of Chinggis Khan armor and weaponry and you’ve pretty much spanned most of central Asian history.
A madcap drive to the airport had us bouncing over icey bridges, dodging livestock and overloaded nomadic vehicles to just catch our plane in time. Our flight crossed over the snow covered steppes, dark frozen lakes and skirted the rugged forest clad peaks. Ulaanbaatar was blanketed in snow and was getting dumped on again. Our thirty minute drive crawled to a near standstill. Two and a half hours later we drove past the lavish gaudy Christmas displays at the State Department store and arrived at the hotel. Am I really in Mongolia?
It was a busy day. Debriefings at Mercy Corps, packing, grocery shopping and cooking dinner for Jonathan Adelton, the US ambassador, his family and friends. Throughout the day, between the hectic moments there in that crazy city of contrasts, I tried to organize my impressions of the people and the place. Here were Louis Vuitton and Ferragamo shops—outside were the Hummers, Land Rovers and nomads in horsecarts with cell phones, snarling the already impossible traffic. Vendors crouched on nearly every street corner hawking pine nuts in their shell by the tea cup full.
Mongolia, a poor country with a substantial amount of mineral resources, is changing rapidly. Foreign investments and development are driving tremendous alterations in the status quo. People are moving to the city—families to adapt to a modern urban existence and younger generations for education and future employment opportunities. With these social, cultural and economic changes come dietary ones. Some making inroads, like fast food, are not necessarily so desirable. But others, like the evolution of cooking through the introduction of other cuisines and an integration of local ingredients, can be positive. My hope was that our efforts to re-introduce traditional sausage making would be one such positive catalyst. If these folks were aspiring to such commercial trappings of western culture as department store Christmas and Italian loafers, couldn’t we maybe put in a bid to get them interested in some better cured meats and sausages?
The dinner party with Ambassador Adelton went off without a hitch. Charcuterie from our work in Ulaangom, two full saddles of free range Mongolian lamb, boulanger potatoes with wild mountain onions, an impromptu salad from the Chinese produce market, and cheese, fruits and schnapps. Humorous stories of all sorts of Mongolian contrasts and extremes were told. I wandered back to my hotel sated with good food and filled with wonder for such a remarkable land and its people. The only thing I could be sure of was my want to return in the future to see the course of change.