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Home to sweeping landscapes and a nomadic culture that pre-dates the age of Genghis Khan, Mongolia offers a stunning array of photographic opportunities. Travel through the vast steppe to capture images of Mongolian horses, traditional ger camps, and camel-herding families. Catch the towering dunes of the Gobi at sunrise and the brilliant Flaming Cliffs at sunset, and spend a thrilling day documenting Naadam, Mongolia’s most celebrated festival.
Snap portraits of Mongolian throat singers, camel herders, and traditional nomad families, and learn about their age-old culture.
Stay in an award-winning ger camp in the Gobi desert, and set off on photo hikes amid nearby gorges and dunes.
Fill your lens with the vibrant pageantry of Naadam, Mongolia’s most celebrated festival, documenting wrestling, archery, and horse racing competitions.
Meet with monks on a visit to Gandan Monastery in Ulanbaataar, and go on a photo shoot in the eccentric Winter Palace of Bogd Khan.
Itinerary - 12 Days
Day 1 — Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Arrive in Ulaanbaatar and check into our centrally located hotel. Tuushin Hotel
Day 2 — Ulaanbaatar
Spend the morning at a specially arranged photo shoot at the Gandan Monastery, Mongolia's largest functioning Buddhist monastery—one of the few to survive the Stalinist purges during the 1930s. Listen to the horns calling lamas and monks to temple, and capture the monks' daily rituals while visiting the adjoining Megjid Janraisig and Kalachakra Temples. This afternoon, visit the National Museum to get an overview of Mongolia's history and culture. Examine exhibits on nomadic life, including Stone and Bronze Age artifacts, traditional costumes, and sacred relics. Gather for a welcome reception and dinner tonight. Tuushin Hotel (B,L,D)
Day 3 — Ulaanbaatar/Gün-Galuut Nature Reserve
This morning, join a senior U.S Embassy official for an introduction to the current political and economic climate over breakfast. Then drive east to Gün-Galuut, a nature reserve near the Khentii Mountains where the steppe converges with stunning wetlands. Enjoy the rest of the day to explore the area on hikes or an optional horseback ride, photographing stunning vistas and the wildlife of the reserve. Our home here is a camp of a traditional gers, or round, felt-lined tents, set amid lush meadows. Ger Camp (B,L,D)
Day 4 — Gün-Galuut Nature Reserve
Spend the day exploring the mountains and wetlands of the reserve on a photo hike or an optional horseback ride, and keep an eye out for endangered Argali mountain sheep and a number of endangered crane species. In the afternoon, pay a visit a local nomadic family for a rare chance to photograph everyday life in rural Mongolia. Against the stunning and simple architecture of the family gers, snap portraits of some of the world’s last nomadic peoples. Ger Camp (B,L,D)
Day 5 — Gün-Galuut Nature Reserve/Ulaanbaatar
Enjoy a morning at leisure before returning to Ulaanbaatar. Along the way, stop to frame a 131-foot-tall Genghis Khan equestrian statue, and venture into small villages to document daily traditions that existed during the era of Genghis Khan. This afternoon, visit the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum, which displays one of the world’s best collections of Buddhist art and artifacts. Tuushin Hotel (B,L)
Day 6 — The Gobi/Yol Valley/Havsgait
Soar over the vast steppe on a flight to the mystical Gobi, site of some of the most important paleontological discoveries of the 20th century. Over the next four days, photograph the wildlife and varying landscapes of the desert, home to Bactrian camels, Argali mountain sheep, and saker falcons, as well as rare species such as snow leopards and Gobi bears.
Upon arrival, travel to Yolyn Am, or Eagle Valley, a dramatic chasm that cuts a narrow path through the foothills of the arid Altai Mountains. Set out on a photo hike through this lush spot, looking for native vultures called lammergeiers, ibex, and gazelles. Later, visit the local natural history museum.
In the late afternoon, drive to Havtsgait Valley, site of ancient rock drawings left by early Gobi settlers. Join in a photo shoot, and capture these striking petroglyphs in their best light. Three Camel Lodge (B,L,D)
Day 7 — Naadam Festival
Today, photograph Mongolia’s most famous festival and sporting event—Naadam. Snap portraits of the traditionally-garbed participants who compete in the “three manly sports” (wrestling, archery, and horse racing). Witness the contests up-close, taking photographs in the middle of the action. Capture the colorful pomp and pageantry, and zoom in on the whirling excitement of the horse race. Three Camel Lodge (B,L,D)
Day 8 — Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes
Wake early to capture the sun rising over the vast Gobi landscape. Today drive to Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes (4 hours). Stop in Gegeet Valley, the habitat of the elusive snow leopard, en route to the Khongoryn Els, a 60-mile stretch of rippling sand dunes that soar up to 600 feet and trace the edge of the Altai range. Catch the sunset on this stunning and remote desert landscape, and spend the night in a nearby ger camp. Ride a camel into the dunes to capture the dazzling sandscape at sunset. Gobi Erdene Ger Camp (B,L,D)
Day 9 — Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes
Awaken early to capture scenes of the desert infused with glowing hues of sunrise. After breakfast, encounter the "Singing Sands," dunes known for the uncanny, deep groan the sand emits when the dunes' surface is disturbed. Stop in at the camp of a camel herding family and experience traditional Mongolian hospitality and another chance to photograph the details of daily life here. Take a ride on a Bactrian camel if you wish.
After lunch, return to Three Camel Lodge. This evening enjoy a lively music performance. Three Camel Lodge (B,L,D)
Day 10 — Tugrigiin Shiree/Flaming Cliffs
Drive to Tugregiin Shiree, where paleontologists discovered the famous “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil in the 1970s. Continue to Bayanzag, also known as the Flaming Cliffs. Here, brilliant red sandstone harbors a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils and eggs. Hike down into the gorge to photograph the breathtaking span of desert landscape and crimson cliffs, and capture the shifting palette of sunset. Then enjoy an al fresco dinner beside the cliffs. Three Camel Lodge (B,L,D)
Day 11 — Gobi Desert/Ulaanbaatar
Fly to Ulaanbaatar this morning, arriving in time for lunch at a local restaurant. Venture into the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, home of Mongolia's last theocrat and eighth Living Buddha. Focus on the architectural details of this ornate monument that somehow escaped destruction during the reign of Stalin. In the evening, enjoy a unique art form during a performance of traditional Mongolian dance and khoomi, or throat singing, and celebrate your Mongolian photo journey at a farewell dinner. Tuushin Hotel (B,L,D)
Day 12 — Ulaanbaatar
After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your return flight, or continue on the extension. (B)
National Geographic photographer Michael Melford has produced more than a dozen feature stories for National Geographic magazine and more than 30 for National Geographic Traveler, including eight covers. Some of Michael’s recent assignments have focused on Russia, Israel, and North America’s national parks. He has produced photography for eight books for National Geographic, including three on Alaska, his favorite being Treasures of Alaska, for which he spent four months traveling to every corner of the state. When not shooting for National Geographic, Michael enjoys giving seminars and workshops on photography and sharing both his love of nature and his extensive knowledge.
Price is per person, double occupancy. For a single room, add $1,500.
International airfare to/from Ulaanbaatar and airfare within Mongolia are not included in the expedition cost. The group flight between Ulaanbaatar Dalanzadgad is $300 (subject to change).
In order to optimize photographic opportunities and allow for better access to our National Geographic photographer, this trip is limited to 16 travelers.
Featured Expedition Moment
What To Expect
Travel to Mongolia requires flexibility and a sense of adventure. Service is not always up to Western standards, and disruptions to the country's infrastructure can necessitate changes to our itinerary. The gers (felt-lined canvas tents) at Hövsgöl Nuur, Gün-Galuut, and Khongoryn Els are basic and comfortable, with traditional Mongolian beds (twin size) and toilet and shower facilities in a separate bathhouse. Deluxe gers at Three Camel Lodge include a private toilet and sink. A limited number of gers are available for singles. Road conditions can be very rough, and activities necessitate that travelers must be in good health and have no limitations on physical mobility.