We’ve been looking all over central Ulaanbaatar for premium cat food. Why? It’s complicated.
For one thing, retail shopping is not so straightforward here. There are stores and malls like you’d find anywhere, but a lot more stuff is hidden. Stores have small signs (mostly in Mongolian, of course), little or no window displays and are often inside bigger buildings that could enclose pretty much anything. I’m not sure whether this interiority is about the extreme cold or a leftover socialist-era lack of advertising. And there are a lot of small stores that display signs of various brand names they sell, meaning they aren’t actual, say, Uniqlo stores but stores that have some Uniqlo stuff available. Much of what is sold here is brought by hand from China and sold in these small places. People, mostly women, travel abroad and return with boxes or those big red and blue woven rice bags filled with things to resell here. This is known as “dragging pigs,” as it’s reminiscent of, well, you get the picture. The small stores sell whatever mix of brands brought from China — i.e. much of it is counterfeit — by the sister-in-law on her last trip over.
This is also how non-supermarket pet food comes into Mongolia. People bring in big bags of kibble and sell it portioned into small plastic bags. You don’t always know what you’re getting, and pet supply stores are just as randomly sited as anything else. I found one when we first arrived tucked into the entry area of some shops above a parking garage. We needed a scratching pad, and the proprietor was so excited to sell to me that she then brought out a hideous pink fuzz bed and a kitten. (“Oh, god, pleasepleaseplease don’t show me a kitten…I’ll be divorced if I bring it home, and I don’t want to worry about its fate if I DON’T bring it home…”) We found another entry-area place that sells a premium brand and actually found ourselves bargaining with the guy for the whole 15kg bag. Because who would pay $110 for 33lbs of cat food?!
The husband somehow found another place that sells the fancy stuff, way at the back of the fourth floor of a dingy, bustling building called Mars filled with individual vendors selling women’s clothes. And I bought 2kg/4.4lbs of kibble for $14.72. Which — I did the math for you — means I paid exactly the same price as the other place charged.
So, why? I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with this. Of course we love our cat, and there are good reasons to worry about Chinese-produced pet foods, but is there really a difference between these brands? (There’s another kind here called KiteKat that’s probably meant to be pronounced “Kitty Kat” but that we obnoxiously say as that thing you fly.) Almost all the food we’re eating comes from China — definitely all the fresh vegetables and fruits this time of year. And if I really care so much about pure, uncontaminated food, then WHY AREN’T I EATING THE DAMN MUTTON?
Once again, expat life shines an unflattering mirror. All my sneering at people who think they can control every aspect of their health, those juice-fasters and colonic cleansers — am I not engaging in the same magic-thinking, that fancier cat food is somehow going to make a difference? Maybe not, but leave me alone with my fantasy.