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.
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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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