ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — In this frigid land where goats and horses far outnumber people, President Bush stretched to find common ground between the United States and Mongolia.
“Both our nations were settled by pioneers on horseback who tamed the rugged plains,” the president said Monday. “Both our nations shook the yoke of colonial rule and built successful free societies.”
Bush was the first U.S. president to visit this sparsely populated Buddhist country of desert wastelands and pastures where Genghis Khan ruled 800 years ago and began his conquests.
Fifteen years ago Mongolia became the first communist country in Asia to break toward freedom. But the pursuit of democracy meant the end of economic help from Moscow, and today Mongolia struggles with a poverty rate of nearly 40 percent. Foreign investment is scant, and Mongolia’s schools and health system are in a shambles.
Welcomed with a saber salute, Bush sped through a four-hour visit. He ducked into domed, nomadic tents, posed for pictures with mounted warriors clad in armor, addressed lawmakers in the Parliament, known as the Great Hural, and met with the president and prime minister.
Bush came to salute Mongolia’s democracy and its contribution of about 120 troops to Iraq. He said Mongolia had stood with the United States as “brothers in the cause of freedom.”
“Free people did not falter in the Cold War, and free people will not falter in the war on terror,” the president said.
Bush acknowledged that the transition to democracy here has not been easy but said Mongolians were building better lives for their children and grandchildren.
The United States will give Mongolia $11 million under an initiative to help allies in the war on terror, Bush said. Mongolia also is one of 16 nations chosen to share $1 billion in U.S. aid as part of an incentive program that rewards poor countries that show a commitment to economic and government change.
Mongolia was the last stop on Bush’s eight-day trip that included visits to Japan, South Korea and China. He returns home to a fierce debate over his Iraq war policy, a battle with Republican allies in Congress over spending cuts and polls that put his approval rating at the lowest point of his presidency.
There were disappointments for Bush at each stop in Asia.
Japan did not lift its ban on U.S. beef imports. South Korea hit the White House with a one-third troop cutback in Iraq. China rebuffed Bush’s call for more political freedom and gave little ground on trade.
Lashed by fierce Siberian winds, Ulan Bator prides itself as the coldest capital city in the world, with temperatures plummeting to 40 degrees below zero in the winter. By local standards, the temperature was a balmy 30 degrees Monday. An acrid haze of pollution hung in the air.
“Such an honor to be here,” Bush told Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar, a British-educated literature scholar from Mongolia’s formerly communist ruling party.
Bush traveled outside the capital to a small village of white and yellow felt tents in a narrow valley surrounded by treeless brown hills. He was greeted by fierce-looking horsemen in armor who carried color flags on spears.
Following custom, Bush gamely sipped fermented mare’s milk. Most Westerners hate the taste of the traditional mare’s drink, sometimes comparing it to a mix of warm beer and buttermilk.