This tale begins three years ago, at work on a day when I was doing what I did best back then: pretending I knew what one of my colleagues was talking about when in fact I had no clue. Said colleague was describing a fishing trip he’d just returned from in Mongolia. All I knew about that country at the time was that a lamb dish I’d eaten in Chinese restaurants as a kid was named after it. But I’d nodded my head knowingly as he waxed lyrical about the nomadic people he’d met, the vast plains he’d explored and the cozy gers (the Mongolian version of a yurt, he said) he’d spent his nights in, before scampering back to my desk to legitimise those nods via Google. The results blew my mind, and that was it. One day, I told myself, I would make it to that distant land.
Three years and a ger-load of manifesting later, I was invited on a photography trip to Mongolia with the kickass creative holiday company Frui. We began our journey in the country’s capital Ulaanbaatar, which although at first sight seemed a drab Soviet metropolis filled with soulless buildings and chaotic, unplanned streets, proved compelling. Here, we saw Soviet-era artwork at the Zaisan Memorial with panoramic views over the city, visited the Gandan Monastery where we watched monks wrapped in burgundy robes spin battered gold prayer wheels, climbed into the neck of a 40-metre silver statue of Chinggis Khan (the man who led the Mongolian army to conquer the largest land empire the world has ever known), ate at a restaurant that served stir fried vital organs, and watched incredible Mongolian throat singers, traditional dancers and a contortionist perform at the Tuman Ekh show.
Two days later we flew south to Dalanzagad. There we were greeted by four badass Soviet-era vans that were to drive our group of 12 2,300 kilometres across the Mongolian steppe and Gobi Desert over the next 10 days and our wonderful guides, two of the sweetest and most knowledgable young Mongolian women named Duuya and Tuya.
Our first stop, Eagle Valley, was just a few hours away. There, we trekked for two hours through a valley upholstered with lush green grasses and tiny purple flowers, cris-crossing a fresh water river, passing craggy rock formations and – unbelievably given the temperature was in the 20’s that day – an icy blue glacier. Here our photography tutor, the extremely talented Simon Tupper, taught us how to shoot these epic landscapes using foreground interest and leading lines, so they wouldn’t end up flat and boring, despite how mindblowing they were in the flesh.
A picnic lunch beneath the mountains awaited us at the end of the pass, before we jumped back into our vans for a bumpy five hour drive across dozens of kilometres of steppe. This was the first of many of these drives. I’d been mildly dreading them, but they turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip thanks to fantastic conversation with my van buddies and more belly laughs than I’ve had in years. En route, we stopped to photograph wild horses, goats and Bactrian camels with their hairy, flaccid humps (if we showed them a picture of a river would their humps stand up straight again?, we wondered), and to wander barefoot (ok maybe that was just me) across the endless plains. That evening we ventured out to the sand dunes to shoot the sunset and watch the stars spread like a blanket across the night sky, before settling in to our cozy gers.
Did I forget to mention that I drank way too much wine that night? Well I did – because as it turns out every night’s a party when the Chinggis vodka is plentiful and when you’re on a Frui holiday. Which made riding a camel across the dunes the next morning and visiting the nomadic family who herded them in the afternoon slightly less enjoyable experiences than they ought to have been.
Thankfully, I was still lucid enough to appreciate the beautifully simple life we were given a glimpse of as we hung out in the family’s ger. There we were offered yak cheese, airag (fermented mare’s milk), snuff and vodka, played “the finger game” (their version of rock, paper, scissors, and not as suspect as the name suggests) and listened to the family, dressed in their traditional deels, sing beautiful Mongolian folk songs. Mongolians are overwhelmingly hospitable and no wonder: being generous to strangers, and pulling together and sharing, is the only way for them to survive.
From here we drove to Bayanzag, stopping on the way to explore the ancient petroglyphs of Khavtsgait. This was a “short stroll” according to Duuya, that turned out to be an almost vertical hike up a rock face – a reminder of how hardy Mongolians are. It was worth it though: from the top we had views out over the endless steppe and the organic farm where the surrounding areas sourced their vegetables from. In fact almost all the produce we ate on our journey was organic and local, not because they’re trying to cater to our western cravings for these things, but simply because they haven’t ruined their land with pesticides and chemicals yet.
When we arrived at our next ger camp for the evening, we had a quick archery lesson before driving to the Flaming Cliffs. We watched the sun set these monolithic sandstone formations ablaze as we gobbled our picnic dinner at their base, sipped Mongolian beer and listened to tales of how the world’s first dinosaur eggs were discovered here in the 1920s.
Next up we drove to Central Mongolia, passing herds of the healthiest looking goats, sheep and horses I’d ever seen (and that’s coming from a biodynamic farmer’s wife). Our ger camp that night was located at the foot of the Ongiin Khiid temple complex. Before communism the Mongolians were Buddhists and Shamanists, but the Communists tried to suppress the faith, slaughtering thousands of monks and destroying 700 monasteries. One of these was Ongiin Khiid, formerly one of the largest monasteries in Mongolia, where 200 monks were killed. As we explored the area’s crumbling ruins and worked on our black and white photography, I could feel a potent spirituality still emanating from this place thanks to the energies of the more than 1000 llamas who resided there since its foundation in 1660. It was no surprise to see a group of travellers having an impromptu meditation session right there.
Fast forward through hours of driving, a stumble upon a naadam (traditional horse festival), the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen accompanied by a double rainbow, and a peaceful morning kayak along the Orkhon River, and we arrived at our next destination in the Orkhon Valley. Tucked away in a beautiful bucolic valley filled with yaks and wild horses with a river twisting through it, we stayed with a beautiful nomadic family and their four young children.
We helped the family erect a ger, milk their mares to make cheese and airag (fermented mare’s milk) and create vodka from yak’s milk. We rode into the wilderness on their horses and yaks, spent an evening drinking yak vodka around a bonfire, singing folk songs and laughing until our bellies ached, then had a night photography lesson under the thickest blanket of stars I’ve ever seen. The family radiated, their land radiated, even their yaks radiated. There was a sense of happiness and tranquility there that permeated everything, and I believe that’s because their life has been kept so simple.
Kharkhorin was the capital of the Mongol Empire under Ogedei Khan, and we arrived there mid-morning the next day after bidding a sad farewell our nomadic hosts and visiting the thundering waterfall that’s just a five-minute drive from their summer camp. In the Erdene Zuzu Monastery, we watched young monks chanting and wrapping offerings in yellow silk, and wandered through the stunning temples and grounds.
We then made our way to the northern part of the Orkhon Valley, where we spent a day at the Tsaidam Horse Festival. There are 3.4 million horses in Mongolia for just three million people, and a third of the population are herdsmen. Mongolians are the original cowboys, known to be the most skillful, talented and resilient horsemen in the world – and they’ve been catching and riding wild horses for over 4,000 years. “We’re born in the saddle, it’s in our blood, probably because our mothers ride horses when they are pregnant with us,” Tuya whispered to me as we watched kids as young as three race thundering horses bareback.
Simon was teaching us about the “decisive moment”, a phrase the godfather of street photography Henri Cartier-Bresson used to express what photography does best – freeze a potent but fleeting moment for eternity. Photographing the kids as they raced, and the older deel-clad horsemen as they caught and rode wild horses using an urga (a kind of Mongolian lasso attached to a stick) was the perfect way to put this lesson into practice. Riding to these men is like breathing, and the display of balance, strength and power of man matched to horse was utterly mesmerising.
Our final evening in the wilds was spent at the vast and beautiful Ogii Lake. As the sun set I swam through the glassy waters and out towards the horizon, washing the coat of dust from the horse festival off my body and failing to remember a time when I’d felt so open and so free.
I left Mongolia, this enchanted land without fences, feeling filled up, alive and soul restored. I’m vowing that I won’t ever forget Mongolia’s lesson about how little you need in life to be happy, but I know there’ll be times when I’ll forget. And so I’m also vowing that I’ll be back, to this vast and wild land where everybody and everything seems like they’re exactly where they’re supposed to be.