Mongolia is a country famous for its remoteness; we have an enigmatic, edge-of-the-world reputation carried from the era where everyone thought the Earth was flat. We guess people are okay with the thought that if Earth has a hole or an exit, it’s somewhere below Siberia. (They’re almost right.) We don’t know about that, but it is a vast landlocked land with a small population. Some people come here to get lost in the wilderness, and a lot of people, famous, glamorous, celebrity people come to chill out here. I guess they’re stressed out by the swarm of paparazzi like the monosyllable squawking seagulls from Finding Nemo. So, here are some of the big names that came to Mongolia for spiritual self-discovery and change our country in return.
1. Julia Roberts
Internationally acclaimed superstar actress Julia Roberts visited Mongolia in 1999, back when she was the highest paid actress in the whole freaking world. According to Wikipedia, 1999 was the year her movie Runaway Bride was released, so maybe she was still in character and escaping from another wedding? We don’t know. But we do know that she made this awesome documentary called The Wild Horses of Mongolia.
Drawn to the country for her passion for horses, and the reputation of Genghis Khan, she made this documentary that piqued interest of tourists for years to come. And she’s the only person who doesn’t call our horses ponies–thank you, Julia– and the only international star confident enough to stay with a nomadic family, far away from her amenities, and not be self-conscious at all. Seriously, even some Mongolian city girls who would stuck her fingers up her nose at a corral.
This documentary starts with Julia waiting in a Ulaanbaatar Hotel impatiently to leave for the countryside, Tuv Aimag’s Sergelen soum. Circling ovoo and addressing the driver with fraternal honorifics (Chuka ah aa!) on the way, she visits the family and communicates with them through her trademark laugh and sincere geniality.
Watching Julia Roberts’ documentary is a good way to find out the things to do when you’re in Mongolia, but it’s a whole new experience when you understand Mongolian. For example, when she’s milking a mare, she’s almost oblivious to everyone else afraid that the mare might kick her because she’s a stranger.
She’s eager to learn words and concepts, but not shy to say she can’t live there, without the privacy of bathrooms and comfort of bathrooms. It’s okay Julia, after watching you tough it through in the cold with runny nose, we wouldn’t have been surprised if you shouted, “Get me the fuck outta here!”
But Julia’s passion for horses prevails and she continues with her journey. She finally rides a horse with a modern wooden saddle and trots into the distance. One thing we want to mention here is that this wooden saddle was brought from Tibet in the 17th century. Back in the 13th century we had flat leather saddles. She teaches the kids how to snap their fingers and wink, because, you know, R&B music hadn’t come here, and flirting was achieved through air blow kisses in Mongolia.
The documentary is sweet, comprehensively demonstrative of the horse culture and Julia Roberts has nothing but good intentions for Mongolia, but we feel like the timing was a little off for her. Autumn’s not the best season to be in Mongolia, and Tuv aimag’s not the most representative and the horse race they seems so small that it looks like it was organized at the last minute around Julia’s presence. We have so much more to show, is what we mean. Otherwise, great documentary. And if you’re reading this, Julia, please come back again! We have hot showers now! (Oh shit, we don’t.)
If you think Julia’s relationship with horses is sweet, you should check out her nursing a baby orangutan in Borneo. No, not nursing as in breastfeeding, just taking care of. Geez, you people are twisted! Anyway, here’s Julia keeping the Mongolian love! Whoo!
2. Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso)
Nobel-winning peace advocate and former regent of Tibet, Dalai Lama is a person equally quoted by your friend First off, Dalai Lama is his title, like the pope. His real name is Tenzin Gyatso and he is, for lack of a better analogy, the ‘pope’ of Yellow sect of Buddhism, and he was the regent of Tibet, until he fled his own country after the Chinese invasion in 1959. Secondly, like Doctor Who, there have been many previous incarnations of the Dalai Lama. His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th incarnation. The reason you know him is because he travels internationally and promotes non-violence, democracy, Buddhism and science, and making China leave Tibet the fuck alone. Naturally, The Chinese Government has a beef with him and harass countries not to accept him.
Aside from having Tibetan everyday words as names, Mongolians share a lot with Tibet in terms of Buddhist history. The title Dalai, which means ‘ocean’ in Mongolian, was bestowed by a Mongol khan Altan, for the highest lama, and at some point there was a Mongolian incarnation of Dalai Lama. So, with all the close relationship and majority of Mongolians being Buddhists, the visit by His Holiness was an honor for everyone. So when did his first visit happen?
1979. (Then in 1982, 1991, 1994, 1995, 2002, and 2006, as listed in this documentary.) In other words, the time when Buddhism or any religion was scoffed upon. When he first arrived, a massive throng of people gathered in our largest Stadium, giving pretty much every other Mongolian artist run for their money. This being the 1979 when Mongolia had a communist regime didn’t deter people from coming out to see the highest lama of Yellow Buddhism. This marked an important moment, and revealed the massive, previously suppressed Buddhist faith of Mongolians. None of us at SWM are old enough to remember this incident, but we think even the people themselves were surprised to see the mass, what with the religion being denounced and all. Either the state was into some 70s groove and had become pretty lax about religion, or this night was like people discovering everyone and their uncle were gay.
With Buddhist tradition revived after the 1990s, Mongolia welcomed Dalai Lama again and again–in total he’s been in Mongolia eight times, sometimes with sponsorship by Richard Gere, who himself have visited Mongolia three times already.
3. Cast of Cara Sucio telenovela
Between 1994 and 1995, at certain evening hours, the streets in Ulan Bator and the soum center areas were dead quiet–no traffic, no pedestrians. But inside every house, neighbors and extended families huddled together to one Latin ballad theme song only–that of Cara Sucia, a Venezuelan telenovela. Fresh off the Iron Curtain, Mongolia lost its telenovela virginity to Cara Sucia and boy, did we swoon? So, when in 1996, a Mongolian journalist got in touch with the cast and invited them, the largest and most embarrassing visit in Mongolia came to be.
Anecdotes, apocryphal or not, are strewn about the CS, apparently parliament members nicknamed each other Horatio Gonzalez, the main antagonist of the series, to vilify them in front of the public. Also, phrases “Санаа гэж Санта” (as evil as Santa), or “Замура шиг хувцастай” (as trashy as Zamura) entered the Mongolian language. People got into accidents rushing to watch this Venezuelan drama, even accidentally murdered each other over whether Miguel Angel would marry Sterlita or Santa. Some of them named their children Tony or Miguel Angel (Seriously, don’t be surprised if you see guys and gals born in 1994 named Toony, Migeelaangl or Sterliita.)
According to S.Bayarmunkh, who organized this visit, Sony Smith (Esterlita), Eva Blanco (Candelaria) came, with Adolfo Cubas (Tony) joining later. After hearing the Mongolian public is eager to receive them, the trio demanded to make a contract for $100,000, mortifying S.Bayarmunkh, who had planned a cashmere coat and pair of mittens for their visit. Nevertheless, he went to the exchange rate and borrowed the money and wired it.
When the cast finally came, they demanded another $100,000 on the backstage, another $15,000 when the audience roared for an encore, and another $15,000 during the afterparty. That’s $230,000 in total; keep in mind this was a time when Mongolia’s GDP per capita was $639 and 36.9% of the population was below the poverty line. There’s also rumors that the actor of Tony sexually assaulted a maid in the hotel and acted like an all around dick. Judging by this actor’s late photo, it seems like he embraced his maliciousness and became a full-on Venezuelan Lex Luthor.
It’s said that one of Richard Gere’s visits coincided with these guys and Mongolians ignored Gere and were racing for the Cara Sucia band. I guess either Pretty Woman had a bad reception here or that’s why Julia Roberts came to Mongolia.
Natso Baatarkhuu lives in Mongolia and writes in English. His works have appeared in Cracked.com and The UB Post, and he started this website. He dreams of publishing novels and selling screenplays someday.