A Dispatch from Mongolia

Mongolian children singing
A Mongolian children's chorus highlighted a concert to kick off the Naadam (Independence Day) festival in Ulan Bator on Monday, July 11. © Lawrence W. Reed. All rights reserved.

(Mackinac Center for Public Policy President Lawrence W. Reed is on a personal vacation to Mongolia, where he has been the guest of Prime Minister Elbegdorj Tsakhia, known as "E.B." to his friends. The following are excerpts from an e-mail dispatch sent by Larry on Wednesday.)

No amount of writing could do this trip justice. It has simply been unlike anything you could imagine in every respect. We spent several hours with the prime minister, first in his office and then at lunch, with a huge security detail. He really rolled out the red carpet, even giving us tickets to a fabulous concert and then, to our huge surprise, invitations to a state dinner at the presidential residence last night. We met E.B.'s wife, the president, several ambassadors, and a number of other dignitaries. The U.S. ambassador we've seen several times now on this trip. Very nice lady.

Our visit to the stadium was cut short by a horrendous dust storm, one of those legendary weather phenomena of the Asian steppes. Within an hour, what had been a cloudless day turned into very windy, brown fog. Visibility fell to perhaps 50 yards.

Our local host for this visit is Mr. Orgodol ("Orly") Sanjaasuren, founder of the Individual Initiative Institute here in Ulan Bator. Orly attended the Mackinac Center's 13th leadership conference back in October 2003 and has become a good friend. A native Mongolian, he is a lawyer by profession and also holds a degree in finance from Boston University. He has been an extraordinarily gracious, helpful and generous host, assisted by his associates Yanjaa, Altai, Tumur and others. Orly is married and has three children; we've enjoyed the time we have spent this week with his entire family.

Orly is a staunch advocate for individual liberty, limited constitutional government and free markets. One of my hopes is that our visit will lead to additional interest in, and support for, his organization both in Mongolia and abroad. His institute is one of the newest in a growing, impressive roster of organizations around the world devoted to advancing the noble cause of freedom.

We attended opening ceremonies of the Naadam festival Monday, at the central stadium, and then fireworks last night in the public square, with several hundred thousand people.

E.B. told me an interesting story that I am eager to write about when I get back. Ulan Bator has, like a lot of the old Soviet capitals, a mausoleum in front of the parliament building. Last week, E.B. pushed through a law to demolish the one here (it looks almost like a carbon copy of Lenin's). He's moving fast on it. Next week, it gets torn down and the human remains will be quietly buried elsewhere.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

While visiting a herdsman and his family in the countryside near Ulan Bator, we were welcomed into his home (a Mongolian "ger," also known as a "yurt"). The traditional Mongolian greeting involves a bottle of scent that the host produces. He opens the bottle and using the applicator in the cap (much like a bottle of fingernail polish), he applies a little of the liquid scent to his finger, then hands the bottle to the first guest within a handshake. The guest shakes hands as he grasps the bottle and then repeats the procedure, passing it on to the next, and so on.

Then the herdsman served us Mongolian tea, which is good, but salty to the taste. Next came the main treat, the national drink known as "airag," which is fermented mare's milk. Homemade butter and rolls were then served. Later, when the herdsman showed us his cows and horses, we watched a member of his family milk a horse. After a brief ride on one of the horses, we departed.

At the second day of the national Naadam celebrations yesterday, we watched archery and wrestling, but our visit to the stadium was cut short by a horrendous dust storm, one of those legendary weather phenomena of the Asian steppes. Within an hour, what had been a cloudless day turned into very windy, brown fog. Visibility fell to perhaps 50 yards. Then one of the sharpest imaginable thunder and lightning storms hit — quite a sight to see.

We visited the Museum of the Victims of Political Repression yesterday, in part because we learned that E.B. was instrumental in its creation a few years ago. He clearly feels it is important to remember the atrocities of the socialist period and its many unfortunate victims. The museum reminded me of my 1989 visit to Cambodia and the sights from the murderous Khmer Rouge years: The displays included photos of some of those tortured and killed, as well as a number of human skulls with bullet holes.

Another note regarding our conversation on Sunday with E.B.: He told us that a communist leader of Mongolia decades ago boasted that his central plan called for the nation to raise its number of cattle (yaks, cows, sheep, goats) from 20 million to 250 million, so as to supply much of the Soviet bloc with meat. That was a ridiculously unrealistic goal for a nation of barely 2.5 million people, but the most interesting thing that E.B. told us was that in all the years of socialism, the number of cattle never even reached 25 million. After the cattle were privatized during E.B.'s first term as prime minister in 1997, the number grew to more than 30 million. It's proof of one of the "Seven Principles" I like to talk about: What everybody owns, nobody takes care of.

The trip has been so packed with events from sunup to sundown that we are all exhausted — so much so that we have asked for some downtime tomorrow. Orly has arranged for me to be interviewed by the daily newspaper here, Mongolia Today. That is set for Wednesday afternoon. My lecture for the Individual Initiative Institute is Thursday evening. The prime minister has just informed us by phone that he is coming to the lecture. I'm honored, but the pressure is on!

That's all for now.


Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.