ULAN BATOR, Mongolia – A chat with a Buddhist monk. An encounter with a gift horse named Montana. A peek inside a yurt, the traditional felt tent home. A word with Mongolian veterans of the war in Iraq.
No outpost is too distant, no audience too small for U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), globe-trotting to bolster support for Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider fight against terrorism.
The roaming Rumsfeld dropped in Saturday for an official visit with senior leaders of this once communist nation of about 2.7 million, home of the legendary horseman-warrior, Genghis Khan (search).
Rumsfeld wound up with a horse of his own — a coffee-colored Mongolian gelding with a neatly trimmed black mane, a dark brown stripe down his spine and a blue scarf around his neck.
The horse was not the sort of gift that Rumsfeld could take back to the Pentagon. So the horse will remain in Mongolia (search), cared for by a herdsman named Bilegerdene (many Mongolians use only one name), never to be ridden by anyone for the rest of the animal's life.
"Only the wind of the steppes will be on his back," said Khasbazar Boldbat, a Defense Ministry official.
Asked what name he would give the horse, Rumsfeld replied without hesitation: Montana. He said the landscape around Ulan Bator reminded him of Montana, the home state of Rumsfeld's wife, Joyce.
Rumsfeld's visit did have a serious purpose.
He thanked President Nambaryn Enkhbayar and Defense Minister Tserenkhuu Sharavdorj for supporting the Bush administration in fighting terrorism. Rumsfeld also spoke to a group of 180 Mongolian soldiers who had served in either Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years.
He told them that history would look kindly on their efforts and he thanked them for their contributions.
"It's a privilege to be able to look you in the eye and say thank you," Rumsfeld said.
He singled out two soldiers, Sgt. Azzya and Sgt. Sambuu-Yondon. They were on a patrol near Hilla, Iraq, in February 2004 when they fired on and killed the driver of a truck who turned out to be a suicide bomber. Their action apparently saved a number of lives of Mongolian and other coalition troops.
After the official proceedings, Rumsfeld toured the 19th century Gandan Monastery, once the largest center of Mongolian Buddhism. His guides included a Buddhist monk, who showed Rumsfeld inside a spectacular temple with a gold-plated Buddha towering more than 80 feet high.
Rumsfeld then had a look inside a yurt, or felt tent, which was serving as a library for ancient Mongolian texts.
On what he said was the first visit by U.S. defense secretary to Mongolia, Rumsfeld sought to encourage Mongolia's efforts to build a peacekeeping force with global reach.
"If there's anything that's clear in the 21st century it's that the world needs peacekeepers," Rumsfeld said at a news conference with his Mongolian counterpart, Sharavdorj.
The two stood before a white, life-size statue of Genghis, whose image is widely seen in the capital.
"I congratulate the people of Mongolia, the government and the armed forces of Mongolia for selecting that (peacekeeping) as a principle aspect of their military focus, and certainly the United States is anxious and willing and ready to be of assistance," Rumsfeld said.
President Bush is scheduled to visit Ulan Bator in November.
A contingent of six U.S. Marines is working closely with the Mongolian Army, which numbers 11,000. The Pentagon is planning to supply the army with body armor and other equipment to help Mongolians design a more modern force proficient in peacekeeping duties.
Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is eager for closer military-to-military relations with the U.S. and a measure of international prestige for a focus on peacekeeping. Peacekeeping can also prove lucrative; those missions placed under U.N. control pay relatively well.
At the news conference, Rumsfeld was asked whether the U.S. was interested in setting up either a listening post or a military base in Mongolia, which is a former Soviet satellite state.
"We've had no discussions along that line, and I know of no intention to do that," he replied.