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Desert, Dunes & an Epic Festival: 10 Days in Mongolia

World Nomads Travel Photography Scholarship mentor Richard I’Anson shares his images from an unforgettable visit to Mongolia’s Gobi desert and Naadam celebrations.

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By Richard I'Anson

Travel Photographer

30 Sep 2022 - 5 Minute Read

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The COVID pandemic delayed World Nomads’ Travel Photography Scholarship trip to Mongolia, which was planned for 2020. The winner was Jasmin Bauomy, a talented creative from Egypt but living in Germany with a background in journalism, podcasting, and blogging, and a passion for photography. We were finally able to deliver the trip in 2022, with me on board as mentor – but unfortunately, without Jasmin. She tested positive for COVID the day before she was supposed to fly.

Isaac (World Nomad’s Social & Content Marketing Manager and trip producer) and I were already in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia when we got the news Jasmin couldn’t travel, so we went ahead with the trip as a photography assignment. Isaac acted as producer on the trip, handling a lot of the logistics. Our Discover Mongolia guide was Munkhbold. He was very enthusiastic, quite experienced, and he’s quite educated as well – he’s a teacher and very keen on archaeology and anthropology.

Our ten-day trip was divided into three parts, largely focused around the Naadam festival, which happens in July each year. From Ulaanbaatar, we headed south to the Gobi Desert, then north-central to a the regional town of Kharkhorin, and then back to Ulaanbaatar. So, one of the features of the trip was the long drives.

Richard I'Anson

We went to three destinations in the Gobi Desert. The first was Tsagaan Suvarga, more commonly known as the White Stupa. These are white sand hills streaked with minerals, and white sand cliffs that run for about 400m (1,321ft).

Isaac standing atop the cliffs.
Richard I'Anson
Isaac standing atop the cliffs.
Sunset at Tsagaan Suvarga.
Richard I'Anson
Sunset at Tsagaan Suvarga.

Next was Khongoryn Els sand dunes, some of the highest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia, up to 300m (984ft) high.

Richard I'Anson

The following day brought stormy skies and clouds and rain sweeping through, so the side of the dunes that would ordinarily be deep black were instead speckled with raindrops.

Richard I'Anson

Our last stop in the Gobi was a place called Bayanzag, more commonly known as the Flaming Cliffs due to the color of the soil.

The Flaming Cliffs.
Richard I'Anson
The Flaming Cliffs.

From there we continued to Kharkhorin, a regional town in Central Mongolia, for their Naadam festival.

For me, the highlight of this regional festival was that half the locals who attended turned up on horseback, and would ride around in groups the way people at other festivals walk around in groups.

The major event of the festival is the horse races. These are spectators lined up at the finish line waiting for the horse race to finish.
Richard I'Anson
The major event of the festival is the horse races. These are spectators lined up at the finish line waiting for the horse race to finish.

The winners of the horse races get to drink a special, fermented mare’s milk. Our guide was determined that we would experience it.

Isaac samples fermented mare's milk.
Richard I'Anson
Isaac samples fermented mare's milk.

Back in Ulaanbaatar, we watched a colorful performance by the Tumen Ekh National Song and Dance Troupe.

Richard I'Anson

But the real reason we were in the capital was for their massive Naadam festival. It’s quite a spectacular thing, with a proper opening ceremony filled with pageantry. Horses feature, of course. 

From the opening ceremony: a reenactment of a game Mongolians play out on the steppe.
Richard I'Anson
From the opening ceremony: a reenactment of a game Mongolians play out on the steppe.

After the opening ceremony, the games begin: wrestling, archery, and ankle-bone shooting.

It’s a bit of a mystery how the archery works. Everyone seems to fire at the target at their own leisure.
Richard I'Anson
It’s a bit of a mystery how the archery works. Everyone seems to fire at the target at their own leisure.

It was an interesting end to a trip with a really interesting history. And I know I’ll be telling the stories around it for a long time.

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Travel Photographer

Richard I’Anson is a freelance photographer who has built a career on his twin passions for travel and photography.

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