By Kissa Castañeda
March 25, 2020
From witnessing the ancient practice of eagle hunting to traversing the landlocked country’s vast steppes on horseback, Mongolia is the perfect setting for a travel adventure like no other
The rugged landscape of Mongolia is home to a nomadic culture seemingly untouched by modernity, and a population whose unique way of life fascinates photographer Nick Bondarev. Over three years, he undertook multiple expeditions ranging from two to six weeks to capture the essence of this land and its people for his project Out of Time; he shares select photographs in this feature.
The golden landscape of the Kurai steppe looks especially arresting against the snow-capped peaks of the Altai Mountains, whose name means “mountains with gold” in Mongolian. Extending 2,000km from the Gobi Desert to the West Siberian Plain, this range passes through Mongolia, Russia, China and Kazakhstan, serving as a source of inspiration for these communities.
Frozen in Time
The Altai Mountains look vastly different in February, the depths of winter in Mongolia, when temperatures drop to -40°C and snow blankets the peaks and the plains. Mongolia becomes even quieter as it faces its notoriously long and harsh winter—snow covers every part of the country from Ulaanbaatar, the world’s second coldest capital city, to the sparsely populated steppes.
While silence reigns in wintertime, that doesn’t necessarily mean there are fewer things to do. Travellers brave enough to endure the sub-zero temperatures are rewarded with sublime landscapes and clear blue skies. There are also activities including dog-sledding excursions and wildlife expeditions where one can encounter snow leopards, grey wolves and wild horses.
One often thinks of the Gobi Desert as a dry and lifeless area when it is actually quite the opposite. Asia’s largest desert is teeming with wildlife, rich in gold, copper and coal deposits, and is highly regarded by archaeologists as it features the biggest dinosaur fossil reservoir in the world. It was here that they first discovered that dinosaurs laid eggs.
Today the Gobi Desert continues to grow due to climate change and desertification. While sand dunes only make up a small slice of the desert, the Mongolian territory boasts the most stunning part—the Khongoryn Els sand dune, which is up to 300m high, 12km wide and 100km long. This mystical place is home to camel breeders who are famous for being hospitable to travellers.
Last of Their Kind
These portraits showcase the diversity of the Mongolian people and give an insight into how they harness their country’s natural resources. One of the main draws of travelling here is meeting one of the many nomadic families who are known to open their homes to strangers.
In northern Mongolia, travellers can encounter the Dukha reindeer herders including Maskur, the shaman of the tribe. The eastern part of the country, on the other hand, is home to sheep herders and is where one can experience staying in a ger (a traditional felt yurt) or corralling the livestock. Perhaps the highlight, however, is watching eagle hunters like Arman (pictured) in action. Called burkitshi, the eagle hunters usually belong to nomadic clans of Kazakh descent.
While the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is rapidly changing, a drive to the mountains shows a different side to the country. Here, it feels like time has stopped. It is typical to find yourself alone with no other human soul as far as the eye can see, offering a chance to take in the vastness of Mongolia.
One activity not to be missed is traversing this wild landscape on horseback—a quintessential Mongolian experience. The equine population outnumbers that of humans, so it stands to reason that horses are an integral part of the culture. Having the chance to live with local tribes is another once-in-a-lifetime experience. For this project, Bondarev lived with a reindeer tribe close to the border of Russia for two weeks.
In the Wilderness
Summer, from late May to September, is when Mongolia welcomes the greatest number of visitors, who come to enjoy milder weather and boundless views of lush vegetation like that of the Kurai steppe (pictured). Temperatures vary depending on the region, but travellers can take comfort in the fact that Mongolia enjoys about 250 days of sunshine a year.
Equally breathtaking are the crystal-clear lakes and rivers found across Mongolia. From the azure Lake Khuvsgul—a key water source that contains 2 per cent of the world’s freshwater reserve—to the pristine Lake Tolbo, located 2,000m above sea level, there are plenty of reasons to devote time seeking out these entrancing bodies of water.
Beneath the Surface
Untouched nature is Mongolia’s most valuable asset. Currently, almost a fifth of the country is protected and the government plans to increase that area.
Mongolian landscapes, however, are far more than the expansive grassy fields that live large in our imagination. There’s Khorgo Mountain, a 200m-tall extinct volcano in the Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, as well as the otherworldly Tsagaan Suvraga (White Stupa) in central Mongolia, which looks like the ruins of an ancient city from a distance but is actually a multicoloured cliff shaped by natural forces over thousands of years. Hands down the best time to take in the unparalleled beauty of Mongolia is at dusk, when a mellow purple haze envelops the surrounding scenery.
Tatler Travel, in collaboration with Awethentic Travel, will be curating a conservation-led experience to Mongolia between August to October.