On finding childhood Nirvana in a small cafe in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia.
The last time I had a milkshake, a real one, I might have been perhaps twelve. That was fifty-four years ago, and MickeyD’s was a brand new enterprise. Burgers were barely ten cents, and the bragging rights were still only a few hundred thousand sold.
Milkshakes, in my Central Florida home town, were summer. I remember going to the local drug store, which back then was a Rexall in the NorthGate Shopping Center ( a big deal for us back then) and sliding onto the cool-from-air conditioning seats. Our bare skin stuck to the vinyl, sweaty from the summer humidity, but we quickly cooled off. The shakes we ordered back in the early sixties were tall dense affairs, full of creamy milk and three or four scoops of ice cream. They were a meal unto themselves.
I have one just like that, albeit a touch smaller, sitting on my table right here in Ulaan Bataar. It’s strawberry.
My favorite flavor.
I feel like a little kid. At 66, I have tended to eschew milkshakes for years, for various reasons. Yesterday my guide drove us to a small shop where I bought a stick ice cream, thinking I was getting vanilla.
Let’s just say that the Mongolian’s version of vanilla doesn’t track with my taste buds. I got part of a piece in my mouth before blowing the rest of it out in a spray, and tossing the whole affair into the closest trash can. It was frozen yogurt, but frozen Mongolian yogurt, which trust me, is not what the tongue expected.
Each to his own.
In so many ways this insane city, a huge tumble of construction, aging infrastructure, bad pipes, glaring and garish consumerism, is a complete mash up. In the desperate rush to leave the past behind, I have to wonder if this country isn’t also throwing its precious culture out the door as well. Herds of horses now have to maneuver across highways full of drivers who seem to have no compunction about nearly running over pedestrians, much less livestock. I would imagine, given the proliferation of car dealerships in a city that can’t handle the traffic it has now, it’s going to get a lot worse.
They are in such a hurry to get somewhere that I genuinely wonder if they have any idea what that “where” is supposed to look like. Same thing happened to my small home town, where the citrus groves we rode through from town to town have given way to condos and housing developments. The Rexalls and drug store counters of my youth, along with the cherry cokes (dense sugar syrup in a coke with a float) are long, long gone.
I’m just passing through, on my way out west in the Altai where folks still hunt with eagles, even if that is heavily touristy these days. As it was.
The strawberry shake was a pleasant surprise in a city full of surprises. The dense, sweet, cold ice cream and rich Mongolian cream were a blast from my Southern country past, where friends and I would ride to the next town (in this case, Auburndale, Florida in the Sixties), tie our horses up and sit down at the drug store counter for a treat.
In some interesting ways, my youth is reflected in the horse cultures of Mongolia.
In Western Mongoliga, kids still ride their horses to school. There is something wonderful in seeing this, because it is fast disappearing, just as all the herders want to replace their terrific horses with motorcyles. Forgive me but the vision of a lone Mongolian herder, sitting tall and straight on his powerful little pony against the lonely, dusty backdrops of hills colored wheat by the cold weather, is considerably more appealing than the angry buzz of motorcylces belching fuel into that sage-scented air.
A strawberry shake isn’t just a shake. A really good one has a way of whipping me back to my long-distant past, a time when ice cream really was rich, an adventure was a few kids riding bareback on a hot summer’s day in search of a cold treat, and life was a series of simpler pleasures.
They are still available, if you’re willing to travel, explore and go places where what’s really important hasn’t been replaced by the headlong rush into a questionable future. For my part, it’s worth it. My strawberry shake, which I had for lunch, was followed by yet another at dinner.
At my age, I can, by god, have as many as I like, especially since such a perfect treat brings back such perfect memories.
Here’s to the tastes of summer: the blush of lovely berries, and the ice cream headaches of a treat that carries a lot more than just pleasurable taste, but also the rush of memories of long ago, summers of my youth, and all the joys of being a Florida kid.
My thanks to Zavkhan Travel for organizing a custom trip to Mongolia this past fall.