Camping and Kazakhs: My Amazing Mongolian Adventure

It’s been a week since I returned from my trip to western Mongolia with photographer Timothy Allen and seven fellow photography lovers, and my head is still spinning from the adventure.

Susan Portnoy in a The North Face tent inAltai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia-302We camped in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, a vast and profoundly beautiful and pristine expanse where we met the world’s most tolerant and gracious Kazakhs whose lives we shared.

We savored stunning mountain landscapes, lush valleys and seemingly Photoshopped sunsets. We tackled humbling off-road drives and river crossings in rugged Russian vans that were surprisingly comfortable and as durable as an Energizer bunny. (Though for some baffling reason the Russians designed them so that the windows on the left, aside from the driver’s, don’t open.)

We ate meat. A LOT of meat. At every sitting, there was meat. Which makes sense, the Kazakh culture revolves around its livestock (horses, goats and sheep) and their byproducts. There’s no agriculture to speak of and fruit is basically non-existent. Our wonderful cook Meruya, bought meat from the Kazakhs we visited and packed vegetables and fruits to add to our diet. But in the end, we ate A LOT of meat. (I thought I might lose weight on this excursion, but alas, I think I gained a few pounds.)

We drank tea and coffee, and on occasion, fizzy fermented mares milk (a Kazakh favorite, but too sour for my taste), but nothing satisfied me more than the river-chilled, ice-cold Mongolian beers we drank every evening at dinner.

Camp site in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

Sunrise shot of our camp. Our The North Face tents for sleeping, plus other larger tents for dining, showers, cooking and the loo.

We immersed ourselves in Kazakh culture, camping near families Tim and his fixer, Agii (A-gee), had befriended over the years in areas of the park few travelers have explored. Other than two Norwegian climbers we met at a celebration in the middle of nowhere, we only saw Kazakhs.

Our Kazakh hosts enthusiastically embraced our presence, allowing us to experience their lives as they lived it. We crashed two weddings and a party. What a hoot!  (P.S. Tim and Agii knew we’d be welcome and we were.)

A bride, groom, and wrestler during a wedding in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia-177304

We went to two weddings —one was a double— during our stay. Did you know that wrestling matches are as common in Kazakh weddings as cutting the cake is in ours? The large man in the pointy hat and turquoise briefs won the day’s competition. The prize: A horse.

The weather was predictable in its unpredictability. In the sun it could be in the 7o’s or 80’s, but clouds would drop the temperature in a matter of minutes, enough to warrant a fleece or multiple layers. It rained (a lot), shined and stormed. I went from t-shirt to down coat more times than I could count but the schizophrenic climate made for dramatic skies and good pics and it never dampened our spirits.

Throughout our trip Tim talked about his photography, editing, and his process in the field. We lapped up his words and advice like hungry puppies. Three times he set up photos for us, asking two eagle hunters to hold their golden eagles, don traditional garb and sit for images. He also taught us how to create rich, captivating portraits from single source light, a signature style for which he’s known. (You’ll see a lot of his influence in my photos to come.)

Kazakh riders race in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

Riders from a race at a wedding. The challenge: ride your horse at a fast 4-beat trot in a huge (think two football stadium large) circle. The winner is the horse that lasts the longest.

We played hilarious drinking games, danced a lot, shared personal stories, and helped each other get the most out of our trip. Our group didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but overall we got along and enjoyed each others company. It’s always a coin toss when you travel with strangers, and luckily we all won.

I look forward to sharing more about my days in Mongolia in detail, but I’m still editing photos. In the meantime, I wanted to give you this brief overview of the trip and post a few pics to whet your appetite for the stories to come…..

Men carrying food left over from a wedding in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

Men carrying the remnants of a wedding feast: Boiled lamb, goat, horse or all three, depending on the wealth of the host. Note the sheep’s head in the center.

A Kazakh grandmother and her grandchildren in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia-

It was a dark day. Storm clouds threatened rain and delivered the most beautiful light inside this ger.

Kazakh Grandfather and Grandson in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

The Kazakhs are a wonderfully affectionate people. They hug, kiss and hold their friends and family all the time.

Cow looking into a ger in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

A very curious family cow that couldn’t resist peeking into our host’s ger. She kept trying even though she was shooed away twice!

Kazakh Woman milking goats in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

Kazakh women (usually helped by their daughters) milk their goats once a day in the late afternoon, in a chaotic affair that begins with herding all the goats together (might as well have been cats), then tying all the females to a rope so they stay put while the ladies do their thing.

Russian van during a river crossing in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

This was an easy water crossing according to Tim. In past, he’s had water almost reach the windows.

Beautiful mountain landscape and lake in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

The view from a lunch spot we stopped at while driving from one campsite to another. It didn’t suck.

Vodka toasts in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia-031212

At weddings and other special gatherings, it’s customary for the host to toast his guests with vodka, and for guests to toast in return. We downed many a bottle this way.

Man climbing a ger poll in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, MongoliaDuring an 8 hour dance party (I kid you not. Eight hours) hosted by Ozat (in the camouflage t-shirt) and his family in their ger (pictured with all their furniture and stove removed), Shokhan, an eagle hunter and Ozat’s brother, took time out to show us his Kazakh du Soleil moves, inspiring others to start a climb-off.

Eagle hunter in traditional attire inAltai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia-092214

Shokhan, is one of the few (about 65) eagle hunters who still practices the tradition every winter. There are many who wear the garb and hold eagles at festivals for tourists in more trafficked areas of Mongolia, but Shohan is the real deal. This image was one of many I took during a shot Tim set up.

Two Kazaks riding horses in the mountains of theAltai Tavan Bogd National Park, MongoliaHorses as transportation are as much a staple as a car. Many Kazakhs don’t have them, though Land Rovers are coveted by many. Getting a new Land Rover is reason alone to invite friends and family from far and wide to celebrate.

Three Kazakh children in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, MongoliaThree of the many children we met along the way, (L-R: Arujan, Asem Gul, and Ayakoz) and whose gers we visited.

A ger under a rainbow in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia-048518The view from my tent of Shokhan’s ger after a rain.

If you have any questions about my trip to Mongolia (or anything else for that matter) don’t hesitate to ask!



Check Out The Ultimate Kazakh 8-hour Dance Party – A celebration in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia I’ll never forget.


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174 replies »

  1. Love reading about your Mongolian adventures. Makes me very excited as I’m also traveling solo to Mongolia in July for 3 weeks staying with nomadic families. I can’t wait. Also will be my 55th birthday. Woohoo. I had already booked my trip when I got the email that Timothy Allen had one this summer. Oh well. But, He’s also using the same tour company I’m using.

    Question for you, I’m also a photographer. Are there any lenses that you really didn’t use??? Asking because I’m trying to decide whether or not to take a long lens. You know how heavy they are and trying to only pack what’s absolutely necessary is quite the feat for sure. So, any lenses you wish you didn’t pack or ones you wish you had? Which ones did you use the most?

    Thanks so much!


    • How exciting. You’ll love it.

      So you’re going with Kobesh? Agii, the owner, is a great guy.

      I didn’t use my 70-200mm f/2.8 as much as I expected. I pretty much stayed with my 16-35 f2.8, 24-70 f2.8 and my 35mm. I did use my 70-200 for a few portraits but otherwise I probably could have left it had I had had to leave something behind. 🙂


      • I can’t wait. My first solo trip ever. Hopefully not my last! Lol.

        That’s exactly what I was wondering. Whether it would get much use. Probably won’t take it. More room for other fun stuff.

        My bad, wrong Tim. Hehe. It was Tim Vollmer’s tour in Mongolia that’s using the same tour company, Goyo Travel. Touring central Mongolia. Only staying with local families in their gers throughout the central parts.

        I’m not a big blog reader. But have to tell you I’m thoroughly enjoying yours. Awesome advice, great reads and amazing photography!

        Thanks for responding. Much appreciated.


      • Goyo is the UK agency that Timothy Allen uses too for all the pre-trip organization but once in country it’s Kobesh. So glad you’ve enjoyed the blog and look forward to having you return. Please tell your friends if you think they might enjoy and be SURE to let me know how your trip goes. Can’t wait to hear. 🙂 P.S. It will be colder than you think in the summer there. Bring layers. During the day I consistently went from t-shirts to 4 layers and a down jacket depending on whether the sun was shining. LOL


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