Destination Tips

Photographing Mongolia (My Trip, Camera Gear and Travel Tips)

Today I leave for Mongolia.

On my way to Mongolia

Photo: Joel Santos

I’ve had this trip on the calendar for nearly a year and it’s genuinely surreal to finally be packed and ready to go to the airport.

This will be my most rugged adventure to date. I’ll be camping (and I don’t mean Glamping) throughout western Mongolia, traveling off-road in a Russian van (I’m told the vans rival Land Rovers. We’ll see.). There will be a lot of hiking, sleeping under the stars, limited showers and no hot water (as you can see from the video above, I cut my hair extra short so I wouldn’t have to deal with it) and pooping in holes (I’m told I am welcome to find some rocks to poop behind if I prefer that. Honestly, I could do without the pooping part but one must take the good with the awkward). Temperatures could range between 30F and 90F depending on where we are in the mountains and the time of day. The trip won’t be easy but it will be exciting.

More important, along the way my fellow travelers and I will visit with nomadic Kazakh families, bask in breathtaking landscapes and, hopefully, take some great photos.

I’m going with Timothy Allen, a photographer I’ve written about before. His work you’ve undoubtedly seen on your own, even if you didn’t know it was his. He was Travel Photographer of the Year in 2013 and the still photographer for BBC’s Human Planet series. His work has inspired me for years and I hope absorb as much photography insight from him as I possibly can.

If you’re interested in knowing what camera gear I’m taking, I talk about it in out this Facebook Live video I did over the weekend.

My journey takes me from JFK,via Aeroflot, through Moscow where I have a 7-hour layover (ewwwww), but some nice people from the Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO) have offered to show me around and let me stay in one of their lounges.  They said that SVO just installed wifi and if it works I’m going to try a Facebook Live broadcast from there. (Stay tuned to my Facebook page for details)

Afterward, I’ll head to Ulaanbataar, the capital of Mongolia, to meet the other photographers I’ll be traveling with, hang out for two days (I’m going a little early to make sure that any flight delays or other travel hitches won’t affect my trip), and then fly west to Ulgii. From there we begin our (off) road trip. While the majority of what we’ll be shooting will be authentic and in the moment, at some points during our trip Tim will instruct us with some staged shoots plus an environmental and natural light portrait masterclass with an eagle hunter. Yippee!

On a trip like this there is a lot to prepare. Here are just a few of the things I put on my to-do list.

  • Travel Insurance: This trip required that I buy travel insurance but frankly, I would anyway. If I’m sick or injured in the wilds of Mongolia, I want to know that I am covered for an airlift out of there. If you’re not sure what company to use Insuremytrip.com enables you to compare different policies from multiple providers.
  • Smarter Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP): “The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.”  In today’s world, it’s just smart to give people a heads up if you’re going to be in a foreign country, especially if you’re talking about places, such as Turkey, that have had some problems. It only takes a few minutes of your time and could be incredibly helpful if you’re in need.
  • Global Entry: If you don’t have it yet, get it. It more than pays for itself (it’s $100) in lack of frustration and line time. I can’t tell you how many times I have averted horrendous customs lines at airports with this baby.
  • I Prepared my devices:
    • I backed up my computer on an external drive so I don’t lose anything if something happens to it on the road.
    • I delete all the photos/video on my phone (after I upload them to a cloud or save the ones I want on an external drive), so that my storage space is at its max and when I return all the pictures on my phone upon my return are just from the trip.
    • Back up then delete existing files out my Silicon Power, 2TB travel drive. This is the drive I back up all my memory cards and use for Lightroom processing during the trip.
  • Download books and podcasts to my phone: I don’t think I need to go over e-books but if you don’t listen to podcasts, you’re missing out.  I’ve become a big listener over the last few months. When my eyes are fried from dry planes or being on the computer all day, or I want to listen to something while I take a walk, they are just the ticket. My favorite podcasts are: The Nerdist, Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Pop Culture Happy Hour, The New Yorker Radio Hour, This American Life, Serial, WTF with Marc Maron, Embedded, USA Today, Talking Tech, Revisionist History. To listen, I use the native podcast app that comes with my iPhone.
  • I asked a doctor to prescribe an antibiotic for the road (just in case): I bring Tums, aspirin, an anti diarrheal and other over-the-counter meds with me on my trips, but when I’m going someplace remote, I also like to bring along something for when I really get sick. Nine times out of ten the doc prescribes Cipro. It makes me feel better just to have it in my bag.
  • Packed a layover adapter: I forgot to include an adapter for my Amsterdam 5-hour layover on my way to Kenya and had to buy a new one in the airport so that I could use my computer, which, of course, was far more expensive than what I would have paid at home.
  • Shared my travel Info: Provide a family member /or friends with your travel info.
    • Your flights
    • Photo of your passport
    • Itinerary and accommodations info
    • Emergency contact info (Since we’ll be out in the boonies the only way to reach me is via a SAT phone Tim is bringing along. My phone won’t work where we’re going.)
    • Travel insurance information
      • company, policy number and emergency number

Since on most of the trip I will be off the grid, I wont’ be posting much, but if all goes well I’ll have plenty of stories and photos to share upon my return. If I do have a connection, I’ll post on Facebook (I am going to try to go live along the journey and when I am at the Moscow airport and Ulaanbataar), Twitter, and Snapchat at @insatiabletraveler.

Thanks to everyone who has followed my adventures. It’s so appreciated. And a special thank you to everyone whose taken the time to post comments and share my work. Your thoughts and support are priceless.

157 replies »

  1. Sounds amazing! I visited Mongolia this summer for a 10 day trip mostly in and around Ulaanbaatar, I would have loved to explore further West if I had had time though!

      • I’m definitely keen – got to save up some money first though! I’m thinking of going back to China (I did a year abroad there) for my Masters, so might take the opportunity then to pop across the border and explore the country more thoroughly 🙂

  2. I am very new to your post although I already posted a comment or two. The thing is, how do you go to exciting places so much? You are convincing e so badly.(再见!)
    p.s.,that means bye in chinese。

  3. Mongolia is one of those places I’ll never forget. I traveled there before I had a fancy digital camera, but life on the steppe transformed my understanding of the world. Truly incredible! I enjoyed reading about your adventures.

  4. Incredible! Thank you for sharing your adventures with the world. Absolutely beautiful photos.

    Hi Kelly, thank you for taking the time to check out the piece. The pics are wonderful, I agree, though they are not mine. I hadn’t been to Mongolia yet when I posted that. If you’d like to see my first post since my return with my photos, you can find it here. http://wp.me/p3zavK-6d5.

    Have a great day. 🙂

    • Thank you! I just returned to Ulgi, Mongolia last night after camping in the wilderness. Very excited to share stories after I start my 24 hour trip home. Thanks for your kind words.

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  6. Oh, have a wonderful trip. We all look forward to your photos ⭐️ The Facebook “live” video is good!

    • Thank you! These aren’t my photos as I hadn’t been to Mongolia when I wrote this but just finished my trip. Heading back to the States tomorrow and can’t wait to share my pics then!

  7. I love your photos and stories. I think that collecting memories it’s the best thing that can happen to us. It’s what stays after everything else is gone. Have safe travels and collect as much memories as you can.

  8. I’ve always wanted to go to Mongolia! I would love to meet Ashol Pan someday, she’s a lady crush of mine. Have a great trip, be safe, and can’t wait to see the pictures!!

    • Thank you! I think it will be awesome. Check out my Insatiable Traveler Facebook page when you have a sec. I have some fun videos I’ve been doing along the way. 😉

  9. Safe and happy travels Susan! Can’t wait to hear your stories and view your stunning images from your latest adventure!

  10. The story introducing the anticipated journey is climatic. I pray your travels are equally as fulfilling. Looking forward to the upcoming . Be well, stay say safe and happy travels.

  11. So I’m a young girl and I love talking photos but in running out of ideas to talk pics of any suggestions?

  12. Ooh, I can imagine you’re in for some incredible highs on this journey, Susan. All the best with roughing it, and safe and happy travels. I’ll look forward to what I know will be stunning photos.

  13. Susan, have a wonderful time! We leave this week for NYC, and I’ve been reviewing your RNY section for hints on spots we might not otherwise see. I imagine you’re in for a journey of incredible highs along with the rocks. Safe and happy travels. – Shelagh

    • Hi Shelagh!
      Hope the RNY offered some options you liked. Definitely go to Brooklyn Bridge park for sunset and a bite. It’s a spectacular view of the city. Let me know what you end up doing and thanks for the “happy travels!”

  14. I have *always* wanted to go to Mongolia. I hope you have an incredible time and don’t need your emergency antibiotic! Looking forward to the return photos x

  15. I’ve been following your blog since I discovered we photographed the same red car in Havana in January, though I seldom comment. I thoroughly enjoy your photos, but appreciate your insightful comments about the people and places even more. Wishing you all the best as you venture to this remote and exciting place. Looking forward to seeing and reading the results of this experience and learning opportunity.
    DarlenefromCanada

  16. I have recently began to follow you! I am so glad that I did. What an incredible adventure you are going on. We travel a lot but you definitely take it it the next level. Thanks so much for sharing. Safe journey!!!!

  17. This sounds like such a fantastic trip. Your “To Do” list is also so helpful for anyone traveling to more remote places in the world. It’s absolutely one I am going to keep for my future travels. Best of luck and cannot wait to hear all about it.

  18. Oh, Susan, I am SO jealous! I cannot wait to hear about your adventures and see what I know will be stunning images. Enjoy! Oh, and best of luck with the pooping!

Would love to hear from you!