Photographing Kazakh Mongolians and the Importance of Tea

Toddler boy Kazakh at door of ger at Mongolia

We sat on the ground around a low wooden table waiting for the day to begin. It was overcast, threatening rain and the ger was dim, throwing everything into monochrome. A pot of boiling milk sat on top of a battered wood-burning stove in the center of the room and I watched as steam rose into the air in thick white wisps.

We were about to have tea, a tradition that kicked off all of our daily Kazakh family visits in the Altai mountains of western Mongolia. I was on a two week adventure, and it would turn out to be one of the most fascinating of my many travels.

A woman adds more goat, sheep and cow's milk to a large metal pan on the wood burning stove that is will eventually be made into cheese Photographing Kazakh Nomads in Mongolia

A woman adds goat, sheep and cow’s milk to a large metal pan on the wood burning stove. Eventually, this concoction will be strained, dried and cut into large chunks of hard cheese.

Kazakhs consider hospitality a sacred duty. A symbol of respect and admiration. It’s an intrinsic part of their culture and fuels their close-knit community even though they may live hundreds of miles away from each other.

Their commitment to congeniality meant that they hated to say no, and I quickly learned that I had to be careful what I asked for so I didn’t put anyone on the spot—especially since humor didn’t always translate.

Cow in the doorway in Mongolia

A curious cow wanted so much to come into the family ger.

I once jokingly asked an elder and former eagle hunter if I could have an eagle. He responded through our translator—his unease palpable—that he didn’t think the airlines would allow a live eagle on board but if they said yes he would do his best to find one for me. I didn’t joke much after that.

Kazakh Tea

On the table before us was a traditional tea: Two types of hard cheese (Qurt, a white cheese and Khizil irimshik, a red cheese), both made from a combination of goat, sheep and cow’s milk, the latter boiled longer, were broken into large chunks and placed in separate bowls. There was freshly churned butter that I could have eaten by the spoonful, a bowl of mild sour cream, a plate of store-bought cookies (bought perhaps on a trip to Ulgii the nearest city a couple hundred miles away), and bauirsak, two inch long, pillow-shaped pieces of fried dough.

Having tea with a Kazakh woman and her children

Having tea with a Kazakh woman and her children

A sickly grandfather kisses the head of a young boy in mongolia

A sickly grandfather kisses the head of his young grandson who had just got up on the bed beside him for a snuggle.

Bauirsak was my snack of choice and I had eating it down to a science. I broke the crust vertically with my thumb, filled the crevice with butter and ate the whole thing in two bites. If I was feeling particularly badass, I would add sour cream on top with a sprinkle of grated red cheese sweetened with sugar.

Kneeling down next to the table, our hostess poured Suutei tsai (strained black tea with milk and water) into pretty floral china bowls and handed one to each of us. “Raqmet,” we said in return. Thank you. She smiled and nodded her head towards the food on the table. I grabbed a baurisak and took a healthy swig of my tea.

This Kazakh woman cut huge bricks of cheese Photographing Kazakh Nomads in Mongolia

This Kazakh woman cut huge bricks of cheese with what looked like dental floss into smaller chunks that she placed on an outdoor rack to dry in the sun.

Many times we were offered kumis, fermented mares milk. Kazakhs LOVE kumis. Milk straight out of a mare is 40% higher in lactose than cows milk and can act as a formidable laxative. Fermentation breaks down the lactose making it easier on the stomach. It also adds a fair amount of fizz and a few of my fellow travelers really enjoyed it. I prefer to get my fizz fix from Diet Coke.

There were days when we would see two or three families in a row and on every visit we began with tea.  I confess, I didn’t always want to sit for tea. Sometimes I was in a photographic groove and I didn’t want to stop. Or sometimes I was just full. Our camp chef kept us well fed. In those moments I was pretty sure I was going to hell. Such a gracious and lovely custom and there I was the A.D.D. American wishing we could skip it altogether.

Shy little Kazakh girl hugs her mother in Mongolia

A shy little girl (our translator Nurka’s niece) stayed close to her mother when we first arrived

Little Kazakh girl puts Bauirsak in a plastic bag

Moments later, she was all smiles putting freshly baked Bauirsak into a plastic bag at her mother’s request

Family portrait with women and children in Mongolia

Ok, so not everyone enjoyed being photographed

The Ger

Occasionally, a family member would open the door of the ger and a fleeting rectangle of light revealed a dome exploding with color. Brightly colored tapestries lined a lattice skeleton, while embroidered fabrics and embellishments in vivid red, orange and yellow adorned almost everything else.

Wolf pelts hung on the wall next to wedding photos and images of dead loved ones. A dombra—a teardrop shaped string instrument with a long neck—dangled from a hook. A collection of medals—won over the years for school graduations, wrestling competitions and horse races—were carefully pinned to a piece of tasseled velvet and proudly displayed where any visitor was sure to see them. Everywhere there was something interesting to look at. Each object, a clue to a fascinating culture worlds apart from my own.

Old kazakh woman sitting in a chair in Mongolia

An older woman with very bad knees and terribly swollen ankles had a hard time walking and used the crutch behind her.

The floor plan

The gers we visited were always laid out the same way, though each family added their own decor and personal touches. Imagine the ger is a clock and the back, opposite the door, is 12 o’clock—that is where a low table is placed.

Between 12pm and 3pm: one or two wrought iron beds were positioned parallel to the wall.

At 4pm: a curtain hung, behind which meat and other food was hidden from view.

Photographer shooting a little Kazakh girl in Mongolia

A fellow photographer speaks to a little Kazakh girl while photographing her

Between 4pm – 5pm: a cabinet or shelving unit held cooking supplies and more food.

At 5pm: large urns and stainless still pots, a butter churn or a contraption that looked like a hammock for straining cheese often stood.

At 6pm: the door.

7Pm: more daily supplies and at 8pm – 12pm were more beds depending on the size of the family. Tucked between the major items I saw clothes and pillows, saddles and personal items. (In one ger, a more wealthy Kazakh had satellite TV.)

In the center of it all, a wood burning stove.

Boiled milk being strained in Mongolia

Boiled sheep, horse and goat’s milk is strained through fabric over iron pots


A battered wood burning stove, the only source of heat in the gers we visited

A nomadic culture

Kazakhs originally immigrated to Mongolia from Kazakhstan in the 1800’s and are one of the few nomadic cultures in existence. Four times a year Kazakhs move their families and livestock (horses, goats and sheep) following milder climates with fields for grazing. A ger is only used in the summer. The rest of the year they live in one-room homes made of wood, mud and dung.

Baby Kazakh Mongolian in a crib

Kazakh crib: Our translator’s second niece.. It’s hard to tell from this photo but she’s tied to a wooden plank cushioned by layers of fabric so that she doesn’t fall off.

There’s no running water (they set up shop in near to a lake, river or large stream), no bathrooms (just crouch behind a well-placed rock) and no refrigeration. The only heat comes from the stove. They slaughter their own livestock and make nearly everything they eat from scratch. Their diet is predominantly meat and dairy products.

The more I spent time with the Kazakhs the more the Little House books I read as a child sprung to mind. The simplicity of Kazakh lives, though difficult and requiring a great deal of hard work, was alive and well in the Altai mountains just as it had been in the United States in the 1800’s. I felt transported back in time to the prairie of yesteryear, albeit a Kazakh version.

Young Kazakh girl churns butter in Mongolia

Young Kazakh girl churns butter in a ger in the Altai Mountains, Mongolia


After tea, and sometimes during tea—though never without asking first— we would photograph our hosts as they moved about their gers working on this or that, or in some cases they would be kind enough to sit for portraits.

The light inside the gers was beautiful. A flap at the top of the conical roof adjusted the amount of light that lit the interior, kept out the rain and controlled ventilation.  With the flap pulled back it could be very bright but I have a thing for the dramatic and I tended to  gravitate towards the moodier moments when the light fell into the space in shafts of soft light.

Three Kazakh children in the doorway of a ger

A very important powwow

The story of my visit with the Kazakh Nomads in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia


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Up Next:  Camping and Kazakhs – My Amazing Mongolian Adventure


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