It’s been a while since my adventure in western Mongolia with photographer Timothy Allen and seven fellow photography lovers, and yet I still think of it all the time.
We 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. This 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.
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 Mongolian weddings and a party. What a hoot! (P.S. Tim and Agii knew we’d be welcome and we were.)
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.)
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.
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.
It was a dark day. Storm clouds threatened rain and delivered the most beautiful light inside this ger.
The Kazakhs are a very affectionate people. They hug, kiss, and hold their friends and family all the time.
If you’re enjoying this post on Mongolia you’ll love these too.
The Ultimate Kazakh Mongolian 8-hour Dance Party [Videos]
Why Some Kazakh Women in Mongolia Spend Half Their Lives Milking
Why a Kazakh Wedding in Mongolia is so Much More Fun
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 nomad 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.
This was an easy water crossing according to Tim. In the past, he’s had water almost reach the windows.
The view from a lunch spot we stopped at while driving from one campsite to another. It didn’t suck.
During 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), Shohan, 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.
Shohan, is one of the few (about 65) eagle hunters who still practice 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.
Horses 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 of the many children we met along the way, (L-R: Arujan, Asem Gul, and Ayakoz) and whose gers we visited.
The view from my tent of Shohan’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!
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157 thoughts on “Camping and Kazakhs: My Amazing Mongolian Adventure”
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
Mongolia calls to me! What an amazing experience!
It really was. I had an amazing time. 🙂
I love your photos.
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Wow! Looks like you had quite the adventure, and the pictures you post are amazing! Makes me want to travel.
Sitting here and seeing your photos makes me secretly jealous. Thanks Susan for sharing! Can’t help but it but smile
I couldn’t ask for a nicer compliment. I love the idea that the post made you smile. Welcome to the blog and I hope you return!
Hi Susan, Yes, here I am again, checking your blog. I miss the nature and I miss adventure. Your blog satiate my longing for outdoor activities. Thank you dear and always take care!
Thank you so much!!
Thank you so much!
I hope that one day I will get the chance to travel like you. The world is an amazing place that continues to inspire. Great post
Hi Jacob – I hope you do too. It’s just the priority that you put on travel. I put a little away each month for a travel fund and I make a lot of choices not to buy things so that the $$ can go toward travel in the end. It’s always been worth it.
I’m a poor college student at the moment, but even if it’s just a little per month I guess it’s never too early to start saving. Thanks for the advice Susan 🙂
What an awesome experience, I stumbled across an old article of yours before the trip and it sounded ao interesting! Luckily, I found a link to this post in the comments. Awesome photos and a great article. Meat, coffee, tea and games. Sounded awesome, must have been great to experience all that culture. Followed 🙂
Hi John – It was truly incredible. It’s one of those experiences that will always stay with me. Thank you so much for your kind words. There’s more to come on Mongolia. If you’re interested, I can add your name to my email list and you’ll get updates on my posts. If not… no worries.. Just wanted to let you know of the option. 🙂
Love is so much that I am secretly jealous!
I really enjoy your blog! I hope to become a travel blogger one day, and your stories are so inspiring to me.
Thank you so much, Yahminah! Good luck with your future blog. I hope you do it. 🙂
Hi, Susan, I’m late on commenting here, but this was a fabulous post about a wonderful adventure. The photographs are superb as was your essay and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the images. It may be a while, however, since I’m heading out soon on a long trip that will be mostly off the grid. But I’ll catch up when I get back.
Such an inspiration!
It was really amazing. Unlike any other trip I’ve taken to date. 🙂
I loved your photos. Mongolia looks like a delightful place to visit.
Thank you very much. Mongolia was quite and adventure and really worth the travel time to get there. I highly recommend it. 🙂
Amazing pictures! Looks like a beautiful place! How does one go about organising these trips? Hopefully beginning some travelling adventures soon, tips would be great 🙂
Very wonderful trip, thank you very much for this pictures.
WOW! Your photography is beautiful! Did you use a tour company for this trip? Or did the lead photographer organize it? Any links you’d like to share would be appreciated.
Thank you so much. Those images were just a tease. More to come. 🙂
The photographic workshop that I was on can be found here: http://humanplanet.com/timothyallen/workshops/ and at the top of my post where it says Timothy Allen, the lead photographer. He does a couple trips during the winter migration and a couple in summer. If you’re looking for an outfitter that can handle all the logistics in country, provide camping equipment, driver, a guide/translator without a photographic leader like Tim, you can reach Agii Makhsum, ( I speak about him in the post as well) who founded Kobesh Travel here: https://www.facebook.com/kobeshtravel/?pnref=lhc He collaborated with Tim on my trip.
FYI– Tim’s trips sell out really quickly, if you’re interested, go to his site and sign up for his pre-notification emails before he goes public with his new dates. 🙂
Hope this helps.
What an adventure! Great post and awesome photos! I hope I can meet these people too sometime.
I hope you do too! Thanks for taking a look and for the kind words.
i like your post, thank you for sharing:)
I’m glad you enjoyed it. Welcome to the blog!
i like your article, very inspiring and thank you for your post…….
Thank you! I appreciate you taking a look..
The photos are incredible! Very national geographic.
Fantastic photos and site compliment
Thank you for sharing 🙂
Thank you for taking the time to look at it!
Great post! I’m excited to see more. Loved the picture of the cow; so cute.
Thank you so much!
Thank you very very much!
You have just taken me away from my busy world and made me relax in yours. It was like getting a bit of sunshine on a cloudy cold rainy day. Thank you for this. I can not wait for my next escape.
Aww.. thanks! That’s so kind of you to say. I’m thrilled you enjoyed it. Thank you for letting me know. 🙂
Amazing photography! Too much inspiration to discover the world. Congrats!
Many many thanks!
My two favorites are of the cow and then the eagle with hunter. They capture a tone and feeling. What a gift to be able to take such photographs! Thank you for sharing them.
Loved your way of picturesque explanation of Kazakhstan. Indeed a beautiful article…
Thank you! It’s actually about the Kazakhs in Mongolia however. 😉
Thank you very much!
Your life must be exciting great prose and pictures. What a wonderful time you must be having!
It definitely has its exciting moments. It also has a lot of tedious ones in front of the computer. I have to take the good with the bad. LOL
wow…so nice pictures…greate job 😀
life as it is 😀
Cool, I like this photography,
Great.. Thank you so much. 🙂
Can you teach me sir ? Because I love your Photography. 🙂
Incredible! I can’t believe you’re back already, it looks amazing, especially the wedding wrestler… I hope he’s happy with his new horse? 🙂
I can’t believe it either… sigh…
It was great, and I do believe he was stoked over the horse. 🙂
There are some wonderfull photos here!!! and i asume you had an amazing experience! tks for sharing!
Those pics are incredible maam, loved every bit of it. I am no photographer but those pics make you hungry for more ..
I’m thrilled to hear it. Hope you come back over the next couple of weeks to see more. Thank you.
Splendid picture, of splendid peoples. Thanks for bringing them to us, I’m really looking forward to visiting Central Asia in the not-too-distant future!
Thank you! Very exciting, where are you going?
I’m going to Kazakhstan in November but for a little while – just a reconnaissance to get the taste of the place, if you will – but the big one we’re planning is a 2 week hike in Kyrgyzstan, next year!
Sounds very exotic and exciting Fabrizio!
I enjoyed this blog and pictures. As I read and scrolled I would say, yup that is my favorite picture. They were all fabulous. It really captured the culture of the area. I must say, my favorite one, after scrolling many times, was the bird and the man. It really resonated with me. Thanks for sharing your journey and look forward to your next blog.
Thank you so much!
Wow Susan, you are a very hardy and adventuresome gal. I give you high praise for both your photos and spirit!
It was loads of fun, Karen! Thank you.
I’m actually from Kazakhstan myself and I enjoyed reading this so much! Such a great post!
Wow Kazakhstan, how exciting. Glad you liked the post. Thank you.
That’s so great. The Kazakhs I met in Mongolia really inspired me to learn more about Kazakhstan. Such an interesting culture, though I’m not clear as to how much of the population still lives a traditional nomadic lifestyle.
The ones that live in Almaty, Astana and other big cities don’t live that lifestyle. I’m so happy you enjoyed it – the culture has always been known for being very welcoming
They were extremely welcoming!
What a fabulous set of images Susan…..I particularly like the shot of the eagle hunter, beautiful low lighting.
Thanks, Mark. I have more of that series that I am going to show in addition to giving some pointers that Tim relayed to use about using single source lighting. If you don’t know his work, I’d highly recommend him. His work is absolutely stunning. He won a bazillion awards.
Looking forward to seeing them 😊
What an amazing post! Your photos are beautiful. Thank you for sharing this 🙂
Thank you and you are very welcome!
Nice story…thanks for share.
You’re most welcome!
Stunning photos. I especially love the one of the woman and children. Look forward to hearing more!
Now that’s travelling…..amazing photos….and that is a serious camera…….wow
Lol… That’s the lens I use for Wildlife. Thank you for the kind words.
Amazing adventure and beautiful pictures! Great…
Thank you! I hope you return to check out more of the story. 🙂
Sounds and looks like your trip to Mongolia was even better than you expected. The tempter here is great, gets us all in waiting for more 🙂
I’ve been back for 3 weeks from my trip to Mongolia, we didn’t go west as far as you, mainly circled around Ulaanbaatar and then flew to the Gobi Desert. Already I have noticed differences in our experiences and it will be interesting to see what else comes up as you go into more details.
How cool. Didn’t realize you were headed there. Are the Mongolians that you met nomadic like the Kazakhs? I wish I could have gone on to the Gobi but real-life called. What differences did you notice already? I know that inherently there are differences since the Kazakhs are Muslim and the Mongolians Buddhist, but the Kazakhs we stayed with weren’t outwardly religious from what I saw.
We met many different nomadic peoples, but not of some specific race like the Kazakhs. We stayed at Ger Camps (a tourist version of living like the nomads). The only place we were away from the nomads was in Ulaanbaatar. We would stop at many gers on the Steppes along our way and the Mongolian guide/interpreter and our Australian photo guide would ask if we could take photos of them going about their daily chores. Most times they were happy for us to do that, and we often then were invited into the Ger for fermented milk and hard cheese after the ice was broken. We were out very early each day to get photos as they started to move herds and milk the animals. We didn’t eat meals with them but everywhere we went there was hard cheese available which they store up for winter. They were not overly religious but every Ger had a small shrine to Buddha. Most of them wore the traditional coat over western clothes as it was still cold in the mornings in June. Main difference was the clothing but that could also have been the cold, most wore the coat all the time, particularly the men riding. The rugs/wallhanging were also different in design, maybe more Russian influence? Looking forward to seeing your images and thoughts on the rest of your trip and comparing it to mine. You were also much closer to those snow covered mountains, we only saw them off in the distance 🙁
Did you go on your own or with a group? Sounds very similar to our experience.
I went with a photo tour family run business, they lead trips all over the world and are excellent.
Awesome. I’ll check them out. 🙂
Incredible trip and amazing photos! Very inspiring…
Thank you, Marcel!
such a wonderful trip and adventure 🙂 very nice photos capturing the life and culture in that place 🙂
Susan, your images, as usual, are radiant and meaningful. My favorites, out of all the wonderful images, are the cow (love the girl on the left) and the family with the baby and the marvelous light. You really do capture the soul of people. Seriously lovely–all of the images. I now must go to Mongolia. Sigh (good sigh : )
Question. You mentioned eating a lot of meat and the dearth of vegetables and fruits. I would think that rickets would be a serious problem in Mongolia. Little vitamin C or D in those climates. Did you hear anything about health status or intervention? (my health hat on : ) Meat on top of meat is not a great diet for children and pregnant women. There has got to be health consequences.
Hi Patricia –
As always, I really appreciate your support of my work. I feel the same about yours. The images you like best are some of my faves too. In putting together the blog I need to mix some reportage with more artistic images so that people get a real sense of the experience. But I wonder sometimes whether I dilute the photos too much.
They are a pretty fit looking group of people. At least the ones I saw. I know that the diet is missing a lot but I am guessing that they’re getting the vitamins they need elsewhere. Not sure where. You’d think they’d all have scurvy, but they don’t. I’ll do a little digging and see what I can find out.
Susan, thanks for these early shots and your commentary. All the photos are gorgeous, but am particularly taken with those of the toddlers inside the ger, your curious cow, the goats being milked and Shohan. The expressions Arujan, Asem Gul and Ayakoz wear could be those of kidlets anywhere. Enjoy settling back home, and some great salads!
Those photos seem to be everyone’s favorites and its not surprising. The lighting in those circumstances was in my favor. Thankfully! Thank you for the kind compliments. I hope you enjoy what’s to come as well.
Very welcome. While the lighting was in your favour, you also deserve credit for the composition. Am sure I’ll enjoy the photos to follow.
What an adventure! Your photos look more beautiful and captivating than ever. It has been my dream since I was a child to visit Mongolia. So glad I can get a glimpse of it through your eyes before I finally make it there myself. Your work is looking better than ever. Can’t wait to see even more of your spectacular visions.
Thanks a million about the photos. Slowly getting there.
Go to Mongolia sooner than later. It’s becoming a more talked about hot spot. I think you’d really like it there.
What an incredible experience. I look forward to reading more about it and seeing more of your wonderful photographs. As a lactose intolerant vegetarian, it appears I would starve there.
Hi Laura – It truly was special. There were 2 strict vegetarians on the trip though not vegan. The cook we had with us did her best to make them happy, and I think overall they were, but it wasn’t easy. I think if you went you’d want to bring a lot of Power bars. 🙂
all have the light impressively especially like goat milking – horses departing against the hills and the bird of Prey and chap in tent – 3 peaches
Hi Scott –
” 3 peaches.” I like that. Thank you!
What an adventure you reported! Your photography is epic, I feel like when I see your pictures I am literally standing in Mongolia. You really captured well the Mongolian lifestyle and culture.
I couldn’t ask for a more lovely compliment. Thank you and I’m glad you enjoyed it. 😀
Sounds like a milestone trip. Stunning images and light, and as always your writing draws us in. Can’t wait for the details now that you have whetted our appetite with this summary!
Thank you. Means a lot. You’ve been so supportive of my work and I want you to know it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
More to come….:)
What an amazing adventure you had.I am dying to get to this place! Great job with writing about this and your photos are wonderful..you captured it all.
Thank you very very much. This piece was just a broad strokes overview. I think you’ll like what’s coming up. I hope you return. 🙂
I wonder why I didn’t find your blog before !
I really love your writing techniques and very helpful tips.Although I’m not a professional photographer & writer,you really nailed these practical advice.
I’m glad I found you here.Bravo!
Welcome and thank you! I’m thrilled you like the blog and look forward to your return. :)))
Beautiful pictures! What an amazing trip
Thank you! You haven’t read nothing yet. LOL..
Hope you return for future posts.
I’ve been waiting for you to return. Photos are gorgeous and the narrative very interesting. I didn’t expect that they would wear western clothing!
Thank you! I’m glad I didn’t disappoint.
In winter, they where their pelt coats and hat and have more of a traditional look. That’s why we set up the shot with Shohan in his winter coat. Bless his heart, he was toasty. LOL..
Beautiful pics and commentary. I was captivated!
Thank you, I hope you return for future posts. I’m just getting started and haven’t really shown the best stuff yet. :))))
Wow, it seems a really fantastic experience.I would like to try the mare’s milk that you mentioned. I know that it is popular in those parts, though I didn’t know that it is fizzy. I am quite into traditional drinks of all kinds, and have heard from many people that it requires a lot of getting used to.
Thanks for sharing
Marvellous pics! <3
What an absolutely amazing experience….and great photos to show for it! You say these people eat a lot of meat…are you not a meat eater at home, then? Or were their portions much larger in terms of meat content?
It was great fun, different, educational, surreal. So many positive things.
I’m definitely a meat eater but not for breakfast, lunch and dinner and some between meal snacks too. It was just a lot of meat.
Oh, I get it…meat overload by the sound of it!
Very nice trip!
Wonderful images. Your indoor portraits are top notch.
Thank you very much, Allen!
Susan, you’re welcome. I’m looking forward to your additional images while in Mongolia.
That car does not seem like it would make it through a river! It’s crazy to see their hand built yurts and then cars next to them. Do they use any modern technology (cellphones etc)? Seems like a silly question but I’ve been to really remote places where the houses had dirt floors but everyone had an iPhone.
Where do they go to get supplies from? Is it close by?
Love the pictures it’s truly stunning!
Those Russian vans are incredible. I was very skeptical at first and by the end, I’d take one over a Land Rover. They are work horses, originally created for the military.
Yes, depending on the family they may have an old flatbed truck or a brand new Land Rover. It’s hit and miss. Many of the Kazakhs seemed to have smartphones. I don’t recall seeing any iPhones though. They get supplies from each other. But the distances can be significant. We bartered for more beer one night from a ger about a half an hour away. Also, those that travel to Ulgi or Ulaanbataar often bring back goods for friends and family. They don’t depend on a wide variety of products we have come to think of as necessities. They don’t have running water or electricity. Their lives in terms of “things” are very simple. But it is interesting to see the mix of generations old traditions with modern clothes and products mixed in. Sparingly, but mixed in nonetheless.
WOW! Sounds like it was quite the trip, Susan. An eight hour dance party??? Really??? my legs would have fallen off … LOL. Stunning images (again!).
On Fri, Jul 29, 2016 at 2:23 PM, The Insatiable Traveler wrote:
> Susan Portnoy posted: “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. We > camped in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, a vast and profou” >
You have no idea.I’d take breaks now and then but the Kazakhs we were with REALLY liked to dance and they didn’t take no for an answer. It was really fun, but exhausting.
Good Lord girl! These are not only the finest photos but also the best writing I have seen from you! Clearly a life changing trip! Love D
You are wonderful Donna.. You haven’t seen nothin’ yet! Thank you. xoxo
bien pour qui et bien pour moiet bisous
Amazing is definitely the right word!