Camping and Kazakhs: My Amazing Mongolian Adventure

Susan Portnoy in a The North Face tent inAltai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia-302
My home away from home: A The North Face tent. I love tents because they remind me of the forts I used to make out of the basement ping-pong table when I was a kid. I really haven’t grown up, actually. I got a little thrill each time we camped in a new location

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.)

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 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.)

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.

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

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.

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

The Kazakhs are a very 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!

Mongolian Kazakh women milking their goats

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.

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

This was an easy water crossing according to Tim. In the 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

Man climbing a ger poll in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

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.

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

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.

Two Kazaks riding horses in the mountains of theAltai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

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 Kazakh children in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia

Three of the many children we met along the way, (L-R: Arujan, Asem Gul, and Ayakoz) and whose gers we visited.

Wide shot of ger with a rainbow over it, Altai Mountains, Mongolia

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

  1. Stacy Harksen says:

    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!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

      • Stacy Harksen says:

        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.

      • Susan Portnoy says:

        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

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

  2. John Wesley says:

    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 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

  3. Robin S. Kent says:

    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.

  4. patgreen088 says:

    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 🙂

  5. meonatrip says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you so much. Those images were just a tease. More to come. 🙂

      The photographic workshop that I was on can be found here: 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: 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.

  6. supermweb says:

    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.

  7. carlamcgill says:

    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.

  8. afarawayhome says:

    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? 🙂

  9. ruthrogge says:

    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.

  10. Karen Miller says:

    Wow Susan, you are a very hardy and adventuresome gal. I give you high praise for both your photos and spirit!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

  11. leecleland says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

      • leecleland says:

        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 🙁

      • leecleland says:

        I went with a photo tour family run business, they lead trips all over the world and are excellent.

  12. Patricia Pomerleau says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

      re: health
      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.

  13. exceptionalea says:

    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!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

  14. Joe Schuster says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hey Joe!

      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.

  15. Laura (PA Pict) says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

  16. Zahra Syed says:

    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.

  17. svtakeiteasy says:

    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!

      • justbluedutch says:

        I’m already.
        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!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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..

  18. gelfo07 says:

    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

  19. Sue says:

    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?

  20. puzzlepiecetravels says:

    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!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

  21. Leslee Hall says:

    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” >

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

  22. Donna Aceto says:

    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

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