Mongolia's Fascinating Thousand Camel Festival

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The country that most took me by surprise while travelling through Asia was Mongolia. It was just a country that we were passing through on the Trans-Mongolian train from Russia to Beijing, I hadn’t done much research before I arrived so I didn’t really know what to expect.

We decided to stay for a few weeks to explore a little, we were both taken back by the incredible culture, rich history and interesting traditions. It is a place that I always mention when people ask me for recommendations on where to travel.

We were really lucky that we arrived when we did, just in time to hop on a tour to the aptly named “1000 Camel Festival” there was also the “Eagle Hunting Festival” a few days prior but being on a budget we had to choose between the two. Looking back, I do regret not going to both, it does however give me an excuse to go back.

A photo finish at the final race of the Thousand Camel Festival, Gobi desert, Mongolia.

What is the Thousand Camel Festival?

Well, it isn’t quite what it says on the tin. It started originally in 1997 as a winter festival and cultural introduction to the life of Mongolian camel herders. It was entered into the Guinness World Records as the largest camel race ever recorded with 1,115 camels and jockeys starting and 1,108 crossing the finish line 15km later, this is of course where the name comes from.

It has evolved into so much more than just one race, it has also outgrown it’s tourism roots with nomads herders excitedly awaiting one of biggest celebrations of the year. There are various competitions and traditional games that happen over the course of two days.

The Camel Festival’s original goal was to protect and increase the population of the Bactrian camel. It achieved this with a significant effect on the value and population of the camels. The amount of Bactrian camels has increased from 192,000 to 460,000. This is great news as the Bactrian camel is a critically endangered species.

The start of a game of Camel Polo
The start of a game of Camel Polo

When and Where?

 The festival takes places every year on the 6th and 7th of March. The location is on the outskirts of a small town called Dalanzadgad in Umnugobi/South gobi province. Just a short 680km drive from Ulaanbaatar.

In another captivating blog post:Journey into the Heart of Mongolia’s Nomadic Culture” I share my immersive experience living among the nomads in the breathtaking Gobi Desert. 

A young boy selling his hand made camels in from of his Ger.

What to See and Do

  • Watch a few games of camel polo, that’s right camel polo. With different heats to decide who is the champion team.
  • See the camel parade that is the customary start of the festival. Here you can see more that 100 camels and jockeys from various families and locations all dressed in unique traditional attire.
  • Of course, camel racing with three different age categories: fully-grown camel race, 3-year-old camel race, and 2-year-old camel race.
  • Try some local food and drink such as Airag/Ayrag (fermented camels milk) or Aaruul (dried milk curd) sort of like a biscuit.
  • View or even join a traditional game of ankle bone shooting.
  • The team competition, 5 members in each team compete using their agility and herding abilities. The team members catch an untamed camel, cut its wool to make a rein and jump on the camel to break it in (literally a camel rodeo). Afterward, they load luggage onto the camel the first team to leave the field wins.
  • You will have a chance to buy local handicrafts made from camel wool.
A jockey on his way down during the camel rodeo, Gobi desert, Mongolia.

How to Get There

The easiest way to get there is with a tour, not only can you relax and had a nap on the way down but the off-road section is a labyrinth of different tracks and it’s very easy to get lost. You can rent a car and drive yourself or even hire a driver to take you down from Ulaanbaatar.

Our personal experience was with “Sunpath Mongolia” and it was nothing short of amazing. We had an incredible time exploring the wonders of the Gobi Desert.

There is also a daily bus that leaves from Ulaanbaatar. Keep in mind though that you will struggle to engage with the locals without a guide to translate for you. You could also hire a driver and car from Dalanzadgad but it’s unlikely his English will be as good as a tour guide. Having said that it will be much cheaper to do it this way.

Another option if you are short on time or have a little extra money to burn is to fly from Ulaanbaatar. This of course is the quickest route taking just under 1 and ½ hours

The trusty van that took us around the Gobi Desert.

Tips Before Going

  • Bare in mind that Nomad’s diet consists of mainly meat (mutton) and a few roots vegetables so if you have a sensitive stomach make sure to take something with you.
  • Take sufficient money as there are no ATMs after you leave Ulaanbaatar.
  • It’s a lot of driving per day (6/7) hours so make sure to pack a book and a portable charger.
  • The toilets can be very basic, sometimes a few planks of wood over an open pit. Keep this in mind when going to the toilet, you defiantly don’t want to drop your phone down there.
  • Take enough toilet paper to last you the trip.
  • On our tour there weren’t any shower so take some wet wipes to have a wash.
  • This should go without saying but always be polite and courteous. Pay attention to the customs of the nomads and stick to them as best as you can.
  • You will find many photo opportunities during the festival, I found that everyone I asked was more than happy to have their photo taken but do make sure to ask first. Don’t just walk up, shove a camera in their face and walk off.
  • If you enjoyed the blog, I invite you to take a moment and explore my captivating photo project featuring these fabulous costumes.

As you plan your trip, it’s crucial to conduct thorough research on various festivals, weather conditions, and the optimal time to visit your desired destinations. Additionally, consider exploring different transportation options, as the journey itself can become an exciting adventure.

If you prefer a stress-free experience accompanied by significant cost savings, our planning services are available to lend a helping hand. Feel free to inquire about our services here, allowing you to embark on your adventure with confidence and tranquility.

The traditional greeting in Mongolia.
The traditional greeting in Mongolia.

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