Behind the Lens: Sun Basket’s Tyler MacNiven in Mongolia

In the summer of 2009, Sun Basket co-founder and filmmaker Tyler MacNiven actually traveled there to make a feature about a struggling internet personality trying to make it big. We took advantage of that coincidence and sat down with him to find out about traveling nomad-style.


Q: Why did you choose to make a movie in Mongolia?

A: We wanted to highlight this remarkable culture with a funny and heartwarming buddy movie. I’d been fascinated by Mongolia for a while. I’d heard about their hospitality, how it’s not just a way of being polite, but a necessity because of the landscape. 

Q: You spent two months there. What did you eat?

A: The weather can get intense, so there’s a lot of fire building. They use dried dung to light their fires. I’d never seen that before. The families we stayed with ate a lot of tsuivans, what they call stews, as well as dumplings—steamed, fried, you name it. That, plus tea. They make a lot of different kinds of tea with milk and butter and stuff like millet.

Q: You stayed with families? How did that work?

A: Hotels aren’t a common sight in the Mongolian desert, and there aren’t too many Airbnbs. So mostly we stayed in gers, which is what they call the portable yurt-like structures they live in. They’re incredibly complicated and simple at the same time.

Q: Sounds like there’s not a lot by way of roads out there. How did you find your way around?

A:  That’s right, outside the few cities there are no paved roads. We rented this old Russian van and moved from ger to ger completely off-road. We’d roll up at someone’s lone ger, introduce ourselves and sit down for tea and a chat. They’d point into the distance towards the place that was the most passable after the winter storms, and we’d get back in the van and take off for the next valley. There we’d spot another ger in the distance, drive over, sit down for more tea, and repeat the whole process. This went on for miles and miles and miles. Being a nomad really is an incredible way to travel.

Tyler in MongoliaTyler (in the gold) visits with new friends outside a ger in central Mongolia.