Joe Biden stares down Speedo-clad wrestler and names a horse in Mongolia! A quick look at Mongolia’s democracy, urbanization, and political risk.

From Google Analytics I’ve learned that lots of readers come to to learn about Mongolian politics, especially the nature of its democracy, freedom of speech, and relations with the United States. So far, the lone post I have to answer these fascinating questions is this one, about George W. Bush’s visit to Mongolia in 2005.

When I found out that Joe Biden was going to visit Mongolia, as part of an Asian tour featuring far more local color than most diplomatic visits, I immediately set Google Alerts on “Joe Biden Mongolia” to make sure I got a detailed picture of his visit, as well as its broader implications for Mongolia’s position in the world.

I visited Mongolia last September, and my travels really inspired me to write about The Mongolian Ger as a Yanic Symbol and the infamous camel-licking game.

This post is long but hopefully informative.

So, without further due, let me present Vice President of the United States of America, Joseph R. Biden:

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) reacts with a wrestler before a Mongolian wrestling performance during his meeting with Mongolian Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold (R) in Ulan Bator August 22, 2011. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden lauded land-locked Mongolia's efforts at democratization on Monday, offering support to a country that is strategically located between China and Russia and sits on vast quantities of untapped mineral wealth. (Source: REUTERS / Zeev Rozenberg Date:08/23/2011)

This is just one of a dozen or so photos of Joe Biden’s trip to Asia that have been dubbed: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Biden… It’s the greatest collection of photographs…maybe ever.”

Continue reading

My 7 Links: A Look Back at “Beyond China’s Single Story”

There’s a meme going around the Internet, especially in the travel realm. Writers from near and far are sharing links from that fit into the following seven categories. Two bloggers, Margaret at Cachando Chile and Suzy at, tagged me. So, without further ado, here are my seven links.

My Most Beautiful Post: The Mongolian Ger as a Yanic Symbol

This one is about warmth, fertility, and love, with some jokes thrown in. I think it’s beautiful.

Most popular post: Dear China: It’s Not You, It’s Me. Let’s Be Friends Forever

More people have emailed me about this letter than any other. It’s a story I’d been telling for years, and I’m happy to see that my story seems to resonate with so many people.

i heart China

My Most Controversial Post: The Man in the Fountain, Wal-Mart, and China’s Course of Development

I wrote this when I was new in China. I spotted this man bathing in the fountain, and it really made me think about how big companies have created opportunities in China. This email inspired many responses, and I’m curious to hear your reactions.

My Most Helpful Post: Foreign Young Professionals in China Mini Series #3: “Why China? Because I could.”

In this guest post, I describe the job market for foreigners in China, and many of my experiences working there. This could be helpful if you are looking for a job in China.

Post Whose Success Surprised Me: George W. Bush, Liberty, and Freedom in Mongolia

This is my most trafficked post, according to Google Analytics.  A surprising number of people come here for information about freedom of speech in Mongolia, George W. Bush’s Mongolia policy, and more.

Post That Didn’t Get The Attention I Thought It Deserved: Digging Into My Cultural Iceberg

When we celebrated Thanksgiving in the office, it made me think more about the visible and invisible aspects of culture. I do want to learn more about your core beliefs and how they shape your interactions with other people.

Post I’m Most Proud Of: Creativity in the Context of Chinese Legal Work

I had a really hard time choosing a post for this category, but I decided on this one because it’s the first post that reached an audience much larger than that of my baby of a blog (and its long-lost twin, the Beijing Corporate Training blog). Dan Harris of China Law Blog reacted to it, and inspired several thought-provoking comments there.

So there are my seven links. The next part of this meme is that I’m supposed to tag five other bloggers to share their seven links.

If you want to be tagged (or taken off my tag list), let me know!  Yay for memes that connect this fragmented and diverse place called cyberspace.

A new spring in the Steppe

On the couch at Golden Gobi in Mongolia, I met Shepherd Laughlin. An Oklahoma native new to Beijing, Shepherd transformed his visa run into a writing opportunity.  Here, in Monocle‘s magazine’s Monocolumn, he describes how Mongolia has begun to assert its geopolitical power:

A new spring in the Steppe

October 7, 2010 — Beijing
Writer: Shepherd Laughlin

For decades, the term “buffer state” has been invoked as shorthand for Mongolia’s political raison d’être. The country is wedged between two BRICs, and more than 20 Chinese cities each exceed its entire population. If such a hinterland survived the 20th century intact, the phrase implies, it must be because the central planners in Moscow and Beijing permitted it to.

But today, fiercely independent Mongolia has an opportunity to play geopolitics at a scale not seen since its imperial heyday in the 13th century. In recent years, explorers have discovered vast quantities of gold, copper, uranium — and especially coal — beneath the grasslands.

Read the rest here on Monocle’s site 8)

On “doing well & doing good” – a reaction from Mongolia

This adorable little girl lives at the ger camp in the Semi-Gobi Desert, the place where we rode camels.  I chose her photo to illustrate this post, because I think her stylish coat and practical boots exemplify the type of consumerism that improves the lives of everyday Mongolians.

While I was in Mongolia, the insightful and prolific Akhila Kolisetty featured this quote from Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund:

You told me that you don’t like the phrase ‘Doing well by doing good.’ Yet, that’s what comes to mind for many when they think about social investing. What does it mean to you?

It implies that there are easy solutions. That the perfect way to change the world and end poverty is if we all can make a lot of money doing it. But when you look at poverty and what it takes to break through entrenched systems, high levels of fatalism, unbelievable levels of corruption, incredibly bad distribution, no infrastructure, you are not going to make a lot of money and serve the poor in a way that they can afford. You may make a lot of money and serve the poor in usurious ways that keep them poor forever, like many of the mafia services do, but if you want to provide systems that are fair and affordable, and that they can trust into the long term, building them takes a long time. Over time as you really hit scale,  you will make money, but we’ve been in some of our deals for six or seven years and we feel we’re just starting.

I like Akhila’s response, which includes these words:

At the end of the day, “doing good and making money” is all a myth that we have deceived ourselves into believing. And perhaps it’s a marketing tactic of social businesses. But I’m sorry, but you can’t do both. Sure, you can ensure your social business is sustainable, but you, yourself are not going to be rich. In fact, your lifestyle and salary will probably be comparable to the lifestyle of non-profit employees. There is no difference between the two. Joining a social business is not a way to get rich or make money – it’s ultimately simply another way to empower the poor and work towards social justice. And I hope we can change our language to reflect this truth.

Click here to read the rest, and while you’re at it check out the rest of her excellent blog, Justice for All!  I wrote her an email in response, which included these words:

I am writing this from Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia.  Good businesses in this country include cell phones, satellite TV, car repair products, warm coats, solar panels, tourism, stuff for kids.  All of this stuff makes life better for ordinary people, and makes money for the companies who sell it (though probably not a lot given all the things that Novogratz mentioned.)

The little girl’s coat and boots are probably imported from China, and purchased with cash brought in by hosting foreign visitors.  The family has lots of livestock, so it probably produces most of its own food.  But in this modern world, with solar-powered TV and foreign friends, a family cannot live on salty milk tea alone!

I’m curious to hear what you think :)

Oh yes, of course your camel can lick my …

I am already giggling as I think of the Google search terms that will now bring people to my blog… haha… (Amended: I just edited this headline to clean it up a bit in case I ever decide to run for public office.)  But I really do have a great story to share and I am glad this silly title made you want to read it.

On the last night of my Central Mongolia tour, we stayed in a ger in the Semi-Gobi Desert.  We arrived just before sunset.  The family welcomed us with a bowl of salty milk tea, and snuff.  The snuff came from a small glass bottle and smelled like overly perfumed baby powder.  The smell stayed in my nose for the next several hours, and I have no idea what it really was.

At sunset I borrowed a camera and started taking artsy shots of camel silhouettes against the horizon.

A Mongolian tourist, who appeared to be drunk, mildly mentally handicapped, or perhaps both, approached us, hugging and kissing his camel with enthusiasm rarely seen in humans over the age of five.  He had his camel lick my shoulders and shirt.  He lifted up his own shirt to let the camel lick his nipples, and in the universal sign language of gestures, tried to convince me to lift up my shirt and let the camel lick my nipples.

That picture is blurry because I was too nervous and ticklish to stand still.

I think it was an odd ploy to convince me to take my shirt off!  Needless to say, his wish did not come through; my shirt stayed on!

This camel-licking game continued (and the giddy man attempted the same trick on Mongolian women as well) until the other group staying at the camp returned from their camel ride.

We then mounted the camels, tied them all together in a line, and strolled through the desert under the vast, starry sky.

P. S. I just Googled the words “camel lick Leslie” and this post is not the first one that comes up!  First Google shows us this informative advice column from  The writer has done some investigative reporting regarding the veracity of the letter, and it is a highly entertaining read.

George W. Bush, Liberty, and Freedom in Mongolia

President George W. Bush shakes hands with a Mongolian cultural performer.
Photo:  Reuters

For perhaps the first time in my backpacking life, I did not need a visa, but my fellow travelers from other countries did.  This is because the United States of America and Mongolia are friends.  When I visited the National Museum of Mongolia, I was surprised to see a big photo of George W. Bush and his wife Laura, surrounded by a Mongolian family in traditional dress.  I was even more surprised to learn about the context of his visit and content of his speech.

This is where he spoke, on the steps of Ulaan Bataar’s parliament building, in the city center.

George W. Bush visited Mongolia in 2005.  I think that was a relatively good year for him.  He had just been re-elected, the “mission” in Iraq had been “accomplished” for about two years, and the economy was doing just fine.  I remember watching commentary on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which featured a scoreboard of Liberty vs. Freedom, during his re-inauguration speech.

I think that liberty and freedom is a message that resonated well in Mongolia, a country that was dominated by the Soviet Union from about 1920 – 1990.  In the early 1990s, citizens held hunger strikes and eventually gained freedom.

I spoke with a Mongolian woman who had been an elementary school teacher in the 1970s and 1980s.  Once Mongolia became free, she and her husband started a cashmere processing and exporting company.  This entrepreneurial venture earned them enough money to send their children to the United States for high school and university.  One of her daughters is married to an American, and she now has three young granddaughters in California.

Beyond personal relationships, the United States and Mongolia also have a military alliance.  Mongolia has sent soldiers to Iraq, which this report from the Sydney Morning Herald describes.

Bush praises Mongolian hordes for revisiting Iraq

By Hamish McDonald Herald Correspondent in Beijing and agencies
November 22, 2005
George Bush yesterday became the first US president to visit Mongolia, thanking the heirs of Genghis Khan for sending troops to join his “war against terror”.

Mr Bush stopped in the bitterly cold Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, for four hours on his way home from an Asian tour that has taken him to Japan, South Korea and China.

In a speech to Mongolian leaders and members of parliament at the central government building, Mr Bush said Mongolians had stood with Americans as “brothers in the cause of freedom”.

The nation of 2.8 million mostly nomadic people has sent 160 soldiers to Iraq – the first Mongolian soldiers in the country since a son of Genghis Khan sacked Baghdad in 1258 and slaughtered most of its Muslim population.

The number is small but White House officials pointed out to reporters that, per capita, only two other countries – Britain and Denmark – had sent more of their soldiers to Iraq.

Mr Bush said US forces were proud to serve with Mongolia’s “fearless warriors” and specifically thanked two Mongolian soldiers who shot dead a suicide bomber trying to drive a truck full of explosives into a coalition mess tent in southern Iraq.

In addition, Mr Bush singled out the Mongolians for their dogged adherence to democracy since shaking off decades of Soviet control in 1990. The country held its third contested presidential elections in May this year.

“Free people did not falter in the Cold War, and free people will not falter in the war on terror,” he said, adding: “Like the ideology of communism, the ideology of Islamic radicalism is destined to fail – because the will to power is no match for the universal desire to live in freedom.”

After the speech Mr Bush talked with the Mongolian President, Nambaryn Enkhbayar, and visited a yurt – a traditional felt tent – to see a performance of traditional throat singing and dances.

By contrast, Mr Bush achieved few specific results from his weekend visit to Beijing. The Chinese President, Hu Jintao, addressed US trade grievances with promises of co-operation that were short on details and timetables, and insisted that China was already a democracy with free elections.

Later Mr Bush was able to cite only the fact that Mr Hu had mentioned human rights at all in their joint press statement after talks. “Those who watch China closely would say that maybe a decade ago, a leader wouldn’t have uttered those comments,” he said. “He talked about democracy.”

But the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who accompanied Mr Bush, complained that “we’ve certainly not seen the progress that we would expect” on a months-old US request for action by China on specific human rights cases.

The Mongolian Ger as a Yanic Symbol

I met Sara in 2004 when she joined Gamma Phi Beta at Cal and became my first little sis.  An architecture major passionate about design and creativity, Sara often joked that the world of architecture had too many phallic symbols and not enough yanic symbols.  I remember her defining yanic as the female equivalent to phallic, and joking that the stadium stood alone as a prominent example of yanic architecture: round, inviting, and full of activity, with crowds of men paying to get in.

Well, Sara, I have found Mongolia’s most prominent yanic symbol: the ger.

More than half of Mongolia’s population lives in these round houses.  The nomadic population follows the good grass to feed its horses, sheep, cows, and camels, so once or twice a year families disassemble their gers, load them onto trucks, and move.  Ger-building races are a fun pastime, and I hear the quickest teams of two get them up in less than a hour.

I think that the Mongolian ger is a yanic symbol because it is warm, resilient, round, colorful, inviting, adaptable, both traditional and modern, much-needed protection in the bitterly cold winter.

At the center of the ger stands the hearth, a black stove fueled by wood (if it’s available) or dried dung (far more likely, given the number of animals around.  They mix it with jasmine to make it smell better.  One traveler described it as aromatic.)

Our most memorable ger meal: horhok.  While passing through a relatively large village, we bought six kilos of goat meat from a local butcher.  We brought this meat to our ger for the night, and stewed it for an hour with peeled, whole carrots, potatoes, and parsnips.  The boys in my group loved tearing the meat off the bone caveman-style.  The host family’s four-year-old daughter Thalma tore the meat off the bone with carnivorous glee.

Thalma and her brother, whose name started with a B.

After ample servings of horhok, we drank beer and vodka with the men of the house.  They taught us the traditional ways to pass the glass (host first, then oldest to youngest, use your right hand but support it with your left.)  The festivities soon devolved into testosterone-fueled arm wrestling, which I mostly watched.  (Alcohol abuse is perhaps the biggest threat to Mongolia’s future, as NPR’s Louisa Lim reported here.)  A man with a big belly and green shirt was hitting on me, leading to this funny photo.

In the morning we gave gifts: two Mongolian storybooks and a panda toothbrush for Thalma.  She was sooooo happy!  The previous night she had showed me her book collection – an old copy of Vogue in French and a textbook from one of her three older siblings who live and attend school in a nearby village.  Those illustrated little copies of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella will be well-loved!

And, in case you were wondering, Mongolia has no lack of phallic symbols.

Above the famous monestary at Kharakhorum…

… sat this statue…

My traveling companions, two British boys who had both been in the army (and thus experienced many communal showers) and an Irish lad, made some cracks about its proportions.  I’ll let you judge for yourself…

Chinggis Khaan, Conquerer of the World

In Mongolia, one name is ubiquitous: Chinggis Khaan (yes, that is the most commonly used transliteration.)  His name and face grace vodka bottles, energy drink cans, the international airport, cigarette packages, and so much more.  And there is no better place to feel his presence than the Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex.

Photo from New York Times

Located in the middle of nowhere, about an hour from Ulaan Bataar, Chinggis rises from the barren plains, in shiny steel splendor.  I asked Oggie, our 24-year-old guide, who had called in sick from her job as a secondary school English teacher to lead us for three days, about Chinggis Khaan, and she said, “The Conquerer of the World!”  I then asked her how the statue made her feel.  She flexed her fists with ferocious pride.

The “Making Of…” video was especially illuminating.  Narrated in Mongolian, with English subtitles, the video described how this statue included thousands of tons of steel, as well as the expertise from hundreds of engineers from all over the world.  The video showed plans for elaborate landscaping around the statue, with hundreds of gers to house tourists from all over the world.  The statue cost a private Mongolian company $4.1 million to build.

We rode the elevator up Chinggis’ body, and then walked up the narrow, winding stairs before climbing out between his legs onto the horse’s back.  There is a viewing deck atop the horse’s head, ideal for photo ops.

Me and Oggie atop Chinggis’ horse

Me, Simon, Hanneke, Sarah, and Tamara in front of the statue.

Simon and Sarah are both American medical students, in China on Fogarty Fellowships to conduct research at Chinese institutions.  Simon and my former roommate Mark went to college together and I met him when he first arrived in Beijing and slept on my cozy couch.  Hanneke and Tamara are good friends from the Netherlands, traveling from Europe through Asia via the Trans-Siberian Railway.  We had a great time together traveling through Terelj National Park.

For more on the statue and its geopolitical symbolism, read this New York Times piece, which is on the wall in the statue’s museum.

Amended to include our photos.  Thanks Sarah!

About Mongolia: Travel Tips, Background Information, and Random Observations

I just got back to Beijing after a wonderful 12-day trip to Mongolia!  I had a truly amazing time and I have just written a bunch of posts with anecdotes and photos from my trip, which will be here on the blog over the next few days.

Image : Lonely Planet

I would like to send a huge bai rist’la (that’s thank you in Mongolian) to my grandmother, Virginia Swanberg, who generously microfinanced this trip.  I know you’re reading this, Grandma Ginny, and I appreciate your enthusiastic support so much!

Here are some random tidbits:

I stayed at Golden Gobi.  Highly recommended!  The hostel is centrally-located, with nice English-speaking staff, cheap dorms ($6/night), and private rooms available.  Golden Gobi organized both of my tours, a 3-day, 2-night trip to Terelj National Park (which included hiking, horseback riding, food, transportation by van, accommodation in two different gers, and more.  We paid $109/person as a group of 5.) and a 4-day, 3-night trip to Central Mongolia (which included camel riding, horseback riding, food, admission to the famous monastery at Kharakhorum, wild horses at Hustai National Park, van transportation, accommodation in 3 different gers, and more.  It covered a longer distance than my previous tour, and we paid $205/person as a group of 4.)

I met a Swedish couple on the train back to Beijing, who had traveled with Stepperiders, a horse trekking company.  They raved about the tasty food and excellent service and semi-wild horses, as they recovered physically from four days on a horse.

My favorite restaurant in Ulaan Bataar: Luna Blanca.  I ate at this vegetarian restaurant three times.  The menu is vast and everything is delicious!  Over the course of my visits, I sampled the pumpkin soup, dumpling soup, green salad, Indochina rice noodle salad, Mongolian dumpling sampler plate, hand-cut rye noodles, and vegan chocolate cake.  Just typing this makes my mouth water!

Ulaan Bataar has a surprising selection of international cuisine.  I also enjoyed scrumptious meals at Korean and Indian restaurants and Café Amsterdam.

The State Department Store, which is about 100 meters from Golden Gobi, is a six-story complex of cosmetics, clothes, cashmere, groceries, and more.  The supermarket features products imported from absolutely every country you can imagine, a much broader selection than in any Chinese supermarket I have seen, at prices that seemed quite cheap to me.  I think this is a product of two factors: limited Mongolian industry, and lenient import laws.  (Actually packaged goods were cheap but fruit was expensive.  The apples come from Chile.  This is the first time I have ever seen kiwis priced lower than bananas.)

Women in Ulaan Bataar are so glamorous: high heels, tight dresses, short skirts, lots of makeup!

I met a Mongolian woman named Suren at Café Amsterdam.  When she found out that I was from California, her face beamed with glee.  She had spent three years in California, studying English at Alameda Adult School (super small world: my initial experience as an ESL teacher was as a volunteer at Berkeley Adult School, just a few miles away) and running a seafood restaurant at a mall in Yuba City.  Three of her children had attended high school in Oklahoma, living with a generous woman Suren referred as “my American mother.”  Her son graduated from the University of Missouri and now runs a mining supply company that imports products from China.  Suren works with him part-time, and spends the rest of her time studying English and cooking delicious meals for her grandchildren.

On the plane from Beijing to Ulaan Bataar (which my travel agent friend Jeff booked) I sat next to Philip, a World Bank consultant from Papua New Guinea.  A mining engineer, he was traveling to Mongolia to work on an economic development project on mining safety.  Mining is the biggest industry in both Papua New Guinea and Mongolia, and both countries have economic rivalries with their more powerful neighbors (Australia, and Russia/China, respectively.)  Philip had spent four years studying in Japan.  Globalization at its finest!

Louisa Lim from NPR did an excellent series of stories about Mongolia last year.  I highly recommend this segment on Mongolian hip-hop and youth culture.

Image : Louisa Lim for NPR Members of Har Sarnai and Ice Top, one of Mongolia’s most popular bands, shoot a music video in Ulan Bator. Ice Top’s Damdinbazar Manlai (left) and Kobe flank Har Sarnai’s Amraa (center).

One night we went out to Mongolia’s hippest club, Strings.  Located in the White House Hotel, the bar has a Filipino band and lots of prostitutes.  I met a guy from San Diego who had just moved to Ulaan Bataar to teach 3rd grade at one of the city’s international schools.  This was his first time out of the United States, he had just started a two-year contract.  Already wearing his warmest clothes in September, he was nervous about winter.  I heard that Ulaan Bataar is the world’s coldest capital.  Most major cities are either further south or closer to water.

More soon!


Amended October 4, 2010, to clarify that “dumping soup” is indeed “dumpling soup.”  Thanks Ankur for calling me out on my lazy proofreading.  So nice to see you yesterday at the Modern Sky Festival :)