Before I tell you all about this amazing region of the world, allow me to introduce myself. When I was young, Bulgaria was still part of the Eastern Bloc (Communist Bloc) so it was impossible for me to travel abroad. Believe it or not, my first trip outside the country was when I was 25 years old.
After graduating with an architecture degree, I moved to London where I lived for almost a decade. I spent a few years working for a big architectural company called Foster + Partners and then created my own studio for architectural visualisations. This gave me free time which I used for travel.
Initially, I started practicing with photography as part of my work – shooting architectural backgrounds and cityscapes. Afterwards, I started experimenting with landscapes and portraits, and have loved it ever since.
What Inspired me to Visit Western Mongolia
What inspired me to visit Western Mongolia was a funny story. I once saw a photo of an abandoned communist monument near my hometown in Bulgaria. The photo was shot by the British photographer Timothy Allen. It pictured a tiny figure of a man holding a light in the middle of a dark hall.
I loved the photo so much that I followed the photographer’s page on Facebook. Just a week later I noticed that there was an announcement on the page stating that due to a cancellation there was a free space available on a photographic expedition in Western Mongolia led by Timothy Allen.
I’ve always dreamed of going to Mongolia – so less than 20 seconds later I decided to sign up and submit my work. Several months later (in a yurt in Western Mongolia), Timothy Allen was talking about the background story of the monument photo as part of his photography workshop.
Apparently he asked a local guy to pose in the photo. This was when I realised that the man in the photo was my uncle. What are the chances?!
Two Incredible Weeks in Western Mongolia
The entire trip in Western Mongolia took a couple of weeks. We flew from Ulaanbaatar to Bayan-Olgii near the border with Kazakhstan where the actual journey started. Luckily, we had access to three tough Russian 4x4s called UAZ. They can go anywhere and can be fixed in 20 minutes.
Although Western Mongolia has no no roads or bridges – our vehicles had zero problems on the journey. Sometimes we travelled eight hours in a day and crossed numerous valleys, hills and rivers. We visited several nomad camps and also made our own camps and yurts in the wild.
Meeting the Kazakh Nomads of Western Mongolia
The Kazakh nomads that we met were extremely hospitable. We met several families along the way that had never seen anyone outside of their community. Everyone was super friendly and curious to interact with us.
I speak a bit of Russian which helped – but most of the time we received help from an interpreter that spoke the local language. Kazakh nomads still practice the ancient skill of eagle hunting and it’s incredible to see.
They have no electricity, no mobile phones, no proper roads, no agriculture, no money (almost) and no concept of land ownership. It’s a sustainable and healthy way of living that hasn’t changed much over the centuries.
We had the chance to be invited to a traditional Kazakh wedding. It was an amazing celebration that also included traditional wrestling and a horse-riding competition. A truly memorable experience.
Trying the Interesting Local Food of Mongolia
Let’s put it this way – if you are vegan or vegetarian you’ll have a tough time in Western Mongolia! Vegetables and fruits are not really an option at all.
The menu is simple: several types of cheeses, boiled mutton, dry horse meat garnished with a type of flat noodles, tea with milk and kumis. Kumis is a fermented mare’s milk which can be alcoholic by tradition. It’s a drink that everyone loves here. Maybe this is why Mongolians smile all the time!
What you Need to Know Before you Go
As I just said, if you are vegan or vegetarian don’t go to Western Mongolia as you might starve! Keep in mind that it can be cold even in summer (the snowy shots in my Mongolia series were captured in July). The best way to get around is by utilising the virtually indestructible Russian 4×4 UAZ.
If you plan on exploring Outer Mongolia you should travel with a good guide or driver/fixer/interpreter. This is not a touristic place after all. There are no roads, shops, mobile connections or medical help. The only thing you will find are vast uninhabited valleys. It’s an awesome place!