Text and photos by Gary J. Kohn
Our most recent trip took us to Mongolia. We went there as part of a small group of eight photographers. The trip was organized by Jay Dickman of FirstLight Workshops. Jay is also a National Geographic photographer, so you would be correct if you guessed he had been to practically every country in the world—except Mongolia. We were drawn there for the same reasons as Jay. Mongolia remains relatively remote and unspoiled. There remains a mystery from the days of one of the world’s greatest leaders, Chinggis Khan.
Our first stop was the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, which is beginning to find it’s personality after years of Soviet rule. Mongolia is a developing country, and has recently discovered it has rich deposits of minerals and coal. The coal is also a curse, as during the winter months it hangs over the city and causes significant discomfort and illness. Most of our time in the capital was used as a place to return to in between trips to other parts of the country.
We spent three nights camping out in little North Face tents, and another three nights in a ger, or yurt. A ger is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by the Mongol nomads. The ger is no larger than many of our dens, yet that is where entire families live. It makes you question why we, too, can’t live a simpler life without all the stuff we accumulate.
Our time out of the city was split between the steppe and dense forests in the northeast, to the Gobi Desert in the southwest. We hiked, rode camels on the sand dunes, and visited many local families. They were curious about we westerners, yet extremely hospitable. We were treated with local delicacies, such as fermented milk—most of you likely would not put this at the top of your food preferences! And they demonstrated their mastery over horses and other animals, both wild and tame. With only about one percent of the land being arable, the nomads rely on their herds of horses, camels, sheep, and goats for food, wool, clothing, etc., for themselves and for sale.
It is with the nomads that it is apparent that this is still the land of Chinggis Khan. To show off this devotion to their past, they hold an annual event (Naadam Festival) in which there are many competitions, such as horseback riding and taming, wrestling, and archery.
During the Soviet occupation, most of the country’s Buddhist temples and monasteries were destroyed, yet many people adhered to their ancient religion, as well as to Shamanism, which is more a set of principles and way of life than a religion. One night we observed a Shaman ceremony. My wife, Niki, met with the Shaman and he accurately recounted several things that had occurred in her life and even suggested that if she were to live in Mongolia she would become a Shaman herself!
Now is a good time to go to Mongolia, as it is just being discovered as a tourist destination. It is still remote enough that it retains it’s wilderness character. And the people retain their charm, hospitality, and devotion to their past, but also serve as a model to the rest of us. Many of us live in world or riches and accumulate vast amounts of material goods, yet the people of Mongolia have very little in comparison and live happy, contented lives. This is a case where less is truly more.
This is the link to my website and a small selection of my Mongolia photos.
(Out of respect for the wishes of the families, none of the photos taken at their homes are included among my published photos.)