As we all know too well, there was a time not so long ago when business travel was not the breeze it is now. Today, between smartphones and smart apps and laptops and new airplanes, traveling hither and yon is pretty easy.
But even as short as a decade ago, such was not the situation. Case in point: Back in 2002, I was visiting my brother in L.A. when I received an email whose subject line read, “McDonald’s... in Mongolia?” Spam, right?
As it so happened, the email was from the U.S. State Department. It turned out that Mongolia was a country that had been communist under the old Soviet Union but had turned democratic and capitalist since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in that time, several companies had made quite a bit of money. Some of those companies wanted to bring franchises to the capital, Ulaan Bataar. So those entrepreneurs went to the U.S. embassy in Mongolia, the embassy contacted the State Department, and the State Department found me. Hence the email above.
So about a month later, I found myself on plane headed towards, first Japan, and then Seoul, South Korea. Once I landed in Korea I spent a few days there lecturing about business. (Best tidbit: Most of the trees in North Korea are only about two feet high since the people there continually chop them down for firewood.)
Not long thereafter, I was on a Mongolian Air flight to the capital, Ulaan Bataar. Literally, I was headed to Outer Mongolia (Inner Mongolia is part of China). I had no idea what to expect when I got off the plane, but what I didn’t expect was this:
Everyone spoke perfect English, they all had a cell phone to their ear, and they sipped lattes in the afternoon. Although the Soviet Union did many things poorly, apparently one thing they did well with educate their people, and the people of Mongolia that I met were highly educated and sophisticated.
Interesting tidbit number 2: One day my embassy colleague took me for a drive out to the countryside. We rode down a paved street until we were about 10 miles out of town and then the road turned into a dirt road. It turns out that all roads out of the capital eventually become dirt roads because the country is so vast that you cannot possibly have a paved road across it all.
When I wanted to get a hold of my wife, I would go to the local communist party headquarters, which had become an Internet café. There was no wireless and no Internet in the hotel. Making international cell phone calls from the country was ridiculously expensive.
And the franchises? It turns out that the country was not quite ready for a McDonalds in Mongolia, which is probably OK.
But what I remember most, as I bet most of us do when we travel internationally, is the people. The Mongolian people were incredibly kind and thoughtful (even when the Genghis Khan Vodka I was expected to drink was a little too strong).
These days, with travel being as easy as it is, and the world becoming as homogenized as it is, it is good to remember that it was not always so.